creativity

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.

The Magic Hour

I remember summers as a kid growing up in Ohio. The days were hot and muggy. And long.

Darkness didn’t usually set in until almost 10 pm, and that meant a lot of time was spent outside in the sunshine. There were a band of six of us boys, all close in age, who whiled away those daylight hours together. We built forts in the woods, swung from vines, played with fire and generally acted like we were living in the early chapters of Lord of the Flies.

I remember running and shouting and hitting things with sticks. I don’t remember many moments of stillness, of quiet. But there were a few.

At the edge of the woods we often played in there was a field full of weeds and wildflowers and sweet-smelling clover. I remember one day picking wild raspberries in the woods and crossing that field on our way home. As we stepped into the clearing the sun seemed to hang just above the tops of the trees on the far edge of the field, and our shadows fell long on the grass.

And suddenly everything was brilliant with golden glow.

Every blade of grass seemed to stand out in sharp relief. The trees that bordered the field turned a vibrant green as if they themselves were emitting a neon glow. The wildflowers became like jewels dotting the landscape. In the air, every speck of dust and every flying insect sparkled as they caught the light, filling the air with diamond dust.

We stopped. We were quiet and still.

The world seemed reborn, alive in a way I’d never known. What had seemed ordinary and commonplace when we had passed through it an hour ago was suddenly enchanting and new. Every rock demanded our attention. Every weed deserved mention.

Our pause must have been momentary, but in our boyhood rhythms it was the equivalent of an hour. A magic hour.

That’s what cinematographers and photographers call it. The Magic Hour. Or sometimes The Golden Hour. It’s the day’s last hour of sunlight, and it makes the ordinary extraordinary. I must have seen it before that day, but that was the first time I’d really taken it in.

Even now, there’s nothing like a windows-down drive during the last vestiges of daylight; that kind of magic on a daily basis is good for the soul.

I feel as though, right now I am living in a creative magic hour, so to speak. Everything has come alive for me. Everything I see inspires me or sparks me. I’m moved and motivated. The world seems reborn, alive.

I don’t know how it began. I don’t know when it will end. I don’t know if it’s just a moment, or a season, or a new reality. But I’m going to take it, and revel in it, and thank God for it.

What It Means to Lead

A few of my observations on what it means to lead...in no particular order and by no means exhaustive. 1. It means having courage.

A friend of mine, CJ Casciotta, tweeted this the other day, and I thought it was genius:

Leadership is doing what others are afraid to do until they see you do it.

Some mornings I lie in bed, fighting myself because I just don't want to lead. I don't want to be the person at the front of the excursion into the jungle, hacking at every tropical shrub, spider and venomous snake that stands in the way.

Leading is hard because anything worth doing will be hard to do. You'll hate parts of it. Resistance will declare all-out war on you. Every insecurity you've ever had will bubble to the surface and be seen in the harsh light of reality. But that's what it means to have courage. That's what it means to do something meaningful...and to give other people meaning.

2. It means asking someone to follow. It might seem obvious, but so many of us skip this step. If you're going to lead, someone has to be following, and sometimes that doesn't happen until you ask them.

I rarely have people come up to me begging to follow me. That's not usually the way it works. Instead, we as leaders, have to perceive them. We have to have vision for them. We have to recognize what they uniquely offer. We have to inspire them toward a vision. We have to be open to the way they will change the thing we're leading.

And we have to ask. We just need to ask. I've found that, while most people aren't begging to be followers, they'll step up to the plate if you can show them how their strengths merge with your vision. And remember, you're promising them more than just the task at hand; you're doling out meaning and relationship.

3. It means slowing down long enough to let them follow. I'm going to have to circle back around to this another time, but in short, be okay with a slower pace if it means that other people can be in it with you. The product will be better for it. They'll be better for it. You'll be better for it.

4. It means turning things upside down. I believe leadership is about service. Not everyone would define leadership this way, but this is how Jesus defines it. Everyday I realize more and more that my role as "leader" is really to recognize, release and cultivate what is the unique potential in those who "follow" me. I think I'm going to have to circle back around to this one someday too because I can't begin to do it justice.

5. It means getting messy. We're talking about dealing with people here, and people are messy. All of us are messy and when relationships get real we tend to get our mess all over everything. But real leadership is rooted in relationship.

Why would I say that?

Well, for one, being known in relationship means there's more allowance for being imperfect. And, really, isn't this the best option...since being perfect isn't an option? If you're imperfect and detached, you are not going to be easy to follow. Loving people well also means that even if your grand vision comes crashing to the ground you can get up again because you haven't failed at what is most important.

I would rather love well than accomplish well.

I'm only just beginning to unravel my thoughts on this, so I think I'll need to circle back to this entire topic a few times. But I'm realizing that I do have some things I've learned and that I'm still learning.