While I'm writing and teaching in Spain and France, enjoy this post from April 2008 (one of my favorites I've ever written):
First, though, I want to talk about creativity in general. I consider it to be one branch of the Three-Fold Writer’s Path, and in many ways, it is the most crucial. You can be the most talented writer in the world, but if you are not sitting down and using that talent, what use is it? If you don’t develop ways to convince yourself to return to the computer, over and over, on bad days and good, your talent will lay fallow, never to see the light of day.
And in my book there are few things sadder. Well, war and starving children in Africa, but you know what I mean. In developed countries, I’m convinced that the cause of much of our contemporary angst stems from people not exercising their creativity. Unexpressed creativity starts as a longing and turns into depression, or worse, perhaps, rage.
It is hard to be creative on a regular basis. Creativity is active. It requires us to think, to do, to act, to, well, create. These days, there are so many wonderful passive activities available to us that do not require action—surfing the internet, watching one of 500 available channels on TV, to name only a couple—that creating is practically a radical act.
Which makes it all the more important to do it regularly.
Creativity is a muscle. It gets stronger as you use it. When you go to the gym regularly and lift weights you build your physical muscles. So, too, with creativity. When you express yourself regularly, it becomes easier and more comfortable. The words flow and you develop a facility with them. The paint glides across the canvas. It doesn’t take you hours to find all your supplies. Ideas come as if by magic.
The opposite is true, too. Once you get away from the habit of creativity, it becomes ever more difficult to return. You have no idea where your drawing pencils are. You can’t, for the life of you, recall where you intended to go next in your novel. And what on earth were you trying to evoke with that mess of color on the canvas?
It only gets harder. And that longing inside you will grow and grow…until it becomes something else, something you probably really don’t want to allow to fester. So why not take the path that seems harder at first but is actually the easiest?
It is ultimately the easiest path because it leads you home to your heart and your soul and the very essence of your being. Which, in the end, is really all there is.
So here, ta-da, are the fifteen keys:
1. Be A Beginner.
The Zen Buddhists talk a lot about beginner's mind. I am a buddhism slacker, but this concept is called Shoshin, and it is a good one. The idea of it is to be eager. Be open. Don’t have expectations. Don’t think, do. Have a sense of wonder. This is an especially vital key for the professional, who may develop a mind-set that everything he does must be perfect the first time out. Banish those thoughts. A beginner wouldn’t expect to be perfect. Nor should you—no matter where you fall on the beginner to expert scale.
2. There Are No Rules (but make some for yourself if it makes you feel better).
Who says you can't write a novel in 100 viewpoints? The result may not work, and it may not be particularly publishable, but it might lead to something that is. Forget everything you know about the rules (see #1) and just go for it. See what happens. Sometimes this key is a bit much for people. The lack of rules is scary. So make some up for yourself–like, every sentence must start with a word that is capitalized. There, does that make you feel better?
3. Do It Badly.
The idea that everything has to be perfect is a huge creativity killer. So, go for the opposite. Write one bad page. Draw one crappy sketch. Sing a song off-key. The world didn't stop, did it? And go back and take a look at that dreadful page you just wrote. Hmmm, might you not be able to use that first sentence? With a few changes, does the third paragraph work fairly well for the opening? I thought so. Writing badly is an entry point into your work. Put something, anything, down on the page. Then you have words to work with. And that is a wonderful thing.
4. Just Do It.
This goes hand in hand with Key #3: Do It Badly. The truth of the matter is, you gotta just do it. And do it again and again. It is that simple and that difficult. Sometimes just doing it is the easiest thing in the world, and sometimes it is the hardest. I do not know why this is so. Sometimes I wring my hands and emote and pace and get down on my hands and knees and scrub the floor, all in an attempt to not just do it. And then when I finally get around to doing it, I wonder why on earth I whined and moaned for so long. Because once I'm in the middle of doing it, I love it more than anything on earth. So why I have to re-convince myself to go back to it over and over again, I do not know. If this happens to you, take heart and know that it is normal, at least in the realm of writer normal. Which, I have to say is not the same as normal normal, if you know what I mean.
5. Process, Not Product
When my daughter was getting her post-bacc certificate in photography, which was close to getting a MFA, this was one of her mantras. It has always been one of my mantras, too, and I have the hand-painted pillow to prove it. I actually wrote about this in another post recently, but it is such a bedrock tenet of creativity that I have to mention it again. Just remind yourself that it is not about the finished product, it is about the process of doing it. It really is. Trust me. Ironically, by focusing on the process, you'll end up with a much better product. It's another one of those mysterious creativity things. I don't pretend to understand them, I just obey them.
6. Do The Work, Don't Judge It
Goes along with #5. If you are focused on product while you are in the process of writing, you are likely to be judging it. Don't do that. Just do the work. It is akin to learning to be in the moment. I will confess here that I am a meditation slacker (I know, I know, I've got a slacker list a mile long–Buddhism and yoga and meditation being tops on it. What does that say about me?). But when it comes to writing, there's nothing I love better than kicking into that flow and being so in the moment that time passes without me even noticing it. That is only possible, my friends, when you are in the moment, one with the words, and Not Judging them. Judging is for later. Its hell when its judging time, but we are not talking about that now.
7. Small Steps
Rome wasn't built in a day. Rome really wasn't built in a day, and your creative projects won't be either. Don't get so caught up in the big picture that you forget to take the small, repeated steps. Make them as small as possible. Don't think about the entire novel, think about the next scene. Don't obsess about the entire canvas, focus on the next color of paint. Break things down into their smallest components. This seems so obvious–and yet I have to remind myself of it again and again.
8. Make It A Habit
The self-help experts say it takes 21 days to create a new habit. Thus, if you make a date with yourself to write your novel or plan that garden, or work on that song you're writing, and keep the date every day for 21 days, at the end of it you'll have established a new habit. Don't know if the 21 day thing is true or not, as I always forget to keep track, but I do know that consistency and the dreaded D word, discipline, are actually bedrock elements of creativity. This is counter-intuitive, but true. As I've said (over and over, to the point of causing retching) creativity is active. You've got to just do it. And the more you just do it, the easiest it gets.
9. Use the Power of Momentum
The really cool thing is that once you are consistently using your creativity, critical mass kicks in and you get momentum on your side. Momentum is what happens when you get the perfect idea for chapter ten when you're in the middle of writing chapter nine. It's what happens when you "hear" the perfect line of dialogue for your screenplay while you are writing the description for the scene. Once your mind is engaged with the work on a regular basis, it will help you by sending you messages and ideas. Apparently, the mind likes to be kept busy. The flip side of this is familiar to anyone who has set aside a creative project–it takes awhile to get back into it. You have to go back and re-read the entire novel in order to remember what you wrote, or you have to go back and review all the instructions on that sweater you are knitting. It is ever so much easier to just stick to it.
10. Use Your Subconscious
Put your subconscious mind to work for you. Think about your project or read a few pages from it right before you go to sleep–then prepare to pay attention to your dreams when you wake up. Command your subconscious (you won't hurt its feelings, promise, it likes to work for you) to figure out the details of the next scene you have to write. Once you get in the habit of allowing your subconscious to work for you, you'll be amazed at how helpful it can be. I wrote an earlier post that goes into this in much more detail. You can read that here.
11. Don't Talk About It, Do It
Too many people talk about the novel they are going to write, or the art they are going to produce. Too many people relate the whole damn story of the screenplay they play to get down on paper. But I believe talking about it too much is a big mistake. It dissipates the energy of the project, takes the air out of it. So don't talk about it. Do it.
12. Refill the Well
This is especially important when you are finishing a long project. Working on an extended creative piece takes not only time but energy. Have you ever had the experience of intensely focusing on your writing for a few hours and suddenly realizing you are starving? That's because using your brain burns calories. It takes energy. You need to keep yourself going by constantly refilling the well. Julia Cameron advises taking Artist's Dates, which are scheduled times when you consciously do something that pleases and replenishes you. When I'm writing a lot, I like to read a lot–words out, words in. Its as if I need to replenish the supply. It is vitally important that you figure out what nourishes you and commit to doing it often. Its not selfish, because it is paving the way for you to bring your creative gifts to the world.
13. Keep going.
I know. Duh. But it is depressingly easy to quit when a block arises or a rejection comes in the mail or someone says something mean about your work. But don't let the bastards get you down–writing all the time is the best revenge. Not writing well, or publishing well. Just writing. So keep at it. You'll break through that block, the next letter will be an acceptance to a prestigious publication and the mean person will get hit by a car–not injured, because we can't wish ill on people. Just shaken up enough so that they are no longer mean.
14. Take a break.
Just the wee-est bit contradictory today, aren't I? Well creativity is a contradictory activity, too. While you must commit to keeping going in the face of all odds, you must also learn to take breaks once in awhile. Let the work compost. Don't force it. Sometimes walking away for a few minutes or even a whole day (see Anne Wayman's post on taking time off here) can be the pause that refreshes. Just don't let a break turn into procrastination.
15. Let it go.
Ah, how good it feels to finish a piece of work, know that you've done all that you can do, and then release it out to the world with no attachments or expectations. At least that is the ideal. Doesn't always happen that way, but we can continue to try. It is all too easy to hang on to a creative project and not let it take its rightful journey into the world–whether it is a novel seeking a publisher, an essay needing a home in a magazine, or a blog post. It is all too easy to find yourself slowing down as you near the end of the project, or for blocks to suddenly appear when all was smooth sailing before. Sometimes this can happen because of a reluctance to let the pages go. But what good are they going to do the world locked away on your computer, or in a drawer where nobody can find them? Send your babies out and let them find their homes. The energy of that will come back to you in surprising ways.
Letting go is a suitable stopping point for this series on creativity. And now that you know everything there is to know about creativity, go forth and do it.