Structuring Life to Make Room for Creativity
This blog post is a write-up from my presentation notes. I’ve given this presentation at LTUE. I’ll be giving it again at LDS Storymakers in May. As I wrote this from my notes, I noticed a major difference in the flow of a presentation and of a blog post. Speaking to a group is more conversational and I included anecdotes and examples that I’m leaving out of this post, because if I were to include them this post would be 15,000 words long. I’ve chosen not to break the presentation into 10 separate posts because I feel like having these abbreviated notes all in one place will be more useful than a blog series. Not included in this post is the discussion that resulted from the question and answer session at the end of the presentation. A recording was made of my LTUE presentation. I’ll link it when it is available on the internet.
I am a busy person. I have four children who attend three schools, all of which feel like they can email me. The schools have attached PTAs who want pieces of my time. I also share a business with my husband where I do the accounting, order management, shipping, customer support, layout work, art direction, and a host of smaller tasks. I have a house which gets disheveled if I don’t pay attention. I have to eat on a daily basis as do my people and the cat. I am not exaggerating when I say that I am busy. I’m busy even though I am constantly trying to be less busy. In this I’m not unique, because everyone is busy. Life fills to overflowing with things to do. Yet, last year I wrote a novel’s worth of blog entries. I wrote a picture book, Strength of Wild Horses, which I’ll be Kickstarting in a couple of months. I remodeled sections of my house, wrote letters, sewed. The remainder of this presentation gives some principles which allowed me to make space for these creative things. Not included is the advice to set aside time for creative things, which is good advice, however I feel it important to discuss how to structure life so that the time can be made available.
1. Identify Your Support Network
I could not accomplish what I do without the support of those who share my house. My husband could not accomplish what he does without my support. The first step in adjusting your life to make room for your creative pursuits is to talk to the people closest to you. You need to identify what sacrifices they may have to make and whether they are willing to make them. It has to be a conversation and the sacrificing needs to be reciprocal. Sometimes the people around you will not be allies, they will be obstacles or enemies. Then you have some hard decisions to make. You have to decide whether to value the relationships or your creative dream. The answers will be individual. Sometimes the creativity needs to be put down for a while, other times it is necessary to declare a creative space and let everyone be mad about it until they adjust. I recommend sitting down and making a list of who is affected by the creative space you need, how they are affected, what support you hope for from them, and what you might need to give in return to keep the relationship balanced. Making this list will require self awareness about your creative pursuit.
2. Arrange a Physical Space
You need to have a home for your creative pursuit, the space does not have to be large. For the longest time my space for my writing was contained inside my laptop. That worked really well for me because it was portable. I could take it anywhere, open it up and be in my writing space. Once I entered my writing space, the writing thoughts would unfold in my brain. When Howard began cartooning, we put all his cartooning things in a box on the kitchen counter. Then we shifted things around so he had a drawing table in our front room. Right now he has an office with a computer desk, a drawing table, a crafting table, and a second drawing desk at a local comics shop. Creating a physical space for your creative pursuit declares that it matters, it also provides a visual reminder that you might want to do your creative things. For more thoughts on spaces and how they affect us, I recommend reading The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka.
3. Understand Your Biorhythms
Everyone has alert times of day and low energy points. Learning when yours are can make a huge difference in your creative output. Ideally you will put your block of creative time at your most creative time of day. This is not always possible, but knowing when you are most creative gives you something to aim for. A common pattern is to be high energy first thing in the morning with an energy lull in the afternoon and another energy burst in the evening. Some creators are at their best late at night, others before dawn. Find your pattern.
4. Use Supports for Your Schedule
In general, creative people struggle with creating structure for their lives. Howard and I depend heavily on the imposed structure from our kids’ school schedules. It gives is a required time to be up in the morning. We know that we have to do kid stuff until they are out the door. Then we switch to work tasks. Willpower is a limited resource. This is why I try to set up my creative schedule to require as little willpower as possible. I train myself that right after lunch I write for awhile. That way I don’t have to think about if I feel like it. I don’t have to muster the energy to get moving. I’m already moving for lunch, I just let that motion carry me into doing something creative.
5. Master the Small Stretch
Humans have a tendency to get excited and try to overhaul their entire life at once. They want to put writing in the schedule, and start exercising every day, and always have the dishes done. They want to Do All The Things. Then they wear out very quickly. Don’t overhaul your life, make one small change. Give that change time to settle in and become a habit. Once it does, you’ll be able to see what the next small change needs to be. The accumulation of small adjustments will change life dramatically over time. It can also help unsupportive family and friends become accustomed to creative things when they see that supporting creativity does not require a complete overhaul of life.
6. Learn to Work in Fragments
Creative people tend to want to work in big bursts, to immerse themselves for hours, or days, only to emerge when they’ve exhausted their energy. This is extremely disruptive to a busy schedule. Learning how to open up your creative thing and work on it for ten minutes or an hour is an incredibly powerful capability. This is where having a physical space for your creativity can be so very useful. You can train your brain that when you enter your creative space all the thoughts are there waiting for you. Working in fragments is particularly important if you are a parent of young children, because they cut your time into itty bitty fragments.
7. Ponder the Tortoise and the Hare
I used to hate the Aesop fable about the tortoise and the hare. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I hated it because I was a hare, and in the story the hare loses. My natural inclination is to tackle a project and not stop until it is done. Unfortunately most creative projects are too big to be managed in a huge burst of energy. You can write a novel during NaNoWriMo, but at the end you are exhausted and the work on that book has barely begun. But if you learn to work in fragments, you can teach yourself to be like the tortoise. You can just keep stepping forward. It feels like you’re not getting anywhere. You work endlessly for what feels like no result at all, but there will come a moment when you reach the top of a hill and can see how far all those little steps have taken you. I truly admire the natural tortoises of the world. They get stuff done.
8. Health and Spoon Theory.
I began with a brief description of spoon theory, which is that we only have limited amounts of energy available in a given day. For visualization purposes that energy is represented as spoons. Those who are healthy are allotted more spoons than those who struggle with illness. Each task of daily life uses up spoons. There is inherent unfairness in energy distribution and this is hard. Sometimes energy which you wanted to go into creative pursuits will have to be spent on other things. I don’t have good answers for this, but I don’t feel like this presentation is complete without acknowledging that health can be a major difficulty. Also I want those who have good health to be aware that not everyone does, and maybe sometimes they can share some of their energy with those who have much less.
9. Get Outside Your Box
Creativity does not burst into spontaneous existence. I think of it as a deep subconscious aquifer full of all the stuff that accumulates from the places I go and people I talk to. I drill a well down into it and draw from it when I am writing. Sometimes when we are trying to organize life to maximize creative output we make the mistake of removing from the schedule all the things that fill us up. Playing video games or watching television may look like a waste of time, but for some people those things are essential to filling the creative aquifer. Each person will have different things that fill them up. I garden or visit new places. Howard paints and goes to movies. Both of us visit with friends. Find the things that fill you up and know that sometimes you’ll need to choose the filling activities instead of the creation activities.
10. Your System Will Break
You’ve followed all the steps outlined above, you’ve crafted the perfect schedule, everything falls into places and flows, but then suddenly it all falls apart. Something changed, things always change. My kids get older, their needs shift, I shift, we enter a different part of the business cycle, school gets out for the summer, school starts for the fall. The list of ways life can change is innumerable. When your system falls apart, just grab the best pieces from it and build a new schedule. In another few months that one will fall apart too. Having your schedule fall apart can actually be a gift because sometimes it forces us to really look at all the pieces and build something that works even better. When I was a young parent it felt like each overhaul of the schedule made something completely different. Now I can see that patterns emerge. These days I don’t have to overhaul very often, I just have to tweak.
This is when we moved into the Question and Answer portion of the presentation. I remember we talked a little bit about how to handle internet distraction and I recommended taking a break to see which parts of the internet you actually missed. Other excellent questions were asked, but I’m afraid that I can’t remember any more. This presentation was followed by two full days of conversations and they all blend together. Each of the points above could be expanded into a full discussion and blog post of its own. Perhaps someday I’ll do that. For now I hope that this set of notes gives people a place to start as they’re contemplating how to fit creativity in with everything else that they are already doing.