Sometimes I post wisdom on the creative process I learned from talented and hard-working artists on my cross-country trip across the United States, but on occasion I post about how I’m applying those lessons in my own life learning. This is a post of the latter variety.
Every creative I know juggles many projects — creative endeavors, but also the picayune aspects of life related to work, family, existence. Few individuals have the luxury of simply setting up camp at a pond and writing moving prose.
This has been an upending year — leaving a steady job to launch my own freelance business, commencing work on a creative nonfiction book, beginning an MFA in Writing program. Below are some steps I’m following to manage my creativity, which centers around a wall behind my desk that I recently covered with white-board wallpaper (my wife discovered this miracle product). They are as follows:
- Break Out Your Obligations: I habitually started my day by scribbling out daily to-do lists and took satisfaction from crossing things out. But this approach has a limitation, namely a failure to see each step in a larger context of where each leads in the future. I now keep those steps self-contained in their own project management timelines. So on my white board I dedicate a daily calendar primarily to appointments, with some teasers for which projects I’m working on that day. I keep the steps required for those projects in their own compartmentalized places. The upper left is a breakout of the the freelance writing projects I’m doing. A daily bar chart across the top center of the board lists where I should be on any given day on the two critical essays and my creative writing that are due with each MFA packet. Any other obligations — networking, family tasks, etc. — run to the left of my calendar column.
- Break Out Your Projects: I’m the kind of guy who will face an assignment, say writing a 30-page personal essay, and say “Okay, let’s write that essay.” But I’m finding that isn’t useful for me when I have to meet tight deadlines. So I break the task up into discrete bites. That includes not just a list of steps but broader envisioning. For example, for a creative writing assignment I’ll create a visual structure of the piece, depicting elements of its action, story arc, thematic elements, etc. I dedicate the bulk of the white board to this use, allowing me to scribble away and fill that white space with brainstorms.
Break Out Your Muse: The danger of a detailed project management outline is that it becomes like a railroad track, with no way of taking detours. I think of it instead as one possible path on a road atlas. I know a lot of creative writers who say “I can’t outline, I just write and follow the muse where it leads me” while others insist “I won’t sit down to write until I’ve outlined the entire work.” I think this distinction we artists make is artificial. We all have some idea, even if it’s in our subconscious, where we’re going, but we empower ourselves to trust our muse when she takes an odd turn.
- Break Out Your Happy Dance: When you finally cross out that last step, it’s tempting to simply wipe the white board clean and outline the next project. And at some point you have to do that. But you’ve just accomplished something worth celebrating. Consider leaving all those crossed-out steps on the board a bit. Savor the satisfaction that comes with completion. Then take that good feeling into the next project.
I don’t remember seeing any white-board walls in the homes of the artists I interviewed on my road trip, although I seem to recall my friend and local writer’s group member Danielle Meitiv blogging about using a white board and Post-its in plotting out her novel. But all of my road-trip artists discussed their own project management techniques. Author and writing professor Erin Ergenbright builds shelves to hold boxes filled with materials she uses when combining prose with scrapbooking. Graphic novel illustrator and author Colleen Doran has several flat-drawer lateral files that break out all of her various writing projects, with a drawer labeled “Admin” that holds what she calls her “TV clicker.”
What approaches have you developed to manage your creativity?