Rethinking the creative process

My childhood dream was to become a writer, and in my youthful fantasies I fully expected by now to have published at least a book or two. The problem is, far from publishing a book, I haven’t even written one (yet).

In the process of consoling myself for not actualizing this dream, I have realized a few things: 1) While it is not easy to find the time to write “for fun” (any writer knows the process is not fun), the only way I will ever reach my dream is to make it happen, even if it takes me 10 years to write 100 pages; 2) I have to believe that my goal is important enough to prioritize the time to reach it; 3) “Success” might look different now than it would have in my teenage dreams, i.e. the odds of writing a best seller are not in my favor, but perhaps I can at least write something that will have lasting value for me and my family. (In my days of writing for a Jewish community newspaper, I used to joke that I was a household name … in my own home. That’s sort of what I’m aiming for here.)

Even with this much more modest goal in mind, I still have the momentous task of decisively buckling down and doing the actual work, and I was searching for some inspiration about how to do that. So, over the last several months, I read a few books that touch on aspects of the creative process, and the work styles of successful people, from which I have gleaned bits of wisdom.

A few years ago Jonah Lerner wrote a book called “Imagine” that talks about the creative process. I first heard about it in an NPR clip about creative breakthroughs often coming when people took a break from what they were working on. When they were walking or driving or doing something relaxing, all of a sudden, they would get a creative burst, or the solution to a complex problem would suddenly dawn upon them. All of the efforts of many hours of hard work and concentration would pale in comparison to this dawning revelation that happened without even trying.

I really liked this idea because it was the perfect justification for one of my favorite vices: procrastination. How great is it that not working can actually help you work better?!

As cool as that bit of information is, it’s only part of Lerner’s book, which, incidentally was later discredited when it was discovered that Lerner fabricated some information in the book, including quotes from Bob Dylan. I picked up a copy of “Imagine” from Amazing Books, our wonderful, local used book store, and read it with a grain of salt, knowing not to trust Lerner too much, but on the point of procrastination I think we can believe him because he also offers some seemingly conflicting advice that I think is also very sound.

Often, people have creative breakthroughs only after days, months or years of regular, steady devotion to honing a craft or working on a problem. Yes, the buzz kill to the procrastination high is that you actually have to put in the hours to get any work done, and creative tasks are serious work. (Darn it.)

In “Imagine” Lerner also writes about the digital animation studio Pixar, which designed its headquarters with centrally located bathrooms to force staff to physically bump into each other several times throughout the day to feed the creative and collaborative processes. (Presumably folks with smaller bladders would have even more opportunities for this!) So, for some types of creative work, interacting with other people is important, but when I read about that, I wondered how I would function in an atmosphere that emphasized interaction so much. My next reading choice helped with that.

Susan Cain’s “Quiet” talks about our very extroverted culture and how the emphasis on being outgoing and gregarious puts introverts at a distinct disadvantage. “Extrovert” and “introvert” are terms that get thrown around a lot, and there are various definitions, but the one that makes the most sense to me is that extroverts are energized by being around other people and exciting stimuli, and introverts are energized by being alone and reducing stimuli.

Introverts want and need to connect with other people, they just need recovery time afterwards, both at home and at work. Cain writes that work environments can be structured better to create optimal working situations for introverts. I felt vindicated by her unequivocal statement that open office plans (no offices or cubicle walls) are bad for introverts.

“Quiet” helped me realize that I need to cultivate a comfortable and quiet writing space for myself. The book also talks about “flow,” the state of being so immersed in a task that one loses track of time. The environments preferred by introverts are also conducive to flow, such as minimizing interruptions and background noise.

My third reading choice helped me think about another obstacle to writing: time. In “168 Hours” Laura Vanderkam notes that many of us are afflicted by the knowledge that life is short, and extremely hectic, and it’s hard to find time for all the things we want to do. It’s easy to say, “I can’t do X because I don’t have the time,” but Vanderkam points out that we can accomplish more than we think in the 168 hours we are all apportioned each week.

She writes about the American Time Use Survey, which is a government survey of how people spend their time. Using this model, Vanderkam profiles several real people, whom she asked to chart their time for a week, revealing ways they could use their time better. Vanderkam herself is a mother of four who has published several books, blogs daily, runs marathons and used to sing with a choral society. She also sleeps 7 to 8 hours a night. It’s tempting to dismiss her as a superwoman overachiever (or just hate her), but she is honest about how she makes it all work.

Vanderkam focuses on her “core competencies,” the things she does best and on which she wants to spend the majority of her time. Everything else gets minimized or out-sourced. So, she hires extra childcare to ensure she has time to write and exercise, simplifies meal preparation, relaxes her standards of household cleanliness, and knows how to say no to obligations that will drain her time.

“168 Hours” made me realize how very different I am from Vanderkam. She has reached a balance that is right for her, but which would not be right for me. For example, while writing is my professional priority, I have other “core competencies” which are important to me, such as cooking Shabbat and holiday meals for family and friends and being involved in communal activities. These things don’t pay my bills, but they enrich my life.

So, in addition to the realizations I mentioned at the start of this entry, my recent reading has helped me to crystallize some other thoughts about my personal creative process: 1) writing is not the only way in which I am creative, and other outlets (such as cooking and event planning) are also important to my personal development and expressing creativity (and may even be the source of writing ideas); and 2) more than ever I need to be cognizant of how I use my time, recognizing that I am making choices which can facilitate or interfere with reaching my goals, but that even if I am never the writer I dreamed I could be, I can still be a successful writer by my own definition, and achieve other goals that are important to me.


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Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer

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