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.

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Are You Waiting For Perfect?

A man in boots sits on a ledge in front of plate glass windows
Brooke Cagel – Unsplash

There have been many changes in my life recently, great ones. They’ve kept me busy.

A new home. A new town, a promotion to a dream job, and a new child. Amazing provisions for which I am unequivocally grateful.

Through it all, I waited. For the perfect post to begin my blog again. I searched for the perfect subject line, moving content, the best beginning, but I wrote nothing at all.

An email hit my inbox a few weeks ago from illustrator/writer Jessica Abel author of Growing Gills and my personal favorite Out on the Wire (which has an amazing podcast by the way). The title went like this – If you are waiting for conditions to be perfect, you’ll die waiting.

Distractions, both good and bad, are everywhere.

She said this in her email:

And it’s easy to look at all those things (any distraction in life) and despair, to think there’s no way you’ll ever get a handle on it all. You might be right. But here’s the big secret to having a sustainable creative life.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO.

You can CHOOSE your work even if everything else in your life isn’t dialed in.

You have a right and a responsibility to your creative work.

We’re imperfect people with imperfect schedules. Why would I think shaking the rust off would mean anything more than an okay post with mediocre passion for it?

It’s time now to move. For action.

I truly hoped to start blogging again with something amazing, but this is what you get. A resolve to not wait and a commitment to write. Also, an admission that I let the beast of perfection win for a while.

But no more.

In what area of your life are you waiting for perfect?

 

Writer, Need Inspiration? Here Are Three Ways To Get It

If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve been there – the dark forest of writing.

There are no words here, no progress, only suffocating doubt and self-loathing. Every writer has experienced this before and just when we think this feeling will never surface it’s ugly face again, there it is.

Getting stuck is easy.

Stopping halfway through a book is normal.

But how do you get unstuck?

Are there elements that a writer can incorporate into their life so that these valleys are few and not as dark and deep?

coffee cup

Yes. Here are three ways to get inspired again. These will also reinforce the writer that is on the mountaintop of inspiration.

FIND A SCENIUS

Austin Kleon is a connector. He repackages ideas and makes them accessible. One of his ideas is described in his book Show Your Work!. It is the idea of Scenius

He claims that the lone genius myth is just that, falsehood. Writers, artists, and anyone that has achieved any level of success did that inside a community that fostered the pursuit.

Find a group of people that love writing and hang out with them. Online, in a bookstore, or come to the Jot Conference.

IF IT’S NOT WORKING DO DIFFERENTLY

Ever stop to examine your process? Ever come to the same worn out and unproductive conclusions after writing in the same place, with the same utensils, at the same time? Sounds like it’s time for you to make a change. 

Get up early or stay up late. Go for a walk and sit on a mossy log and write using physical instruments – paper and pen.

I was in the dark depths of writing for a while, then I began rising early and suddenly, even though I knew I was done as a writer, the passion for words flooded back. 

Often we need a break from monotony. A newness, a freshness to reinvigorate us on the writing road. Doing differently is a shock to the creative system.

CREATE MARGIN

We’re all busy. It’s the response to the question – how are you doing? Busy we say. Everyone has too much to do. Too many obligations. Too many service projects. Too many organizations to which we are committed. There is little time for joy, thrill, and novelty. Our weeks are planned out and we are sleeping five hours a night.

Most of the activities listed above are not bad things – save maybe the five hours of sleep a night – but we all need space. Our bodies need down time to rest and our brains and creativity wells need the same.

During a difficult season at my job where satisfaction was at an all time low I decided to incorporate a walk into my lunch. I grabbed a pen and notebook and began walking in the woods. I’d sit down on a bench, stare into the dark green forest or bare trees and snow covered earth and let the ideas come. I’d write them down if I thought they were worth keeping and sharing.

Don’t believe a walk is beneficial? C.S. Lewis loved walks. As did T.S. Eliot. It’s the white space where our brains rest and ideas can surface.

Today, if you need a little writing pick me up, I challenge you to find your own Scenius, do differently, or create some margin by saying no to one obligation this week.

Do you have tips for getting inspired? Share below.

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:

 

Resistance And The Writer’s Battle Of Self-Doubt

I’d never encountered writer’s block, or Resistance as Steven Pressfield calls it, like this before. I’ve always put Neil Gaiman’s philosophy to practice – that people won’t be able to tell if you wrote when inspired or not, you just need to get the words out.

But I have to admit I am here. Resistance is winning big time. I delete more words than I put down and no matter how I push against this Wall I can’t seem to move it. My creativity is suffocating.

Have you ever been there – where you just could not stomach the march forward that your book required? Have you ever thought your message had zero impact and no one would notice whether you wrote or not?

The comforting part about these questions is that every writer has been there. From Euripides to Chaucer to JK Rowling to you, every single person that aspired to write has encountered this feeling before.

If the above statement is true, how did they get past the Wall of Resistance?

Brick wall
Courtesy David Playford Freeimages.com

Last week was the dark battle.

Philosophical questions about my worth surfaced.

These questions were enemies I thought I defeated long ago. Turns out they are always there and I was unequipped to face them this time.

Then a thought occurred to me as I sat down to put words on the page again, something I am sure I read but have forgotten the attribution.

Writing is about writing not about who I am or what I’ve done or not done. It’s about putting another word down. All of it is momentum. And momentum can be slow and grueling. It can take an hour to string four sentences together.

I tricked myself into believing that writing would be inspiring every time I put myself in my chair and when I wasn’t enjoying myself and the progress was deleting the bad and not adding the good, I came away discouraged. When that happens too many times doubts can surface, ugly doubts.

There is a saying in our house. When my young children are crying in the middle of the night or won’t go to bed I repeat it to myself or say aloud to my wife  – parents win every time. No matter how long the crying or the number of questions or mess in the room parents win by persisting, by rising above.

If you are here, at the edge of giving up like me, remember that writing is work.

It’s taking punches as much as giving them.

Sometimes you have to wait for your opponent to tire before striking back.

This blog post is my first attempt at a left hook.

What’s yours?

Why I’ve Decided To Not Learn Anything New This Month

My inbox is full each day. It’s true for almost all of us. It’s also true that this is my fault, I signed up for most of these newsletters and let’s be clear I enjoy the content, for the most part.

I spend a lot of time tending my email garden. I also spent a lot of time reading books on creativity, how to become a better author, and the latest tips and tricks of blogging/email marketing.

But these actions are coiling the spring. I am learning. And there comes a point where the learning needs to end and action needs to start.

Graduates

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the benefits of being a life long learner and consider myself one. However, if you are cold, there is a huge difference between learning how to build a fire, and actually making one.

My life, much like yours, is crowded. There is only so much time in a week. And it’s time I started using what I have learned.

So I am putting the books away.

I am clicking on the delete or archive button and not opening that email.

Because July is dedicated to action.

To forward movement.

To getting out there and getting my hands dirtier than they’ve been this year.

After all, this is the intension of learning is it not?

To act.

To go.

To grow.

How To Finish Your Writing Projects

Last week I listened to a podcast about creativity. In it writer Jeff Goins and Dr. Keith Sawyer discuss how creative people function and the contents of Dr. Sawyer’s book Zig Zag. One idea they mentioned was that writing or creativity does not have to be perfect. But there should be movement from one project to another.

Besides fear, this is one of the main issues I have with writing. Battling the urge to make a billion tweaks until it reaches perfection versus sending out projects before they are finished is a weekly struggle.

I forget that having a process means that some of my writing will work and some will fail and whatever form of failure I feel is not a reflection of me. Finishing anything – a book, a blog post, a book proposal – is an opportunity to learn how to write better.

Finish - Track

The trouble is that I thought any writing process needed to be straightforward and I have difficulty with linear thinking.

From what I can understand, my mind works sorta like a game of soccer, but played by four and five year olds. It’s scrambly, often working in the wrong direction in a tangle of limbs, sometimes picking flowers, and other moments forgetting the rules entirely.

I decided it was high time to focus. To understand how to get this mind of mine to move through a project from start to finish.

I tried the one project method and ended up bored. I wanted to jump to the next thing as soon as I was stuck. I realized if my methodology incorporated bouncing from project to project then I’d better develop a plan.

Here it is – Finishing is the most important thing.

I devised a Finishing Plan and began using it on my blog and a non-fiction e-book I finished last month. It’s been working great. Here is what it is.

1. Finish a draft. Could take a day, weeks, months, or even years. But finish it. Don’t edit. Write the chapters out of order then fill in the cracks, jump to another idea, then circle back, whatever. Just get it out. Did I mention don’t edit?

2. Edit. I print off what I’ve written (or make a separate edit file electronically) and challenge everything. Make notes, scribble in the margins, destroy darlings, and rewrite. Then get it to a friend or editor for more edits. Then I make the necessary changes.

3. Polish. Add the fonts you love, the appropriate artwork, and anything else you may need to dress up the piece.

4. Send it. Post it, query it, submit it to a journal. Just get it out there, and then move to the next project.

5. Circle back and consider what worked or what didn’t and do more of what did.

This system may seem bare and basic but life is complicated. I also tend to hold onto projects too long and need to get them out there and this process allows me to do that.

Reader, what system do you use? How do you keep moving to the next stage or next project? I’d love to hear from you.

Goal Setting For the Time-Starved Writer

Early on in my marriage, my wife would laugh at me when I listed my goals for the evening.

Read 40 pages of a book, watch a movie, go for a run, do all of our laundry, wash the dishes, and maybe rearrange a bedroom or two. Then have some friends over for dinner once we are done.

Seriously. I could get a out of hand.

Courtesy Unsplash

 

Nearly eleven years later I am better at adjusting my expectations, but still have difficulty setting daily goals. I now have four kids and an ever-growing mound of responsibilities.

What I struggled with, and what I am guess you do from time to time, is wanting immediate results. And when they don’t happen on my schedule, having a good attitude and trying again tomorrow.

If you are a writer, or a creative of any sort, this desire for immediate results can mean frustration and angst and a mercurial mood that can ruin or severly strain your relationships.

I’ve found one of the best ways to avoid feeling like a failure and actually accomplishing my daily goals is to make them realistic and remind myself that I am working for the long haul, neither of which is easy.

So my encouragement to you is to do what you can today. Don’t worry if you cannot finish all of your goals. Stay in the game, even if the movement is subtle.

Above all remember you are writing not for today, but for a year from now, when you will finish your book.

 

Why Today Can Be The Best Day You Ever Had

Nearly every day I put my son to bed and then his two older sisters. My wife handles our three month old. And almost every evening my daughter Clara asks me the same question.

“Daddy, what are we going to do in the morning?”

I’ve had many answers to this question. Occasionally, they morph into a fictional story but lately I’ve been answering it this way – “Well, tomorrow can be anything you want to make it”, which usually produces a frown and furrowed eyebrows which mean she’s either confused or unsatisfied with my answer. So I try the excitement angle.

“Tomorrow is open honey,” I say. “You can do anything you want! It can be the best day of your life!” Her eyes sparkle and she smiles.

Sunrise

Somewhere along the way we grown ups can lose our enthusiasm and sense of adventure. Part of the reason can be the responsibilities we have but I think it is because we have beaten paths in our lives that are familiar, comfortable, and easy.

It’s much easier to sit at home and browse my iphone than it is to get up and go browse the books at the local library. We prevent our kids from jumping in puddles or building a tent in the living room with the couch cushions because they create messes and as adults we’ve learned that messes make our lives difficult, regardless of the joy they can bring.

There are days I can be a curmudgeon. I can easily revert to cranky and ornery. These are the beaten paths I’ve plodded in my few years.

But as I told my daughter, each day can be new. Each day can be the best day we’ve ever had. But, in order for them to be so, we must ignore these familiar ways we traverse every day. We must search for activities that bring about joy and restoration to our soul.

I hope you are active today. That you take a hike. You play with molding clay or dust off your guitar or maybe even do something as simple as take a different road on your commute.

Whatever you do, do something different and do something that brings joy.

Books I Read in 2015

Four years ago, my friend Matthew Landrum told me he aims to read a book a week. I thought I would give it a try.

Since that time (2011) I’ve read 123 books. In 2015 I read 24.

Old BooksThat may seem like a lot or a little but that is not the point of this post. The point is that since 2011 I’ve had three more kids, written several hundred blog posts, started a writers conference, was asked to speak at another, and written several short stories and blogs for other sites.

Those accomplishments are also not the point. The point is that a simple routine helped me read a book roughly every two weeks for five years without even noticing it. It took work, but more like simple play than steely determination.

It’s amazing what a slow plodding pace can accomplish.

If there is something you want to do, don’t burn yourself out. Build longevity and go after a pace that integrates with your life.

Here’s my list of books I read in 2015. If you have a list or if you have a book you love that I should read, please post in the comments section below.

King Arthur and His Knights – Roger Lancelyn Green

Food A Love Story – Jim Gaffigan

Someday, Someday, Maybe -Lauren Graham

The Heart of the Sea – The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex – Nathaniel Philbrick

The Martian – Andy Weir

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban – JK Rowling

Murder at the Vicarage – Agatha Christie

You Are A Writer – Jeff Goins

The Razer’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham

The Art of Work – Jeff Goins

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

Do Over – Jon Acuff

Nemesis – Agatha Christie

Mr. Hockey – My Story – Gordie Howe

Quitter – Jon Acuff

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

The In Between – Jeff Goins

The Back Reckoning – John Stephens

A Cup of Dust – Susie Finkbeiner

The 15 Success Traits of Pro Bloggers – Jonathan Milligan

Ashfall – Mike Mullin

Turing Pro – Steven Pressfield

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Hin Einsami Frelsarin – Agnar Artuvertin (with Translations from the Faroese by Matthew Landrum).

Make 2016 a great year!