I’m going to diverge a bit from the usual for the next couple of columns. As we approach the end of the year (where did 2018 go, and so fast?!) it’s the perfect time to consider something we may take for granted most of the time: our creative process.
Right now, many—or some, at least—of you will be in the throes of National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo) in which writers challenge themselves to produce 50,000 words throughout the month of November. I’ll be in the trenches with you, but the frenetic focus on production will eventually give way to normal life again. NaNo is a disruption—a good, breakthrough kind of disruption—to your usual process.
After any period of disruption, it’s the perfect moment to pause, see how your process may have evolved, cut out those practices that have ceased to be useful, and make room for something new.
Here’s my suggestion for how you might do that.
Step One: Reflect
This step may seem obvious, intuitive, or unnecessary—of course, I know my process! It’s what I … do …. right? When was the last time you actually paused to examine your process, though? If you’ve had a regular, or even semi-regular writing practice for any length of time, you probably don’t think about what you do. Something you used to be excruciatingly conscious of has now moved into your long-term memory. The habit has formed. Your creative process is something you do unconsciously, like breathing.
Give that process some thought. Consider the following questions:
- What is the best time of day for you to engage in creative work?
- Do you prefer to write longhand, or type?
- Do you use a different method of composition depending on what project you’re working on, or what stage of the work you’re engaged in?
- Do you have favourite tools?
- When do you plan and when do you write by the seat of your pants (admit it, you do both)?
Brainstorm the heck out of this step. Use a mind map, a list, or free-write everything down in your journal or a document on your computer. You may be surprised at what you take for granted, what new habits have worked their way into your process without your noticing, and what you have unconsciously set by the wayside.
Step Two: Take Inventory
Once you have the wild and chaotic brainstormed list of the aspects of your process, it’s time to bring some order to it. Turn the page in your notebook, open a new document, or even use Excel or another spreadsheet program. List all the distinct parts of your process you can pull out of your initial brainstorm and, beside each, write what you feel about it. Don’t think about it. Write your first emotional response.
Step Three: Sort
Using the inventory you created in step two, consider why you had that particular visceral response to each item on your list.
There are no wrong answers here. One creative might feel energized if they ply their craft first thing in the morning. Another might simply feel muzzy. When you look at the why of each aspect of your process, you’ll figure out a few things, like what time of the day might be the best for you to create.
If your inventory is long, this might take a while. You might have to weigh your emotional responses. And don’t forget to honor your reality, as Gabriela recommends. While you might feel inspired by writing prompts or freewriting, if you have a full-time job and kids to take care of, you might have to schedule your time or recruit allies to indulge this aspect of your process.
Having constraints can be a good thing, though. When you make the time to do what you love, it can feel like a special treat. You’ll enjoy it all the more knowing you haven’t had to sacrifice anything else important to do it.
Step Four: Choose
Not everything you’ve gotten into the habit of doing is going to evoke feelings of inspiration or creative flow. Some aspects of your process might feel like drudgery, or, if you track your productivity, you might notice some distressing trends. All work and no play can, indeed, make Jill a dull girl.
Creating is work, and hard work at that. Just because some aspects of your process may not have you jumping for joy doesn’t necessarily mean they have to go, though. If the way you outline your novels isn’t working, you may not have to abandon outlining altogether. Maybe it’s time to adopt a new approach.
Use the emotional cues you identified in step three to streamline your process. It’s time to decide, which means to cut away (another bit of Gabriela wisdom). If any aspect of your process isn’t serving you, decide whether there’s a way to improve upon it, if you have to change it, or if it’s time to stop doing the same thing again and again, expecting a different result.
You know that’s one definition of insanity, right?
Step Five: Commit
Once you’ve pared down and rejigged your process, it’s time to work it. New practices will take time to become ingrained. It takes 28 days to create a habit. Give it at least that long to see if you can work out the kinks.
You may find that some of your ideas don’t pan out as you’d hoped. That’s all right. Adjust course and keep on sailing.
It’s a process.
Falling Short of a Clever Acronym
If I combine the first letters of the steps, it spells RISCC. Can two Cs make a K? I really tried, but I couldn’t come up with a K-word for either choose or commit. Still, I think I can make this work. Being a creator is inherently risky. When we write, we put our hearts and souls onto the page. And then we put it out in the public domain. That’s scary.
So is change. Your creative process is a living, breathing aspect of your life. It’s in continual evolution. It’s going to change as you learn and grow in skill and craft. Building in a regular process review, in which you RISCC to improve, could help you make a creative breakthrough.
I’d love to know if this approach works for you.
Until next time, keep speculating, and see where it leads you!
Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at https://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.