Chapter One – Questions and Demands
As I mentioned earlier, throughout the series, I’m going to stop and ask you questions, offer exercises, make demands, and, basically, ask you to reflect.
Chapter One — Questions and Demands.
1. Think about your process as it now stands. Can you write it down or explain it to someone? Is it healthy? Is it rewarding? Have your successes rewarded your process – in good ways or bad ways or both? Remember how I said that success can seem like proof that your process is good – when, in fact, you’ve succeeded despite your process. Where does your process now stand?
2. How was your processed forged? Go back and look at how some of your habits took hold. What’s the narrative you’ve created around your process? Can you become open to changing that narrative and paying more attention to your process and allowing it to shift?
3. Keep a journal dedicated not just to your ideas – but to the environment surrounding your ideas. After you get an idea, and you don’t throw it away and you do write it down – and then you lift your head – THAT part. Take notes on what that environment is – and what happened just before you had this idea. This is essential to getting to know how your brain works and how to work with it.
4. Practice the musing technique. Find a time when your prefrontal cortex is busy with something simple and repetitive and then let your mind take a controlled-wander. I mean, set it to a question (a problem, something you want to solve or simply better understand) but then let it go. If it goes way too far afield, reset it. Try this at different times during the day, under different circumstances. And use the journal I mentioned above – the one dedicated to process – to keep track of this as well as the moments when ideas strike seemingly out of the blue.
5. This is a lifelong question. What motivates you, deep down? What are the things that truly move you? Why are you here listening to this? If you’re not digging deep into your work, why? How’d you get to this moment?
Chapter Two – Questions and Demands
1. Have you been throwing away your good ideas without really being aware of it? Do you fall into one of the traps – throwing out a good idea because it’s been done before (and relies too much on recycled material) or it’s too weird (relying on too much fringe of variability)? If you realize you’re doing this, can you catch yourself on the act and hold onto the idea instead? This week, be aware of ideas and how you treat them. In your journals on process, take notes on this aspect of your own process.
2. Are you someone who believes you need walls between your creative/innovative life and the rest of your life? If so, can you practice tearing down those walls and see what happens? Basically, how’s that ESPN ticker going? Are you keeping your project on low hum?
3. If you do need stretches of time, are you actively trying to find them? I used to threaten to go to a hotel for the weekend – the kind with free breakfast – and just hole up. Is this doable? If you’re an artist, are you looking at colonies that might work for you? Applying now and thinking ahead to an expanse of time might take off a lot of unnecessary pressure.
4. If you’re not a daily project worker, can you try to be daily? This might mean working hard to find time, carve it out of your life and protect it – elbows out – from other demands. When you make that commitment, can you feel your mind “preparing the material,” as promised by Norman Mailer? Be aware of this and track it in your notes on your own process.
5. If you can’t work on your project one or more days next week, can you run your eyes over the work in the morning and carry it with you? Take notes on what happens.
6. Work on your social media consumption. Hard. Track it. See what happens when, instead of hopping onto Facebook or Twitter, you find a window, and gaze. Track the gazing, too.
7. Overall, I’ve already asked you a lot of questions. Have you taken the time to write down all of your answers from last week and this week? Do it. Take the time.
Last week, I asked you to take notes on the practice of musing, what I sometimes call writing while not writing. Did you?
I also suggested you take notes on the moment when your best ideas come to you – lifting your head and being aware – so that you might be able to recreate that environment. I hope you did.
One additional thought: There are upsides of handwriting things in a journal. Studies show you remember more when you hand write. The images also exist uniquely – instead of monochromatically flattened by one consistent font. You’re carving the words.
That said, there are upsides of typing. If you’re a fast typist and you’ve perfected the wiring from brain to orchestration of fingers at keys – and you end up riffing faster and more automatically when typing, then type. Make a choice but then do it.
Chapter Three — Questions and Demands
1. In particular, what’s your best time of day – when your brain cells are freshest? Can you do anything to protect this time? Is it possible? Sometimes it isn’t and that’s okay. If it isn’t possible, could you open up early mornings like Nicholson Baker – or late nights like Roxane Gay? She mentions in some of her Q and A’s that she often gets a boost of energy and often writes at night. By looking at the other things we talked about – sleep, food, blood flow — can you optimize other times of day?
2. Take Arianna Huffington’s advice – write down something for your brain to work on in your sleep. Lie still when you wake up and your dream will surface. Then, write down the images.
3. Play with napping, if possible. Remember in an earlier session, I mentioned Edison falling asleep by the fire with ball bearings slipping from his hands and hitting the pie pans below. Can you create an experience like that for yourself? Can you play with ideas as you’re falling asleep?
4. It might feel really strange but try to chase a hypnogogic hallucinatory state. I mean, you’re in bed, cozy, already dreamy. Why not try?
5. Keep that little snack at your desk. I’m not suggesting you binge between meals. I’m just saying, when you’re feeling depleted, a little snack might work.
6. Or a walk. Feeling stuck, get out of the house, if possible. Find ways to get blood flow to your brain.
7. I didn’t mention this earlier but I get good ideas when I shower, so showering has become part of my creative process. I don’t shower in accordance with some set schedule. I shower when I need to recharge. I shower when I’m stuck. Luckily I get stuck often enough that I don’t smell bad.
Overall, brainstorm new approaches. Does this new approach help you get arresting visuals, or help you Do any give you, as Baker put it, a feeling that your mind is newly cleansed or befuddled – in a good way? Or create arresting visuals or help you find solutions to hard problems?
And as a follow up to previous weeks … How are your attempts at the practice of musing coming along — what I call writing while not writing? Are you looking closely at the environments when you’re most likely to get a good idea – or solution – and are you reconstructing that possibility of creativity?
Keep taking notes about those attempts and of course any ideas that drift into what Fowles calls the coast of conscious.
Chapter Four — Questions and Demands
1. Are you aware of the phases of your work? Do you get low when a major project is over? If so, have you ever considered ways of trying to bridge out of the project before the loss sets in?
2. Do you respect your fallow periods? If they’re healthy for you, can you expect them and use them to help generate the next big burst?
3. Are you aware of your moods? I suggest noting your moods and then using them. If in a happy mood, see how generating new work goes. If in a foul mood, try your hand at editing. Make notes on how this works for you. Are you letting yourself be gullible in the early stages of a project?
4. Do you hustle while you wait? I hope so. But if you don’t, could you practice it?
5. Have you ever tried to work on two large scale projects at once? If handing off a project is hard for you, you might want to start with a small side project — a cheat project — that can help you get through the waiting.
6. Criticism. We’ve gone over it — but it’s so crucial. Keep thinking about your own methods to deal with criticism and how maybe a healthy fear of failure can help you get over a fear of criticism.
7. Are you playing into the trap of believing in luck, blind inspiration, and innate talent. Take a hard look at how you might be letting these beliefs interfere with your work.
8. Hard work. What’s your relationship to it? Can you mess with that relationship?
9. Shame and guilt, this is so loaded I’m afraid to even ask any more questions than those posed in the session. Keep an eye on shame and guilt. Take notes.
10. Is your creative process hard? Can it save you?
11. What would happen if you prioritized the traits of high producers — starting with those that might be easiest to experiment with — and introduced them into your process. How about you start that — like today. Like now.
12. A general question: Do you think that Julianna Baggott ever turned into a really great daughter-in-law? Hint: she did not, my friends. She was kind of not a great daughter-in-law.
Chapter Five — Questions and Demands
1. Just being aware of the law of diminishing returns as it applies to your creative process should lead to some reflection. Does it apply to a specific project? Have you had an experience in which you were making great strides and then quit when those strides were few and far between? Maybe you quit because it wasn’t fun anymore – but is it possible that quit because you misread the lack of progress? Think about it. Re-frame it. Does this help with an attempt at re-approaching the project?
2. Can you open up space for yourself – insulating from criticism, rejection and failure – to give yourself time to get good enough at your craft, to really create something beautiful? When I say insulating yourself from criticism, rejection and failure, I don’t mean that you don’t go out and get it. You need it. What I’m saying is insulating yourself from the painful effects. Can you re-frame those thing as, well, inspiring? And if not inspiring then just typical. The totally expected parts of the process.
3. Who are your mentors? If you don’t have any, work on creating a list and thinking of ways to reach out to them – with humility, admiration, and generosity of your own. And likewise, are you mentoring someone? Trust me, helping others gives your neurological system a boost. Try it.
4. Does your field allow you to separate what you do and make from how those things are received? Can you protect your relationship with your work? If so, it’s another way to prolong engagement – and that allows you to get better at what you do. Your creative process is a lifelong relationship. Are you treating it with the respect and attention it deserves?
5. If you’re stuck – can you try moving to another area so that you can lower the bar and be playful? What would that look like for you? Can you pretend you’re someone else – take on some anonymity? And can you shrink your intended audience down to one person? Even if you’re not stuck, these might be interesting and helpful approaches to try out.
6. Like the Law of Diminishing Returns, can you re-frame fear? Can you see it as a sign that you might be onto something?
7. Are you haunted by projects past? Can you spend some time really assessing each one and thinking about which ones to put on hold, which ones to dive into, which ones to put away for an extended period of time?
8. Are you committing to a decision so that you can make the next decision, or are you allowing yourself to wallow in the land of ghost motions – as Tedy Bruschi put it – for far too long?
9. Do you have too many new escape hatch projects? Can you rely on fellow creatives or your mentors – or others you trust – to weigh in and help you make a call?
10. Are you being held back by worry, perfection, and getting it wrong? Instead of worry, can you try to dive into the work itself – allowing it to become such a fertile, rich, and full place where worry just can’t fit? Since there’s no such thing as perfect, can you let it go? And can you re-frame an instance of getting it wrong – into an opportunity for your smartest creative move?
11. Are your problems with your process overwhelming? Do they go deep? Is it time to reach out to professionals? I suggest a look at Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score; it’s not easy reading, but these aren’t easy issues.
12. Can you reflect on your creative hunger? Can you see that hunger as such an important part of process and can you tend to it?
Chapter Six — Questions and Demands
1. Are you consciously thinking about how you react to both compliments and insults? Be more aware of this. Can you use the heat of the insult and the power of the compliment?
2. Are you allowing neutral people to help you self-sabotage by throwing your ideas out to them with harmful qualifiers and disclaimers – I had the weirdest thought, this is going to sound stupid… Can you watch that and try to stop yourself? Be aware of how you test your ideas, and gauge if you’re short-changing them before you’ve even fully considered them yourselves.
3. Did you make that list of people you run your ideas by – maybe even placing them on sliding scales from champion to critic? If you do this, then think about when you invite them into your process. That’s crucial.
4. Are you aware of the people who are draining your energy? When you’re drained, were you just in the company of someone who makes you lose faith in yourself? Likewise, is there someone who always kind of fills your tank? Be aware of these folks.
5. I’m just going to let you meditate on your partnership if you have a significant other. This is too complicated for a simple question.
6. When you’re rejected with a kind note – or the equivalent in your field – do you submit to them again soon or give up? Reflect. Realize that there are folks out there who don’t see the kind rejection as a door closing but instead a door opening.
7. Where are you with your ambition? Check in.
8. Can you think about where your potential collaborators are likely to be and can you try to show up there?
9. Do you have someone who goads you – for better or for worse? Do you have a good nemesis?
10. If in doubt, are you using your imagination to call upon someone in your field – someone you couldn’t actually get connected with in real life, and are you asking them for advice? It’s possible that the answer is inside of you and you just have to borrow someone else’s gravitas in order to access it.
11. Where do you land on simplifying your life? Does it help or do you need to get out more? Where do you land on simplifying your workspace? Psst. It’s okay to be messy. Truly.
12. Do you have writing rituals that get you in the headspace to write? Are they healthy? Or have they gotten out of hand?
13. Have you ever considered a coach? What would that look like in your field?