Cultivating a creative habit is fundamental to becoming a more productive creative professional.
Process is Personal
We’re all wired differently, so trying to deconstruct process isn’t all that useful.
Process — carefully lining up the perfectly sharpened pencils, turning on the right music, finding the right “place” in which to create — is intensely personal.
I used to spend a lot of time probing the biographies of writers I admired, trying to figure out what made them tick and why their process worked for them.
I actually believed for a time in my youth that if I just did that (that being the process of the latest writer to capture my fancy), then I would somehow unlock the secrets of their brain. Silly, right?
- Ernest Hemingway wrote at least 500 words each day, waking early to beat the oppressive African heat. More often than not, the entire day’s writing was thrown away because it didn’t cut the mustard for Papa.
- Philip Roth paces while thinking, claiming to walk at least half a mile for every page he’s written. He literally locks himself away from the “ordinary” parts of his life to focus on his writing.
- James Joyce famously labored over every single word, sentence, and punctuation mark. It was a process that took days. In an oft-repeated story, Joyce encountered a friend on the street who asked him if he’d had a productive writing day, to which he happily replied, “Yes, I wrote three sentences today.”
The best writing ritual is the one you keep, and feeding the creative habit is where it all starts.
Feed and Care of the Creative Habit
Have A System: Capture ideas with the tools that work for you. The fatal flaw of many creative people is disorganization. I have a Moleskine obsession — there’s one on my desk, one in my messenger bag, and yet another in the car. You just never know when an idea might pop into your head, so be prepared to capture it as soon as it does.
Chase Down Inspiration: You’ve heard this one before, but it’s really just this simple: If you’re serious about writing, you have to write. Free writing is a technique that I call on frequently to get the creative juices flowing. Set a timer for 15 – 20 minutes and put pen to paper (or fingers to keys, if that’s easier). Write spontaneously. Don’t think too much about what’s coming out — just that it is. The idea here is prime the pump and get the words out.
Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is a great resource of exercises and theory on the concept of free writing that I recommend highly.
Play: Chaining yourself to your desk and laptop until you start hearing colors isn’t conducive to doing really good creative work. When I work too long and too late, the ideas go on strike. Go for a walk, watch silly cat videos, or make yourself a snack. The important thing is just giving your brain a much needed break.
Read: Immerse yourself in great writing, especially works of fiction and poetry. A close and careful study of your favorite authors gives you an opportunity to explore their language, tone, and syntax on a more serious level than pure entertainment.
Why are those strings of words so powerful? Why does that one word resonate so?
In the end, there are no secret rites of initiation into the world of writing. You just need to show up, develop the habit, and do the work.