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?

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!

When you hate writing (but you have to do it anyway)

I hate monkeys. No offense to monkeys or monkey enthusiasts. They seem so smart yet unpredictable and mean. Once a monkey tried to pee on my kids and I through the zoo cage. When I have a bad dream, monkeys are always there, lurking, biting or chasing me.

I am telling you this now because whenever someone says to me, “You’re a writer? *shudder* I hate writing!” It’s hard to fathom anyone hating something I love so much. Then I think  of monkeys and I understand. People fear writing almost as much as they fear doing their own electric work on their homes. You could die by touching the wrong color wire. No one is going to die by writing the wrong word, but you’re just as vulnerable. Will it hurt? Will people laugh (when you’re not trying to be funny)? Does it say what you want it to say? Will you sound like an idiot? Are you an idiot?

Here are five ways to less your writing anxiety and hopefully hate writing a little less:

#1 First drafts are like first loves. Remember your first romance, when you’re intoxicated by the possibilities? First drafts can be like that–you’re excited about the idea, you see the potential, it seems absolutely perfect–until you pick up your pen and start to write. Don’t let that stop you! Let the words pour out. Turn off your censor. Let it rip. See where it takes you. You and I both know that somewhere down the line, your head will need to step in and help your heart sort it all out. But not here, not in the first draft. OK?

#2 Revision is like plucking weeds. I used to think that anything I wrote was perfect the first time I wrote it, exactly as I wrote it. But seven years of MFA training taught me that the first draft is simply planting the seed. Revision is growing that first draft by watering it with a strong editor’s eye, plucking out the dead spots, spraying for bugs that eat at the heart of the story and fertilizing what’s left until it’s the envy of all your neighbors/readers/other writers.

#3 Writing is yoga for your brain. It lets your mind breathe. It makes your brain more flexible. It keeps your linguistic muscles limber. A little writing a few days a week in or outside the office can help you feel more comfortable in your skin, especially when you have to write. If you only write once a quarter, of course you’ll feel rusty, hesitant and uncertain. The sound of your own voice on the page will be like hearing your voice on a recording–weird, unnatural and not at all what you thought it sounded like. It would be like jumping into an advanced yoga class when you’ve been a coach potato your whole life. So practice once in a while, even if it’s just a Facebook status update (it counts).

#4 Feedback is like foreplay. Too much, too soon and your mojo is out the window. Not enough and you’re left unfulfilled and pissed off. Good feedback starts small–you share your work when you’re ready with a small, trusted group. If they don’t laugh at the right spots–or the wrong ones–or if they fall asleep in the middle, then see #2. Revise. Try again. When it works, your audience will laugh, cry, nod their heads voraciously or gasp in surprise, you’ll get off on getting the reactions you wanted. Soon you’ll come to love how the right feedback pushes your work forward, inspires new ideas and honey, you’ll want more more more.

#5 There are worse things than writing. Speaking of getting the reactions you wanted, my friend Kim recently told me about a zoo that had an “issue” with monkeys throwing their poo at visitors. No sh*t! The over-reactions of patrons made the monkeys throw more poo. Eventually the zoo hired actors to stand in front of the monkey cages and not react when they got smacked by monkey poo. Soon the monkeys got bored and stopped flinging their poo. What’s a little writing compared to a sh*tty job like that?

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6 stages of the writing process for business and fiction

Recently I had the pleasure of watching a really smart, motivated guy I’ll call Sam put together a presentation  from scratch in a matter of days. I was there from the beginning to end, coaching him on, suggesting new directions and edits, watching as he shaped and crafted the content from a rough outline to a finished, polished presentation.

It occurred to me that this process was much like–no, exactly like–the fiction writer’s process. I am usually so enmeshed in the writing process myself that I forget what it’s like to look at it from the outside in. But the similarity of the writing process for business and fiction is uncanny. See if you recognize these six stages of the writing process:

STAGE 1: The Creative Spark. For Sam, it started with an email that consisted of the basic idea and eight bullet points. He was pumped! Confident he could complete the presentation in two weeks, he requested that we move thedelivery date up. Thankfully, we talked him out of that. Because once the initial excitement of the spark wears off, stage 2 sets in.

STAGE 2: Writing the First Draft. One week later, three of us gathered together impromptu to see Sam’s first draft. It’s important to note that we kept this group small and selective. First drafts are sacred and too much Continue reading “6 stages of the writing process for business and fiction”