Why I Write: Find or Reignite Your Creative Fire

creativityThis is for anyone who creates, used to create, wants to be more creative, or wants to start creating something new or different. We all create things. Some of us make art, new recipes, or clothing. Some of us build businesses. Raise children. Creativity takes many forms. But life and time takes its toll. Our creative pursuits often fall to the wayside or we get burnt out, especially if we have to be creative for a living.

I once worked with a group of senior citizens in an assisted living center as a volunteer to help them write their stories. In the first session, there was a lot of silence until one woman finally said, the only thing I’ve ever written is a grocery list! The others laughed. I said – that counts! Because it does. (And yes, we got to their stories.) The ways we share our words and stories may have changed with social media. But any effort to capture our ideas, thoughts, plans and vision matter. That’s why we should do everything we can to make time to create and stay fired up about our creative passions.

One way to do this is Continue reading “Why I Write: Find or Reignite Your Creative Fire”

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How to avoid creative burnout

Once as a freelance marketing writer, I agreed to a ridiculously insane deadline. (As opposed to a regularly insane deadline.) At 4:36PM on a Thursday, I was asked to solve a huge creative conundrum by 8:30am the next day. I was provided with three previously failed concepts and asked to “make them all work.” Somehow, someway. And if I had time, (ha!) maybe I could also come up with “a few” concepts of my own.

This to me was akin to working with both arms tied behind my back and a coyote chewing on my foot. With a paycheck at the end if I could get my hands untied and kick the coyote to kingdom come.

I worked all night. By 8:27am, I met the parameters and the deadline. I had successfully compressed the creative process, but the results could have been so much better if I had just had more time. And sleep. This is an excellent recipe for creative burnout.

While there will always be crunch times and projects, it’s never good if your entire working life is one ridiculously insane deadline after another. If you don’t take control of your creative life and deadlines, burnout is inevitable. So to help save your sanity, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way…the hard way:

1. Don’t be afraid to abandon ideas. You might not be burnt out; maybe you’re simply tired of beating a dead horse. Sometimes you can find a way to make an idea work–some hidden angle or connection that comes with a fresh eye. But if it takes longer than say, 15 minutes, move on. You can always come back to it later–as in, for another project with a longer deadline and a completely different strategy.

2. Don’t taint the creative process. The worst thing you can do at the beginning of a new project is to focus on previous failed attempts. It’s like saying, “Ok, so here’s what didn’t work, what failed, what sucked. Now let’s find a way to make it work!”  Uh huh.

Start with the facts–the strategy, the objective, the primary goal or message. If the old ideas still have a shot, run with it. For 15 minutes. Then move on. Later you can ask what was tried before and what sucked, especially if you’re burnt out and need a giggle.

3. Ask for more time. It never hurts to ask what’s driving the deadline or if it’s a hard deadline. More often than not, you can get extra time–but not if you don’t ask up front. Sure, some of us “need” deadlines to get things done. And you shouldn’t be a diva, constantly pushing back on deadline requests. But if you don’t give yourself enough time to think and simmer, the process will take longer, you’ll be miserable and…hello, burnout!

4. Say no. I still remember my grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression, chiding me as a child for not eating my bread crusts, saying, “You never know when you might wish you had them.” This attitude permeates my work life, where I hate to say no to projects. But there are only so many things you can do at once before you lose your mind and your motivation.

It helps to “qualify your leads” ahead of time. Determine what your ideal sweet spot is for clients or projects–what’s most profitable for you? What’s your niche? Who is your ideal client? Define it all. Once you have these rules in place, it’s much easier to say no up front, before you overcommit or regret committing altogether.

5. Keep your creative warehouse full. All work and no play is the fastest way to drain your creativity. Read a little bit of everything you can get your hands on–blogs, magazines, newspapers, books, articles, white papers. Watch a little bit of everything you have time for–videos, vlogs, TV, movies. And most of all, be sure to get out from behind your desk and experience life. Live a little. It’s one of the best way to banish the creative burnout blues.

6. Identify your role in the insanity. I’ve already told you mine–I hate to turn down work, so I take on too much or too much of the wrong kinds of projects. It might be your fear of asking more questions or pushing back on direction that’s not clear. Analyze your last few crazy projects–what could you have done differently to make things less crazy?

7. Laugh. If you don’t, you’ll be crabby and crazy from your deadline. Boo hoo. So turn that frown upside down, call a funny friend, make fun of your worst concepts, crack a joke at your own expense. Creative relief, or at the very least, a little fun, is sure to follow.

How do you handle creative burnout when it happens? How do you prevent it? Enquiring minds want to know!

What you really mean when you say “I’m not creative”

Over the years, I’ve heard countless people tell me that they are not creative. This always surprises and amuses me. What I’ve found is that this phrase is often used for other purposes. For example:

As a disclaimer: “I’m not creative, okay, but here’s my idea…”.

To soften a request: “I think we should use my headline instead of yours. I mean, I’m not creative, but I think it works better.”

To avoid work: “I can’t help you with this. I’m not creative.”

To sum up a vague objection: “I don’t like the bird graphic/the color purple/this story…but well, maybe it’s because I’m not creative.”

As a sarcastic jibe: “Yes, I saw your artwork/design/story. I’m not creative though, so maybe that’s why I don’t get it/like it/care.

To mask anxiety: “I’m a logistical person. I’m not creative. What do I know?”

So what does “being creative” really mean?
Everyone is creative. But “to be creative” means different things to different people. At its heart, creativity is about:

  • Curiosity: you want to know about people, places and things
  • Risk: you are willing to take a chance on things and ideas that are important to you; that includes speaking up and taking action when it matters
  • Reflection: thinking feeds ideas which feeds creativity
  • Patience: sometimes you have to wait for ideas to come and trust that they will come
  • Listening: sharing ideas requires a willingness to hear what someone else has to say without judgment
  • Passion: passion fuels inspiration which fuels creativity

Notice how I didn’t mention anything related to writing, artwork, painting, sculpture, design…all of those activities that are typically labeled as “creative.” Just because I’m a writer does that make me any more creative than a software developer who creates a cool app? Or a scientist who makes a major breakthrough in cancer research? Or a mom who finds a way to get her kids in the car without tantrums?

Exactly. Creativity is not something you either have or don’t have. We are all creative. Take a look at your own work and life and see all the ways, big and small, that you are creative. Use the six qualities above as a check list. You might be surprised at how creative you really are.

What does “being creative” mean to you?

Are you writing about things that matter? 5 questions to ask yourself

The first time I read my writing in front of an audience–not just my class, but a venue full of strangers–I was 26 years old and I was terrified. I was in my first graduate course of my first semester at Columbia College Chicago, and it was required that all students read from their work at open mic readings sponsored by the department. Our professor said only this: If you’re not scared before the reading, then you haven’t picked the right material.

I was just starting my MFA studies, so I was confused. The right material? I was lucky I had any material. But after I read my work in public a few times, I began to understand. When I chose material that I felt was a “sure thing,” the audience response was…polite. When I chose material I felt uncertain about–maybe I had gone somewhere deep, taken a risk, hit a truth on the head–the audience response was immediate. Electric. People sat up straighter. Leaned in. The applause was genuine. People sought me out afterward, asked questions, shared their stories. That was the right material.

So how do you know whether you’re working on the right material, or merely skimming the surface? If you really want to know, ask yourself:

Are you scared? If you feel a tingle of fear, anger, resistance or any other strong emotion, you’re on the right track. Be brave. Go for it. You can do this.

Will someone be mad at you? Good. That means you’re not playing the people-pleaser, you’re digging into hard truths and reality. When I was 12 and going through my existentialist phase of writing, my mom used to wail, “Why can’t you ever write about happy things?” You can write happy stories about unicorns and rainbows. But if you want to write real, deep, authentic work…you have to take a chance that not everyone is going to love what you have to say.

Is it forbidden? Explore it creatively. Secrets and lies fester in the dark. Shine a light on those negative spots so we can see what you see.

Are you terrified you’ll fail? Clearly you have something at stake that’s worth exploring. Ask yourself what “failure” looks like. What’s the worst that can happen? Write it down. Read it. Now burn it and get to work. You have to be willing to make a mess if you want to get to the good stuff. Creativity is a messy business. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Is the universe dropping hints? An old friend mentions a topic that you’ve been thinking about writing about. You see a newspaper article with a different angle on the same topic a few days later. Then you meet someone new who happens to be dealing with the same issue. If you find yourself toying with an idea and it keeps popping up all around you in unexpected places, your creative work is calling you.

If you find yourself distracted and avoiding your creative work, ask yourself: am I working on what really matters?

Writing process: How to get unstuck and have spanking clean toilets too

I have a book manuscript that I’ve dabbled with on and off since 2005. I recently cleared out my creative space and once again opened up the box with everything related to this project: a folder bulging with first drafts and revised drafts, research books, notes, email print-outs, three or four different outlines, story ideas, suggestions, schedules.

So many false starts, hopes, plans, dreams. All incomplete. Where to begin??? Like so many times before, I slapped the lid back on the box and shoved it back in its corner under my desk, out of sight but never out of mind.  My sense of failure was palpable.

Why can’t I finish this damn thing? Was it time to give it up? Had the moment to tell this story passed? I continued to berate myself as I threw in another load of laundry then headed upstairs to make dinner and clean the bathrooms, which is way more fun than feeling like a failure. I might not be able to finish this story, but by golly, my toilets will sparkle and I’ll make the best damn Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff ever!

The thing is, every time I return to this project, I get stuck right here. It didn’t help that I had some chapters in one computer file, others on a USB stick, still more on a disk, and multiple print-outs of copies and versions of drafts. I am organized in every aspect of my life, what the hell happened here? How would I know what was what? Where to start?

And then, shortly after the family was full of stroganoff, the toilets were sparkling, kids were in bed, and I was just about to overindulge in chocolate, I had an epiphany:

I could start over.

I sat up straight on the couch and put my chocolate down. Who said I have to try to put the pieces together from the way I saw this story five years ago? I always knew what the problem was: my story needed a skeleton to hang on, but every time I went back to the pieces, I was forcing the pieces to fit a structure that wasn’t working. Isn’t that the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result every time?

Yep, I’ve been driving myself crazy. But just like that, I gave myself permission to try a new structure. It seemed so simple, but I guess I had been so focused on making the square peg fit the round hole, I didn’t think to look for a new peg.

So, I’m starting fresh. I’m actually pretty excited about it, because I feel like I have a new skeleton that can work. I will pull details and scenes from the 200+ pages I’ve already written when and where it makes sense. That might sound depressing to some who aren’t used to the writing process, but sometimes you have to write a lot to find out what you have to say and the best way to say it.

If you’re stuck, consider clearing out your creative work space to make room for new ideas. Spend time in your creative space. Look at your old drafts. Don’t force  yourself to solve any problems. Try not to berate yourself. Read. Think. Ponder. Simmer. Just show up every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes, and see what happens.

As for my book, I don’t know if this new insight will solve everything. I hope I will finish this damn thing once and for all. Mostly, I feel pretty good. I’m trying. I’m writing again.

How to use friends and family in your fiction without pissing them off

One of the most frequently asked questions students ask in my fiction writing classes is, “How do I write about my life–my friends and family–without pissing them off?” Let’s be honest, the usual fiction disclaimer, All characters are a figment of the author’s imagination, any resemblance to real people living or dead is blah blah blah, just doesn’t cut it.

Everything is food for our fiction, including people we know. The good news is, much of real life is fairly boring; fiction spices it up. So here are 6 things you must do if you want to use people around you for, ahem, inspiration:

1. Ditch the guilt. You have to be willing to take risks on the page. Guilt will hold you back and stop you from digging into the deep stuff where the real stories are. Let it go.

2. Change names and details. The sooner you change Aunt Mabel the crazy quilter into Joey the crazy biscuit maker, you free yourself–and your character–to be who he/she really is. If you’re writing about a friend who picks their teeth with a toothpick when nervous, think of another odd habit that “your character” has. That’s our job, to make shit up, so be creative.

3. Change your mind. Stop thinking of the friend or family member and start thinking of the character with a life, feelings, hang-ups, shortcomings and bad habits of his or her own. When you are fully immersed in your characters, they will become more real to you than the people who sparked your idea for them in the first place.

4. Air out the story. Choose a few select folks to read a draft as soon as possible–preferably not the people you are writing about. If you can read it aloud in front of an audience, even better.You’ll know you have some rewriting to do and where.

5. Don’t remove; rewrite. Writers reflect what they see, but that doesn’t mean we have to expose the people we care about to humiliation or shame. Only you can decide if a line has been crossed. Before you delete, rewrite. That’s what revision is for–shaping raw emotions like humiliation and shame into good fiction.

6. Check your motives. Are you writing for yourself or for your audience? Are you writing to hurt someone else or to work through your own hurt? Words are powerful. Use them wisely.

Now, quit worrying and start writing!

Be your own muse: one secret to being more productive in your creative work

In my MFA program, there was one phrase that came up over and over: “Go with whatever is most taking your attention right now.” This was usually said in a serious Obi Wan Kenobe-voice to us just before we began an in-class writing assignment or when being coached through an impromptu verbal narrative in front of the class.

At first, it’s strange to be told this let alone think this way. But the up side to this creative directive was that it helped me generate lots of story starts and ideas. My brain never shuts up so there is ALWAYS something taking my attention.

The challenge became, how do I tune out the other distractions and focus on the one, most pressing scene or moment that was most strongly taking my attention right NOW? This directive helped me train my brain to focus with laser precision on the moment or scene that I needed to tell right now.

While having many story starts and ideas is great, the down side was that I rarely finished any of my story starts because something else is ALWAYS taking my attention. How to finish a piece of writing…that’s the bane of my existence when it comes to my own personal creative work and another blog post for another day.

As a writer and someone who always has multiple projects going on at once both at home and at work, I’ve found that going with what takes my attention helps me instinctively, intuitively juggle my priorities better. It’s an exercise in active listening. I ask myself (either in my journal or literally), what is taking my attention right now? And then I listen to what my mind says, what it pushes forth. It requires patience. It requires quiet. It requires honesty.

The payoff is that the priority or project I need to focus on first or that I am most enthusiastic about at that moment bubbles up, drowning out everything else. I am much more productive this way. As a professional writer, my ability to juggle many different projects hinges upon my ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between clients, dipping in and out of different brands, voices and subject matters. I work faster when I focus on the project that I am most excited about at the moment–the one most strongly taking my attention.

This helps me get down to business quickly and manage my time so much more efficiently. But this doesn’t just pertain to writing. It pertains to life.

Don’t wait for the muse to find you. Try it now.
Ask yourself, what is taking my attention right now? Then listen to what your intuition says. At first, this may be uncomfortable. Your brain might get snarky and say stuff like, “Piles of laundry! Bills! The bathtub grout is moldy!” Let the snark come out, then push it aside. Listen again.

In the beginning, this may feel like listening for a pin to drop in a crowded football stadium. Wait for it. Eventually you will push everything else aside and focus your mind’s eye on one thing, the important thing, that you need to get to right now. You will hear the pin drop. You will see it. Write it. Paint it. Design it. You will work despite the laundry, the bills, the grout.

Be your own muse. Go with what’s taking your attention right now.