The problem with my creative practice before 2014 was that I didn’t have one.
I half-assumed that creativity couldn’t be pushed or cultivated. My ideas would come to me on walks, on bike rides, or on the tube. And I thought I should be grateful for those, as opposed to deliberately trying to generate any more.
The romanticized view of creativity is that you can chain-smoke cigarettes, hit the G&Ts at midday and sit and waiting for an amazing idea to land in your lap. Because that’s what countless artists and writers throughout history have done, right?
But the more successful creatives I’ve met the more I’ve realized that good ideas come as much (and probably more) from drive and discipline as they do from aimless drunken musing. Moreover, having an idea is the easy bit. Finishing what you’ve started is much harder.
Make time to write
I’ve learned a stack of things over the past six months. But one of the most important of those is the importance of making a time for the practice of creative pursuits every day.
Ok so it sounds so blindingly obvious but you need to make time for your creative writing.
Like a lot of writers, I spend all day every day writing things for other people but I spend precious little time every week, or even every month, pursuing my own creative writing. This is how it tends to go. Get up. Check emails. Get a bit stressed about emails. Send emails. Then spend the rest of the day reacting to emails and Twitter posts. This kind of pattern is typical of modern working life. But it’s a creativity killer.
My friend Pernille Nørregaard is one of those disciplined creatives who rises every day at around 6 am and sits down to start writing. No Facebook checking, no emails. Just words down onto the page. She does this every day for two hours and gives herself a day off on Sundays.
Just aiming for a couple of hours a day is probably more effective (and realistic) than attempting to write all day long. If you can rattle off 500 words or so every day, it soon adds up.
Don’t edit a word.. until later
Fortunately, I’ve never had this problem. I remember interning on a newspaper in central America years ago with a close friend of mine. She was much smarter than me, but she was a perfectionist. You can’t be a perfectionist when you’re writing – you put your perfectionist hat on when you edit.
My approach has always been write to write fast and furiously and then to come along with the computer equivalent of a big red pen and rip it to shreds later. The hardest bit is getting the words out, you can make it read properly later.
Find out what makes you a better writer
I’ve become more interested in this since going freelance. When I worked for someone else I would come in from time to time to work with hangovers and sleep deprivation. When you’re paid according to how much you produce and when you know that the state your body is in will be reflected your ability to construct sentences, the rules of the game change a bit.
I’ve nearly given up caffeine, cut back on alcohol and I am making getting more sleep a priority.
And what time you work better..
I’d often felt that early mornings were better for me. I’ve always been the kind of person whose brain leaps into action as soon as I’m awake and I’ve found a useful kind of mental clarity that comes in the early morning: before my brain has been tugged in different directions by email requests and admin. I am so much better in the morning that I used to joke I was ‘useless’ after 11 am. That’s not quite true, but I’m very nearly useless.
Some studies have backed this up, suggesting that bouts of creative writing are more likely after waking as this is the time of day when the prefrontal cortex is most active. The analytical parts of the brain (the editing and proofreading parts) become more active as the day goes on. So write in the morning, edit in the afternoon.
Find a quiet place to write
Sometimes the background hum of a cafe is helpful. But generally, I find the best creative writing happens for me in complete silence or with some non-lyrical music in the background. Surprisingly, this can be hard to find in Bali, where I’ve been living for the past six months. I currently live opposite a giant construction site where they are building a hotel. Every day the builders start work at 8 am. And I swear they have an agreement that states they must use their loudest tools first thing.
Constantly challenge yourself
One of my biggest problems is that I had the fun educated out of me. I studied politics, philosophy and economics at university, which was hardly a barrel of laughs. Writing became something I started to associate with stress. The process would begin about five hours before the 2,000-word essay was due. I would pore over books (or the introductions of books), trying to think of intelligent things to say. This approach would generally fail. So I would stress out about the impending tutorial. Go to the tutorial. Finish the tutorial relieved and elated and not do very much work for the next few days before doing it all over again the following week.
Then to make matters worse I became a financial journalist, which is a tough gig to be honest.
What’s the problem with banker jokes?
Bankers don’t think they’re funny, normal people don’t think they’re a joke.
Jokes about bankers are hard to come by. Making financial writing colorful is also hard work. Although I’ve been known to try.
The problem with doing so much of this kind of writing is that you forget how to be fun. So you need to work hard to retain and cultivate your fun streak. For me, this involved writing stupid song lyrics, poems and starting a satirical blog. These helped remind me that constructing sentences can be a lot of fun. And got me into writing again.
Take a walk or go for a ride
Okay so it’s hard to write and walk at the same time but walking is often credited with helping provide valuable inspiration to writers.
Claire Tomalin, biographer of keen walkers Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys and Jane Austen, recently told Radio 4 that Dickens would write in the morning and walk in the afternoon. It’s also really relaxing if you happen to be hitting a wall with your writing.
And finally…stop worrying about being rubbish
Some of what you do will be good. Some will be not so good. Some people will like it. Some people will hate it. Very few people can produce work consistently to a Nobel Prize-winning standard. And no one is universally loved. So the best thing you can do is develop a thick skin and make peace with the fact that you can’t please everyone.