Creativity (& Life) Can Be A Messy Process

I love a good movie about the creative genius. They struggle, hit the EUREKA! moment, and then ride away into the sunset of fame and fortune.

It feels so neat and tidy, like the way creativity should work. But we all know that’s how things go in the rarest of cases and usually after long intervals of frustration.

I’ve written about being okay with okay, then maybe becoming great, and I’d even go as far as to say this is true about anything you want to do in life. It’s just not going to go as planned. Even when you are a world renowned author.

Consider this sentence written to a publisher from someone considered to be one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

“It has lost my favor, and I have no idea what to do with it.”

Who was this writer? JRR Tolkien. What was he talking about? The Lord of the Rings, after working on it for months. He also said this after aching over a bit of chapter one:

“it is difficult to find anything new in that world.”

We nearly lost Frodo, Aragorn, and the White City.

In her book Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the InklingsDiana Pavlac Glyer reminds us that creativity is messy and that keeping that in mind is helpful:

The fact is, creativity itself is a messy business. We want to think of it as linear and efficient, but in actuality, it is full of false starts, dead ends, long hours, setbacks, discouragement, and frustrations. Knowing that it works this way can help us be more patient with our own untidy processes.

If you’ve run into a roadblock and are beginning to consider that you are not creative, please remember that it’s not linear. It’s not easy. It’s full of long hours, setbacks and struggle of all sorts.

But keep moving. Do the next thing. Focus on the process not what your work is now. Judge it when you are done, then do it better next time, and the next.

The quotations contained in this blog regarding The Lord of the Rings were taken from  Tolkien: A Biography pages 210-211 by Humphrey Carpenter.

Let’s Get Okay With Just Okay. Then Maybe We Can Be Great.

I have in my mind a perfect morning routine. It goes like this.

I wake up, spend some time praying and reading, I work out, then write five hundred words – all before leaving for work.

That is it. Simple and perfect.

But I have a newborn. And four other kids. And other life demands.

Recently, I spent some time looking for a perfect beginning to restart my blog. I soon realized that I was rusty and I wasn’t up to the bar I envisioned. Could the same be true for a morning routine?

I read this article about productivity measurements between night owls and early birds and thought, maybe I am a night owl! Maybe that’s it. There may be science behind this, but in all honesty, I was searching for an excuse, or an attempt to find perfection.

I don’t expect this from my art. Why would I ever expect this from my routine?

In her book, The Creative Habit Twyla Tharp explains that it is important to build habit into creativity. That is the biggest hurdle to a morning routine. For Twyla Tharp, the biggest hurdle is getting out of bed at 5 to get to the gym by 530. After she gets into a cab in New York City she knows she’s on her way to a creative routine-filled day.

The difficulty I have with building a routine is that I want my efforts to result in perfect. If I am going to wake, write something, and hope it impacts the world in some way, I don’t want effort after effort to not punch through the ceiling of creative mediocrity.

Here’s what Jessica Abel says about that in her article on perfectionism:

You have to be able to live with the discomfort of knowing what you want to be able to do, and not being able to do it (YET!) and putting it out there anyway.

Authors and artists David Bayles and Ted Orland Put it this way in their book Art and Fear:

Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did.

And goes on to say:

Your job is to learn to work on your art.

This brings us back to the title. Can you be okay with just okay when you are getting in shape? When you lose one pound instead of the goal of five that you set?

This is the part of pursuing art that I am trying to understand. I know there is a way through, where blogs like this will cease and I’ll present you, dear reader, with something of more substance.

Until then, let’s not give up. Let’s battle through the mediocrity to something great in our work, in our routines, and in our lives.

You Can Be Creative. Even If You Think You Are Not.

Have the words – I’m just not creative – ever come out of your mouth?

I hear them often and even apply these four words to me when I am in the dark forest of a project.

But is this a true statement?

Are some people born with a creative gene and the rest are not?

That sentence – I’m just not creative – should be abolished.

The idea that some elect individuals are born with a creative gene comes from the same people that believe writers are born. Would you believe that about a plumber, an electrician, or a doctor?

Absolutely not. Just ask Chuck Close. He was told he should aim for trade school and body and fender work in eighth grade.

These are terribly lies and limiting beliefs that keep us from living creative, fulfilling lives.

Creativity is only a name for aged, intentional practice.

I can’t count the times I have heard the phrase – I’m just not creative. I wish to stop this nonsense. If you say them to me I promise to be gracious. But remember, creativity is born out of diligent practice and exposure to new ideas.

You may have to read more difficult books and write down definitions of words you do not know to expand your vocabulary.

Perhaps it is time to tell that art teacher you know that you’ve always thought plein air painting was interesting, could they point you in the right direction?

Part of creativity is curiosity – looking for new ways of doing the same old stuff to reinvigorate or uproot established processes.

Ira Glass, famed radio personality and producer, was recorded saying that there is a gap between being a beginner and a professional in creative work. At the edge of the gap – this is where people stop.

We figure that’s it. I guess I’ll never become/attain/change ______.

Maybe you’ve stopped?

Stopped being brave or hopeful because creative work is not easy. We get frustrated with a process or even our own inability to create this great work that we know is harbored deep within.

I challenge you today, and this is just as much for me as it is for you, to examine your process. See what is in your way.

Do you need more practice?

Do you need exposure to creative ideas or people?

Are you doing the very same things that don’t challenge or inspire you and lead to the very same results?

What is in the way? What is creating that gap?

Here’s what Ira Glass has to say about The Gap:


Why Art Needs Community

Art in community can create extraordinary things. Consider Tolkien’s and Lewis’ Inklings or Hemingway’s’ and Steins’ Stratford-on-Odeon. These are just a couple of writer communities that shaped fiction today.

The conference my writers group puts on twice a year – the Jot Writers Conference – is not earth shattering or genre changing but I’d like to share with you three separate conversations I had. If you were there and have something to share, please do so in the comments section below.

Photo Credit: BMW Guggenheim Lab via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: BMW Guggenheim Lab via Compfight cc

As we finished the sign in portion of the conference and the first speaker was about to begin, I met someone from a local publisher. They were a new establishment and wanted to reached out to our writers group to share the news. They even traveled down from Grand Rapids, where we are from, to connect. This is what conferences are all about. Making friends and connections. If you are in Michigan, connect with them here.

After I finished my presentation about blogging I answered questions and made my way to the back of the room. There I met a woman who said she heard about the conference from a local author who volunteered at the Council on Aging. She asked me what she needed to do to get a blog started.

I was thrilled that someone who is well into retirement was considering something new. If I reach that age, I hope to have that sort of gusto to try new things.

A few writers who attended the Jot Conference in Grand Rapids came to the event in Three Rivers. One of them found me after my talk and said she wanted to shout Amen! as I was speaking. I’m not a preacher but this brief comment meant a lot. Every writer and speaker needs encouragement. This helped boost my confidence for the next time I speak in a few weeks.

I took away many thoughts from Jot that I am still working through. Three of them that I think of now connect with the bite sized stories above. Writing in community can create connections, that it’s never to late to try anything, and that a little encouragement can be just what any writer needs.

I hope you thank those in your community often.

Nothing is built overnight and nothing is built alone.

Have you experienced the joy, encouragement, and comradery in your writers group? Please share below.

Laziness and Fear – The Two Roadblocks To Our Dream

Whenever I have hope for humanity, I only need to peruse the comment section on any article on the internet to dash them. People are merciless, unforgiving, caustic, seeking out arguments and unbelievably petty. This is why I believe writing, or any art, is a terrifying thing.

We open up shop and, like a gallery, people can now judge what we do. Not only that, we tie our self worth to it. And people do surgery on with a chainsaw.

Little Dude Is Terrified Photo Credit: ⊰◖iFhe◗⊱ via Compfight cc
Little Dude Is Terrified
Photo Credit: ⊰◖iFhe◗⊱ via Compfight cc

This is part of the reason I don’t like submitting. I don’t even like posting blogs, but I make myself. I know it’s all part of the publishing game, but that does not make clicking the submit button any easier. But this fear must be put away if we are to rise to the place of publication.

Fear can cause us to chase comfort. Fear can cause us to choose safety. But it can also make us miss out on something that might breathe life into us and set our souls aflame.

But fear is not the only problem we artists and entrepreneurs face. Laziness is his close ally.

This is the still small voice that says we need to enjoy life now. We need to kick back and relax, it’s been a tough day at work or home. We deserve this. We need it. Relax, have a snack and a margarita.

But this one day of enjoyment can lead to a week. Have you ever sat on your couch staring at a blank screen realizing you just binge watched and entire TV series?

Laziness, like fear, tells us to chill and do something comfortable. Seek easy it says. Seek what satisfies now, not what endures.

But art is not comfortable or easy. It’s bold and difficult. It’s stretching, moving, reaching, taking the stage and standing in the spotlight.

What will you choose today?

Will you reach?

Or will you seek comfort?

Creative, Where’s Your Hustle?

If you’ve ever read Jon Acuff you’ve heard of the word hustle. Hustle is the willingness to beat your body until it does the thing you want it to do. This could mean cutting out sleep, movies or TV, and even time you would normally be eating, in order to get something done. It’s the all nighter, the first months or years of the business, or the last push right before a product launch.

Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc

For most of us, hustle is the last thing we have in our arsenal when sleep tugs at the corner of our eyes and our rational side tells us to not work so hard, that this dream of yours can wait until tomorrow.

The truth is that our dreams can never wait until tomorrow. The promise of tomorrow is the first step down a slippery slope. You’ll find yourself watching reruns and HGTV. I know I do. Then your dreams will be just dreams – someplace you’ll get to in the murky future.

I assure you of this. No successful person wakes up one day to find that they arrived at someplace they never intended to go. Mr. Acuff himself says in his book Quitter that writing for him is not something he wants to do in his free time.

But why does he do it?

Because he wants to be intentional with his limited time. He wants to focus on the things he loves, that matter, that will last.

And I believe this is the true meaning and sweet spot of hustle. It should feel awkward. It is usually hard. But it is worthwhile.

So fellow creative, if you are working hard on your dream and it is more difficult than you than ever imagined, you’re in a good place.

So push hard. Don’t give into easy. Instead, hustle.

Developing Characters – The Blind Date Approach

Characters make or break a work of fiction. No matter what perspective you are writing they have to be real, convincing, and unique to survive your entire book.

I’ve read a lot about creating characters. Not so that I can whip up bland cookie-cutter personalities but to learn how to develop them. Our readers want our characters to grow through whatever journey we take them. This does not mean the journey finishes with an end of the rainbow ending, but it does mean that they cannot be the same person at the beginning and at the end.

This is why I believe we should reveal our characters as if they are on a blind date with our audience.

I have not been on a date in about a decade. I’m happily married. But a blind date is a simple enough concept. You don’t start by telling them you are interested in getting married right now, or tomorrow at the latest. And you don’t ask them to see your parents tomorrow or move in. Relationships take time to develop.

Introduce your main characters with a few descriptive details. Not – he was old, fat and lazy. Instead – his hobby was TV, his favorite food was anything found in a gas station, and he kept a fridge next to his sofa so all of his snacks were within arm’s reach.

Okay that description may have been a bit lame but you get the point. Don’t tell the entire history of this person in three or four pages and interrupt the flow of the story. If you do it you, the author, are drawing attention to yourself with this magnificent sidebar. The introduction should feel natural and then take opportunities through the story to reveal the character through action and conversation.

I encourage you to go back and check each time you introduce a character. See how many pages and paragraphs you use to do this. Keeping it short and sweet can help keep your audience in what John Gardner called “the vivid dream”. They will be carried along by the current of your plot as they get to know the people you’ve created.

Keep Writing.