Creativity is Nonlinear

From Austin Kleon’s
Steal Like An Artist

As I pursue this passion for writing that I’ve had since I was a child, I find myself revisiting many subjects I have written about before, as well as other attempts I’ve made at expressing my creativity. Lately, I’ve gone back to doing graphite drawings of old signs. I’ve always been fascinated by the expressive fonts as well as the old-fashioned art of sign making. Must be tied into my love of words.

All of this has bolstered my deconstruction of the creative process, which is also a favorite subject of mine.

One of the most challenging, as well as exciting parts of pursuing your creative instincts is the nonlinear path it takes. There is no destination point, no moment when you’ve “arrived”. Just an endless stream of loops and twists, usually mirroring our lives in the process. Each project we take on leads us to something else or winds us back to the beginning. That dreaded blank page or canvas. Each harvest leaves us wondering what to plant next, and that we probably should have planted those seeds in the ground already.

It never gets easier. Whether it’s your source of income or your means of creative expression, you still have to make the first move. The muse will not come looking for you, and gently guide you by the hand. Inspiration will not come and hunt you down. In the words of Laurie Anderson, “None of us know what will happen. Don’t spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That’s it.”

Everyone has their own unique rituals for waking that inspiration inside. And not one of them is foolproof. My latest one is to sit quietly, drink one complete cup of coffee, and just let my brain wander for 20 minutes or so. I don’t read emails, check social media or the news before I’m done. It seems to allow my brain to clear itself, and go wherever it wants to go right now, but then it’s time to get to work. There’s no guarantee that this will work tomorrow, or next week. As I mentioned in a previous post, Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals is just loaded with the rituals of some of the most creative and inventive minds in history. It’s a fascinating look at how different, yet alike we all are.

Did I mention it never gets easier? There is so much happening around us, so much changing in our lives every day. Things we notice and those we don’t. Jobs change, relationships change, and sometimes the people we count on and believe will always be in our lives are suddenly gone. Finding a way to insulate ourselves from success, from failure, from the bumpy ride we are on, we must rely on our creativity for that beacon of light. It can be the only constant in our lives. Only for today, because tomorrow is never promised, and yesterday is long gone. Make something beautiful today.

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Embracing Creativity in a World Turned Upside Down

It’s been a crazy week of writing, so it got me thinking about how to refuel and add some creativity to daily life in other ways. I’ve discussed the importance of adding input in a previous post about keeping the creative fires burning, and filling the well from which to draw, but here’s a list of ideas for trying out other forms of creative expression. Most don’t even require leaving the house, and little or no financial investment. Just simple ways to inspire your artistic expression.

*Walk around your neighborhood and use your phone to take pictures of ordinary things other people wouldn’t notice. Look for striking shadows, interesting combinations of shapes, objects that usually don’t belong together, and different angles. Then convert them using your greyscale or black and white filter and see how moody you can get them.

* Rearrange some pieces of furniture, or all of it if you’re up for it. Switch around your artwork or add some more. Changing our physical environment, those things we see and use every day but really stopped noticing long ago changes our perspective. Changing what we see in front of us, in turn, changes how we see and what we notice.

* Plant a container garden, as small or as large as you like. Herbs, flowers, a few tomato plants, all will do well. Keep it somewhere you can see it, whether it’s in the kitchen or outside your window. Spend a few moments with it as often as you can, water it, nurture it and watch it grow.

* Draw, doodle, scribble. Allow the right side of your brain to take the reins, and don’t think about it. It’s not for anyone else to see. Draw shapes, random lines, try Zentangling. You just need a pencil and a piece of paper. Relax and have some fun. Doodling while on the phone or watching TV helps distract us from what our hands are doing.

* Try Coloring or a Paint by Number. The simple act of adding color to something, to creating something you made by hand, that empowering of an alternate source of creativity. If you’re feeling good about it, try some abstract art with a small set of watercolors or a few tubes of acrylics.

* Cook it up! If you’re someone who enjoys spending time in the kitchen cooking, baking, or culinary artistry, then dive a little deeper. Try and come up with a signature dish, muffin, or drink. Those ingredients are your medium. Like the decorating part the best? Then let that cookie be your canvas.

* Listen to a completely different genre of music. Spotify has some great playlists, from classical greats, 1940’s Jazz Legends, Reggae, to songs you’d hear in a Parisian café. Let it play in the background as you go about your daily chores, or when you sit down with your favorite book. Take notice of how differently each genre affects your mood and creative thoughts.

* Make lists. Lists of everything you can think of. All the places you’d go if there were no obstacles, the books you want to read, the people (famous and not) that have influenced your life, things that you own and love, things you’d love to have, positive things in your life, things you like about yourself. Again, these are just for you to see. The list of lists is endless.

* Get some fresh air. Take a walk to the end of the block and back, sit on your porch, patio, or front step. Just listen and hear the sounds. Watch the birds, or traffic, or people, and see what’s in front of you. Just let it all soak in, and remember to breathe.

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Every Small Step Is Progress

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What would you like to accomplish by the end of the year? Or the end of the month? What steps will it take to reach those goals? These words echo in my head each and every day.

Setting goals is a major part of becoming who we want to be, but they can just as easily set us up for failure. Finding that middle ground, those attainable steps that push us forward, without burning us out in a month or leaving us too much time for doom scrolling and binge-watching. Not reaching that goal you set of 2500 words a day will not make you work harder. It will just stall out whatever progress you are making. Be kind to yourself and set goals that may stretch you, but you know you can do. Success fuels us to continued success and accomplishments to more accomplishments.

Many self-help books and articles will tell you to take your goals, break them down monthly, then weekly, then daily. Sounds simple enough. It’s a very defined, organized, check it off the list and move to the next item approach. Just one task after another. It’s structured, it’s orderly, and there’s not a lot of decision-making or creativity involved. Seems very logical. I, however, am not. I’m just not that deliberate. I sit down Monday morning, look at the list, and instantly decide I want to paint today (even though I had hours I could have done that the day before). Or clean the grout in the shower. Or take my car in for an oil change or do anything at all that’s not on that list, even if it’s something I’ve been putting off for years. It feels like someone is telling me what to do and I don’t want to do it, whatever it is.

I’ll be the first to admit, this is still a learning process for me. Right now, setting up my goals for the week has been the best method for me. I like to work on multiple projects at a time, and this allows me the freedom to do that. On Friday afternoon, I set up my list of what I need to accomplish the following week. That way, I do have some structure and deadlines, but it’s not so forced. When I’m not so “task oriented” I also remember to pay attention to what’s happening around me and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. Spontaneous lunch with an old friend-absolutely! Although it’s not on my list, it’s creative input, and generates ideas for that next article about the challenges we are all facing these days. Knowing my goals for the next week also gives me the weekend to think about those projects, keep them floating around in my subconscious, and get excited about them. Taking notes of course because I inevitably forgot that great idea character name I just had an hour ago.

Reevaluating our aspirations regularly reinforces our motivation and helps us to see what is and isn’t working. It also offers insight into what is truly important to us.

Goals can make or break us. It just depends on how willing you are to be honest with yourself. What you think you should be able to do versus what you know you can do. Remember to keep your eye on the prize, whether it’s fame, fortune, artistic expression, or just making a nice life for yourself. One step at a time, however small it may seem, gets us that much closer. Just keep moving forward.

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Top 10 Books For Writers and Everyone Trying to Live a More Creative Life

Here’s my list of the top 10 books for writers, for those needing some inspiration, and for everyone who is just trying to add a little creativity to their life. There are many others that are worthy of your time, but I’ve scaled back my list to just 10. I’ve included links to amazon.com for consistency, and to make it easier to see more information on each title. As always, please support your local bookseller and independent bookstores like powells.com or bookpeople.com whenever possible.

On Writing ~ Stephen King

Part memoir, part master class, this is by far one of the most definitive books on the art of writing. Full of inspiration and practical advice from one of the true masters. Every writer should have this on their bookshelf.

Daily Rituals ~ Mason Currey

One of my favorite books to pick up and browse through, Daily Rituals is Mason Currey’s massive collection of habits, quirks, routines and rituals of individual writers, artists, scientists, inventors, and a host of other creative minds. Fascinating insight into the creative process.

Bird By Bird ~ Anne Lamott

Already in its 25th Anniversary edition, this classic is also a must read. Filled with advice, humor and wit, and layered with honest and personal stories of her life and journey as an author. You’ll find this on most Writing Top 10 lists.

Steal Like An Artist ~ Austin Kleon

I’ve included Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work, and Keep Going all by Austin Kleon as a trilogy, but each book is worthy in its own right. Each contains honest, straight forward advice and solutions for everyone trying to make their way in the creative world. I refer back to all 3 frequently for motivation, inspiration, and help in resetting my goals and priorities.

The Elements of Style ~ Strunk and White

Included in many college writing curriculums, this classic guide covers everything from grammar and style to usage. A handy reference guide to have on hand.

On Writing Well ~ William Zinsser

Another fundamental classic that should be in every writer’s arsenal, this one focuses on writing clear, concise nonfiction. A must read for content writers, copywriters, grant writers and anyone who just wants to learn how to tighten up their writing.

No Plot? No Problem! ~ Chris Baty

Written as a guide to penning a novel in 30 days, this is an adrenaline fueled, kick in the pants push to get you motivated and just get the words out. A fun read, and great for anyone putting off writing that novel.

Things Are What You Make Of Them ~ Adam J. Kurtz

Life Advice for Creatives. A boost of support, motivation, compassion and inspiration on those days when you feel like no one is listening.

The Art of Noticing ~ Rob Walker

131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration and Discover Joy in the Everyday. Through a series of simple exercises, Rob Walker guides us through a reawakening of our senses, helping us to take note of the world around us. Perfect for both writers and artists, it points out all the things we tend to overlook, and teaches us to pay attention in new ways to the world around us.

Four Thousand Weeks ~Oliver Burkeman

This book will be released on August 10th, but I’ve included it in my Top 10 because I’m a huge fan of Oliver Burkeman’s past work. He addresses the entire “Productivity Crush” felt by creative people in all fields, and offers warm, heartfelt advice on time management, and the balance between productivity and creativity.

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It’s Your Life

Giving your creativity room to grow and flourish, both mentally and physically, is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. There is room in your home and your life, you just have to claim it. It just means getting rid of the clutter and junk that has been accumulating over the years in your surroundings and mind like the proverbial junk drawer.

Simplifying your life can be done to any degree that you’re comfortable with, from a complete purge and reboot to just getting rid of the trash lying around.

 It’s about living within our space comfortably and with room to move around. It makes our homes easier to clean, it’s easier to get to what you need, causes less anxiety, and eliminates that constant feeling of always needing to be doing something. That chair Aunt Ruth gave you when you got your first apartment, that you now must squeeze by every time you want to sit on the couch can be passed on to someone else. Those utility bills from 6 years ago, or copies of checks the banks used to mail you (remember those?) are taking up valuable real estate in your limited space. And the 10 candles that have to be moved to get to the extra printer paper are really not helping. Clothes that no longer fit and projects we never finished only make us feel bad. Free yourself of the burden of all the physical objects that have attached themselves to you and made you their guardian. I’m not advocating the “only keep it if it sparks joy” method, because frankly the toilet brush and handy little tool to unstick my garbage disposal really just don’t bring me joy. Keep what you love and need.

Cleaning up your finances also allows you more room to breathe and prosper. Take a good look at where your hard-earned dollars are going. Drop the subscriptions, services, and memberships you never use, shop around for the major monthly expenses like car and health insurance, ask your credit card company for a lower rate, or apply for one with better rewards, and please stop paying for long term storage of the lawnmower and yard tools, or bedroom set, until you get that house. Sell them and buy them when you need them. Try to make your banking and bill paying as simple as possible. With those extra few dollars at the end of the month, you can get to that museum, see that film, or have dinner with friends.

Technology can also suck up a huge amount of time if we let it. If we let it. Unsubscribe from those emails you never read, make a file for anything you’d like to read later, and handle or deal with the rest. Check it only as often as you feel you absolutely need to. There’s social media, the ultimate wormhole. It’s not downtime, it’s not creative time, and it’s not helping us to be better people. Time lost falling down the rabbit hole of social media is overwhelming. Arguing with strangers about leash laws or how often to water a cactus consumes so much of our time as well as emotion. Set a time limit, keep scrolling when something annoys you, and stop arguing with strangers that have nothing better to do than irritate others and look for attention.

Our time is one of our most precious assets, and limited in hours as well as in years. If you find yourself unable to take 15 minutes or an hour to do something you love, take a good look at where your time is going. Write down everything you do for a few days. Now be honest with yourself. If it’s important to you, make time for it. Allow yourself time with family and friends, for downtime and daydreaming, for adding input to your creative well, and for practicing your art. Life doesn’t always have to be about crossing things off of your to-do list. Unburden yourself of what you don’t want or need in your life.

Simplify, Simplify

-Henry David Thoreau

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Adding Creative Fuel

It’s not a difficult theory, but sometimes we get so stuck inside our own heads, or so wrapped up in the project we’re working on, that we forget to put gas in the tank. Creativity requires an enormous amount of fuel. If you’re having trouble starting, or stalling out midway, it’s time to fill the tank. Keeping a constant flow coming in helps to keep everything running smoothly.

Read as much as you possibly can. Read about everything and anything that even somewhat interests you. Read what people you follow read. Read what your favorite authors read. Books, articles, magazines, blogs…it doesn’t matter. Just read. Take some notes about what you liked and what you didn’t like. There’s so much to cultivate and use in our own work.

We can get useful and inspiring input in so many other ways as well. Watch movies, TV, and documentaries. Go to museums, the theater, art shows, or just take a walk around the neighborhood. Sit at Starbucks for an hour and watch people. Google every question you have. Talk to your friends. Everything you experience and everything you learn fuels your writing. Pay attention and take notes.  

Fill your notebook with words, thoughts, ideas, facts, quotes and lists of all that you have read and seen, and would like to read or see. It all fills the well from which we can draw.

Making the time to get enough input doesn’t detract from the time we spend writing or creating, it only enhances it. Reading, learning, and experiencing life are hardly guilty pleasures. They’re a requirement to living a creative life and being the best writer you can be. Allow yourself the time it takes to keep refueling. Do the best you can with whatever time you have.

Explore the world,

Study what interests you,

Defend creative expression,

And document your experiences.

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It Doesn’t Get Any Easier, So Why Not Start Now?

You’ve got your notebook, you’ve got your passion, and now your final preparation is making that commitment to yourself. That’s right, to yourself. Everyone else gets your attention and time, and it’s perfectly acceptable to claim a bit of it for your own.

Whether you’ve carved out a quiet piece of real estate in your home (or more realistically a flat space) or bundled your laptop and supplies in a backpack so you can work anywhere, it’s time to honor and respect yourself enough to make that promise. I will make time to practice my art. A certain time on specific days, an hour a day, a specific word count for the day or week…whatever it takes for you to make it happen. And happen easily and consistently.

You can draw up a contract and sign it (which didn’t work for me…too easy to throw away and pretend it never happened, but it has worked for others) or you can buy something to commemorate the occasion. A special coffee mug, some business cards which are surprisingly affordable, a nice pen…anything that reminds you of your passion, your dream, your true self.

This isn’t a lifetime commitment to one project…it’s merely symbolic. You may have set your word count to 5000 words a week and you’re only reaching 3000, or only finding time 3 days a week instead of 5, that’s fantastic! Every single step is progress. Adjust your schedule as needed. Set yourself up to succeed.

Start a blog, write letters, write poetry, write in a journal, or tell stories. It truly doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you are writing. You might discover that those little doodles you make in your notebook are a lot of fun, and decide to learn how to draw as well.

I’ll be sharing some books, newsletters and websites in the following weeks that will hopefully give you lots of inspiration and ideas to keep that passion burning and keep you excited about being creative.

Until then, be kind to yourself, and enjoy your time, your passion and your life.

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Keeping a Writer’s Notebook

Every book on writing and every successful writer has one piece of advice that they all agree on. The importance of keeping a writer’s notebook.

There are as many ways of keeping a notebook as there are personalities in the world, so I’m going to share with you what has worked for me. I challenge you to try this for 30 days. Just 1 month.

Pick a notebook. It can be pocket size or larger, but choose one that you’re comfortable writing in and that’s easy to carry around with you. Hardcover or soft. Decorated or plain. Make it your confidant and take it with you everywhere you go. Eat with it, sit with it, watch tv with it, sleep with it. Take your time to choose something you really like. It can be a simple, cheap spiral notebook, a composition book, or a sturdier moleskine or similar version. I personally prefer Field Notes. They are small enough to fit in my back pocket, and sturdy enough to last the month it takes me to fill it up. Find one you’re excited about using and a pen that can keep up with you.

Now make it yours. Add stickers, draw on it, tape a picture of someone or something that inspires you on it, or leave it blank. To break the ice, put your name and email inside the front cover in case you lose it, and number every other page. You can also add a quote on the first page to get you started.

Use it as a journal, daily log, book of lists, ideas, bits of conversation, doodles, names or words you like, something you’d like to know more about, books, people or websites you’d like to check out, movies you’ve watched, and any idea that pops into your head no matter how dumb you think it is. Try not to tear out any pages though…there are no mistakes.

Now this is where the road diverges. Some people like to keep separate notebooks for everything, some like to add an index in the beginning so they can refer back to certain subjects or ideas later on, some like to separate it into different sections for different purposes. Personally, I’m a minimalist, so I like just one notebook to write everything in, and then I can always transfer anything worthwhile once the book is filled. A stack of index cards held together with a binder clip works for some people. It’s just finding a system that works for you and encourages you to use it. Pinterest is an endless source for ideas.

As I mentioned earlier, I use Field Notes, which are 48 pages of 3.5 X 5.5 paper. I force myself to fill up one every month. Some months are easy, and I’m well into the second one before time’s up, and sometimes every word is an effort. At the end of the month, I read through it and highlight anything I think is worthwhile or I’d like to refer to later. Or I rewrite it into another notebook that’s more long term. Moleskine’s are my preference then, but Leuchtturn makes a fine notebook as well. I like the process of rereading them when I’m stuck for ideas, and it also helps me notice what I pay attention to.

Whether you’re a writer, poet, artist, photographer, musician, or architect, that fantastic idea you just had or that perfect line of dialogue you just overheard will be gone within the hour. Write it down before it’s lost forever.

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Scavenging For Ideas

While you’re spending time keeping your hands busy making small things, and your thoughts calm, it’s also the perfect time to be collecting ideas. Creating a “swipe file”, an “idea file”, or a “future projects file” can help offer some promise or hope that the muse will return, and you will once again be able to continue your creative pursuits.

Whether you keep these ideas and images on your computer, or on paper is solely up to you. I, myself, prefer to collect these things manually. There’s something comforting about taking pen to paper or cutting out images and words by hand, and it triggers a different part of my brain than typing or cutting and pasting on a keyboard does. Many find that the opposite is true. Experiment with each way and see which works better for you. Or do both. I keep all my ideas in a box, which allows me to dig through it when I’m ready, and often several will piece together and morph into something totally unexpected.  The important thing is that you’re cultivating ideas, and still always moving forward. They don’t have to be great ideas, but they only exist if you acknowledge them. You have a lifetime to decide if they are good enough to work with.

Lists are also a great way to gently nudge your muse. List all the things you like to photograph or draw or paint, everything you enjoy writing about, all the instruments you’d like to learn how to play, your favorite bands, your favorite authors or books, movies or books you’d like to see or read, places you’d like to go, things you’d like to make, everything you have enjoyed doing, and especially everything that you would like to enjoy in the future. You can add house project lists, art supply inventory lists, things you’d like to buy…the well of possibilities has no bottom.

Everything that you are doing; emptying your brain of all the chattering and worries onto paper, distracting and distancing yourself from the things you cannot change, and nurturing, protecting, and making time for your creative energy will be the fuel that gets you to the next step in your journey. Just one small step at a time.

bourdain-art-left-to-be-made

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Creating In the Middle of Chaos

We all see it… the world around us is in chaos. We wake each morning wondering what’s going to happen today, what new challenges are going to be thrown upon us, what’s next in this seemingly unending uncertainty and upheaval.

We want to continue with our creative endeavors, practice our craft, disengage from the world and continue making art, writing stories, living our lives as best we can while fulfilling that desire and need to be who we are.

But focusing…focusing on our art while constantly being bombarded with information from tv, from social media, from neighbors and family and friends, is just about impossible. What was once a simple trip to the store is now unsettling and uncomfortable. You can feel the tension and fear in the air. Our leaders, whose job it is to unite us, are instead dividing us.

But now is the most important time for us to use our creativity to both protect ourselves and do what we can to help our society. To pull out the positive, to shine a light on both the good and the bad, to document the history and tell the stories.

So how do we regain our focus long enough to do this? By taking a step back, realizing what we can and cannot control, and taking a different route than we have become accustomed to.

  1. Document everything that is happening. Take 15 minutes, or more if you wish, and write just a blurb about what transpired that day. You can use a page-a-day diary, a notebook, a sketchbook…whatever you’re comfortable with. Pocket size or large. Something that you can hold onto that is tangible and comforting. You can make it personal by dumping your brain onto the pages every day, giving those emotions and worries a place to land. You can approach it like a historian and write about the events of the day. Or you can combine the two. How has one affected the other? Just put words down on paper. It’s for your eyes only.
  2. Make collages. Cut up scraps from the junkmail clogging up your mailbox. Cut words out and glue them to paper. Add pictures from magazines or drawings you’ve made, or stickers you might have around. Don’t over think it. Do it in your logbook, your journal, whatever you’d like to call it. Add some doodles or random words. Your hands are engaged and you’re making something.
  3. Try your hand at a haiku. (3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables) Try to use words you like or enjoy the sound of. Or just open a dictionary and pick one to start.
  4. Watch a funny, silly, outdated movie. Or go the other way and watch an old foreign film with subtitles. The idea is to just let your brain detach itself from current events.
  5. Take a walk. Negativity, fear and creative blocks hate fresh air. It’s a great way to remind yourself that life is still out there. The sun is still rising and setting, the tides are still coming in and out, the plants and trees are still growing and the birds are still singing.

 

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