Allowing Time for Creativity

TAKEAWAY: Sometimes our creative muse needs a respite from distraction, and we have to give her that room.

“Of course I’m not creating anything. I don’t have time to do it, I have all these tiny little obligations.”

You know how it feels when the creative tide is in, and your muse is pounding on your brain? You have so many ideas, so much to communicate. Through your pen. Through your brush. Through your guitar.

But you also have three piles of laundry, cookies you promised to bake for the school’s bake sale, and an email inbox filled to bursting.

The quote above is something writer and writing professor Erin Ergenbright told me when I interviewed her last summer in Portland, Oregon, on my cross-country trip across America interviewing creatives. (You can see a five-minute video interview with her at the bottom of this post.) Erin helps her students tap into their creativity, to overcome writer’s block and to find their voice. But she hit a creative dry spell last year.

A solo retreat to the woods reunited her with her muse, but upon her return to civilization she faced a new challenge — holding on to her muse when the demands of life tore at her anew. When I met with her, she was just entering that magical manic moment of creative motivation. The smart thing for her would have been to tell me to buzz off. Instead, she gave a little of her time to share with me how she was going to tell others to buzz off.

Well, she put it more delicately than that.

One of Erin’s talents is combining the written word with tactile objects; she calls herself a “collagist,” or collage artist. Erin co-wrote a collage-based book, “The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook,” with fellow University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA graduate Thisbe Nessen. When I arrived she immediately showed me a new bookshelf she had installed to hold all of the papers and other visual scraps she planned to use for a new collage project. (The shelf, by the way, was second hand. All of her highly tasteful furniture she finds used, a way to have a funky living space while going easy on the Earth.)

Erin’s father was a professional photographer. As she explains in the video, she learned at an early age that if the light was right, her father might stop the car and take just the right shot, even if it took hours. “My dad had a right to do that,” she said, adding “I got away from that.” She’s let others dictate her calendar, and thus her windows for creativity.

When I met Erin she was putting in place proactive steps to ensure she’d have the isolation she needed to write and collage, the isolation she had enjoyed when she was younger, when she was at Iowa. Friends? They’d have to understand that she might not call back or respond to emails immediately. Students? She’d keep office hours, but they’d have to have the same patience with returning calls and answering emails.

Erin had taken the first big step — acknowledge the problem. She had also identified its particulars and set out a path to address them. The hard part, of course, is teaching yourself not to check your voice mail, not to look in your inbox. A thoughtful person like Erin can find it hard to be selfish, and a social person like Erin can find it hard to be isolated.

Life is a balance. Just as the creative tide flows in and out, so do those “tiny little obligations” Erin mentioned. We can’t completely control our muse or those around us, but we can work with those around us to maximize our creative moments.

About Patrick Ross

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

21 Responses to “Allowing Time for Creativity”

  1. OMG, I *love* this video! I love Erin’s willingness to be so honest about her challenges. I can totally relate to her feelings and dilemmas.

    I also love the timing of your post on this topic. I spent the dregs of 2010 going through a messy, painful emotional process so I could arrive in 2011 knowing Who I Want to Be + a creative schedule to go with that. Because just knowing who I want to be creatively in 2011 was not enough. I have to know how to carve out the time for that, and how to block out or reprioritize the people/things that can steal that time.

    I’ve been living my new schedule for only four or five days now, but already I’m so much happier. I write / do things related to my screenwriting until around 3:30. And then I have to work my hiney off on the To-Do List. Wow. I can do that so much more efficiently when I know I’m under the gun. (With the need to start dinner being the gun.)

    I’ve also determined the short list of what’s allowed to interrupt me while I’m Being a Screenwriter. It helps to know what my boundaries are there.

    Your blog has been an important part of arriving at this new place. I feel so good about being here right now, this morning. It’s part of allowing time for my creativity :~)

    • Milli, thanks for this! You’ve given me a boost, and a kick in the pants. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago (http://bit.ly/hOl8YG ) I’m determined to set a schedule for myself, but I keep procrastinating. I’ve dug up a novel I once wrote and shelved and am now reworking it at the suggestion of an editor friend (actually, one of the creatives I interviewed!). It’s very fun, but I kinda have other things I need to do too, that are less fun but important. I think that’s what motivated me to pick Erin to profile today, of the 40 or so artists I interviewed.

      I’m so glad your schedule’s working for you, and think it’s great you’ve put into the universe your determination to succeed as a screenwriter!

      • Best of luck finding a schedule that works for you, Patrick. I found that it takes a little trial and error, and really really knowing what you want.

        If you want someone to brainstorm it with, would love to do that.

  2. This was excellent, Patrick, thank you. Loved the video as well. Erin echoes my own experience of frustration with trying to be creative with other demands constantly pressing in on me.

    A lot of creative people are introverts and need a lot of quiet alone time to create. Yet the demand is high for us to be engaged in social media, doing public speaking and all manner of marketing if we want our work to be considered. It’s all rather overwhelming and loud at times.

    I need to practice turning off email and not answering phone calls. That would be easy compared to finding a way to turn off my two boys, 4 and 2. This comment has taken about 15 minutes and several interruptions to write!🙂

    • Oh my! My kids are now 15 and 12, the bigger challenge is keeping them home to spend time with them. But I hear you. I’ve realized recently that I used to have some balance, but in the last four years I’ve allowed distractions and the low-hanging fruit on my to-do lists to disrupt my creative cone of silence. I’m working on finding a balance, like Erin is. Good luck to you!🙂

  3. I love Erin and this interview. I live in Portland and I wish I knew her, she seems like an amazing writer. I’ve had a long-time interest in collage so this one really resonated with me.

  4. Great work here Patrick. This is such a fascinating series you are doing. Has anyone done this before? I’m seeing some very kindred spirits. Seems like all of us artists are just spinning around, trying to catch life while at the same time holding up our art. It’s such an exhausting and tricky balance. Thank you for the video. I felt less alone afterwards and that’s a wonderful thing.

    • Ollin, thanks for your uplifting comment! I’m not aware of anyone who has done something just like this, traveling across the U.S. interviewing everyday, hardworking creatives. But some have said I’m like a modern-day Studs Terkel, the late author and broadcaster who would interview “regular” people and share their not-so-ordinary stories. I find the comparison quite flattering, as Terkel was a master storyteller.

  5. A couple of thoughts. I love what she says about her father “having a right” to take 3 hours to do a photo shoot when the light was right. In our culture, we are so far from considering creative expression a right, and yet how could it not be? That’s what freedom is, in my book. This is what makes us human, and we have a right to make time for it.

    We’re so concerned about imposing on others in order to do our creative work, but we wouldn’t create the same rules for ourselves regarding our right to eat, bathe, use the restroom, earn a living, etc. I’m pondering what it would take for people to start viewing creative work as a right we all have, that we don’t have to apologize for or feel selfish about.

    My other thought is that while I totally get the need to carve out a good chunk of time to really focus on creative work, it’s also helpful to view the creative process in a larger sense. Time spent generating ideas, letting them percolate, gathering materials, etc. is all part of the process, and those things can go on in very short time frames and even while doing other things.

    Acknowledging those parts of the process and the availability of time for that has helped me feel less frustrated when I can’t get large chunks of time.

    This is a fascinating project, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the profiles.

  6. Sue, what a thoughtful and useful comment! Agreed, it’s important to recognize that there are moments we can steal back from the universe (perhaps we need a more positive word than “steal”!). It could be waiting in a line at the bank, or walking to meet a friend. As for percolating, many creatives (me included) allow their subconscious to work out creative knots in our sleep.

    More than one artist I interviewed suggested these moments could also come when with another. One told me her spouse learned that if she’s looking out the window, he should know that she’s working!🙂

  7. What a wonderful video project you’ve got going here, Patrick. I’m a big fan too of finding the ‘extraordinary in the seeming ordinary’ and so glad you’re showcasing some very inspiring and worthy creatives.

    I, too, can relate strongly to what Erin shared, about feeling like we can have the ‘right’ to simply be artists and to take the time (whenever the muse strikes us, like her father did) instead of giving our time and attention away to others first and trying to make do with what is left.

    Yeah, often there’s not much creative energy or inclination after all that (the point Erin made about being with people who consumed all her attention has been true for me as well).

    I’m inspired to be more assertive about preserving and maintaining my creative ‘space’ and time/priorities and to not succumb so readily to the distractions that keep me away from producing the work I want to do.

  8. Carole Jane, thanks for your enthusiasm! I interviewed about 40 artists on the trip. None of the creatives were household names, but all were accomplished, dynamic, thoughtful, and yes, creative. They have so much to offer, and I’m doing what I can to facilitate that.

    Good for you for choosing to carve out some creative “you” time!🙂

  9. Oh my… schedules are so challenging, and as many of you confirmed it does not get easier as kids get older. I plan to organize my writing and craft supplies and then take the plunge.

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