Finding the way forward
I want to try to describe how it is that I write.
I compose all day in my head, when I’m alone. A topic pops into my head, or a memory, and my brain turns into a computer. Just give me a prompt and my brain is racing to artfully structure flowing sentences into an essay. All inside my head.
. . . they all reeled out of me, those words I’d imbibed, in one continuous ribbon.
—Katherine May, The Electricity of Every Living Thing
Often, more than one topic is fighting for airtime. So, usually before I come to a reasonable conclusion, my brain moves on to the next topic. Because I get mild anxiety if I don’t allow myself to think all the things I’m trying to think.
When my thoughts become too overwhelming to function or sleep (it happens both day and night), I pull out the closest writing tools and do a brain dump. The usual location is the Notes app on my phone.
To date, there are 125 notes in a folder called “essay fragments.” And that’s out of 855 total notes that actually got properly filed. There are 121 blog post drafts on my WordPress account. And around 100 drafts on my Scrivener app. That’s not counting physical notes written on paper either.
The intention is always that I just get the words out of my head into a manic brain dump rough draft and then have a focused sit down time to edit these drafts and share them online.
This is the part that trips me up (as proven by the pitiful amount of published posts on my website), and it’s led to a lot of negative thinking over the years.
Clearly, I can write. I write three pages of journaling every day. I wrote my book draft for The Simple Path of Journaling in around two months (from August 2022 to October 2022). And then of course the million and a half essay/blog rough drafts I’m drowning in.
And I know how to edit. I look at my finished essays on my website, and honestly I really enjoy reading them.
If I was just sticking with essay and blog type writing, I doubt I would have figured out the issue I was having. But when I got really determined that I was going to finish this book and publish it, the stakes got a lot higher and the issues ran deeper.
After a lot of crying and journaling and asking God/myself/the void for help, I had a breakthrough and finally learned about a method of writing that fits my brain so much better.
It’s called intuitive writing. I don’t really know much about it yet, but I’m going to write about the little bit that I do understand.
Intuitive writing is based off of feminine energy, which is very opposite to most mainstream writing practices that are based off masculine energy. Masculine energy writing includes lots of plotting, outlines, structure, word counts, and routines.
Feminine energy writing is a lot harder to grasp, because it involves more of the subconscious mind and trusting yourself. It’s sort of a bit more like stream of consciousness writing. But you just start with a blank page and see what happens. It’s kind of a scary approach. You have to trust yourself not to get lost. And you have to be okay with being lost anyway, because that’s how you find yourself and your words.
I began to lean more into structure and order, but Sheree was an artist . . . she was much more fluid, intuitive, and less structured.
—Will Smith, Will
There are two things I’ve learned about intuitive writing that I’m trying to put into practice now.
The first is that I need to make sure I’m completely done writing something before I start to edit it. This is because writing and editing are two different sides of the brain. Editing requires the use of judgment and critique, whereas writing is very open and vulnerable. It can be quite detrimental to be switching back and forth between the two.
This is how I kind of fucked myself up while writing my book. I started working on a proper outline and section titles and page numbers before I was even done writing it. That led to me feeling boxed in by the structure I’d employed, so my writer side was kind of throwing a fit and refusing to work. And I also felt paralyzed to continue writing, because I would compare my freshly written sentences to the already edited ones and think myself a terribly shitty writer.
The second thing I’ve learned about intuitive writing is that I need to just work on one writing piece at a time. One piece within each different type of writing I’m doing, I should say. So I can still work on my book, work on my newsletter, do my journaling. But I’m just focused on one blog post at a time, rather than the chaotic pile of drafts demanding my attention.
(I’m going to write in a future post about what I’ve decided to do with all my rough drafts and how I’m going to capture new ideas going forward, because collecting rough drafts is definitely not the right process for me.)
I tried it out both things I learned with this post. I did my initial manic brain dump and then stopped when I felt like I said everything that was on my mind. The next few days I was tempted to start new drafts, but I made myself just look at this one, which led me to more brain dumps on this topic. I didn’t allow myself to start editing until I felt totally drained of the words in my head and ready to polish what I’d written.
It was hard at first, to not write drafts on new ideas, to continue to add this this draft over and over until it felt finished, before I started cleaning it up. But it started feeling natural and good too. And look, I published it!!
Part of this process is about learning to trust my intuition. Learning to trust my own mind. Learning to trust the way I work.
The job of a writer, he says, is simple: You write what’s in your head.
—Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
I’ll have much more to say on this topic as I implement more of intuitive writing into my life. But this breakthrough shows why I value personal growth and introspection so much. It’s so helpful to understand and trust yourself, because there are such vastly different ways to operate in the world. I would have blindly struggled with the same problems over and over if I hadn’t allowed myself the journey of figuring out who I am. Collecting piles of rough drafts, never finishing anything, feeling like shit during the editing process.
A sensitive introverted neurodivergent creative individual like myself and many others are never going to thrive by following the rules and structure dictated by rigid masculine energy. Which is what most of society is built off and expects from others.
But the good news is that feminine energy exists just as strongly and equally in this world.. There is a way forward that will feel perfect for each person’s energy. It just requires trust and an open, insightful mind.
The Creative Habit
Title: The Creative Habit
Author: Twyla Tharp
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
To some people, this empty room symbolizes something profound, mysterious, and terrifying: the task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something whole and beautiful and satisfying. It’s no different for a writer rolling a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter (or more likely firing up the blank screen on his computer), or a painter confronting a virginal canvas, a sculptor staring at a raw chunk of stone, a composer at the piano with his fingers hovering just above the keys. Some people find this moment—the moment before creativity begins—so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard; they take a nap or go shopping or fix lunch or do chores around the house. They procrastinate. In its most extreme form, this terror totally paralyzes people. The blank space can be humbling. But I’ve faced it my whole professional life. It’s my job. It’s also my calling. Bottom line: Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.
After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves—write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon—but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit. It’s the same for any creative individual, whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory. The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. And this routine is available to everyone.
Destiny, quite often, is a determined parent. Mozart was hardly some naive prodigy who sat down at the keyboard and, with God whispering in his ears, let the music flow from his fingertips. It’s a nice image for selling tickets to movies, but whether or not God has kissed your brow, you still have to work. Without learning and preparation, you won’t know how to harness the power of that kiss. Nobody worked harder than Mozart. By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose. That’s the missing element in the popular portrait of Mozart.
In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative. No one can give you your subject matter, your creative content; if they could, it would be their creation and not yours. But there’s a process that generates creativity—and you can learn it. And you can make it habitual. There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other.
My daily routines are transactional. Everything that happens in my day is a transaction between the external world and my internal world. Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it. Without the time and effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by the thunderbolt and it’ll just leave you stunned.
I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5: 30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.
A writer friend can only write outside. He can’t stand the thought of being chained indoors to his word processor while a “great day” is unfolding outside. He fears he’s missing something stirring in the air. So he lives in Southern California and carries his coffee mug out to work in the warmth of an open porch in his backyard. Mystically, he now believes he is missing nothing.
I loathe air-conditioning. I like skin that is just about to break out in glistening sweat.
Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind? Toughen up. Leon Battista Alberti, a fifteenth-century architectural theorist, said, “Errors accumulate in the sketch and compound in the model.” But better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds.
The job of a writer, he says, is simple: You write what’s in your head. But it becomes an emotional challenge when you can’t corral the words into coherent thoughts. Suddenly you doubt yourself. As you wallow in self-doubt, you turn away from the computer screen and see dirt that you hadn’t noticed before (certainly not when the work was going well and you didn’t need to turn away from the screen); the dirt becomes inextricably linked with the self-doubt, and wiping away the grime cathartically wipes away the self-doubt. The emotional crisis is solved. Let the writing begin.
I know there are people who can assimilate a lot of incoming data from all angles—from newspapers and magazines, movies, television, music, friends, the Internet—and turn it into something wonderful. They thrive on a multitude of stimuli, the more complicated the better. I’m not hard-wired that way. When I commit to a project, I don’t expand my contact with the world; I try to cut it off. I want to place myself in a bubble of monomaniacal absorption where I’m fully invested in the task at hand.
I know there are artists who like music in the background when they work; they use the music to block out everything else. They’re not listening to it; it’s there as a form of companionship. I don’t need a soundtrack to accompany my life. Music in the background nibbles away at your awareness. It’s comforting, perhaps, but who said tapping into your awareness was supposed to be comfortable? And who knows how much of your brainpower and intuition the Muzak is draining? When I listen to music, I don’t multitask; I simply listen. Part of it is my job: I listen to music to see if I can dance to it. But another part is simple courtesy to the composer. I listen with the same intensity the composer exerted to string the notes together. I’d expect the same from anyone watching my work. I certainly wouldn’t approve if someone read a book while my dancers were performing.
Mays waited patiently, but when it became obvious that no one present had anything to write with, he shrugged and said, “Sorry, kid. Ain’t got no pencil, can’t give no autograph.” From that day on, Auster made it a habit to never leave the house without a pencil in his pocket. “It’s not that I had any particular plans for that pencil,” Auster writes, “but I didn’t want to be unprepared. I had been caught empty-handed once, and I wasn’t about to let it happen again. If nothing else, the years have taught me this: If there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it. As I like to tell my children, that’s how I became a writer.”
A Manhattan writer I know never leaves his apartment without reminding himself to “come back with a face.” Whether he’s walking down the street or sitting on a park bench or riding the subway or standing on a checkout line, he looks for a compelling face and works up a rich description of it in his mind. When he has a moment, he writes it all down in his notebook. Not only does the exercise warm up his descriptive powers, but studying the crags, lines, and bumps of a stranger’s face forces him to imagine that individual’s life. Sometimes, if he’s lucky, the writer attaches a complete biography to the face, and then a name, and then a narrative. Before he knows it, he has the ingredients for a full-fledged story. I know cartoonists who always carry pen and pad to sketch what they see, photographers who always have a camera in their pockets, composers who carry Dictaphones to capture a snatch of vagabond melody that pops into their heads. They are always prepared. Pick your “pencil” and don’t leave home without it.
It’s not the solitude that slays a creative person. It’s all that solitude without a purpose. You’re alone, you’re suffering, and you don’t have a good reason for putting yourself through that misery. To build up your tolerance for solitude, you need a goal. Sit alone in a room and let your thoughts go wherever they will. Do this for one minute. (Anyone can handle one minute of daydreaming.) Work up to ten minutes a day of this mindless mental wandering. Then start paying attention to your thoughts to see if a word or goal materializes. If it doesn’t, extend the exercise to eleven minutes, then twelve, then thirteen… until you find the length of time you need to ensure that something interesting will come to mind. The Gaelic phrase for this state of mind is “quietness without loneliness.” Note that this activity is the exact opposite of meditation. You are not trying to empty your mind, not trying to sit restfully without conscious thoughts. You’re seeking thoughts from the unconscious, and trying to tease them forward until you can latch onto them. An idea will sneak into your brain. Get engaged with that idea, play with it, push it around—you’ve acquired a goal to underpin this solitary activity. You’re not alone anymore; your goal, your idea, is your companion.
You’re never lonely when your mind is engaged. Alone is a fact, a condition where no one else is around. Lonely is how you feel about that.
The golfer Ben Hogan said, “Every day you don’t practice you’re one day further from being good.”
Robert Benchley wrote that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. I guess I’ve always been one who does.
When I’ve learned all I can at the core of a piece, I pull back and become the Queen of Detachment. I move so far back that I become a surrogate for the audience. I see the work the way they will see it. New, fresh, objectively. In the theater, I frequently go to the back and watch the dancers rehearse. If I could watch from farther away, from outside the theater in the street, I would. That’s how much detachment I need from my work in order to understand it.
Immerse yourself in the details of the work. Commit yourself to mastering every aspect. At the same time, step back to see if the work scans, if it’s intelligible to an unwashed audience. Don’t get so involved that you lose what you’re trying to say.
Zoe and bios both mean life in Greek, but they are not synonymous. Zoe, wrote Kerenyi, refers to “life in general, without characterization.” Bios characterizes a specific life, the outlines that distinguish one living thing from another. Bios is the Greek root for “biography,” zoe for “zoology.” I cannot overstate what a profound distinction this was. Suddenly, two states of experience were made plain to me. Zoe is like seeing Earth from space. You get the sense of life on the rotating globe, but without a sense of the individual lives being lived on the planet. Bios involves swooping down from space from the perch of a high-powered spy satellite, closing in on the scene, and seeing the details. Bios distinguishes between one life and another. Zoe refers to the aggregate. Bios accommodates the notion of death, that each life has a beginning, middle, and end, that each life contains a story. Zoe, wrote Kerenyi, “does not admit of the experience of its own destruction: it is experienced without end, as infinite life.” The difference between zoe and bios is like the difference between sacred and profane. Sacred art is zoe-driven; profane art stems from bios.
If you understand the strands of your creative DNA, you begin to see how they mutate into common threads in your work. You begin to see the “story” that you’re trying to tell; why you do the things you do (both positive and self-destructive); where you are strong and where you are weak (which prevents a lot of false starts), and how you see the world and function in it.
The better you know yourself, the more you will know when you are playing to your strengths and when you are sticking your neck out. Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable.
He wrote beautifully constructed parlor comedies that provided a laugh every twenty seconds. That was his gift, and it was a rare talent. I’m sure there are snobs who tried to dismiss Neil Simon as a joke mechanic producing a hit a year. I don’t see it that way. I look over his enormous output—three dozen plays, a dozen original screenplays—and see a paragon of habitual creativity. More to the point, I see a writer constantly stretching. He pushed his talent more than most people appreciate. He didn’t go against his nature and try to write dramas like Eugene O’Neill—he was too smart for that—but he was always injecting into his plays dark elements and serious themes that tested his abilities and made his audience stretch, too. Where his strengths for comedy could cover his experiments, his stretches, he knew he could go for it. There is a large gap in time and ambition between Barefoot in the Park in 1961 and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lost in Yonkers in 1990. But both plays are recognizably Neil Simon. He had a good sense of who he was and how far he could venture beyond his comfort zone. Another thing about knowing who you are is that you know what you should not be doing, which can save you a lot of heartaches and false starts if you catch it early on.
Go outside and observe a street scene. Pick out a man and woman together and write down everything they do until you get to twenty items. The man may touch the woman’s arm. Write it down. She may run her hand through her hair. Write it down. She may shake her head. He may lean in toward her. She may pull away or lean in toward him. She may put her hands in her pockets or search for something in her purse. He may turn his head to watch another woman walking by. Write it all down. It shouldn’t take you very long to acquire twenty items. If you study the list, it shouldn’t be hard to apply your imagination to it and come up with a story about the couple.
Now do it again. Pick out another couple. This time note only the things that happen between them that you find interesting, that please you aesthetically or emotionally. I guarantee that it will take you a lot longer to compile a list of twenty items this way. You might need all day. That’s what happens when you apply judgment to your powers of observation. You become selective. You edit. You filter the world through your particular prism.
What caught your fancy is not as important as the difference between the two lists. What you included and what you left out speaks volumes about how you see the world. If you do this exercise enough times, patterns will emerge. The world will not be revealed to you. You will be revealed.
The essayist Joseph Epstein has noted, “A radical change in one’s name seems in most cases a betrayal—of one’s birthright, of one’s group, of one’s identity.” I don’t agree. In a sense it’s a commitment to a higher personal calling. And it’s not uncommon among creative souls. The ancient masters of Japanese art were allowed to change their name once in their lifetime. They had to be very selective about the moment in their career when they did so. They would stick with their given name until they felt they had become the artist they aspired to be; at that point, they were allowed to change their name. For the rest of their life, they could work under the new name at the height of their powers. The name change was a sign of artistic maturity.
Dance is a tough life (and a tougher way to make a living). Choreography is even more brutal because there is no way to carry our history forward. Our creations disappear the moment we finish performing them. It’s tough to preserve a legacy, create a history for yourself and others. But I put all that aside and pursued my gut instinct anyway. I became my own rebellion. Going with your head makes it arbitrary. Going with your gut means you have no choice. It’s inevitable, which is why I have no regrets.
To some people, vital information is their best friend’s phone number. To someone else, it’s the lyrics to the “Catalog Aria” from Don Giovanni or Rick’s airport speech from Casablanca or a recipe for couscous.
When I watch a rehearsal or performance of one of my dances, I strive to remember the first twelve to fourteen notes or corrections I want to discuss with the cast without writing them down. That’s my limit—twelve to fourteen notes—which is nothing to sneeze at.
I work a lot faster if I can walk into rehearsal the next day and rattle off my changes to the performers off the top of my head instead of consulting some pieces of paper. It also gives me authority.
Just because you can recite Shakespeare’s sonnets from memory doesn’t mean you have the poetic spark to write a sonnet of your own. Creativity is more about taking the facts, fictions, and feelings we store away and finding new ways to connect them. What we’re talking about here is metaphor. Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art, if it is not art itself. Metaphor is our vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what we have experienced before. It’s not only how we express what we remember, it’s how we interpret it—for ourselves and others.
I know one novelist who taught himself the craft of fiction by retyping the stories of his favorite authors. The act of typing someone else’s words—rather than simply reading them—made him stop and think about how the author chose words, constructed sentences and paragraphs, arranged dialogue, and structured a narrative. In this case, the exercise is less about muscles and more about perceiving structures and harmonies anew—from the vantage point of the author rather than the reader.
It’s no different from a young person sitting with a drawing pad in a museum copying a great artist. Skill gets imprinted through the action. If there’s a lesson here it’s: get busy copying. That’s not a popular notion today, not when we are all instructed to find our own way, admonished to be original and find our own voice at all costs! But it’s sound advice. Traveling the paths of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints, is a vital means to acquiring skill.
The French ski champion Jean-Claude Killy, I’m told, was a master at this. If he was recovering from an injury and couldn’t take his practice runs the days before a race, he would rely on his memory of the mountain and picture himself racing the entire course. He would do this repeatedly until he felt the course implanted in his muscles. This gave him the feel of success.
He even had a name for the space he was tapping into: institutional memory. As he told me, “Look, it’s very rare to come across something truly original in a corporate environment. Most, if not all, of your good ideas are probably sitting somewhere in your files or are locked up in the brains of the people who have worked at your company for years. In other words, the good ideas are institutionalized. They exist and they’re yours for the taking. All you’ve got to do is find a way to tap into them. To me, that means (a) digging through files and (b) really listening to the people who’ve worked here a long time. They know a lot more than anyone thinks. Hell, they don’t even know how much they remember until you ask them.” Whether he knew it or not, the executive was on to something profound and slightly ironic. While most people in the workplace—and in the arts—think they have to be constantly looking forward to be edgy and creative, this man found that the real secret of creativity is to go back and remember.
This kind of notion is tricky to put into words, particularly when the memory we’re dealing with is nonverbal and involves a physical movement. But I know there are many moments in my working day when I sit back and ask myself, How do I know that this particular creative decision on the dance floor, going from x to y, is right? What makes me so sure I’m making the right choice? The answer I whisper to myself is often nothing more than “It feels right.” And part of the reason it feels right is that the move has been reinforced in us over centuries of practice. Every dance I make is a dive into this well of ancient memory.
If a picture is a memory captured, then these great dance photos helped me capture a new memory. The archival images came to me through my eyes and I absorbed them first in my brain, then in my body, and finally in my own memory. Once they were locked in me, I was free to call on them anytime. If one day I was stuck, I could ask myself, How would Martha move? or What would Doris Humphrey feel like? I could harness their memory as easily as if it were my own, and use the things they were using to fashion my own solutions. In a sense, I was apprenticing myself to these great women, much as Proust had to Ruskin and Chandler to Hemingway. A young friend of mine recently described an internship he was about to begin. He called the process “shadowing,” following around a mentor and learning from him. That’s what I was doing in the archives, shadowing my predecessors. This is how you earn your ancestry.
I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.
A writer with a good storage and retrieval system can write faster. He isn’t spending a lot of time looking things up, scouring his papers, and patrolling other rooms at home wondering where he left that perfect quote. It’s in the box.
Beethoven, despite his unruly reputation and wild romantic image, was well organized. He saved everything in a series of notebooks that were organized according to the level of development of the idea. He had notebooks for rough ideas, notebooks for improvements on those ideas, and notebooks for finished ideas, almost as if he was pre-aware of an idea’s early, middle, and late stages. For anyone who reads music, the sketchbooks literally record the progress of his invention. He would scribble his rough, unformed ideas in his pocket notebook and then leave them there, unused, in a state of suspension, but at least captured with pencil on paper. A few months later, in a bigger, more permanent notebook, you can find him picking up that idea again, but he’s not just copying the musical idea into another book. You can see him developing it, tormenting it, improving it in the new notebook. He might take an original three-note motif and push it to its next stage by dropping one of the notes a half tone and doubling it. Then he’d let the idea sit there for another six months. It would reappear in a third notebook, again not copied but further improved, perhaps inverted this time and ready to be used in a piano sonata. He never puts the ideas back exactly the same. He always moves them forward, and by doing so, he re-energizes them.
When a journalist gets a story assignment, he doesn’t immediately sit down and knock out a finished piece. He has a routine, which is common to all good journalists. First, he reads all the background material he can get his hands on. Then he talks to people to verify old information, unearth new information, and pull out lively quotes (which he knows are the lifeblood of solid reporting). He jots all this down in his notes. Filling up the notebook can take hours or months, depending on the journalist’s deadline. But only when his research and reporting are done and his notebook is full does he write the story. If his reporting is good, the writing will reflect that. It will come out clearly and quickly. If the reporting is shoddy, the writing will be, too. It will be torture to get the words out. My box is like the journalist’s notes. It’s the “reporting” routine I follow before creating a piece. If the quality of a journalist’s work is a direct function of how much background material he sifted through, how many people he talked to, how many times he went back to his sources to challenge or check up on their statements—that is, how diligent and clever he was in assembling his research—then the quality of my creative output is also a function of how diligent and clever I’ve been in filling up my boxes.
Sadly, some people never get beyond the box stage in their creative life. We all know people who have announced that they’ve started work on a project—say, a book—but some time passes, and when you politely ask how it’s going, they tell you that they’re still researching. Weeks, months, years pass and they produce nothing. They have tons of research but it’s never enough to nudge them toward the actual process of writing the book. I’m not sure what’s going on here. Maybe they’re researching in the wrong places. Maybe they like the comfort zone of research as opposed to the hard work of writing. Maybe they’re just taking procrastination to a new extreme. All I know for sure is that they are trapped in the box. My solution for them: This isn’t working. Free yourself. Get out of this box. Put it away for another day and start a new box. But do so with the faith that nothing is lost, that you haven’t put in all this effort for naught. Everything you’ve done is in the box. You can always come back to it.
If you’re at a dead end, take a deep breath, stamp your foot, and shout “Begin!” You never know where it will take you.
You can’t just dance or paint or write or sculpt. Those are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however minuscule, is what turns the verb into a noun—paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Even though I look desperate, I don’t feel desperate, because I have a habitual routine to keep me going. I call it scratching. You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward. Scratching takes many shapes. A fashion designer is scratching when he visits vintage clothing stores, studies music videos, and parks himself at a sidewalk cafe to see what the pedestrians are wearing. A film director is scratching when she grabs a flight to Rome, trusting that she will get her next big idea in that inspiring city. The act of changing your environment is the scratch. An architect is scratching when he walks through a rock quarry, studying the algebraic connections of fallen rocks or the surface of a rock wall, or the sweeping space of the quarry itself. We see rocks; the architect sees space and feels texture and assesses building materials. All this sensory input may yield an idea. You can scratch through books. I once walked into the office of a four-star Manhattan chef and his assistant as they were scouring through an enormous pile of international cookbooks, none of them in English as far as I could tell, obviously looking for menu ideas. They had a dazed, sheepish look in their eyes—dazed because I had interrupted them as they were zoning out in their pursuit of a good idea, sheepish because no one likes to be caught in the act of scratching. Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal, and very private. It’s a way of saying to the gods, “Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just wander around in these back hallways…” and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell. I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” This happens to anyone who is willing to stand in front of an audience and talk about his or her work. The short answer is: everywhere. It’s like asking “Where do you find the air you breathe?” Ideas are all around you.
What people are really asking, I suspect, is not “Where do you get your ideas?” but “How do you get them?” To answer that, you first have to appreciate what an idea is.
The difference between good and bad ideas is a lot like E. M. Forster’s distinction between narrative and plot. Plot is “The queen died; the king died.” Narrative is “The queen died; the king died of a broken heart.”
Scratching is what you do when you can’t wait for the thunderbolt to hit you. As Freud said, “When inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it.”
When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going. Musicians know this because compositions rarely come to them whole and complete. They call their morsels of inspiration lines or riffs or hooks or licks. That’s what they look for when they scratch for an idea.
Like a jazz musician jamming for an hour to find a few interesting notes, a choreographer looks for interesting movement. I didn’t start out knowing this; it came to me over time, as I realized that I would never get to the essential core of movement and dance through a cerebral process. I could prepare, order, organize, structure, and edit my creativity in my head, but I couldn’t think my way into a dance. To generate ideas, I had to move. It’s the same if you’re a painter: You can’t imagine the work, you can only generate ideas when you put pencil to paper, brush to canvas—when you actually do something physical.
The Harvard psychologist Stephen Kosslyn says that ideas can be acted upon in four ways. First, you must generate the idea, usually from memory or experience or activity. Then you have to retain it—that is, hold it steady in your mind and keep it from disappearing. Then you have to inspect it—study it and make inferences about it. Finally, you have to be able to transform it—alter it in some way to suit your higher purposes.
There are as many ways to scratch for ideas as there are ideas: The most common is reading. If you’re like me, reading is your first line of defense against an empty head. It’s how you learned as a child. It’s how you absorb difficult information. It’s how you keep your mind disciplined. If you monitor your reading assiduously, it’s even how you grade your brain’s conditioning; like an athlete in training, the more you read, the more mentally fit you feel. It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, magazine, newspaper, billboard, instruction manual, or cereal box—reading generates ideas, because you’re literally filling your head with ideas and letting your imagination filter them for something useful. If I stopped reading, I’d stop thinking. It’s that simple.
Reading, conversation, environment, culture, heroes, mentors, nature—all are lottery tickets for creativity. Scratch away at them and you’ll find out how big a prize you’ve won. The tricky part about scratching, however, is that you can’t stop with one idea. Henry James said that genius is the act of perceiving similarity among disparate things. In the empty room you’re trying to connect the dots, linking A to B to C to maybe come up with H. Scratching is a means to identifying A, and if you can get to A, you’ve got a grip on the slippery rock wall. You’ve got purchase. You can move on to B, which is mandatory. You cannot stop with one idea. You don’t really have a workable idea until you combine two ideas.
If you read for inspiration, read the top-drawer writers, and read their masterworks first. If you get your inspiration from art, look at the masters. If it’s movies, focus on directors in the pantheon of greats. Scratch among the best and you will automatically raise the quality of ideas you uncover.
I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them. I read competitively, remembering Mark Twain’s admonition that “the man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” I read for growth, firmly believing that what you are today and what you will be in five years depends on two things: the people you meet and the books you read. Mostly, I read for inspiration. But what inspires me is probably not the same as what inspires or pleases the general populace. Although I’m interested in characters and story line and sheer information, I usually read with a specific purpose: I’m searching for patterns and archetypes, concepts and situations that are so basic to the human condition that they’ll connect with an audience in a fundamental way, whether or not the audience is aware of the connection. I tend to read “archaeologically.” Meaning, I read backwards in time. I’ll start with a contemporary book and then move on to a text that predates that book, and so on until I’m reading the most ancient texts and the most primitive ideas.
I don’t know if many people read archaeologically. A lot of people I know read chronologically: If they’re tackling all of Dostoyevsky, they start with his earliest works and plow through to his last writings, in much the same fashion as they did in school. Nothing wrong with that. They want to read along as the author grows from youth to maturity. I do it the other way, as if I’m conducting a dig. I start with where the author ended and finish where he started. I’ve done this with Melville and Balzac as well as Dostoyevsky—and each time I feel like a detective solving the mystery of how the writer got that way, not how the writer ended up. A story told backwards is just as interesting as a story told the traditional way, maybe more so. The surest method for finding the path through a maze is to start at the end and work your way back to the beginning. When I’m reading archaeologically, I’m not reading for pleasure. I read the way I scratch for an idea, digging down deep so I can get something out of it and use it in my work. I read transactionally: How can I use this? It’s not enough for me to read a book. I have to “own” it. I scribble in the margins. I circle sentences I like and connect them with arrows to other useful sentences. I draw stars and exclamation points on every good page, to the point where the book is almost unreadable. By writing all over the pages, I transform the author’s work into my book—and mine alone. (I hope, dear reader, you’ve been doing the same to this text throughout.)
You can give yourself the same kind of challenge whatever medium you work in: paint only in shades of green; write a story without using the verb “to be”; film a ten-minute scene nonstop with one camera. Giving yourself a handicap to overcome will force you to think in a new and slightly different way, which is the prime goal of scratching.
It doesn’t matter where you live. If you have a goal in mind, you can turn any venue or destination into a valuable field trip. If you’re looking for beauty and sensory relief, it could be a local gallery or a walk in the woods. If you want chaos and exposed human emotions, spend some time in a hospital emergency room or a bus terminal. If you want information, pore over documents in a forgotten archive at your library. If you want to observe people under pressure, check out a police station or loiter around a construction site. A mall, a blues club, a dairy farm, an open field—they are all worthwhile field trips if you have a clear purpose in mind. It’s your world. Own it.
The most productive artists I know have a plan in mind when they get down to work. They know what they want to accomplish, how to do it, and what to do if the process falls off track. But there’s a fine line between good planning and overplanning. You never want the planning to inhibit the natural evolution of your work.
Habitually creative people are, in E. B. White’s phrase, “prepared to be lucky.”
I used to bask in the notion that all my obstacles to creative efficiency would vanish if I only had exactly the right resources: my own studio, my own dancers, my own theater, and enough money to pay the dancers all year long and to hire the best collaborators. But I’ve learned that the opposite is true: Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat.
Remember this the next time you moan about the hand you’re dealt: No matter how limited your resources, they’re enough to get you started. Time, for example, is our most limited resource, but it is not the enemy of creativity that we think it is. The ticking clock is our friend if it gets us moving with urgency and passion. Give me a writer who thinks he has all the time in the world and I’ll show you a writer who never delivers.
Whatever your reasons for starting with a project—whether crass or noble—they have to be clear and unencumbered. Obligation is a flimsy base for creativity, way down the list behind passion, courage, instinct, and the desire to do something great.
I made a virtue of the clock ticking (you can’t overthink when you don’t have time to think at all).
The conditions were so limited that, as Samuel Johnson said about the prospect of being hanged, they concentrated the mind wonderfully.
Creativity is an act of defiance. You’re challenging the status quo. You’re questioning accepted truths and principles. You’re asking three universal questions that mock conventional wisdom: “Why do I have to obey the rules?” “Why can’t I be different?” “Why can’t I do it my way?”
Sometimes the most creative thing you can do in business is to pick a fight with entrenched systems and hierarchies, if only to get people questioning the wisdom of doing things the same old way. I can’t imagine any CEO taking over a company nowadays and telling his new subordinates, “Everything’s fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The smart CEOs come in swinging; they install their own team, establish new goals. In other words, they pick fights and start breaking things immediately.
Before Beethoven, composers were treated like skilled servants; they were paid whatever their rich and royal patrons wanted to pay. Beethoven changed all that. He demanded and got lucrative fees for his services, and was one of the first composers to dine with his hosts rather than with the help when he performed in his patrons’ homes. I don’t think he could operate as an artist without the feeling that he was at war with someone or something.
Generosity is luck going in the opposite direction, away from you. If you’re generous to someone, if you do something to help him out, you are in effect making him lucky. This is important. It’s like inviting yourself into a community of good fortune.
I cannot overstate how much a generous spirit contributes to good luck. Look at the luckiest people around you, the ones you envy, the ones who seem to have destiny falling habitually into their laps. What are they doing that singles them out? It isn’t dumb luck if it happens repeatedly. If they’re anything like the fortunate people I know, they’re prepared, they’re always working at their craft, they’re alert, they involve their friends in their work, and they tend to make others feel lucky to be around them.
It doesn’t matter what genre you work in, you need to rub up against other people…If you’re a novelist, it’s an editor with helpful suggestions or a friendly reader who can locate your voice.
Spine, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea. You were scratching to come up with an idea, you found one, and through the next stages of creative thinking you nurtured it into the spine of your creation. The idea is the toehold that gets you started. The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work. You intend to tell this story. You intend to explore this theme. You intend to employ this structure. The audience may infer it or not. But if you stick to your spine, the piece will work.
I recall playwright John Guare saying that every tale tells one of two stories: Romeo and Juliet, or David and Goliath—but I always have a spine.
Everyone who presents his or her work to the public eventually realizes that there is a quasi-legal transaction between artist and audience. A writer, for example, establishes the genre he works in, and you, the reader, agree to its terms. It’s a contract between the two of you. A humorist promises to make you laugh. A thriller writer promises to create evil and then conquer it. A mystery writer promises to build a murderous maze and then show you the way out. A romance novelist promises to make you cry. You feel gypped when the author breaks the contract.
If its innocence is still intact, the piece is a comedy. If its innocence is lost and it hasn’t profited from the experience, the piece is a tragedy.
But there’s a danger here. The sheer pleasure of working in the studio introduces the temptation to linger, to fall in love with the process of creation rather than driving toward the end product. Take this sort of thing to an extreme and you’ll never finish anything. This is where having a solid spine is invaluable. Having a spine lets me know where I am starting from and where I want to go. It’s easy to forget this when you’re enjoying yourself so much in the middle. In this sense, I think of spine as an efficiency expert holding a stopwatch as I work. It lets me know when I am dawdling or digressing or wasting time. It reminds me that everything I add is either on message or off. Most of all, it lets me know when I’m done.
The story line may change from film to film, but Keaton had a theme (disaster strikes) and he had a spine (survive—to get the last laugh). He didn’t waste much time in the middle. He went from cause to effect as quickly as possible.
The best writers are well-read people. They have the richest appreciation of words, the biggest vocabularies, the keenest ear for language. They also know their grammar. Words and language are their tools, and they have learned how to use them. (Joseph Epstein blanches with anger and embarrassment when he runs across a word he doesn’t know. To him, not knowing a word is like a doctor not knowing the name of an obscure but vital nerve, or a carpenter forgetting the name of a type of nail. Perhaps he’s being a bit extreme, too harsh on himself; it’s impossible to know all the million-plus words in the English language, but you can’t help admiring his desire to know them all.)
Picasso once said, while admiring an exhibition of children’s art, “When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like them.” You’re only kidding yourself if you put creativity before craft. Craft is where our best efforts begin. You should never worry that rote exercises aimed at developing skills will suffocate creativity. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that demonstrating great technique is not the same as being creative. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were all keyboard virtuosi, but each demanded more of his music than the exploitation of keyboard skill. Beethoven, for example, wrote greater (and more difficult) music in his later years (when his keyboard skills declined) than he did in his youth. The craft in his fingers had diminished but the skill in his head had grown.
The novelist John Gregory Dunne, explaining the difficulties of writing novels, says, “Because one has written other books does not mean the next becomes any easier. Each book in fact is a tabula rasa; from book to book I seem to forget how to get characters in and out of rooms—a far more difficult task than the nonwriter might think.”) Yogi Berra once said that for Christmas he told his father, “I want a baseball bat, a glove, and a ball.” His father said, “Which one of the three do you want?” As a good parent, he was saying, I can’t give you everything, but if you’re really serious about baseball, you’ll figure out how to get the other two. That’s a powerful lesson: Learn to do for yourself. It’s the only way to broaden your skills.
One dancer I know insists her greatest skill is a talent for seduction. She told me that she grew up with a Siamese cat and a Great Dane, and she spent hours watching the cat gain control over the vastly larger dog. It was a life lesson in seduction, and she brings that skill with her every time she takes the stage.
Confidence is a trait that has to be earned honestly and refreshed constantly; you have to work as hard to protect your skills as you did to develop them. This means vigilant practice and excellent practice habits. You’ve heard the phrase “Practice makes perfect”? Not true. Perfect practice makes perfect. The one thing that creative souls around the world have in common is that they all have to practice to maintain their skills. Art is a vast democracy of habit.
And a surgeon once told me that he notices if one of his scrub nurses has been off for a week; he can see a fraction of a second difference in the way she reacts to his requests at the operating table. He detects the same lack of acute skill in himself if he has been on vacation for a week or two. It might not be obvious to his colleagues, but he knows it. It takes him a day or two to lose the rustiness.
The golfer Davis Love III was taught by his father to think of practice as a huge circle, like a clock. You work on a skill until you master it, and then you move on to the next one. When you’ve mastered that, you move on to the next, and the next, and the next, and eventually you’ll come full circle to the task that you began with, which will now need remedial work because of all the time you’ve spent on other things.
Consciously or not, I have always followed one dance piece, successful or otherwise, by launching the next as far in the other direction as possible. I will deliberately follow a ballet for a large cast of dancers set to orchestral music with a piece for a small group to pop music or a jazz solo. I’m not interested in repeating my experience. I want to maintain some inexperience. Giving my next dance a new set of specs is one sure way to do that. Moving from modern dance to ballet is another. Switching gears from concert halls to Broadway is yet another. Norman Mailer calls this “rotating your crops.” Each new challenge is a way to protect your inexperience, make you remember something you never had a chance to forget. When it’s all done, you bring it back to your craft, stronger and wiser. Analyze your own skill set. See where you’re strong and where you need dramatic improvement, and tackle those lagging skills first. It’s harder than it sounds (most useful habits are), but it’s the only way to improve. In A Book of Five Rings, the sixteenth-century Japanese swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi counseled, “Never have a favorite weapon.” Warriors know they need to enlarge their arsenal of skills in order to avoid becoming predictable to their adversaries. It’s no different when the craft is a creative one, and the stakes are somewhat less than life and death.
When I’m considering my own skills, I break them down into categories: Musical skill: an understanding of musical structure and history. Dramatic skill: a sense of what will make people care, with a dollop of daring and flair that surprises people and qualifies as showmanship. Painterly skill: the ability to conceive images in two dimensions, which is very much like creating the balances and proportions in a painting. Sculptural skill: adding depth and a sense of mass to the painterly skill. Psychological skill: knowing the strategies and techniques to get people to do what you want done. Design skill: having enough knowledge and taste to communicate collaboratively with set, lighting, and costume designers. Theatrical skill: knowing how to sustain the peaks and valleys once you get moving in the right direction. Temporal skill: feeling time in your gut, so you know when a scene or phrase has gone on long enough. Motivational skill: making people want to work with you and for you. Entrepreneurial skill: getting the project up in front of people. Promotional skill: keeping it going after the first performance. Athletic skill: knowing as much as possible about how the body works and moves. Literary skill: having a sense of beginning, middle, and end. A writer might not need sculptural skill, since he doesn’t work in three dimensions; most creative endeavors don’t require athletic or musical or design skills. Still, I suspect everyone could use at least two-thirds of these categories to get the most out of his or her efforts. (Of course, there’s an ur-skill that I don’t even feel obliged to list. That, dear reader, is discipline. Everyone needs it. No explanation required.)
The white-hot pitch of creativity is only useful to the person who knows what to do with it.
Leonardo’s breadth of interests was remarkable. So was his ability to bounce back from one area of study to another and find relationships between them. This refreshed him, kept alive his passion for the new. Painters, writers, musicians, we all need this breadth and passion if we’re going to keep perfecting our craft, whether or not there is approval, validation, or money coming from it.
So does a sense of humor. Every great dancer has this, or at least a sense of the absurd. To a visitor from Mars, it’s a bizarre and silly art we pursue. We stand on one leg rather than two, we float our arms overhead rather than keep them at our sides, we spin on our toes trying to convince people that these movements are beautiful.
Dancers are also masters of illusion. In this category the paradigm is Fred Astaire. Ginger Rogers supposedly once asked him why he worked so hard; he replied, “To make it look easy.” He worked on everything. For example, Astaire had very large hands of which he was extremely self-conscious. He would work for hours in front of mirrors to see exactly what his hands were doing and how they looked. He constructed the illusion of a man who was completely at ease with his body and his movements, as if he were acting totally on impulse, and yet nothing was unscripted, unrehearsed, or out of his control.
The final skill I simply list as forever the child. You could call it “the ability to not know” or “denial” or “naïveté.” It’s basically a sense of innocence. You do not know that failure can hurt, or even that you can fail. This brand of unknowingness lets you take incredible risks onstage without appearing to consider the consequences.
The more you know, the better you can imagine.
Determine how much time you need versus how much time you have and plan accordingly. But one of the virtues of the creative life is supposed to be that it’s open-ended. There’s no deadline on a painting or a poem; it’s done when it’s done. To quote D. W. Harding, “The most important thing is not what the author or artist had in mind to begin with but at what point he decided to stop.”
One successful commercial writer advises people beginning their first novels to allow a year to create a first draft, writing a page a day, and another year to make it good. At first glance, the thought of investing two years in a project is daunting, but a page a day is a manageable output. Also, it’s nice to know you’re accumulating a first draft. You’ll get to fix it later.
This happened to me, not hypothetically, when I broke my ankle working on the Milos Forman film of Hair. It was the first time in my life that I had lost my mobility, the first time that I would have to create dance in some manner other than on my body. It was the first time that I wouldn’t be able to show the dancers what I wanted but rather would have to tell them. That’s a huge difference for a choreographer. I managed to get through it; for eight weeks I went into the studio and forced myself to visualize what I wanted and then translate it into language that the dancers would understand. I didn’t enjoy it, but I discovered two new skills: One, I could verbalize my ideas better than I’d thought I could. Two, I had a talent for refusing to be defeated by reality.
“Creativity/creation is subtraction. LIMITATIONS ARE IMPORTANT.”-me Pick one of your skills from the list you made in “Take Inventory of Your Skills”. Now remove it. What’s left? What can you accomplish without it? What does it say about your work habits, your art, your potential? And if you can do without it, why haven’t you?
“We’ve always done it this way” is not a good enough reason to keep doing it if it isn’t working. When an otherwise smart habit or ritual loses its potency and you continue doing it, you’re in a rut.
If you’re like me, you might not always know you’re in a rut until it’s too late. This is particularly true when you’re creating on your own (at least I have the benefit of dancers giving me daily feedback, letting me know when things aren’t working). You may be humming along with your novel, writing every day, and then twelve months later you find you have four hundred pages that do not make sense. You have to make a habit of reviewing your efforts along the way, seeing where you’ve been and where you are to make sure you’re still heading in the right direction, if any.
Leonardo da Vinci said, “Where there is heat there is life.”
When I improvise alone or with a dancer to develop ideas for movement, I videotape the entire session. I want all of the session’s ideas—good, bad, and ridiculous—captured without a filter. The only judgment imposed is whatever self-censoring my partner and I have placed on ourselves, and that’s minimal, because we know we’re there to improvise and develop freely without restrictions. A three-hour session sets an implicit quota of three hours’ worth of ideas. At day’s end, I go through all three hours of tape, searching for a scrap of interesting movement that I’ve never seen before. If I find thirty seconds of movement out of the three hours, I’m happy. Interestingly, like the stool exercise, the useful ideas tend to come at the end of the session, when we’re warmed up and have run through all the obvious steps. It never fails. But that doesn’t mean I fast forward to the end. The process of getting to the good stuff is valuable, too. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary. Sometimes you can’t identify a good idea until you’ve considered and discarded the bad ones.
If you’re in a creative rut, the easiest way to challenge assumptions is to switch things around them and make the switch work. The process goes like this: 1. Identify the concept that isn’t working. 2. Write down your assumptions about it. 3. Challenge the assumptions. 4. Act on the challenge.
Before Edison hired a research assistant, he would invite the candidate over to his lab for a bowl of soup; if the candidate seasoned the soup before tasting it, Edison would not hire the individual. He did not want people who had built so many assumptions into their everyday lives that they assumed the soup wasn’t properly seasoned. He wanted fresh minds that would make no assumptions, with an openness that allows ideas to wander in.)
when your work is at stake, you have to be willing to turn everything upside down, damn the human cost.
If I find myself looking at my watch during a performance—meaning I’m disengaged, the creators and performers have lost my attention, when is this over?—I’ll entertain myself by changing and editing the work. What if Actresses A and B switched roles? What if Scene 4 became Scene 1, kicking off the piece rather than showing up too late? What if the ballerina entered from the back and crossed the stage on a diagonal, which might be more compelling to the eye? What if that tall kid in the corps were her partner instead of the fellow who doesn’t look as if he enjoys dancing with her? I don’t do this to be mean-spirited. I’m well aware of the compromises that have to be made with every production. But it’s a good exercise. I’m challenging the assumptions. It sharpens my rut-fighting skills. This mental exercise serves double duty. It not only gets me out of a rut, it sharpens my show-doctoring skills for when I really need them. I learned this from Jerry Robbins, a true man of the theater, who made a point of going to see everything because he could find something useful in even the worst productions. He’d sit there, viewing the catastrophe onstage, and imagine how he would have done it differently. A bad evening at the theater for everyone else was a creative workout for him. It’s one way he honed the skills that made him one of the greatest show doctors of all time.
The chemistry of the body is inseparable from the chemistry of the brain. Movement can stimulate anyone.
Ernest Hemingway had the nifty trick of always calling it a day at a point when he knew what came next. He built himself a bridge to the next day. I cannot think of a better creative organizational tool. The Hemingway bridge is how you extend a mini-groove.
A savvy stand-up comedian always knows to leave the audience begging for more. You should do the same with your work. Don’t drive yourself to the point of being totally spent. Try to stop while you have a few drops left in the tank, and use that fuel to build a bridge to the next day. Some people, if only for sanity and the maintenance of a humane routine, give themselves a creative quota. Painters stop when they fill up a measurable section of canvas, playwrights when they draft out a complete scene, writers when they hit one thousand words or the clock chimes 5: 00 P.M. They stop no matter where they are on the canvas or page. I know one writer who gives himself both options: He stops at a set time or when he hits his word quota, whichever comes first. He is religious about this routine. But he connects to the next day with a fixed nighttime routine as well: Just before he falls asleep, he reads the last few sentences he wrote. Without fail, he wakes up the next morning brimming with ideas, sentences, whole paragraphs for the next portion of his story. He claims he flies out of bed sometimes so he can get all the words down before they disappear. Apparently, filling up with words and ideas before sleep gives his tired brain some useful work to do as it regroups and refreshes itself overnight. What his conscious brain can’t handle, his subconscious can. He may be one of those blessed individuals who can compartmentalize his thoughts and turn his creativity on and off at will. But he’s on to something useful. In effect, he’s letting his subconscious build his bridge for him. That just might work for you, too.
Harry Truman said that whenever he wrote a letter in anger to anyone, he put the letter away in a desk drawer for twenty-four hours, then he reread it to make sure he still felt the way he did when he wrote it. as John Updike writes, that “each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,”
The poet Paul Valéry said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
Remember this the next time you wonder if a piece is finished. If you don’t have the feeling that you’ve straightened out a messy room, keep working.
To force myself to let my creations go, I’ve developed a ritual that gives me satisfying closure: I name the piece. Attaching a name to the work is always the last thing I do. It’s a signal to myself that I finally understand it.
Pick a “bad” habit—whether it’s coffee or reading the newspaper in its entirety every day to avoid writing—and do something to make it “good.” Realize that you don’t need elimination, just moderation, so it’s working for you. Exorcise the rut. Exercise the groove.
The golfer Bobby Jones said, “I never learned anything from a match I won.” He respected defeat and he profited from it.
I know one writer who frames all his rejection letters and hangs them up in the guest bathroom for every visitor to see.
The wonderful and scary thing about solving creative problems is that there isn’t one right answer. There are a thousand possible answers, but the valuable and practical thing to do is fix the things you know how to fix. That’s why a failure of skill is unforgivable: If you don’t have a broad base of skills, you’re limiting the number of problems you can solve when trouble hits.
If you want to hear this kind of continuity in its clearest developmental form, listen to the Beatles in chronological order. No one was more popular, more universally admired, more commercially successful—and no other group was reinventing itself so consistently yet identifiably. From the sunny optimism of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the sagging resignation of “Let It Be” you get a complete creative arc of 13 albums and 163 songs recorded in eight whirlwind years from 1963 to 1971. Each collection is complete yet foreshadows the songs to come. Beatles 65 suggests Rubber Soul which suggests Revolver which foreshadows Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album and Abbey Road. The Beatles ended when they had to end, and they never got back together, which would have muddied the waters. Their music is the most easily discernible creative arc of my lifetime.
Roth immerses himself in a creative bubble. He lives alone in the country. He works seven days a week, waking early and walking to a two-room studio fifty yards from his house. He stays in the studio all day, writes Remnick, and into the evening: Nothing gets in. In the late afternoons, he takes long walks, often trying to figure out connections and solve problems in the novel that’s possessing him. “I live alone, there’s no one else to be responsible for or to, or to spend time with,” Roth said. “My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning—this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens—and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency. And I’m the emergency. Roth had pared his life down to the minimum number of moving parts. Near his desk he kept two small signs, one reading “Stay Put,” the other “No Optional Striving”—reminders to avoid the temptation of anything other than the five essentials: food, writing, exercise, sleep, and solitude. It might sound like a grim, deprived life, except for the fact that Roth was happy and in a state of fulfilled glory. His unilateral mission, which he likened to the hunkering down of a soldier with a barracks life, put his craft and imagination on permanent duty: “It’s a wonderful experience,” Roth said. “That act of passionate and minute memory is what binds your days together—days, weeks, months—and living with that is my greatest pleasure. I think for any novelist it has to be the greatest pleasure, that’s why you’re doing it—to make the daily connections. I do it by living a very austere life.”
When creativity has become your habit; when you’ve learned to manage time, resources, expectations, and the demands of others; when you understand the value and place of validation, continuity, and purity of purpose—then you’re on the way to an artist’s ultimate goal: the achievement of mastery. The Shakers, the nineteenth-century religious community of self-sufficient craftsmen, made furniture and weavings and tools that were truly masterful. Yet they recognized that there was a fine line between mastery and arrogance; they did not want anyone to think of himself as a master, because there is only One Master. They constructed a system to keep themselves constantly inexperienced. When members of the community mastered a craft (whether it was carpentry or making brooms), the elders would switch them to another task, putting them out in the fields or in the blacksmith shop, where they’d have to start all over again. I admire their devotion to the challenge of the new, though I question their fear of mastery itself. In my experience, every time you set out to create something new, you have to prove to yourself you can still do it at least as well as, if not better than, you did it before. You can not rest on your creative laurels.