Creativity in a Time of Constant Crisis

Someone on a forum I frequent asked: “Anyone got any tips to reignite creativity in these interesting times?”

Lordy do I ever have opinions on this particular subject…

(For some notion of how I came by these opinions, see the BACKGROUND section at the very end).

OPINIONS:

  1. “It’s got to mean something to you.” This particular phrase comes from my friend Joseph Polk​, a former pro football player, current gym owner, and one of the best all around people I’ve ever met.

Whatever the work is, if it doesn’t mean something to you at some level, it won’t be worth climbing that hill every morning.

And that meaning isn’t a feeling—it’s not a nice warm glow when you sit down to do the thing. It’s a commitment. It’s something to remind yourself of, when you don’t feel like doing the thing. It means something. To you.

Which is what matters most.

  1. Action begets feeling. Rarely the other way round.

Last year, a friend was marveling at how prolific I am (I’m really not that prolific). He asked: “Where do you find the inspiration to write so much?” I replied: “To heck with inspiration. If I only did what I felt inspired to do, I’d probably eat Cheetos, drink beer, and play video games 20 hours a day.”

And the thing is—I probably would. But what I’ve found is, on the days when I don’t feel like it, on the days when I sit down and think “Meh, I don’t wanna” if I tell that feeling “Shut up and sit down” and just WORK, by the writing, I want to be writing.

Doing the creative thing when I don’t want to makes me want to do the creative thing. Eventually.

  1. I can’t tell you which parts were a brutal grind and which parts danced off my fingers and onto the page.

Reading back through The Chaos Court, I know that there were parts of that novel where I was gritting my teeth and powering through every damn word. I also know there were parts where I got up with an idea and sat down and it all just flowed perfectly and felt fantastic.

I can’t tell which parts of the finished book were which. I really can’t.

So what that says to me is that, at least with regards to creativity, how I feel about it before/during doesn’t really matter much to the outcome. Sure, it’s unpleasant to have to grind and flail and stall and start again. But it doesn’t change the outcome. So I might as well just do the work.

  1. Try something different—but still create.

Two years ago, I had a very bad month. The details don’t matter. Sad stuff happened. Sad enough that my usual mode of working wasn’t going to work. I was a blank wreck.
So instead, I said: “Ok, for the next month I’m just going to try a different way of working. I’m going to create 50 one-line pitches for novels. Not write them, not work on them, not outline. Just every day come up with one or two well-made sentences about stories I might someday write.”

Sentence 12 hooked me. Before I knew it, I was thinking about that character and his woes. I still completed the month, but by the end, I knew I’d found a new novel.

Also, I paint. Which is totally different but still creative. So even on a day when I don’t make much forward progress on a novel, I might sketch or paint in the evening. Even though I’m not very good at it, it’s still a physical product I can look at and say, “Yeah. I didn’t waste today.”

  1. Remember, creating is good for you. And you deserve to do things that are good for you.
  2. The world will still be there if you turn its volume down for a while. Sometimes (often), I need to tune things out. Social media in particular—one of the challenges of having published a book is that I felt like I should get back on social media to plug it.

Ye gods.

Not a healthy (or helpful) environment. At least for me.

So I mute everybody (sorry, everybody) and move on. They’ll be fine. They don’t need me to watch them.

It’s almost heresy to say, but unless the information is something I can/will do something about, it doesn’t help me to know it. And I have limited minutes left on this earth, so the fact that someone on the internet is angry about something and wants even one of those minutes to demand I be angry too… is not useful.

“I get the news I need from the weather report,” as Paul Simon said.

  1. Find as many different positive, encouraging voices as you can. I like Ze Frank’s ‘An Invocation for Beginnings’. And Jocko Willink on motivation. Whatever gets you going, take in that. If it isn’t that, if it’s getting in your way or keeping you from being well and creative, why listen?
  2. You may be one of those people for whom accountability is key. Early on, I asked a friend if I could send him what I was working on one chapter at a time, and tell me if he’d read it. Just that. “Yep. Read it.” Before I’d built the habit and discipline, that little extra nudge of accountability helped a ton.

Now most people I know are NOT helpful for this, and I don’t recommend asking unless you’re sure the person will go along. It can be soul-sucking to send someone something I’m still working on and get silence for months or forever. Or worse, if they try to be “helpfully critical.” When I’m working on the first draft of something, critical feedback is like telling an embryo they lack upper body strength. True, but not helpful.

Pick your accountability partners wisely, is my point.

  1. I’ve never once said “I really regret having discipline today.”
  2. Find a creative task out of your comfort zone. (If you’re one of those wizards who has an entire dang ZONE of comfort. Me, I do not. I mean, a whole ZONE?! OF COMFORT?! Wizards…)

If you’re struggling with coming up with a story, instead commit to writing a sonnet a day for a week. Strictly. By the rules.

In my experience, by the time I finish something like that, it’s a blessed relief to go back to the main thing. My brain shouts: “Oh thank the gods! He’s not going to force us to write another sonnet! Let’s invent a plot!” (Or whatever)

  1. Revising old work can be a good way to get momentum.

When I do major revisions, I print out the old draft. Then, with that next to my keyboard, I retype it–making the changes (major and minor) as I go. This has two benefits. One, even if I don’t change anything in a particular section (a rarity), there is still the physical feeling of progress. Two, it engages my brain in a different way than attacking an empty space and trying to fill it.

  1. Progress is key. I find it helpful to print out the day’s work at the end of every day. For me, purely digital work has much less meaning. I can write hundreds of pages, but if I don’t SEE them and FEEL them, they might as well be one page.
  2. Set a goal. A modest goal. When I started, it was 500 words a day. It still is. Sometimes I get more than that. Sometimes (ugh) less. But that’s the goal. And when I hit that, boom! I feel pretty good about it. Even if I woke up thinking I wanted to spend the day swaddled in the covers and hiding from the world.
  3. Conditions are never optimal to create. Never. Ever. Ever.
  4. You can do it. No one else can do the things you are about to do, in the place where you are, with the tools you have.

BACKGROUND: For the past six years I’ve had the incredible good fortune to be able to pursue a creative career. It’s been entirely self-driven. No one’s asked for my work and, in hundreds of cases, they haven’t wanted it when I sent it to them.

It’s been isolated, lonely work. I have great friends and a wonderful wife, but no one is there—no one can be there, by the nature of the thing—during the long hours spent writing and submitting and waiting and writing more. Even before the quarantine days, human connection came sparsely. Most people who work with people (as annoying as that can be) don’t realize how working entirely by oneself means there can be days or weeks that go by without a conversation.

I’ve also dealt with depression for two and a half decades. Refractory, occasionally severe mental illness. I’m lucky in that three years ago I found an amazing treatment (ketamine infusions). Nonetheless, depression always remains ready to return. Isolation, collective crisis, and a climate of rampant, histrionic negativity are prime feeding grounds for that particular mental bastard.

None of this, mind you, is meant as a complaint. It’s just sets the background.

During the past six years I’ve written four novels. Published one (the same week they closed down the state where I live—lean into the storm!)

I’ve learned how to work harder and more consistently on creative endeavors than at any point in my life. And I’ve done it all without cheerleading, without expectation, with only a handful of bright moments of praise or reward.

Hence, all the opinions about creating in a time of constant crisis. These are some of the things that have worked for me.