4 Steps to Breaking Out Your Creativity

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.

The whiteboard wall in which I try to provide my muse a canvas upon which to play. The lower left is where I allowed my daughter to play.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Don't tether your muse on a Disneyland Autopia track; give her an open road in a 1965 AC Shelby Cobra 427 with a 6,997 cc V8 engine.

    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.

  4. 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?

21 thoughts on “4 Steps to Breaking Out Your Creativity

  1. Really enjoyed this, made me think. Just moved into a new studio, quite intimidating and has kind of stopped me in my tracks. Will start by allowing myself a hiatus! Usually use a number of notebooks…..but now I think will try a pinboard against a wall as well……..nice to know you are out there….


  2. Thanks for sharing your approach, Patrick. A writer friend of my, Melissa Crytzer Fry (Twitter handle @CrytzerFry), is also a big fan of the ginormous whiteboard method. I can see how literally looking at the “big picture” could be very helpful to the creative process.

    Me? I’m generally a list/binder/folder kind of gal (I think it stems from my mom working for an office supply company most of my life; I used to always get the coolest free samples of all the latest organizational products and gizmos!). I keep a running handwritten list of to-do items and deadlines. And I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I get to physically cross them off one by one. Big projects also get a list of their own. And every project gets a folder or binder or file drawer. Everything has a place and everything in its place. This approach brings me endless teasing from the husband and kids. But it works for me!


    1. Whatever method you use, Jessica, I assume it works, given all you’ve accomplished. Good when everything has a place!

      I’m a big fan of Melissa, love her blog and follow her on Twitter. I’m pretty sure I found her through you, and I seem to recall now a post she did about a whiteboard. It was even larger than mine, if I recall correctly!


  3. Hi Patrick. I LOVED this post, and I really need to look into this product for the office in the new house we’re building (granted, by the time we’re finished building, new products will have emerged). But I love the way there is no limit to the size of this white-boardness! ;-). Saw something similar at a sign expo I was at for a client this year – it’s essentially wallpaper that looks like chalkboard, but can be written on with brightly colored erasable markers. Maybe a combo is in order!

    As you can tell from Jessica’s response above, I love the whiteboard concept. I am a big picture kind of gal, so seeing it all laid out – and VISIBLE – is key. I’m visual and remember best from photos, too. Especially for my fiction. I never thought about using this for my freelance, but I like the idea as well. Right now, my freelance is on a printed to do list, which gets kind of boring. I see the value of having your accomplishments out in the open to admire. And I really like the way you devote the majority of your whiteboard space to creative brainstorming! That keeps the muse energized, I bet.

    If only we could “set up camp at a pond and writing moving prose.”


    1. You know, I was talking with a local writer about my whiteboard wallpaper yesterday and she mentioned this chalkboard-looking surface. Made me think of those sandwich boards you see in the deli with the colored menu options.

      My next MFA packet is due Sunday. I was just scribbling on my board, thinking about how in a few days it will be wiped clean (once I finish my happy dance). It will be fun to fill it again.


  4. It was actually a Facebook post – you can see it here:

    It’s half of a showerboard, 4’x4′. (Two halves available for $11 at Home Depot!)

    I delineated the stages of my story with masking tape (based on Michael Hauge’s and Larry brooks’ work). I either cover it with post-its for scenes and/or write on it directly with wipe-off markers! Cheap & fun!


  5. I think it would be interesting to know how you can convince your project team to follow the above tips to break out their creativity. This is the key to having the most productive and motivated project team ever.


    1. I have to agree. I’ll confess, I learned of this product from my wife. Her employer covered a bunch of walls with it, in common areas and folks’ offices. If you build it, they will come? In this case, if you hang it, people will come with pens and use it!


  6. Thanks for outlining your approach Patrick!

    I don’t use whiteboards for composing my paintings but do find them useful for keeping track of my many projects – and this includes outlining steps needed for my writing.

    I’ve found whiteboarding helps to lay down the track but I use it only as a general guide and follow my inspiration. Have you “noticed” that when items stay on the whiteboard too long, they go unnoticed and become invisible?


    1. David, you are SO right about things going out of view when the board remains stagnant. I had a fun moment this morning, wiped almost the entire board clean as three different projects reached significant conclusion. Now my mind is already at work on how I can start filling it with two new projects.

      Re: the paintings, I have no experience there, but do you ever do a study first? When I saw Guernica they show pencil sketches Picasso drew first, and I know Seurat created Sunday Afternoon first with traditional paint strokes before creating a pointillist version.


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