Being disciplined vs. not forcing it?
February 17, 2015 12:23 PM   Subscribe

These days all the literature on creativity/productivity emphasizes routines and unromantic workmanlike discipline. Forget inspiration and "just do it!" But more often than not, when I put my butt in the chair to get down to business… Nothing. Happens.

Even worse, the pressure to crank out work consistently on a schedule seems to make me even more anxious, distracted and resistant. The fear and anxiety to "just do something, anything!" is paralyzing.

I don't have a problem "getting down to business" when what needs to get done is well-defined and mechanical. I set my little timer and shovel until the work gets done. The pain happens when I try to apply the same methodical approach to things that have an emotional and creative component. These types of projects require squishier feelings and associative thinking styles that don't seem to be commanded by force of will.

How have you found success applying structure to your creative work?
posted by overeducated_alligator to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
I wrote my first two novels using a framework that is usually applied to screenplays. I liked the plug and play aspect because it appeals to my rational brain. The creative brain is happy to start elaborating and connecting the dots.

I think that you will find greater success and comfort by coming to that work session PREPARED. Know what you are going to work on. In your outline know what the first sentence is, and know what the last sentence is, and allow your free flow creativity to get you from point A to point B in the funnest way possible.

Also, the Pomodoro system pushes me forward, while also allowing for creativity during that 25 minutes.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 12:32 PM on February 17, 2015

I'm a firm believer in some kind of schedule, simply because experience has shown that I accomplish more that way. However, "schedule" won't mean the same thing to everyone. Sometimes it's 2 hours in the morning, every morning. Sometimes it's 2000 words a day, fit in sometime between waking and bedtimes. You can try to work every day, or every other day, and the only way to find out what works best for you is trial and error.

I've found that making time for other activities helps with the associative thinking. If I work for an hour, then take a thirty minute walk or shower, that time will often help me approach the work fresh when I next sit down. And I echo the comment ahead of me--a bit of preparation makes it much easier. I like to take a notepad and sit on my deck or reading chair (anywhere but in front of the computer where I usually work, as a new setting can equal new thought processes). I brainstorm freely for 20 minutes or so and see an outline for that day's work, then get to it. When I do that, I usually work faster and with less self-doubt.

Also, I think it's important to give yourself permission to suck while doing creative work. If you wait to be inspired to do something great, it could be a long wait. Get the work done, even if it's crappy. If it can be fixed later, that's awesome. If not, at least you got used to working without inspiration. I read somewhere that there are muses in the world, but they're always late and tend to only show up after you've already started. I know that's true for me.

All this being said, it's worth remembering that while many people are happy to suggest rules and strategies for how to work, that won't mean it's right for you. Take the stuff that works for you and leave the rest.

And having said that, I still think the one rule that matters is to just do the work, one way or the other. Art often is forced. Creative projects are work, and like any job, some days will suck. That doesn't lessen their value. To my mind, it only increases it, the knowledge that someone cared enough to push through the awful days and keep going. I think the only way to push through those bad days is to just keep pushing, until you've done it enough times that you know, no matter how uninspired you may feel, that you are always capable of doing the work.
posted by mjm101 at 12:51 PM on February 17, 2015 [14 favorites]

The notebook that I carry around with me is for capturing those random inconvenient times when the muse strikes. The snippet. The concept.

The disciplined sitting at a certain time every day is for opening up the notebook and going through it to see what sparks, and if nothing does, either that was written earlier or that comes to me in the moment, then I freewrite to get the emotional sludge out.

Mentally it's less like sitting down to do some data entry (get down to business and trudge through it) and more like lying down to go to sleep. You may or may not go right to sleep at the planned moment--no control over that. But you can be in bed with your eyes closed etc at the same time every day, maybe doing a relaxation exercise of some kind. It's not about the result (did you sleep? did you produce two usable pages?); it's more about avoiding that that thing where you wait until you feel like writing, and it gradually turns out to be longer and longer in between times when you feel like writing.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:00 PM on February 17, 2015 [10 favorites]

All the above advice is good. Another thing to keep in mind is that just because you are sitting down and feeling distracted and resistant doesn't mean you're on the wrong path. Instead, you are training yourself to work through those feelings. See if you can find a copy of the Damon Knight book Creating Short Fiction and read the section on "Collaborating with Fred." The basic idea is that you are making an appointment each day with your subconscious--what Knight calls Fred--and eventually your subconscious will begin to understand that this is when it needs to turn up and start making those connections. But you have to train it to do that through consistency and repetition.
posted by tiger tiger at 1:11 PM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

Start every work session with a ten-minute warmup exercise, something that's enough work to get your brain in motion but easy enough for you to just start plugging away at without much thought. By the time you're done, you'll have transitioned into work mode and you'll be itching to do something more interesting.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:16 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am near the end of a four-year-long graphic novel. A lot of the time, "working on it" involves putting myself in front of Adobe Illustrator the next page and putting some time in - writing dialogue and drawing roughs based on the synopsis of what happens in this chapter, turning those roughs into finished drawings, polishing the dialogue (usually by taking words out).

Sometimes "working on it" involves getting pretty stoned (Blue Dream is a favorite), putting on music with no words, sitting in a comfortable chair in a sunny spot, and filling up a dozen pages in my sketchbook with planning: how do I get from where I am to where I want to be, has how I got to where I am now changed where I want to be, what important parts of the story need to be taken from a vague two-sentence summary into something with details?

Sometimes "working on it" involves looking at a lot of my notes for where the story has been and where I want it to go, then walking away from all my tools. A hot shower can be good for this; I've leapt out of the shower to draw narrative structure diagrams that span the entire width of the huge mirror in my bathroom, or to rush to the computer or sketchbook to take something down. (Hell, the project I'm almost done with started in the shower. I'd been thinking about some formal tricks I wanted to play with, read someone else's dissection of Steranko's first issue of "Nick Fury", and I came out with the image that fills the second page of the comic, and a title. Following the thin narrative thread in the image for a few more pages and asking myself questions lead to me hooking it up with a few other half-assed ideas I had hanging around.)

Sometimes "working on it" involves picking up my computer and leaving the house. A cafe, a park, whatever. Away from home and the distractions of internet and the phone and wanting to clean the place and...

Sometimes "working on it" involves looking at a lot of other stuff. I'm making plans for my next graphic novel, and need to design my characters, so I need to look at photos of people to decide what sort of features and bodies suit the cast, make doodles off of them, and put together something I can use as a very loose model sheet for the important characters. I'm also spending time reading other comics that do certain compositional things I want to play with in this story; while I don't really categorize this as "working on the next comic" it is certainly an important part of the process. I need to fill myself up with cool tricks other people have done; I also need to fill myself up with fragments of stories. Warning: it is easy to spend years and years "gathering inspiration" and never actually making anything.

I don't know what your particular craft is, so I can't give you specific ideas. But here are some exercises I've found effective for art:

- Write down three columns of words. Roll some dice, or otherwise pick semi-randomly, and draw what you got. What the heck is a robot-farming hamster going to look like? Similarly, you can find lots of random idea generators online; reload them until you get something that makes a spark fly.

- Draw something you hate drawing. You probably hate drawing it in part because you're no good at it, because you never practice it. Work from photos, draw out of your head, whichever fits your mood (but be sure to do both eventually).

- Scribble some random lines on paper. Or even ask someone else to do this for you. They don't have to be an artist; it may even be better if they're not. Turn it around until it starts to look like something; make it look more like that thing. Even if it is a totally absurd thing.

Also there is "draw fan art of a favorite thing", or even "draw fan art mashing up two favorite things", both of which are a major part of many artists' careers.

Also:if you're just staring at a blank piece of paper, put some kind of mark on it. Make a shitty drawing, write some terrible story synopsis, whatever. It doesn't have to be good; it just has to be there. If it happens to be good, then yay! Keep going. If it isn't - and it probably isn't, since after all you are not in the Creative Zone yet, then ask yourself why it sucks, and how it could be better. Then try to make it better. Do this recursively and eventually you have a decent piece of work.
posted by egypturnash at 1:33 PM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

I like the advice to try to make the worst thing possible.
posted by michaelh at 2:09 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

You might find some of IDEO's approach interesting ...they work as consultants and come up with creative solutions for clients through a process they call 'design thinking,' which is structured. It absolutely is possible to brainstorm, for example, in a structured way. The founders have written various books you could check out.

In my work, I have to meet several deadlines every day and force myself to be somewhat creative on demand. If I get stuck, I find it's helpful to briefly step away. I've also had to convince myself not to be a perfectionist! But I do think it's possible to learn to do creative work on a schedule. I think it gets easier with practice.
posted by three_red_balloons at 3:09 PM on February 17, 2015

I struggle with this too. There are a couple of things I've noticed :

- I feel like part of why this "anxiety" happens is when I'm not used to be so confronted with myself, alone, only me and my thoughts/emotions. At my non-creative work I do rational thinking of coordinating stuff, basically organizing things already thought up, if reading or watching a movie I'm more passive and then reacting to what I see, if seeing friends/family I'm focused on our communication and interaction, ... you get the gist. So sometimes I think the feeling comes from just being out of touch with how I feel about myself, my art, what I'm going through in life, etc.... and if I don't take time to sort these things out, the moment I sit down in a quiet place, and try to do something out of "nothing", all of of the other stuff comes up and it can feel overwhelming and distracting if it doesn't "fit" with the creative things I'm trying to do. Things I've found useful in the past to get more comfortable with all these thoughts are : yoga, meditation, doing journal writing, basically any self-examination of thought process. Also just physical exercise. Bonus : I feel in touch with myself more, in life generally

- I think the advice to "sit down and do work" shouldn't be taken as "sit down and make something creative happen", more like "sit down and practice your craft/technique/instrument/etc.". It doesn't matter if it's "good" or not, that's only going to make you pressure yourself anyways. But the more you practice, the more precisely you'll be able to transfer your creativity into tangible things.

- I also like reading on this subject, and have enjoyed the book Daily Rituals : How Artists Work , which is more anecdotical but made me realize that, really, everybody has his own way of dealing with their creative practice.
posted by kitsuloukos at 4:21 PM on February 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Don't try. Don't "just do it." Don't have a routine.

Seriously, don't. At least, for a while.

All my life I've experienced this same debilitating issue with creative endeavors. Before you can begin the practice of a routine, or even the "it's so simple just tell yourself to write one sentence a day, two the next day, then three and omg l00k you made a novel!!" mind-tricks (which I do believe can work, but which may not be adequate for your creative needs at this time!), you have to walk yourself to a different mental landscape.

You and I are probably similar in that "creative/emotional" or otherwise "non-mechanical" activities, which more often that not lack an objective structure, tend to psych you out. You don't have a structure so you don't know where to start, and "just do it" doesn't help folks like us. It sorta maybe can, later on down the line, but there are some steps you'll have to take first.

My suggestion is to go experience small pleasures. A lot. Indefinitely. Replace "I am going to sit down now and I am going to stare at this blank sheet of paper until I have an idea or create something or my eyes get so dry a tear falls and ruins the paper" with "I love that film and how it made me feel the last time I watched it. I'm going to curl up on the couch right now and watch it again, with a glass of my favorite [insert beverage here] and lose myself in thoughts for a while." Eat your favorite food in small bites, and slowly. Think about how the taste makes you feel. Take deep breaths. Gaze outside your window for minutes or hours. Bring a tape recorder, sit somewhere in your neighborhood and record atmospheric/environmental sounds. Doesn't need to be perfect or pretty, just sounds. Then go home and listen to them while you cook dinner. Laugh at things. Do some chest opener stretches (these are fan-fucking-tastic for relaxation). Call an old friend up, ask what they've been doing and thinking about lately, and really listen to them. Play a harmonica. Even if you suck at it and don't know what you're doing. Do all the things that you enjoy or that amuse you, that take just a tiny bit of effort but aren't chores-to-do-blah.

After a few weeks or months, you may notice subtle changes in how you're thinking and interacting with your own thoughts - as well as with the world around you. At some point, if you feel like it, do whatever creative thing strongly interests you at the moment. If nothing strongly interests you at the moment, keep on movin' and enjoying and experiencing the things you like.

In summation: you can't find water in a dry well. You are not a dry well, but you may have erroneously convinced your subconscious that it has access to only a dry well. It's time to stop worrying about the well. Pull your head out of it, let your pupils adjust and check out the acres and acres of surrounding land that pretty much dwarf the significance of the well. The well isn't going to disappear while you're out and about exploring. It'll be ready for you (with some water waiting) when you've decided that you feel like returning to the well would be something you'd enjoy.

(Oh, and disclaimer: I am by no means suggesting that it's always or ever easy/happy-go-lucky to get into the habitual practice needed to reach creative goals. I am instead suggesting that when nothing is working and you're drawing a blank, it's time to go do something else - something that you do enjoy, that is stimulating and fun. Write down whatever it was that you wanted to accomplish, file it, keep a journal for just "ideas/concepts/things to ponder", and come back to it later if and when it's less intimidating. If you approach it that way for a while, you'll find a place inside yourself that you can more easily draw from when you're navigating a creative block.)
posted by nightrecordings at 4:25 PM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

The fear and anxiety to "just do something, anything!" is paralyzing.

Approach developed while working on a (now finished) cultural anthropology dissertation:

You don't need to do anything. Just practice sitting with your dissertation, the same way you'd practice the piano, or practice sitting on a sofa with a nervous new cat.

Your computer file* should be open. If you feel impelled to dive into writing, that's great: go for it. Or you could re-read what you've been writing lately. Maybe tinker with that last paragraph or sentence. Maybe look back at your outlines and diagrams. Definitely read whatever it was you scribbled down halfway through your shower. That soggy piece of paper might not be legible later, so you'd better copy it out. While you're at it, expand for context and clarity. That strange theme you just recently noticed becoming a Thing? Perhaps you want to wordsearch for related material in your earlier fieldnotes. Oh! And look! An idea just exploded! Reach for one of the enticing pieces of cardstock you keep on your desk, and sketch a diagram.

There goes the timer. Maybe all you did was re-read what you wrote. That's still good. You kept it company. Now go feed your actual cat.

*Or your notepad, or however you roll.
posted by feral_goldfish at 4:32 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Just recently I've decided to put the things I enjoy doing first. I always used to think that I should do chores first. Then there wouldn't be enough time left to do the fun, creative stuff and I'd feel bad for not doing anything creative. Or I'd start doing something and be up all night, then feel bad for waking up late the next day.

So this last week I've been putting stuff I enjoy as the most important thing, unless there is something that can only be done during the day, for instance calling a business. Then, as I've given myself permission to have fun doing something creative I can't wait to get to my studio. This way of thinking has really transformed the way I'm thinking about creating things. Though it may not help with you feeling creative but it may help you to at least get the stuff you need to be creative with together.

The other thing I discovered is that it's important to have a go to item. Essentially the equivalent of a doodle in your chosen type of creative persuit. I've just recently decided to try to follow my dream of doing pottery seriously. The first day I went to do some and I suddenly felt frozen with panic. I just thought "What if I can't do this? What if I'm not good enough?" So I decided not to try anything new. There's a design idea I came up with years ago, that I can do easily and doesn't require any creativity, just skill. On their own they don't look much, but joined together they suddenly transform. The creativity kicked in when I started piecing them together. Yet I wasn't even aware of it happening. Falling back on something I knew I could do that, initially, didn't require creativity, really helped me to let go of that fear.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 6:03 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I wonder if you might do yourself a favor by focusing on adaptations, parodies or other forms that are "based on" existing works? If you are doing your own spin on the 3 Little Pigs, let's say, you know the plot in advance and all the beats to hit: big bad wolf, house of straw, house of sticks, house of bricks, et al. That way when you force yourself to sit down to work, you'll know that it's time to do the part where the wolf blows down the house of sticks, and you'll know what comes after that too. I don't know what sort of creative endeavors you're talking about, but the basic advice applies to almost any form of art. If you're a sculptor, doing an homage to Picasso could give you some specifics to work toward and you'll be less likely to lose focus.

I pay my rent writing kinky e-books, and I have to be prolific. I keep a lot of projects going at once, so if I bog down on one I can jump to another. Even when I'm sick or too depressed to write, I always have cover designs to work on. (While I can have bad writer's block, I don't seem to have the same problem with visual stuff. I can usually look at a design and have a good idea if it sucks, but with writing I can often hit a point where I have no idea if it's any good or not.) If I just had one thing going, I can easily imagine getting stuck for days or weeks at a time.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:30 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

These days all the literature on creativity/productivity emphasizes routines and unromantic workmanlike discipline. Forget inspiration and "just do it!" But more often than not, when I put my butt in the chair to get down to business… Nothing. Happens.

I think you are psyching yourself out. For me, what rings true from the emphasis on routine and discipline is something I see echoed in my own experience: Basically, inspiration doesn't just happen, even though thats what it feels like. It is the result of turning something over, and, if necessary, over, and over, and over, until the next step becomes clear. The routine and discipline is what tills the ground for those moments of inspiration and the hours or days flow that follows.

So, just put your butt in the chair to get to business. If nothing happens, fine, keep it up. Then do it again, and again. Over a short period, progress may be elusive, but with hindsight, it can become more obvious.
posted by Good Brain at 9:55 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

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