Maximizing Your Creativity

TAKEAWAY: You don’t have to wait for creativity to come to you in order to create.

“When the tide is in, write… but if the tide is out, don’t sweat it. That’s when you get your administrative tasking done.”

That was the advice flutist/songwriter Steve “Voice of Golden Eagle” Cox shared with me when I met him in Memphis on my cross-country trip interviewing creatives. He was referring to writing songs, but it could apply to any creative endeavor. If the muse is on your shoulder, work with her. If she’s absent, go check your Twitter stream, empty that email inbox, send out those query letters.

Life doesn’t always accommodate the muse, however. You may not feel creative, but a deadline is looming and your editor or client doesn’t want to hear that “the tide is out.” You may feel phenomenally creative, but you’ve got to shuttle your kids to a soccer game.

When the tide is out:

  • Create anyway. This was advice I heard often from the creatives I interviewed. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Show up at that photo shoot and snap away. Sit down at the keyboard and move those fingers. Turn off the internal editor that says your output is schlock. At worst, you’ll produce something you may not feel is your best but will satisfy others, because they never saw the potential creation you envisioned.
  • Work through distractions: When I visited with photographer/painter Amy Buchheit at her home in Vancouver, Washington, she was recovering from a serious illness, was preparing for a move, and had been frantically cleaning her home in anticipation of my visit (I felt pretty guilty about that when I learned of it). But she was determined to take a series of photos she had exhibiting at the time in Seattle and paint them (the photos had been taken originally as models for the eventual paintings). She forced herself to create even with life’s distractions.
  • Don’t be surprised if creativity starts flowing: You may find that when your absent muse sees you’re creating without her, she’ll drop whatever else she is doing and come join you.

When the tide is in:

  • Make time: Steve Cox told me you should “wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning if that’s what you’re led to do and write.” You may find that when the muse is with you, your energy level rises. That bit of manic behavior shouldn’t worry you, but you should pace yourself. No one is Superman.
  • Negotiate with your obligations: That means with others and with yourself. Maybe your spouse could do the soccer shuttling this weekend. Maybe you don’t have to get your house spotless before your visitor arrives. Be flexible, and others will too.
  • Isolate yourself: We have a lot of distractions in our world, and they can keep the muse away. When I visited Erin Ergenbright at her home in Portland, Oregon, she told me she had been creatively stalled for months. A writing professor, she found her students emailed her questions at all hours, and she felt obligated to respond in a timely way. She hadn’t realized those distractions were interfering with her creativity. But a long weekend out with nature brought back the muse. I saw her right as the tide was coming in, and she told me she was going to make clear to her students that there were certain windows in which she’d respond to them, but they needed to understand that she would be going offline for long stretches to embrace her muse.

It can feel sometimes as a creative that we are servants of our creativity, and our master is fickle. But we can be masters of our own creativity, by setting reasonable expectations and controlling our environment.

What are your experiences with dealing with the rising and falling tide of creativity?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

10 Responses to “Maximizing Your Creativity”

  1. I love this reminder to pay attention to the ebb and flow of our creativity. It is so easy to feel uninspired and end up doing nothing, when in truth doing all the things on the to-do list is not only efficient, it can spur creativity by making space.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Charlotte, undone tasks can tease at your mind, and they can’t tease at you any more if they’re done!

  3. “You may find that when your absent muse sees you’re creating without her, she’ll drop whatever else she is doing and come join you.”

    YES! My muse happens to be a chain-smoker named Clarence. He’s kind of a creepazoid, so he actually makes me pretty uncomfortable — but I’ve learned that when I’m writing the stuff that makes me uncomfortable, I’m actually writing from the heart.

    So I guess I’m glad when Clarence comes around. He’s not afraid of missing out on something if he catches me creating without him; he just wants to get in on a chance to make me squirm.

    But, either way, he does show up when I put in my unwilling butt-to-chair time. It’s hard to be creative when I don’t “feel” like it…but inevitably, when I push myself to do it, I end up with useable material.

    Thanks, Patrick, for the chance to share my experiences! : )

  4. “You may find that when the muse is with you, your energy level rises.” –SO TRUE!! I literally feel my heart begin pumping quicker and I often cannot type fast enough to keep pace with the ideas flowing from my mind. This is fantastic advice, Patrick. I’m glad I headed over from my blog to read it. And it’s very true, you have to make time when the muse hits. I’ve written some of my best stuff when I’ve MADE the time to write when that muse takes over.

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