How much of our creative process comes from our most vulnerable moments?
Inspired by Len Edgerly’s recent posts about his creative process and his urging in recent posts to check out Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work, I’ve been thinking about my own creative process.
The thing is, the more I think about how I create — whether it’s a blog post, the new podcast, or my professional editing — the more I realize how much of what I do comes from a place of uncertainty and vulnerability. Certain aspects of creative process can be explained or taught, but where your creative work comes from is personal. It comes from those moments of doubt and uncertainty. To quote Fight Club, “You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”
I’m finding that many of my best ideas come from times of the day when I’m not at my best. For example, I like to write first thing in the morning because I’m not yet thinking rationally; I’m not a morning person. It’s the perfect mental state for drafting a novel and generating ideas because I’m not thinking about the mistakes I make or the process of writing.
After I write (and once I’ve had my morning coffee) I like to start my workday with the most challenging things first. I do this because I want to solve those challenges before I move on to anything that’s easy to do. I figure that by the end of the day, I can get through the easy tasks and I won’t feel like I expended the day’s energy on menial tasks before solving a major issue or problem. This is especially important when editing. While I argue editing work is a type of creative work, it’s rational and logical work and requires my rational thinking.
When You Don’t Feel Like Creating
What I just described is what I do on an ideal day. It doesn’t work out that way every day. How do I get stuff done and get to a point where I want to show off my work when I don’t want to work?
Some people force the work, setting a word count or daily quota of tasks. It’s important to have both long-term and short-term creative goals and strategies, but I have found the daily quota idea doesn’t work for me. Instead, if I’m really not feeling it — if I’m sick or I’m faced with a stressful, work-related project — it’s better to take the time to think and reflect. I use my mornings to read and journal instead of create.
That’s what I did this week: I took time to reflect instead of create. I have a lot of personal and professional decisions to make in the next few months. I have client projects to finish and deadlines to meet, and then I have to go out and expand my freelance business by finding new clients. Sometimes, I can balance work with my writing. Other times, I need to take a break from writing.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m a cyclical writer. I’m not a 1,000-word-minimum-per-day writer like Stephen King. I tend to write a lot in short bursts.
I used to go whole months without writing, then write a lot in two- or three-week bursts. Writing and maintaining Critical Margins has taught me to write steadily and to establish a baseline of what I can do each day. But when it feels forced, I don’t force it. I take time to regroup and reflect.
And when I’m not writing, I’m reading. I like to read a mix of fiction and nonfiction to help me develop my writing skills on multiple levels. I also like to return to classics: not just Dickinson and Milton, but The Bible and The Odyssey as well.
What Austin Kleon Says about Creative Work
Austin Kleon says he doesn’t want to become a “human spam” — someone who is only concerned with output, sans quality. Kleon thinks that the best artists read broadly and emulate those things that resonate with them. That process begins with imitation, but in time, it turns into reinvention.
That’s why it’s important for me to take time away from writing words. Sometimes, I like to hit the refresh button and pore through my favorite books, movies, or music to find new inspiration. That’s what I did this week. I consider it all part of the creative process, even though I often feel like this process is indulgent. It’s not.
The key here, I think, is that even when you are not “writing words,” you should be seeking out ideas. You are not a computhor. You’re a human being. Embracing both the vulnerable moments and the moments of significant creative output helps you become a better writer.