Making Creativity “Work”

It’s good to be back to the blog! It’s been a wonderful “learning time” during the three-month sabbatical. I won’t repeat what most of you received in my August newsletter. [Sign-up to the right.] Instead, today I want to talk about the nuts and bolts of creativity. Specifically, a writer’s creativity.

Creativity is a mysterious concept to most of us. We don’t really understand what it is, where it comes from, why it leaves us, and how to make it “work” consistently. We give it a lot of power over us because of this.

Does it have to be this way? I’ve learned over the past three months that the answer is a resounding NO!

Coaxing Creativity

The author of The Soul Tells a Story says “if I know from experience that inspiration arrives under certain conditions, I will make sure to re-create the conditions that invited it initially. Thus my early experience comes to determine how it is I will work.”

The first month of the sabbatical went pretty much how I expected. I had set up conditions in May to help me be productive on the novel, plus do a lot of craft study. I logged in a LOT of writing and studying hours. But then June… I had planned for school being out (grandchildren here), but then along came an unexpected chance to write adult mysteries. What a dream come true if I could do it! I have always loved mysteries–and have published many for children–so I wanted to submit a couple of ideas. It took me most of June, including once pulling an all-nighter after the grandchildren went home, but on June 30th I submitted two detailed chapter-by-chapter outlines.

I signed contracts for both adult mysteries in July! I am elated, but my creative writing routine in June didn’t look at ALL like my routine in May. No study to speak of, no progress on the middle-grade novel. Plus that all-nighter wiped me out for three or four days. (No wonder I stopped that practice after college!) But it got me to thinking in July, as the sabbatical was drawing to a close and I face actually producing the mysteries, just what conditions were the most conducive for creativity on a sustained basis.

Your Own Style

Each writer is different. I know writers who must be surrounded by noise and people or loud music in order to write. You find them in coffee shops, focused on their laptops. I am just the opposite, preferring quiet and solitude when I can get it.

But life didn’t get simpler as I got older. It gets more complex as you add in-laws and grandchildren. (If you want to read a terrific article about this, see “Encroachment” by Robin LaFevers.) In part, she said these two things:

The pressing demands of daily life have a rather sobering ability to suck all of the creative oxygen out of a room. They don’t even have to be big, catastrophic type demands. Sometimes simply the endless dripping of life’s mundanities can wear away our reserves until there is nothing left. There are just so very many ways to be pulled in the direction of others–in spite of how necessary facing inward is in order to give free voice to our creativity…

AND

But within about five minutes of their departure [kids going to college], I quickly discovered there are lots and lots of additional ways to be pulled outward and become other focused.

  • Extended family
  • Financial pressures
  • Mental and emotional clutter
  • The internet
  • Social media
  • Gatekeepers: critique partners, agents, editors, reviewers
  • The “market”
  • Readers

Take a Self-Inventory

All of those things can impact your creativity. If you’re not sure what conditions are best for your ability to create, think back to when you started writing. How did you work best then? What conditions did you just naturally create for yourself? What are the non-negotiables you must have for your creativity to flourish?

Here are some things to consider: 

  • Before writing, do you need some quiet time to think, meditate, or pray?
  • Can you write at any time of day–or only at certain times?
  • Can you write any place–or do you need your “office” to be the same each day? Can you write in the study room at the public library to improve concentration?
  • Can you write in tiny bits of time–or does your creativity absolutely require large chunks of time? Does it vary depending on the stage of your book?
  • How much socializing do you need in order to be your most creative? (This includes time with writers and non-writers alike, time to “talk shop” and time to just have fun.)
  • When you are stuck, does it help to read a book on craft (viewpoint, research, inspiration, etc.) to get your creativity flowing again?
  • Does reading other writers’ books help you be more creative–or does it make you feel anxious as you compare yourself to them?
  • Do you need a healthier diet or more sleep for your creativity to be at its peak? Or do you work best on short naps and skipping meals?
  • What kind of critique at what point in your project is helpful? What kind is the kiss of death to your creativity? (When is your ego more fragile?)
  • Do you work best with a deadline, or do deadlines make you freeze up? Do you do well with six-month deadlines but choke on series deadlines set every two months?
  • Can you be creative when dealing with emotional upset? Do you need to solve family problems before you can settle down to write?

Take Time to Know Yourself

As we’ve said before, just because conditions aren’t perfect doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. We’ve all had to produce work under some appalling conditions. But if you have a choice, it’s lovely to set up your life and home and schedule and diet and social life so that it most benefits YOU and your creativity. (And you probably have more choices than you think.)

Take time to answer the above questions. Life can take over! If you’ve been writing a long time, you may have forgotten what conditions kick started your writing in the first place.

Thinking Back…

I started writing when my oldest three kids were babies and toddlers. We had a farm in Iowa, lots of pets, big vegetable gardens, no Internet, few neighbors, lots of room inside the farmhouse and outside, lots of quiet and fresh air. It can’t have been as ideal as my memory makes it out to be, but it was very conducive to thinking and pondering and reading and writing.

At the beginning of my sabbatical, that old life bore little resemblance to my life today–so I planned ways to bring back some of those elements into my daily life. I loved having my children around me, and I’m happiest now when I’ve had plenty of contact with my four grandchildren. I loved living in the country then; now we live in a city, but next door to a park and greenbelt, so it is much the same if I just go outside more and enjoy the fresh air. Last weekend the grandchildren and I fed apples to the deer on the trail. I have a vegetable garden again, but it’s small enough to be fun.

The Biggie

The biggest change I see is having the Internet. I’m an introvert–preferring solitude and quiet when it’s time to write. Being online for any length of time is agitating to me, for some odd reason (even though I view very benign websites!) Afterwards, I find it hard to settle down and write.

During the sabbatical I experimented with staying offline until noon, having “no media days,” limiting email to checking it once or twice, but not actually responding to it till later in the day. I also wrote in places like the library without Internet access on my laptop. All those things increased both my creativity and my productivity on the novel. It doesn’t affect all writers this way, but it’s worth experimenting to find out what (if anything) it does for your creativity.

Now It’s Your Turn

What about you? What things do you suspect would help you coax your creativity out of hiding on a more regular basis? What changes are the hardest to make? What one change could you make today?

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20 Responses to Making Creativity “Work”

  1. Karin Larson says:

    Great post, Kristi! Thank you! Good to have you back blogging.

    For me, creativity and daily life can be a double edge sword. The day-to-day life with kids and chaos are the very things that foster the juices of creativity; however, I am not very good at setting aside time to focus on writing so as to nurture those creative sparks while they are fresh. I’m working on balance and not allowing the daily grind to always get in the way. I am a work in progress:)

    • kwpadmin says:

      Karin, thank you for your response! I recall being so surprised years ago when the kids got older, and then left home and married, that “finding balance” was still so hard. I think on some level I was living in “Someday Land,” thinking I’d automatically find that balance when the house quieted down. Not so. Things just changed, demands changed, expectations by others changed… I found that it was just as challenging, and learning over a period of fifteen years how to set boundaries was the best investment in my sanity that I ever made.

      Like you, we are ALL a “work in progress.” But we ARE making progress…and that’s the key thing to remember. :-)

  2. Kate Wilson says:

    Welcome back, Kristi! It sounds as if you’ve had a lovely, productive, and surprising three months.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Yes, on all three counts. (There was one unexpected nasty surprise in there too, but just having time to process stuff made a huge difference!) I feel a bit like I got in the car in NY to go to CA, set off at a good clip, got whirled around in Montana and ended up in Canada. Exciting ride…and lots of new scenery at the moment. :-)

  3. Stephanie Ascough says:

    Hooray, you’re back! This is a timely post for me, as I’m buckling down over the next 4 months to make serious investments in writing before our third child arrives. I love goals. Knowing that my season of life will be so different in 4 months spurs me on in the meantime.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Hi, Stephanie,

      I remember writing books like mad before babies were due too! It really spurs you on as you look down and literally see your time decreasing as your waistline increases! It’s an incredibly creative time for so many reasons. Good luck!

  4. Diane Morgera says:

    Welcome back Kristi and thank you for coming back with such a great post. I’m now at a stage where I should have all the time in the world for writing, but still find ways to get distracted or “other focused” as you put it. So thanks, I’m going to try to follow at least
    a few of your ideas and hopefully get un-stuck!

    • kwpadmin says:

      Diane, it’s so easy for women especially to be “other focused,” and to feel like it’s selfish not to be! I wonder sometimes if I will struggle with this all my life. Probably! We don’t want to be uncaring, but we can only be spread so thin before something gives. (Usually health, in my case…) I use a monthly calendar as well as my daily one to pencil in the people in my life that deserve the most of my extra time–mostly kids/grandkids–so when I feel guilty about writing more I can look at that calendar and count the hours I actually spend with them. Our minds play such tricks on us. :-)

  5. Congrats on the adult mysteries!! This is a great post, Kristi, and gives me a lot to ponder. Thank you!

    • kwpadmin says:

      Thanks, Jane! I know the post was kind of long, but a lot has gone through my mind in the past few months. I appreciate your comments here, and all your “likes” when Facebook posts something. :-)

  6. Vijaya says:

    Kristi, I ate up your newsletter. So much good stuff! I’m happy you’ve had a wonderful and productive sabbatical and some shiny new books to show off. Congratulations!!!

    • kwpadmin says:

      Vijaya, it was the best gift I’ve given myself in a long time. As I was teaching about self-care for writers this spring at Highlights, I realized how utterly exhausted I was–and that it was high time I took some of my own advice. It’s so hard to hear that still small voice if, when you sit down and quiet down, you fall asleep. :-)

  7. Thanks to your recommendation, incidentally, I’ve been working through The Soul Tells a Story these past months! It’s a stunning book: beautifully written, encouraging and empathic, and REALLY CHALLENGING in how it makes you THINK about what you do inside your brain (I call it “the Hard Questions book”). I’m surprised it’s not more well-known. I don’t know if I ever thanked you for recommending it before your hiatus, so definitely, Thank You Very Much now!

    I KNOW I have a problem concentrating on work when I have the Internet. But I also have a motivation problem convincing myself it’s worth getting started working in the first place. So I don’t know. I’m still working myself out.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Hi, rockinlibrarian! I’m glad you’re enjoying that book. I get new things out of it whenever I re-read it. Life changes, and the answers can change too. I’m going to be talking about the motivation issue you brought up in coming weeks. It’s something that had been troubling me too before the sabbatical. We’re such a work-in-progress, aren’t we?

  8. Natalie says:

    No Media Days – what a great idea. I’m doing that this week. So glad you’re back to blogging.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Thanks, Natalie, it’s good to be back! Even my school-age grandkids had enforced “no media” days this summer. It was really good for them, even though they don’t watch much TV. But with iPads and iPods as well, there’s a lot of screen time eating up time they could read or bike or be with ME. :-)

  9. Alice says:

    I’m glad you’re back! For me, having life feel “organized” is best for my creativity. With job uncertainties, construction going on in the house, and general summer crazy busyness, my writing has just about stopped. I tend to get things together in the fall, and I’m hoping to see more productivity in September.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Alice, I totally understand. I am the same way. That’s partly why I signed up for the coaching from an organizing coach. I’m actually quite organized as a general rule, but as you know, life keeps happening! Having someone else hold you accountable is such a help.

  10. Barbara Holland says:

    Kristi, thank you for all you do for writers and would-be writers. I’ve dabbled in writing much of my life, but my career was teaching in an elementary school. I enjoy working with children more than writing, and still do some volunteer work at schools, though I’m now 78. I had planned to write after retiring, but after completing two writing courses (Writer’s Digest, Writing magazine articles and ICL), attending writing workshops, buying, reading and underlining more than 60 books on writing, I still have few published materials to my credit… mainly because it’s just been a hobby and I’ve enjoyed interacting with people more than sitting still to write. I did finally self-publish one book last fall, with a fifth grade setting. I drew on my teaching experiences and had fun writing it. I gave copies to a lot of my former fifth graders and that was fun. Some have asked when it’s sequel will be ready but I’ve made several starts in different directions and haven’t found ‘it’ yet. I find plotting the hardest for me. I did one author day in the classroom of one of my former fifth graders, but had a rough winter health-wise so haven’t continued. Over the years, I’ve started several books and have filed away those manuscripts in case I ever get back to them. I get discouraged with how difficult it is to get published. I spent a lot of time and postage trying to sell magazine articles for a few years, but sold so few I’d get discouraged and give up… especially since I had the salary from teaching. I still read a lot of writing blogs, and your have your two First Aid books on my shelves. I greatly admire you and all you’ve accomplished. You asked when we were most productive and I think when I lie in bed at night mulling over a scene or character, then continue thinking about it the next morning, I like to just get out of bed and go to my computer and start typing until hunger takes over. I guess I just want to thank you for all you’ve done and are doing. I’m so proud of you that you accomplished so much during your sabbatical. I wish you great success in your books in progress.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Barbara, thank you so much for taking the time for this reply! If I’ve done anything that has helped you “stick with” the writing life, then I’m glad and you’re more than welcome. I am so impressed that you are most productive when you lie awake at night and mull over your story or characters. I either fall asleep too soon or mull over things that are less helpful than a scene that needs work. I can see why you are then eager to get to the writing the next morning though. Most brain experts say your system is the best one for being creative. I must try that with more diligence. :-) Thank you again for this note!

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