creative process

Process

What is your process for taking an idea all the way through to a finished product? 

There’s no simple answer, no magic bullet, no one solution that works one-hundred percent of the time. 

Besides, you have to figure out whether or not what you have is really an idea to begin with because my definition of an idea is something that has some life, it has legs. More often than not, what I have first is a thought not an idea. A thought is something that captures your attention or stirs you up a little. It’s that line you underlined in that book you’re reading. It’s the quote you stumbled across. It’s the photograph that made you lean in. It’s the conversation you keep mulling over. It’s a spark and not much else. 

The first step in your process has to be finding a way of fanning that spark into flame, finding your method of turning that thought into an actionable idea. For some people it’s a mood board, an inspiration wall, or a brainstorm. For me, it’s most often writing.

When I start trying to articulate the thing I sometimes discover that all I really have are a few disconnected pieces without enough of the sinewy stuff to make them hang together. The thoughts are not yet an idea. I push and I prod, but I can’t seem to make it make sense anymore. Then it’s time to stop hyperventilating in an attempt to get that ember burning, and just let it die, or go dormant at the very least.

But sometimes the writing just begins to burn. I’m caught up. It may smoke a lot, but in those curls and wisps I can see riveting scenes and moving moments. Most often, that’s when the thought becomes an idea for me, and the process starts to take care of itself a little bit—not because the way is clear or easy, but because I’m suddenly compelled to keep piling all the logs on that I can to keep that thing burning. My heart is all wrapped up in it. 

So writing is almost always the first step for me. 

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately. And by that I mean that I’ve been staring out the window for long stretches of time, after which I get up and make myself a cup of coffee. 

Then I sit down again at my desk and glare at a mostly blank page while I debate for two or three minutes whether or not I should write down the sentence I just thought of because it might be genius or it might be as bad as I’m starting to think it is. Finally, in a glorious 10-minute flurry of activity I write some actual words. 

Creativity is, by its very nature, an inefficient process, if it’s a process at all. 

Gonna Get Myself an Ox

I like keeping things clean. I doubt anyone would say much against a generalized desire for cleanliness, but the rub comes when clean is really just a substitute for right or even for perfect. No mess. No mistakes.

Hardly anything in the real world actually works that way. Creativity certainly doesn’t. I was reminded of the messiness of creativity a couple days ago while I was reading Proverbs.

Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean,

but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.

Proverbs 14: 4

Do you want a clean barn? Don’t have any animals. But the bounty of the harvest and the beauty of the barn are mutually exclusive. You can’t have them both.

Creating means course corrections and do-overs. It means mistakes and failures and fall-on-your-face moments. At least if you're doing it right.

But isn't doing it right the same as doing it perfectly? Not really. Doing something perfectly almost always comes from having already done it before, from doing only what you are sure you know how to do. Never making a mistake means that you’re probably not trying something you’ve never tried.

The reality is: Creativity is almost always messy.

That’s kind of a nice thing to say, and an even nicer thing to imagine… The artist at work, her studio and her smock all covered in mess, and even the mess is a little pretty, made up of Pollock-esque dots of every imaginable color. But I don’t think that’s what Proverbs is talking about. Oxen don’t make pretty messes.

Real messes are a little ugly, and the ugliest mess I’ve ever seen is my internal one. Yes, messier than the creative catastrophes, the failures, and the flatlines is the internal mess that gets made when my work gets real, when I decide I want to make the soil into something, when the dust gets stirred up and the rain turns everything to mud.

I think I’ve been tending a clean barn and an empty field for a little while now. It’s easier, but I don’t have much to show for it. Now it’s time to get an ox. It’s time to get messy. It’s time to drag some heavy ideas from here to there. It’s time to make the earth shake a little. It’s time to plow up some new ground in my work and in my heart.

It means I’m going to have to feed the ox, giving it stuff that’s of substance. It means we’ll need to work hard and rest well. And it means that the hay in the barn is going to get trampled, and things are going to get broken, and I’ll definitely need to shovel some… stuff. But it means there are abundant crops to come.

Baking Cookies & Pulling Triggers

Cookie

Last night I baked cookies, a lot of cookies.

It's because I'm manipulative.

This afternoon I have a creative meeting. For four hours I am locking into a room some of the best creative and musical minds I know. My goal is to get them to start thinking and dreaming about Christmas. What will it sound like? What will it feel like? How will this moment melt into the next? Should this piece here, perhaps, come as a complete surprise?

But it's mid-August, it's all hot afternoons and beckoning beaches. No one is thinking about Christmas except for me. But days like these—ones in which the stars are aligned and the schedules of talented people suddenly intersect—are few and far between. So I need to make the most of it, and to do that I need them to be fully engaged.

I've done my homework. I have a treatment, a rough draft of a script, and a mood/inspiration board that will do some of the work, but not enough. So there will also be twinkling lights and carols playing softly. There will be the smell of sweet cocoa, marshmallows, peppermint, and plates piled high with the cookies I made last night. These things will add some fun to the proceedings, and the extra effort will go a long way toward letting these friends know that I care about them and appreciate their help. All good things.

But there's more to it.

The Christmas season is full of memories and emotions, full of funny stories and sugar-plum dreams, but all of this often sits buried inside us, hibernating between New Year's and Thanksgiving. I need today's team to draw from this wealth of memory and emotion, and I'm hoping that the smells, sounds, and tastes of Christmas will help to trigger their minds and hearts to fully inhabit a season that's still a long way off.

Yes, I admit that it is manipulation, but my conscience is clean because I do it to myself all the time. In fact, I've been listening to Christmas music on my commute for the last two weeks. The other day, before I ever sat down to write the first word of the script, my first stop was at Starbucks to pick up a cinnamon dolce latte, the best approximation of the smells and tastes of Christmas. (And a far cry from my usual black coffee!) These things are powerful triggers that, when pulled, can take our minds and hearts to places we remember but never saw coming.

But it's not just at Christmas. All of life is full of triggers. Some summer afternoons I'll be driving with the windows rolled down, and I'll catch the whiff of a scent that immediately transports my mind to the memory of riding my bike through a field near my house in Ohio when I was six-years-old.

And I think for every creative person there are triggers that help us work. There are places, sounds, and sights that encourage us to do work or to do better work. Perhaps it's a walk through the park just before sunset, or the sight of an uncluttered desk. Or maybe it's the smell of a fresh ream of blank pages, or the call of a brand new brush. Perhaps it's the song we can't stop playing on repeat, or a glance at the silver-framed picture on the bedside table.

We each have triggers, things that inspire us, that transport us, that make us think differently and make us want to get to work... NOW.

Today, let's pull some triggers.

 

Root Rot

We have a lemon tree on our back patio, if you can call it that. A sad, brittle structure of sticks with a handful of lemons on it does not a lemon tree make.

It was once beautiful. O, I could tell you stories of it's waxy leaves, richly green. I could describe to you the sweet scent of it's summer blossoms. I could share the excitement of seeing it's first green baubles, the promise of an abundant harvest to come.

We had dreams of summer lemonade and lemon pie when we first brought it home, that healthy tree. Nine months later it is…well…something else entirely. For the last two months we have agonized over it. We've watered. We've sunned. We've fed.

We've given up.

We have resigned ourselves to its impending demise.

I'm not an arborist, as I'm sure you've deduced, but I think I can see the problem.

It's dying from the bottom up, from the inside out. It's roots are too saturated and too far gone. The carriers of life-giving nutrients and moisture are rotting away, unable to take what they're given. Too much of a good thing—trite but true.

A few days ago I wrote about the value of hibernating, of responding to the natural winters of life and allowing your creative output to go dormant for awhile. But if spring fails to spring you from your hibernation, there may be another thing happening, a deeper problem, a root-level sickness.

And usually you don't have to be an arborist to diagnose the problem, just an artist. Because an artist knows when they've ceased to absorb all the life-giving nutrients they've been given. An artist knows when collecting inspiration has lowered into rapacious rot.

We need to stop succumbing to the sickness of incessant inspiration-gathering followed by inaction.

The best remedy? Get to work.