Monday, July 20, 2015

The Creativity Habit

The creative impulse has beat on a regular basis throughout my life, more notably during my adult life than during my childhood when the imagination is supposedly a hotbed of bubbling creative activity.  By my own account I had more deep thoughts than creative impulses and with the ideas that I did have, execution might have been an issue.  Ultimately, I discovered that words or image were more of my medium than anything else and the idea of making anything other than a house or what every a Lego kit was meant to build brought on a great deal of anxiety.

Still the creative impulses occurred often enough to get a few poems published over the course of the years that have passed and I have come up with some good ideas for stories to develop.  The photography that has been a passion ever since I was 12 has been a productive activity and an opportunity to express my vision or perspective.  There were stretches of my life when I was able to shoot 3-4 hours a day, a rate that still strongly informs the way I work with the camera despite not spending as much time with the craft as I once did.

At the same time there was a lot of story ideas that welled up and showed promise but never took the full form that they needed to develop to their full potential.  Summers would be set aside to finish a project and projects would indeed get done but there was not much response for all the effort I made to get them "out there."  There were plays, novels, short stories, screenplays and more than all had potential to come together and for the few occasions where something got finished, there was the lingering feeling that there was something missing and the response when I tried to get feedback was an indicator that something was missing as well.

The writing was laborious as I would stare at a sentence and move it around and try to fix the writing on that micro level without getting very far with other questions that were facing me.  The hard drive didn't exactly fill but there were plenty of files that grew in size and word count without promising to amount to much.

At the age of 48, married and with an energetic, very boyish 3 year old taking a big part of my time and life there was an acknowledgement that the passion to write was still there but that it wasn't going to happen they way I had once imagined.

But it had to happen.

After psyching myself up for a few months with books like Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, the blessed discovery of Brenda Ueland's If You Want To Write and a steady diet of novelists who have emerged as my favorites, my mind blowers and the deft masters to look up to - not to mention a steady diet of children's books about fire stations with maddeningly zero variety from the go put out a fire and put out another one plot lines that they all stick to - I had to get back at it.

Rather than quitting the job with the promise to pound something out by the end of winter or blocking off 6 to 36 hours of my weekend to stare at the computer monitor while my urge to defrost the refrigerator ticked upward, I had to be reasonable and start with forming a habit and proving to myself that I indeed had the discipline to do something other than stare at my computer with the hope that the most sterling sentences this side of Carol Shields were suddenly pouring off my forehead with the sweat.  I had to manage enough with a little portion of the day to see if I could make progress.  Here is what I built my routine around:

1. Set a reasonable goal - To form the habit, you have something that you can achieve consistently. I knew that I was not going to come up with the 3-4 hours I was once able to find for my photography so I started out with 1000 words a day regardless of what I'd written the day before.  Most nights, I manage to get it done in 30 to 45 minutes.

2. Make yourself accountable - The accountability simply creates a small network of people who are checking in on your progress and perhaps even getting on your back if you drop the routine.  I would cryptically post my word count at the end of each day on Facebook and after a few days people were asking, "What's with the numbers?" After I explained I struck a bit of curiosity on their part and even came up with a few allies.  One friend, a fellow writer, has liked each update over the last few months.  I haven't had anyone ask about missed days yet, which was what I was hoping for, but I haven't missed too many days in a row at any one stretch.

3. Never censor and edit later... much later - At this stage the goal is flow.  There has probably been a lot of dross in there but there are a few nuggets every couple of days that with a bit of a polish and a different perspective in a few months time might amount to something a little tighter or stronger.  My goal has been just to get my fingers moving and keep them moving even though I know it is crap.  It is a matter of getting through that crap or getting it out of my system to unearth things that are beneath those layers.  One example tonight from a description of air travel:

He either mastered the calm of that netherworld state of air travel and whatever happens to you when all you stare at for hours are the stars, the expanse of the Pacific or the ocean of cloud that separates you from your bearings with a fractal collage of mists and molecules of water and the new toxins that suspended in it -  the arbitrary appearance of the texture and sculpture of each bit of cloud a mystery in its formation and for that everything and nothing to contemplate as the data on the flight tells the fatalists that they would assuredly freeze to death at this altitude before there was any chance of them making impact with the "real" world below.

In a few months, when I go back look at this from a different perspective and with a better sense of what the whole thing is supposed to be, I'll elevate the vocabulary a little bit and make this a little clearer or tighter.  If I tried to do that tonight, I may have been hung up on an earlier sentence that I was trying to perfect rather than blasting through it and coming up with a passage that was no where in my thoughts earlier in the day.

As far as not censoring yourself, it has helped me come up with characters or situations that are rather unsavoury.  I've probably fallen victim to having too many nice protagonists without the flaws that make them real.  Pour your nastiness into your story and then shrug and say, "He (she) was the SOB of the story.  The story needed it.  I don't know anyone like that!"

4. Lay the stone before you carve it - The other thing about that commitment to getting the words out of yourself is that it ultimately moves you toward a process that is in keeping with the plastic arts. A stone carver works and chipping away the inessential to release their vision from their medium. With writing, I long acted as if a first draft had to have a begin, middle and end in that order.  I have probably written similar scenes or described the same setting a few times over.  It may feel redundant but there is a chance that if you keep going back to it you are visiting a setting or scene that is vital to your story and the more versions you have of it the more options you will have when it comes to putting things together.  I briefly tried putting things in a certain order but after a week or ten days I abandoned that in favour of filling one file for the sake of having everything in one place.  I may have a massive challenge putting things in an order I like but filmmakers are rarely compelled to shoot the film in the order they wish us to see it.  Give yourself plenty to chip away at.

5. Bring on the input - I do not mean to ask for people to peer over your shoulder and clear their throat constantly but simply to be aware of things that are sparking your imagination.  Whether it is stuff you are reading, experiences out of your daily routine or something else entirely file it and find a way to work it into what you are writing.  Be a bit more attuned to those things and if you need to jot down a note for something to work into your writing when you sit down good.  My worst habit for the longest time was to note something mentally and go, "I'll write that later," and get to it absolutely never.  On one occasion, the words "the telepathy of small towns" from a novel prompted me on a long passage about foreigners some how communicating wordlessly and knowing what one another are thinking in an immigration line in a Japanese airport.  On another occasion a conversation with a friend at work inspired a lot of depth to one of the characters that I had not given much thought to.

The interesting thing with this aspect of the habit is that it has not been focused exclusively on the writing. Ideas and questions emerge out of interactions at work and give me something to chew over and give a bit more heft to as conversations unfold and ideas get worked through that previously may not have been given more than passing consideration. 

6. Roll with it - Not every night is going to be brilliant.  Some nights I drag myself to that 1000th word and feel that I could hit the delete button and not lose anything of value. There are others where I channel my state of mind and whatever happened to me that day or came together in my head and it clicks.  There are some nights when the rut cannot be escaped and I simply put the headphones on, crank up some music and it is more like air piano than anything.  I push along to get the words out in time with the music and it blows the gunk out and loosens me up.  There is no telling when the gold starts coming out again, but I'll meet the goal for the night and move on.  The editing will be the key.  In his Inner Game of Tennis and Inner Game of Work, Timothy Gallwey talks about your inner critic gradually getting pushed to the background to let your more intuitive or expressive sides gaining the free range to express and produce in ways that align your talents and ambitions more freely.  Muting the dialogue with your inner critic takes time and practice and the more often you roll through those fallow periods, the better the productivity becomes.

7. Repeat - When I started this process nearly five months ago I just wanted to see if I could generate 1000 words a day without it disrupting my life too much.  For the most part I've kept it up and I am at a point where I can miss a day or two without concern that the whole routine will go all to hell. Editing will be more challenging without the quantitative measures but I'll worry about that then.  Over the course of the past five months I've been able to plug away at the start or the end of the day when the lad is in bed and my wife is as well or she is winding down for the night.  In the space of that time I've written over 165000 words or 420 pages.  It is not in any shape to show anyone right now, but there is probably more quality in there and a better sense of story than there would have been if I started with a clear path to plot climax in mind and tried to string together the perfect sequence of words to achieve it.

The creative process is rarely going to be pristine and ordered and it is freeing to take an approach that allows you to be active in the pursuit rather than passive and hopeful that it will come out fully formed as if it were dictated to you whole.  As you work toward completing that work there is greater chance that - if you are open and receptive to the experiences you had or are having - you will generate momentum and feel that the manuscript and the process are gelling in a way that will become coherent meaningful and reflective the voice that you are trying to write in.

To be continued...

and edited.