This weekend, I had great plans. My husband took the kids camping so I could punch out at least 1,000 words a day (maybe more!) and get out ahead from my already ambitious project goals. But unfortunately, despite the fact that I’m confronted almost daily with the hard truth that I am not the type to generate creativity on demand, this particular truth failed to hit me on the head hard enough to get my attention. In my own defense, I’m not entirely without the ability to access creativity on demand: when it comes to daydreaming about productive weekends, I can instantly conjure up the most impressive of scenarios.
Part of the problem is the fact that I own a brain that is both highly imaginative and highly Type A. While I depend on both of these qualities to write novels while raising three children, sometimes the lines cross to disastrous effect. I suppose this is a sort of occupational hazard, but because I’m a novelist, many of my occupational hazards are not clearly labeled or written about in the employee handbook. So while it’s easy enough for me to really believe that I can get work done when I want to get work done, it’s even easier for me to forget that my work looks very little like the work that gets done when we, say, set out to pay the bills, or clean the bathroom, or file things. (Oh, if only world building were as obvious as filing! (That’s my Type A brain interrupting; she’s had a hard few days.))
I’ve only been at this for a few decades, but I’m starting to figure out that I really need to set clear boundaries around what constitutes a successful day of creative work. First and probably foremost, I think that old chestnut about needing to produce 1,000 words a day can sometimes be like sticking your muse’s neck in a noose and wondering why her voice sounds so strangled. Along these lines, I think any time I put any kind of quantitative expectation on my work – number of words, pages, hours, etc. – I shoot myself in the foot, creatively speaking. Hopefully, you do not get quite so tangled up in your own leash, but if you do, I find it also helps to remember that the WORK of creative work is primarily expansive, and that above all, creativity requires an open road. If you give it directions and tell it to stay within the lines, it’s most likely going to adopt all the transcendent characteristics of a lame mule.
Finally, and this is the one that’s hardest for me to remember/adopt, it takes time to get into the creative space, which almost always means that creative work requires a certain amount of staring off into the middle distance/rolling around on the floor/stacking sugar packets. I absolutely hate this. But I’m starting to come around to the fact that I can do almost nothing about it. It helps when I tell myself that the transition from the everyday mind into the creative mind requires a major shift in perception, an acknowledgement of whatever emotional baggage you’re walking in with and either a release or proper channeling of it, and time to quiet your rabbit brain (What will the kids eat for dinner? Did I forget to switch the laundry? Can I live with the fact that there is enough dust on the piano to start a dust mite colony?). Indeed, you need however much time it takes to allow that still, small, true voice within you to speak up despite how much of the outside world (your own Type A brain included) is trying to yammer over it. And what’s more, you cannot place judgment on this time. Well, I suppose you can, but it’s only going to tighten the noose even more. So, while this may not be the case for you (and a big part of me desperately hopes that it isn’t), there is never going to be a work period for me that involves me shutting a door, opening my computer, and typing diligently until it’s time to wrap things up.
I’m learning. It’s slow going, but it’s coming along. Yesterday, for example, I only spent around three hours gnashing my teeth and wringing my hands before I let go. The rest of the time, I was able to conjure up enough grace to read and ride it out. I wanted to get started at 6 am, but I actually wasn’t able to write a lick until 6 pm – at which point I did get 1,000 words down — rather sheepishly, I might add. Because as I was writing them, I realized that I was on the brink of a new section in my novel, which of course means that I need time to hash it out, internally speaking, and had set myself up for a particularly rough road by insisting that material would just be at the ready the moment I asked for it. But the important thing is that it was ready, eventually, and that I got out of my own way long enough to let it out. Which is probably the best any of us can do, at the end of the day — or anytime.
Image: Zach Kanin
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