Guest Post: How I Use My MFA To Cultivate Creativity

Today we’re featuring a guest post from Deborah Connolly, a creativity coach and business entrepreneur.

Creativity and academia are a funny couple, and many often question the practical utility of an artistic degree “in the real world”.

It’s been over twenty years since I cashed in my teaching scholarship for a Masters in Fine Arts in English [read: poetry] from The University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. Here, I spent my days in workshops led by brilliant scholars, poets and novelists—like Jorie Graham and Gerald Stern ­­–­­­ firing off synapses with some of this generation’s best writers before they were known in print.  But what I took away most from those years in the heartland remains the foundation of my own creativity and is the bedrock of my devoted pursuits as an explorer, writer, coach, and entrepreneur today.

My MFA is where I cultivated a sense of how to create an environment to maximize my own creativity.  How did I do this?  By understanding that, much like water, creative potential is shaped by the walls around us.  Expand the walls, and you expand. Knock all the walls down? You have human beings in beautiful chaos.

Evolution, Creative Leadership—call it what you want, but our personal development bobs and weaves over time. Our only real job is to follow it down holes, over walls and to galaxies beyond.  Though the specifics vary for each of us (I want to finish my novel, I want to have my own business, I want to feel more alive), any goal requires the creation of a challenging environment that encourages us to aspire to higher potential.

While at Iowa, did I learn how to write on demand and withstand the criticism of many of my champions?  Yes; but more importantly it built my resilience, something that comes in handy on your way to creating a life that is deeply satisfying.  Replace the question, “what if I fail?” with a larger query: What else is there for me to learn and explore?

In our hectic society, we talk a lot about achieving work-life balance, and during my time in Iowa, I began cultivating regular routines that still serve me today.  Though neither the newest method, nor the most imaginative: the “like clock-work” adage has a lot to be desired when it comes to peaking creativity and productiveness.  How does this apply to my life today?  Let’s tick a few specific examples off:

Like Clock-Work/Work: In Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, she applies the “ little-goes-a-long-way formula” to her writing. Write one page every day and at the end of a year you have 365 pages. Upgrade that? Write at the same time every day if you can swing it, even if that means waking up at dawn. The more unnecessary, repeated thinking you remove from your process, the faster you enter the fluidity of on-going creativity and personal productivity.

Like Clock-Work/Explore: Sure, I was scared out of my mind in Iowa surrounded by all those brilliant and prolific writers. What did I do with all that fear? I followed my creativity down unconventional paths.  I took road trips with my camera and painted on found objects.  I wrote every day and when I couldn’t write anymore I followed my curiosity from book to book–devoured them and followed their message.  Being inspired has everything with being curious.  Start and then continue to explore where you are naturally drawn.  During my time at the workshop, I learned not just how to craft a poem, but how to craft my life.  I live and explore my creativity freely.  How?  Become fluent in trusting your natural curiosity. Flirt with it some of the time.  You will find it sporadically enticing.  Lust for it all the time? Inspiration will spill over in a self-sustaining stream of fulfillment.

Like Clock-Work/Play: Every evening at 10:30, I could be found sharing a spirit and song at the Foxwood. While at first glance those evenings might have been cast off as non-productive, they fed fuel to my engine of creativity and efficiency. Overlooking the collaboration and city-like energy of being part of a larger group of innovators is the quickest way to knock the legs out from your world-wide-web.  Sharing your thoughts, genuine interests, and quests with your natural network of influencers every day is a simple, schedule-friendly thing to do. There are a million ways to interact — some of them take less than 140 characters.

This week I challenge you to take the first step into whatever may be frightening you.  Set aside time strictly for yourself, not just what you think you can get away with. Step out of your comfort zone every day for the next 7 days straight. Try it!: Pick up the phone and contact the person who can connect you to the next big scary step along your path; apologize to someone you may have wronged and move on; take a road trip this week end and see where you end up, find a new window to look out of while you write.

Feel anxious just thinking about it?  Try using the clock-work techniques to chip away at that anxiety.  Make a regular commitment to follow not just what makes you uncomfortable, but what truly delights you. Without a doubt you will continue to discover your natural resourcefulness, passion and productivity in all that you create.


Deborah Connolly is a thought leader in the human development field, an experiential workshop facilitator and the founder of Creative Leadership Coaching, offering 16 years of experience to individuals, executives, and entrepreneurs. She holds an MFA from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Professional Coactive Coach credentials from The Coaches Training Institute (CTI), and is an active member of The International Coach Federation. She lives in New York with her husband and their 3 children. Visit Deborah at

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: How I Use My MFA To Cultivate Creativity

  1. Great post with immediate suggestions I will try…. the like clock-work plan sounds like something that would really help me regulate myself for the editing I need to do right now! Thank you for some great practical tips!


  2. Pingback: Leading Through Storytelling « The Artist's Road

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