What actions are you taking to build a body of work that is both meaningful, and powered by a sense of momentum?
Each of you will have your own approach to these things. Your unique goals, preferences, and boundaries. Some will seek to publish a book a year; others won’t be able to see past their eight-year process to complete a debut novel. Both are, of course, fine.
I bring this topic up because I find that many people have blind spots as to why they make the decisions they do. Their creative process becomes mired in bad habits rooted in deep emotions that they are barely aware of. Hours, days, and even years are spent in a state of confusion or frustration regarding how to write better, how to best publish, how to best develop a readership and encourage sales. Each of these, in its own way, is a creative process. Each filled with its own emotional complexity.
How we develop the skills to master our own capabilities around each is a core part of mastering our own unique creative processes.
For instance, I am always surprised that I was taught accounting in high school, but the topic of “emotions and money” was never addressed in accounting class. How, for the most part, our relationship and decisions around money are HIGHLY subjective, based on emotional reactions objective decision-making. Further, these decisions are filled with internal narratives born of desire and fear, not out of practical financial formula.
We read an article about how awesome Apple is and the article includes a chart demonstrating how well Apple stock has done in the past few years. The result? We buy Apple stock. Suddenly, we glean aspects of their identity and success as our own. We feel this is a sound financial investment because of it. Yet, this decision-making approach involved zero financial analysis, and instead was purely emotional. We saw an innovative, successful company and felt innovative and successful ourselves by purchasing shares. If the stock tanked, we would feel betrayed, perhaps blindsided. But as it succeeds, we feel that their identity becomes our own.
The same can be true for our own creative processes.
In working with hundreds of writers and creative professionals, I have seen this play out in countless ways. Often a blockage is only identified as a symptom: “I’m overwhelmed,” or “I’m having writer’s block,” or “I’m just frustrated with all that is asked of me.” While I 100% empathize with these very important emotions, I always want to break them down to understand the root cause. In doing so, we identify assumptions being made, and challenge them in order to find a path forward.
In my life I have been an artist, a poet, a musician, a paper sculptor, a writer, a publisher, a photographer, a teacher, a radio DJ, a cartoonist, a designer and an entrepreneur. And pretty much my entire life has been surrounded by those pursuing their own creative passions. I took private art lessons starting in the 2nd grade, and was always the “artsy” kid in school. In so many ways, I obsessively explore the realities of the creative process of others. Here are a few ways that happens:
- One-on-one conversations over lunch. I do this every Wednesday, usually two or three meetings per week, and have done so for years.
- Meetups which I have run for the past year and a half. This past week, I ran one with two local artists and a group of twenty or so creatives. These are discussions that go deep into the creative process for everyone in the room, sharing challenges and habits that help break through them.
- Formal interviews (I recently launched a podcast, but have done numerous interviews in the past).
- Personal phone/Skype conversations (a regular practice for me).
- Personal email (I regularly get emails from writers asking for advice).
- Private Facebook groups that I manage, or are part of courses I teach.
- Observing on social media, newsletters, blog posts, videos, news.
- Attending events — and not just in the writing/publishing field, but other creative niches.
- Clients I have worked with, workshops I have run, and courses I teach.
- General personal history of my own work, that of my wife (an artist), friends (many of whom are creative professionals), and that of hundreds of colleagues over the years.
What I enjoy about these methods of exploration is that they often allow very honest discussions around the emotional reality of the creative process. Because they are often one-on-one or small group conversations, people will mention challenges they may be sheepish about discussing in a more public setting.
When it comes to improving one’s own creative process, what I often glean from these conversations is that:
- You need to become a student of your own productivity, your own moods, energy, and triggers. This can be akin to therapy, and is a process that never really ends because you — as a person — are always evolving.
- You need to study the REALITY of the creative process. Too often, we generalize in order to prove our own desires or fears. For example, “social media is a waste, you should be in your studio all the time, creating.” Or “nothing is original anymore, everyone is a hack.” You can study this in many ways. For instance, I’m researching Walt Disney for a small piece in a book I’m writing, and the reality of his success is so much different than the simplistic story of legend. The legend: Walt was a spirited visionary who saw a mouse run in front of him, and boom – Mickey Mouse was born, and Walt’s success sprang from there. The compact legend is easily shared and inspiring, yet the deeper story is much more complex. It turns out, Walt failed again and again and again both before and after he developed Mickey. Even the real story of how Mickey was created has many different versions. It’s easy to say, “things aren’t like they used to be,” but when you study the reality of how things used to be, it is as deeply complex as things sometimes feel today.
- Collaborations are essential, and that is sometimes a difficult process. Visionary creators sometimes dream of their idea being perfect in its formation, and when the world finds out, a spark will be lit, elevating them and their work to a new level of success. Yet, much of success is about collaboration, not just the work itself. Even as I write that, I bristle at it. I want all great work to be so pure that it couldn’t help but succeed just as the creator originally conceived it. But again, the reality is often more convoluted than we like to think. Collaboration can be a core part of the creative process, and the more we eschew learning how to collaborate, the more we sometimes ensure our work will never gain momentum.
- One size does not fit all, and likely, each individual’s process will change over time. You are human, and this is a JOURNEY. Too often, we look for an inspiring shortcut, or a simplistic model. “Famous Writer X says that ______.” Oftentimes, that serves only to mollify our own fears and challenges. In other words, writing with the same pen as your favorite writer may not yield you the same results.
Are these conclusions right for everyone? Nope. You have your own unique set of experiences, some that will firmly prove other conclusions. Perhaps you collaborated on a fiction series once which ended in a huge failure, so in your experience, collaboration hinders creative work. If that is indeed your experience, it is of course completely valid.
I suppose I am always interested in exploring beyond one’s own personal experience. To challenge the idea of being “a case study of one,” whereby if something did or didn’t work in a single instance, that it can’t necessarily be generalized for every person and every situation.
As part of this, I have been enamored with the idea of coaches. This article effectively explores the value of a coach for high performers  — those who are already at the top of their field: (hat tip to Jennie Nash — a book coach herself — for originally sourcing this article for me.)
The author of that article, Atul Gawande also wrote The Checklist Manifesto  which explores the small ways people who are known as the best in their fields can still find room for improvement in even the simplest of ways. (I also discussed this book on Writer Unboxed last year .)
What I appreciate about Mr. Gawande’s explorations is the focus on the social side of behavior, habits, and avoidance of vague-isms that justify so much of our daily lives. Such as the person who feels that everything should be shared versus the person who feels that social media is nothing more than self-centered photos of people eating lunch.
What I love about speaking to other creative professionals about their creative process is the idea of not becoming entrenched in bad habits, and realizing that there are so many ways of creating work that is both deeply meaningful personally, and yet is created and shared and affects others.
Inherently, this is about keen observation, experimentation, and making one uncomfortable enough to break habits and try new ones.
I talked about anxiety and the creative process  back in 2013 here on Writer Unboxed and I believe that post complements this one.
How do you study the creative process to improve your own?