Curating The Conditions To Be Creative
Feb 03 2021
I've just come out of two intensive writing weeks as part of my Arts Council funded Mindful Play Handbook project. If you'd like some context about the project, start here, or feel free to jump right in with this blog.
My first intensive writing week was supposed to be a retreat in Arvon, a beautiful rural writers haven in Yorkshire, where writers of all disciplines are supported to steep themselves in their practice. There'd be uninterrupted time and space, delicious food to eat, other writers to talk with and Mother Nature to soothe and inspire. The plan was to use this time to explore ways of letting nature and body-based play infuse my writing.
Coronavirus had other plans. It's been on it's own creative retreat, brainstorming ways it can keep the Covid party going. Building on some of its many successes of 2020, it's been researching and developing some brand new mutations, which it's now delighted to unleash on its eagerly awaiting audience. Unfortunately for Coronavirus, we're all back in lockdown.
Unfortunately for me, this meant I was unable to get to Arvon, so instead, I had a think about what I was hoping to find there: external structure and support, peer mentoring, dedicated time and space, nature immersion, nourishment and adventure. I wondered how I could replicate these conditions here at home. Here's a rundown of some of the things I did and some of the stuff I learned. I'm sharing in the hope they are useful to you too, whether you're a writer, an artist, or someone who is interested in creative process.
1.) There is no right way of doing it, figure out what's right for you.
Every artist / creative has their own unique rhythm. Many writers wax lyrical about their early morning starts, but I'm not such a big fan of the sunrise, myself, I prefer my sleep. It took me until the third year of my MA, when I was 32, to stop beating myself up for not being able to make it to my desk at 9am. My brain doesn't really work before 10am, I do stupid things like putting the electric kettle on the gas hob and pouring oats in the teapot – how can I write a book when I can't figure out how to make breakfast?
One of my writer friends has just bought a beautiful architect's desk, to give her writing pride of place. My sister begins her writing wherever she finds herself, on whatever scraps of paper are to hand. Once upon a time, I used to write in cafes. Ahhh remember cafes? I'd put myself at a table by a window, so I could gaze out in moments of stuckness, the general hubbub of the cafe keeping me present. Obviously I can't do this now! So I've put my desk in the window of my home office where I can watch the neighbours and the birds and the clouds all day, whilst listening to music.
2.) If you want to start your day the wholesome way, put some structure in place!
My favourite way to start the day is with meditation / yoga. Of course, my Inner Critic loves to sabotage this sickeningly pious start to the day, so I've put some structure in place to support the healthy parts of me – ha! I've bought an alarm clock, so that I can turn my phone off at night and leave it off until after breakfast – no social media distraction on waking, ha! When I'm feeling really resistant to getting up and doing healthy things, I use guided meditations / youtube yoga classes to give me the structure and motivation that I can't give myself, ha! On particularly heel-dragging days, I don't even try to get to my meditation cushion, I start with a guided meditation in bed, ha! There are thousands of online resources available, but if you want some pointers, I mention a few things I use in this blog.
Both meditation and yoga help me tune in and connect with my body, this helps me to keep my body with me throughout the day while I write, which may sound ridiculous, but is very easy to leave your body in bed and go to work.
3.) There will always be admin!
After breakfast and a shower, I have an allocated 30 mins of admin time. It's taken me many years to realise / admit that there will always be admin that needs to be done, even in my precious writing weeks. In previous writing times, admin has always surprised and annoyed me, as if, for some reason, all the people who dare to email me, have intentionally / maliciously not put their projects on hold just because I AM WRITING. Factoring admin time into my daily writing schedule is Next Level Grown Up Stuff and stops me stressing out about pissing people off (I'm sorry if I pissed you off by not answering your email, I will get to it soon!).
4.) Make a schedule that works for you
In a previous episode of “Holly Attempts To Write A Book,” I worked out that my brain seems to function in hour and a half blocks. Other writers balk at such a statement – many suggest 45 minutes or an hour is plenty in one sitting. Whatever works for you, do that! If you don't know – experiment until you find out. Try it out for a week or two and see how it feels. In an attempt to find a sustainable rhythm to my writing, I scheduled in three of these blocks a day, which is only 4 ½ hours of actual writing time. My Inner Critic initially thought this was a very weak effort on my part, but actually, 4 ½ hours of concentrated effort feels like enough for a day and I haven't been feeling totally rinsed at the end of each day, so my Critic has conceded.
5.) Give yourself missions, but keep an open mind as to how you'll carry them out
It turns out writing is not just about sitting at a computer and typing. But this seems to be what my Inner Critic gives the most value to. I have to remind my poor uninformed critic that it is not cheating to get out the big bits of paper and post-it notes, or the notebook and pen. Big paper sessions give me perspective and journalling gives me a chance to tussle with whatever's blocking me (I will write about this more). The next level to this will be including dance, movement or clowning to explore whatever theme I'm writing about, but my Critic hasn't been on board for that idea yet, it's way too wacky for his conservative standards (EVEN THOUGH THAT'S WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT! Jeeeeez, I tell ya!).
6.) Schedule in big breaks
I gave myself an hour and a half for lunch, so I could get outside for a walk / cycle / chat with a friend AND I gave myself a luxurious 30 minute break in the afternoon, where I would have a cup of tea on the back step. All this time off seemed incredibly indulgent to my Inner Critic at first – but both me and my Critic have noticed that my writing really benefits from stepping away from my computer, putting my body into a different environment and breathing some fresh air. It brings perspective and new energy. So this is what we do.
7.) Notice when you start reaching for the escape button and take a moment to tune in
During my writing periods, I switch off the social media and phone and vow to stay present with my process. I have been noticing the moments when I start twitching towards the social media, or sliding towards the door to hunt for chocolate (sugar) or tea (caffeine). 9 times out of 10, I am able to notice the urge, tune into my body and listen. Invariably in these moments, my jaw is clenched, my breath is shallow, my shoulders hunched, my stomach twisting in knots and something feels VERY WRONG.
8.) Check in with the guys inside
In these moments, I feel into my body and I ask “Who's here and what do you need?” Generally it's my Inner Critic or my Vulnerability who are rumbling around in the background, causing chaos. Sometimes just acknowledging them, taking a few deep breaths and having a quick stretch or a shake is enough to get me back into my flow, but other times, they won't leave me alone until they've had a chance to voice their concerns on the page. I included an example of this inner dialoguing in my last blog, if you're interested to see what it looks like.
9.) Bring in internal support
To help keep me on track, I've intentionally invited my Compassion and my inner Project Manager to the daily debate on the page. My Project Manager has made us all a gantt chart, you'll be pleased to hear. It's got pretty colours and clear tasks, so we all know what needs going and when. She works hand-in-hand with Compassion, who softens the blow (Project Manager can be a bit “bish bash bosh” in her communication style). They work together to trouble-shoot with my Inner Critic and Vulnerability. They are quite a team, these four, often astounding me with their insights and suggestions for how to proceed with my writing. They tell me when I'm getting lost in the minutiae and need to get the big paper and post-it's out, they tell me when I'm sloshing around broad brushstrokes, when I actually need to commit to having an opinion and they tell me when I need to call in external support.
10.) Bring in external support
As soon as I found out I couldn't go to Arvon, I looked for a regular online clown course to give me some sort of connection with the outside world and to help me keep my playfulness levels topped up. I found my way to Moshe Cohen's “Inner Clown” course, which ran for four weeks on Mondays and Thursdays throughout January. Moshe Cohen is a San Fransisco based teacher, performance artist and hospital clown. He is founder of Clowns Without Borders USA, co-founder of Zen Order of Disorder and someone I would describe as a Clown Elder. His Zoom course was a beautiful mix of Taoist movement, Butoh dance, mime, object play, voice play and clowning. 14 of us from all around the globe tuned in from our living rooms to respond to his gentle, playful exploratory prompts. It gave me a vital lifeline to my clown's lightness twice a week, which undoubtedly seeped into my writing and helped me keep a playful perspective during the rocky moments.
While I'm not offering any therapeutic work, my clinical supervisor has taken it upon himself to help me navigate my way through this writing period, jumping in for the odd tussle with my Inner Critic and making sure I've got enough support in place to keep myself safe and well. I've had brilliant conversations with wonderful writer friends who make me feel like my mad process is perfectly normal. After hearing one of my friends talk about her 'writers jacket,' an actual item of clothing that helped her discover the role of writer and get published, I let my clown go internet shopping after one of Moshe's classes. She chose three fabulously ridiculous ballgowns which I have been enjoying wearing at my desk, anything to keep the play in the process!
At the end of this intensive writing phase, I am even more in awe of anyone who has the bravery to face down their Inner Critics and create anything! And then share it in the public realm! Wow! It takes so much guts, determination and resilience. Hats off to you all! I feel so incredibly lucky to have the space and support to dedicate this time to my writing.
For the next month, I will be testing out some of the activities from my book, on Zoom, with a lovely group of willing guinea pigs and incorporating their feedback into the writing. If you'd like to read reflections and poetry from the Mindful Play lab, click here.
Thanks for reading, I hope there was something helpful for you.
If you are an artist needing support and you like my way of thinking, you can book me, my Inner Project Manager and my Compassion to work on your project, through the Creative Consultancies.
Click here to read about how I overcame my first bout of writer's block
Click here for reflections and poems from February's Mindful Play lab.
Click here to read about what I discovered about the role of surrender in creativity, grief and opening to beauty.
Click here to find out what nature taught me about how to surrender.
Click here for a round up of the whole project