In the past few weeks my best ideas have come to me while lying on the acupuncture table, my skin bristling with stainless steel needles no thicker than a human hair. A few weeks ago a nonfiction book idea I had toyed with 12 years ago came rushing back, along with the structure and table of contents. (I had to keep reciting it to myself until I could get off the table.) Then last week a new novel idea came to me, and I spoke it into the iTalk app on my phone when I got to my car. I am grateful for these ideas downloaded into my consciousness while I am in a liminal state. Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar.
However, this is not a convenient time for creating. We have had a steady stream of company for the past two weeks. I am going out of town next week to visit my family in Maine. I have just finished my coaching course, am still coaching a few practice clients, and want to put a coaching page on my website. I need to buy groceries. There’s a pile of laundry waiting for my attention. You get the idea. Although your circumstances are different, the tension between “real life” and making time for creating is the same. And it is the reality for almost all of us. So what is the answer? Creativity coach Eric Maisel says we must learn how to create in the middle of things or we will never create. The ideal time to create—when our schedule is completely clear, we feel inspired, and the conditions are perfect—will never arrive. How do we create anyway?
In his book Coaching the Artist Within, Maisel identifies three “bad answers” to this question:
Not creating at all. People who fall into this category never get around to creating. They don’t know how to settle themselves and get something done in the midst of the swirl.
Withdraw from life. I would imagine this is a less popular option, but some creative people cut off all contact with others so that they can focus on their work. This is not just taking some solitude from time to time, which every creator needs. This is isolation, and it is unhealthy.
Sporadically create. These people create when they feel inspired. “You paint, then paint again two years or a decade later. You write eleven poems in your lifetime. You are always wanting to create, but you actually create only a tiny percentage of the time.” In this way you fritter away your creative potential.
Strategies for Success
Here are five strategies Maisel lists in his book for creating in the middle of things:
Suit up and show up. Set your times to write and show up to the keyboard (or notebook). You don’t have to generate the world’s best prose or even feel prepared. Just show up and write something.
Don’t snivel. Don’t indulge in complaints and feeling sorry for yourself. Just get to work and feel how much more energy you have available for what you’re doing.
Avoid anticipating. Write without expectation of brilliance. Don’t imagine how wonderful it’s going to be (or how awful). Just write.
Envision writing your first sentence. While you’re making your coffee or feeding the cat, imagine your first sentence flowing effortlessly onto the page.
Drop everything. Drop your doubts, resistance, to-do list, and negative self-talk, and go write—RIGHT NOW!
If You’re Still Struggling
As someone who has fallen into the camp of sporadically creating, I’ve been considering this question of creating in the middle of things for myself as I’ve gone through creativity coach training. I’ve always had a tendency to be hard on myself if I didn’t accomplish what I had planned. (Sound familiar to anyone?) So I thought I’d share a few additional tips.
First, be flexible. Say you had planned to write 1,000 words this morning, but something came up that you had to deal with. Is your day ruined? No. This simply requires a pivot. You look at the rest of your day and ask yourself where you can reasonably fit in time to write. Maybe you can’t do 1,000 words today. How many can you do? Doing something toward your goal is better than nothing. Fifty words are better than none. You haven’t “failed” if you haven’t executed your plan perfectly. Learn from what happened, write what you can, and move on.
Following the above, do one small thing. Are you clear about what your project is? (If not, that’s step #1.) Then stop, take a breath, and ask yourself what is one small thing you can do to move forward on it. It may be writing or planning or clearing your desk. Whatever that thing is, do it, and give yourself the feeling of success.
Finally, here’s something a little kinder but equally effective to the “don’t snivel” strategy: Interrupt negative self-talk. I don’t know about you, but even now I can get into this mode where I say things to myself like “I’m not a real writer, I’m undisciplined, I can't stay on track, etc.” I know many creative people subject themselves to this kind of diatribe. When this train starts chugging down the track, STOP. Then replace those thoughts with “I am a writer, I intend to work on this project, I am choosing one thing to do right now on this project.” This is much more helpful and kind. And true!
What is your experience with creating in the middle of things? Do you have any tried-and-true strategies to share? I’d love to hear them.