It’s Harder to Dodge a Draft When There Isn’t a Canada

Note: I should begin with an apology to Canada. I have nothing against you. And to your credit, I’m sorry to say I’ve never been to you. For three years we lived within 96 miles of you (or, as you would say, 155km) and we never crossed the border for a visit. I wish we had, because I’ve heard great things.

But for next 412 words, oh Canada, I will metaphorically obliterate you. And for this I am sorry.

I’m a draft dodger. I will find just about any reason why it’s not a good time for me to write a first draft. Even a bad one. There are email and Twitter. There are baseball, football, and hockey1 highlights. There are even respectable reasons not to write drafts: deadlines to finish projects, deadlines to begin projects, or even deadlines to determine deadlines. Also, coffee. There is always coffee.

For the sake of my soul, and my need to have something to say, I have started shuffling all of these reasons to Canada, land of the draft dodgers. (The metaphor is about to break down, but since you’re still reading, I figure you for the forgiving type anyway.)

A few months ago, I created a new user account on my Air, a virtual nook where the only thing I can do is draft. There are no mail accounts setup, no Twitter apps to scan. There are no programmed keystrokes that activate actions and gizmos. There is an OS X dock with three apps: ByWord, DayOne, and Scrivener.2 And there is a lot of permission to neglect the rest.

Not canada
This isn’t a place for researching and outlining. It isn’t a place for editing. I don’t have access to “inspiration through the words of others” here. The only thing I can do here is draft, nudging the cursor along one ASCII value at a time. And it’s working. An outlined Scrivener project is starting to fill up. DayOne has more posts over the last few months than any other few months. ByWord has a full herd of awful drafts that a few strays may someday wander away from.

I have no interest in starting a debate about the ethics of war and bearded uncles who long ago moved to Winnipeg. But the kind of draft dodging that keeps you from saying what you have to say is bad. It’s keeping us, and probably you too, from hearing your voice.

==========

1. I don’t watch hockey at all…consider this a peace offering to my fuming Canadian constituency.

2. For those who will wonder about such things: iCloud plus ByWord and DayOne, is perfect for this; drafts are immediately available in my main user account (or iOS devices) for later revision. For Scrivener, I have a Dropbox folder that stores all my Scrivener files. This is the only dropbox folder that syncs with this user account, so it doesn’t require too much space.

Untitled: Thoughts on the Creative Process

Blaine hoganBlaine Hogan makes me sick.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy. I’ve known him for five years, and I’ve enjoyed every moment I’ve spent with him. He’s one of the most creatively expressive people I know, and even his Keynote presentations in grad school made me ooh and aah.

It’s not really Blaine that makes me sick, but my envy of how easy it is for him to make great stuff. The book I’m about to tell you about is a great example. Blaine became a new dad this year, and somehow in the midst of that, he found time to write a fantastic little ebook about making stuff. I’ll probably never speak to him again.

The book in question is called Untitled: Thoughts on the Creative Process. The irony of it is that while I’m disgusted at how easy he makes this look, the book describes how difficult creative work can be, and of course he is right. But he seems to make it look effortless. He’s such a jerk.

I’ll put aside my petty envies and jealousies to tell you that, if you want to make stuff, any kind of stuff, this book is for you. Blaine shares his learnings about creativity from his own work as a stage actor, a TV actor, a creative director, a writer, a human, and a theology student (perhaps the most creative endeavor of all). And he has great reflections. Some of it echoes my own experiences. Much of it details how he has worked through challenges that I’ve only had the slightest glimpses of. All of it is good.

It’s the kind of book that I will revisit from time to time. It will be worth taking an hour every year or so to read back through it to be stimulated, sharpened, encouraged, inspired and butt-kicked. Below are a few of the quotes that did just that for me:

As I poured over my stacks of notes from the last few years, there were five words that kept repeating themselves again and again. These five principals guide every single piece I work on: Surprise Delight Remove Restrain Constraint”

“If I were to boil down the goal of all my creative work it would be this: Move people.”

“Awkwardness creates space for us to transform into better versions of ourselves if we let it. But… Most of us spend our entire lives avoiding awkwardness at all costs.”

See what I mean?

(By the way, Blaine sent me a copy to review, but I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Yada yada yada.)

Echo Workshop: Rhythms and Tools for Creative Work

Last week, I was a workshop presenter at the Echo Conference. I led a workshop called Rhythms and Tools for Creative Work. Here was the description:

Most of us have had a good idea come to us in the mundane moments of life, like drifting off to sleep. (Hopefully, we remembered it in the morning.) While these epiphanies are nice, most creative genius is cultivated out of good habits and workflows. In this workshop, we’ll discuss the rhythms, practices, and tools that we use to capture and craft ideas into masterpieces.

The first half of the workshop I talked about The Creative Loop, and how it serves as a marker for my own creative rhythms. The second half was more nuts and bolts (mostly nuts) as I did a live demo of some of my processes for capture. As promised to everyone who attended (and for anyone else who is interested), here are my slides, as well as links to the many resources and books that were mentioned.

Slideshow

Resources

Software used by me:

Other software mentioned:

  • Evernote – a great catch everything bucket, but doesn’t quite do what I need it to do
  • Things – task management, perhaps more user friendly, but less powerful, than OmniFocus
  • The Hit List – a nice looking task management app, but haven’t tried it out enough to comment on it
  • Flow – a nice web based task management app with built-in collaboration

Books

Thanks to everyone who participated at that unholy hour of 9am. If I overlooked anything, or if you you have further questions, feel free to drop a line in the comments below or catch me on Twitter.

The Creative Loop: Movement

In part one of this series, I introduced The Creative Loop and described the stages that exist in the loop: Engage, Capture, and Create. In this part, I will focus on the movement between the stages. It is helpful to recognize the stages, but the hard work of creativity happens in the between. It comes out of intentional and deliberate practices that create momentum from one stage to the next. And, especially as we are forming those practices, we will need all the momentum we can produce.

Creative Loop full

Attend

The Creative Loop initiates in the lower left as we Engage with whatever may be around us. We move from Engagement toward Capture through the practice of Attending. Attending is the act of paying attention, of being present. As we engage with whatever around us, attending calls us to also experience what is happening in our soul. What emotions are stirring? What ideas are sparking?

It is attending that adds meaning to endless possibilities for consumption that exist in our media saturated lives. We can consume content as mindless drones, or we can engage content with attentive hearts, poised to capture whatever response we might have.

We can also get stuck within the practice of Attending. It can turn into an introspective navelgazing, where our emotions and thoughts never make it out of our ponderings. This is much of what leads to the bottom weighted nature of the Loop. I often convince myself that rocking back and forth between Engaging and Capturing is fine. I tell myself that soon I’ll have enough momentum to roll the thing over. Maybe I’ll engage and capture enough that an idea worth pursuing will emerge.

This is not true. To move beyond Capture, at some point we have to start to

Draft

Some ideas might be better than others. Some ideas aren’t going anywhere and don’t merit further energy or time. Often, we don’t move on from Capture because we don’t think and of our ideas are “good enough”. But it’s not a matter of waiting for an idea that is good enough.

To roll the loop over, we have to start drafting. We have to form prose or poetry. We have to put paint on the brush or outline the business plan. It might take many drafts, because the first one is usually, according to the eloquent tongue of Anne Lamott, “sh!tty”.

Most good work takes a long meandering detour through the land of awful. Drafting is your permission to suck. It’s a matter of doing the work of playing with the idea to see what comes of it. The idea will not fully form until given the time and space to express itself.

There are external influences that sometimes help us move toward Creating a work. Deadlines can get us going. Collaboration with others can offer some healthy peer pressure. But none of these let us bypass the act of drafting.

As Stephen Pressfield writes: “Don’t prepare. Begin.”

Ship

But if we stop once we have made something, once we have created an artifact, we don’t have a loop. We have a backward C, as Engagement rolls over to Creation. It is the act of shipping that completes the loop. We press publish, we upload, we print, we perform, we share. The artifact that we have created becomes public, where others can engage with it, and hopefully begin the loop all over again. Creative work is not scarce, it is abundant, but only when those who would be creative do the work of drafting and shipping.

There are some things that aren’t worth shipping. Maybe they need more drafting. Maybe they need to be assassinated. But if I had to guess, we all need to ship more and assassinate less. We need to let what we have created stir the souls of others, so that they can create too. The act of creation is itself an act of giving yourself away. No creative act is complete until it leaves the control of the creator for the benefit of those who will receive it.

Anne Lamott says it best in the words below from Bird by Bird. In her case, these were words about writing, but I think they are true of any creative work:

You are going to have to give and give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.

The Creative Loop: Stages

A year ago, I scratched out a drawing in Penultimate. It was an idea I dubbed The Creative Loop as an attempt to visualize how my creative process works itself out. (At the time, I think it was mostly an excuse to try out Penultimate. An app I love, even though The Creative Loop scrawl is the only thing worth keeping that I’ve captured.)

The sketch stuck with me, and I revisited it from time to time to look at it and refined it here and there. But that was it. It turns out that my idea of The Creative Loop was stuck in the early stages of the creative loop. I hope that will make more sense as you keep reading. The creative loop is the process through which creative work happens, from the pre-conception of an idea all the way through to the act of shipping. Anything that is made in a space where it didn’t exist before goes through the creative loop, whether it be a painting, a song, a blueprint, or a new company.

Creative Loop

The loop is pictured above. Movement through the loop initiates at the bottom left, and moves counter-clockwise up and ofter the top. It is a bottom-weighted circle, because it takes effort, it take work to get enough momentum to roll the loop to the top. Each degree of the loop is important, but it’s at the top where resistance is overcome and something is made.

Engaging.

The first stage, at the bottom left, is the work of engaging. This is marked by awareness of what is around us and taking it in. Engagement is the act of allowing ourselves to be present with whatever content is before us, whether it be a towering oak, a tasty slice of pizza, a good movie, or even a hunch from within.

A few years ago, I felt this strange sense of guilt anytime I was consuming, whether a book or otherwise. I feel a strong pull to be a creative person, and I reasoned that anytime I was consuming someone else’s work, I wasn’t doing work of my own. Somewhere along the way, I realized that often I felt my most creative while engaged with the creative works of others, or shortly after experiencing the work of others. Reading a thoughtful writer stirred a forming of my own ideas. Listening to a thoughtful lecture sent me off in all kinds of new directions.

All of this came to a head when the iPad arrived. My early critique, and a common critique, was that the iPad was a device for consuming content, not creating it. And behind this critique is the false assumption that needs to be recognized. Consumption has been laid out as a direct competitor to creation. If you are doing one, then you aren’t doing the other. There is just enough truth in that for us to hold tight to it, and all the guilt that comes with it. But it’s not true.

This act of consumption is often where creative work begins. But it would be better here to reframe the discussion from consumption to engagement. Because consumption as an activity can be unhelpful. Engagement, however, isn’t so much an activity as it is a posture. It is the posture of paying attention to what you are experiencing and what it is stirring in you. Within any activity, from the most mundane to the most spectacular, we can be present to what is happening and listen to how we are responding. This is the first stage in the creative loop.

Capturing.

Next in the loop, to the bottom right, is the act of capture. As we are engaged and connected to what we are experiencing ideas begin to form. Sometimes they are direct, and sometimes that are vague notions coming out of the stirrings within that require more exploration. Capture is the art of grabbing hold of these fleeting ideas and notions, no matter how vague they may be.

Capture is the most romantic of the stages of the creative loop. There is an entire industry directed to this particular portion of the creative work. Task management apps, finely bound empty notebooks with blank pages, capture everything apps, and even entire conferences generate great profits because we all feel like this is the critical step of creative work. It’s glamorous, because this is where the ideas are birthed.

I’ve been fascinated with the birth of ideas back to my earliest memories. As an elementary student, our teacher assigned us to read a book by the author of our choice, and follow up with a letter to the author, with hopes of getting a response. I have no idea what grade I was in. I have no idea what book I read (though I remember it was part of a series of books about the same character). I have no idea what author I wrote to. I have no idea if anyone else received a response. But I did. And I remember two things. First, in my letter, I asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas for the books from?” And in the response, the author said, “I just think real hard.”

Looking back now, that answer seems a little patronizing, but it also feels as true today as it does then. In creative work, we are always pursuing the ideas that come from inspiration. And we build it up so much with our empty notebooks and apps and conferences, that we often don’t recognize the simple ideas that slide through our mind everyday. I remember this letter exchange as if it happened yesterday. It might has well have, because I’m still asking that same question.

Creating.

Now, let’s take another look at the loop, particularly that thicker mass between Engagement and Capture. As I said above the loop is bottom weighted. Many of us, most of us, find it easiest to rock back and forth between Engaging and Caputring two acts. We have notebooks, physical and digital, full of unpursued ideas. We have chord progressions that have never been developed into full song, and lines of poetry that have never been uttered allowed.

Rocking back and forth between these two is not bad, but it is if we never push beyond capture. We must gain enough momentum to roll the loop over to the Creation stage. This is where actual artifacts come into existence. This is where ideas become something. These might be artifacts that we share with others, or sometimes we keep them to ourselves. But the important thing, for now, is that they exist. We have to make something. That is, by definition creative work.

But Wait, There Will Be More.

In part two of this post, I will write about the in-between. While recognizing the stages is helpful, it is the movement between them that is the most important. There are actions and postures that help us generate movement between that stages of the loop, tipping it over, and ultimately, rolling it over again and again.

What is Your Creative Process?

Yesterday, I received a submission on my initial site questionnaire from a potential client. In the final comments space, she asked me, “What is my your creative process?” I don’t know if this was off-handed curiosity, or a make or break question that will define whether we work together. But I love the question, and it left me thinking about it enough to work out some thoughts here. There is nothing scientific or academic about what follows, and please don’t misinterpret this as something akin to

Four Steps To Genius!!!!

As I think about the different forms of creative work I do, each of them seems to move in and out of these stages. They might follow the order in which I’ve listed them in the early stages, but they aren’t steps — more like processes that spiral in and out of each other.

Consuming

When the iPad was introduced, I posted my concern that it was a device geared toward consuming rather creating. What I’ve come to see is that consumption and creation aren’t in direct opposition to each other. (They can be, of course, when we choose to stifle our creative urges by only consuming the creative work of others as a means of avoidance…but that’s another post.)

Inspiration often begins when I am engaged in the work of others, appreciating the nuances and insights of a writer, or the pixel perfect details of a designer. And wires cross. Words might inspire design. Design might inspire words. It’s a matter of paying attention to my own internal responses as I connect with someone else’s work.

When I’m working on a website, this comes through reading the client’s response to my questionnaire and follow-up questions. I also look through sites they like the look and feel of as well as designs on dribbble or other galleries. In shaping a teaching for our church, I always try to take in what others from diverse backgrounds have had to say about the topic or text.

Waiting

Ideas can’t be summoned on command, like a genie from a freshly rubbed lamp. They take a while. I’ve referred to this as incubating before, and I’ve heard other refer to it as marinating. It’s a matter of making space for ideas to form, often coming to light in idle moments in the car or laying in bed.

I have to be ready to grab those ideas when they form. Monday morning, I was working on something unrelated when inspiration arrived for a design comp I had been struggling with. Five minutes later, the concept was scratched out (my drawing skills are scratching at best) in a notebook, and I was able to mock it up in Photoshop that afternoon.

Fiddling

Ideas and inspiration may arrive, but results don’t start happening until I sit down and try to implement them. And that first implementation is usually awful…especially when it comes to design. I don’t think I’ve ever sent my first go at a design comp to a client. (Rarely can I send them the second or the third!) Things that worked out in my head don’t work out on screen. But it’s a start. And usually as I’m trying things out, some of the best results come out of accidents. I wish I could say some of my favorite work was born out of my talent and genius, but more often than not, it came from an oops.

Dialoguing

Our church community is small enough that my teaching take the form of a dialogue. I still research and study as if I were going to give a monologue styled sermon, but the content isn’t fully formed until we are all working through it together. I love seeing how others engage with the thoughts I’ve been sitting with. We are each better for it.

And there isn’t a single website I’ve created that I can fully call my own. Each is shaped by the response of the client to my initial design, or other designers I gather feedback from along the way. Even this site, which bears my name as both client and designer is not entirely my own as I received valuable feedback along the way.

There is one thing that each of these processes have in common — each requires a certain amount of intention. I don’t do it consciously, but I move into and throughout these processes in each creative endeavor. And the one thing I fear (for me and for you) about writing them here is that they might start to form into steps I do rather than a way that I be.

two years…and still plenty of fog

It was two years ago yesterday that I launched Creativityist. I had a general idea in mind of what I would do with the site, but like most creative work, I didn’t have a clear destination. Seems like my best work comes when I take steps forward and see what happens. That’s certainly the case here!

It was only by accident that I realized that the anniversary had snuck by yesterday. This morning I had an idea for a post, but had a vague notion that I had posted about that idea before. It turns out I had! It was in the midst of looking for it that I realized we’d had an anniversary. Last year at this time, I commented on the fog of moving into the future…it seems that the past has become foggy as well.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a new project I have in the works. I hope to launch it soon and I think it will be of interest to many Creativityist readers. The new year has also given me a fresh burst of ideas for some upcoming posts which I’m looking forward to hammering out for you soon.

In the meantime, here’s a look back at some of the highlights on Creativityist this past year:

  • Contexts – an ongoing series describing different contexts I use in OmniFocus
  • Creative Practices – a series of interviews with others that I intend to resume this year
  • a series of reflections on The Creative Habit and The War of Art
  • OmniFocus vs. Things – any given day, this is the most popular post on the site with a consistent stream of search engine visitors asking that very question
  • Inbox Off – this is probably the most important change I made to my workflow this year, though I still struggle to follow it at times
  • Creativityist 3.0 – I launched the current design last February…and I still like it!

Thanks again for your attention and your comments. I’m often encouraged by how much value others find in some of these thoughts, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn from you as well.

the box [the creative habit]

This post is the last of an ongoing series of reflections on my reading of The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp.

Today, our seven month, irregularly recurring series on The Creative Habit comes to an end. But, in the interest of being trite, last certainly does not mean least. I think I’ve saved the best for last. And since this one is really about getting started, perhaps the last should have been first.

Okay…I’m done, I promise.

The box, as Twyla Tharp describes it, is the starting point for a creative project. In her case, it is a literal box. As she begins a new project, she begins to toss fragments of inspiration in the box. Notes, images, videos — anything that will fit. As her collection grows, the interplay between these items begin to form the inspiration. As she describes it:

The drawer, in effect, contains the editor’s pre-ideas — those intriguing little tickles at the corners of your brain that tell you when something is interesting to you without your quite knowing why.

I’ve long seen the value of collecting ideas. But all these ideas I’ve collected over the years are not the same as a box. They are more of a pre-box, a repository of interesting notions and thoughts waiting to be rooted through — (almost) always with me and readily available.

But the box serves as inspiration for a project that already has some direction. When a project begins to form, then the box specific to that project comes in to play. In my case, I can sort through the quotes, images and ideas I’ve stored with a simple search through Yojimbo. The ones that stand out get dumped into Scrivener or tagged in Yojimbo for a non-writing project. This is the box.

The beauty of the box is that what you need is right there waiting for you as you create:

A writer with a good storage and retrieval system can write faster. He isn’t spending a lot of time looking things up, scouring his papers, and patrolling other rooms at home wondering where he left that perfect quote. It’s in the box.

This is what I appreciate about Scrivener with the Research and Clippings folders. What I need is right there. If I steal away to Safari or Email to look something up, the chances of being distracted are about 98.74% (give or take 1.26%). But if I don’t even have to leave the app I’m in, my work can continue.

Of course, the box is an easy way to get started, with the keyword being easy! And it gives you one small step toward the work of actual creating. But that next step is still a doozy. And Tharp reminds us that while the box is a start, it is only a start:

The box is not a substitute for creating.

Sadly, some people never get beyond the box stage in their creative life.

I hate how important those two sentences are for me to hear. I love to collect. And I love to have created. But it’s that step from pulling ideas and inspiration together to doing the creative work where I always find resistance. And that brings me to the drawn-out, irregularly recurring series I’ll be starting next: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

Look for that sometime soon…ish. I’m collecting ideas for it now.

creativity is an act of defiance [the creative habit]

This post is part of an ongoing series of reflections on my reading of The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp.

From time to time, I look back at some notes I collected from The Creative Habit to find inspiration for more reflections to share here. The quote below is one I see every time, but have failed to write anything about. But it’s an idea that sits well with me each time I read it. It occurred to me this morning that I don’t really need to write anything about it. It’s a great thought that stands on its own, so I decided to share it with you on its own:

Creativity is an act of defiance. You’re challenging the status quo. You’re questioning accepted truths and principles. You’re asking three universal questions that mock conventional wisdom:
    Why do I have to obey the rules?
    Why can’t I be different?
    Why can’t I do it my way?
These are impulses that guide all creative people whether they admit it or not. Every act of creation is also and act of destruction or abandonment. Something has to be cast aside to make way for the new.

creative practices: david sparks

David Sparks (@macsparky) is our latest guest for the Creative Practices interview series. David is a lawyer, and a Mac blogger and podcaster. David talks about how getting organized has been important to help him create the time and space to generate so much content — whether it be legal briefs, blog entries or podcast episodes. If you are familiar with David’s work, then you will already know that he is thoughtful, articulate, and full of helpful ideas.

As with previous interviews, you can also find my conversation with David available through the Creativityist video or audio podcast. (Both links open in iTunes.) The audio version is available now, the video should be up tomorrow.

Creativityist.com Interview with David Sparks of MacSparky.com from John Chandler on Vimeo.