Finding a creative routine that works for you

Many years ago, I had a full-time job that drained my energy and I really wanted to write a novel. But it wasn’t happening. Every time I got home from work, I felt brain-dead, turned on the TV, watched two episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (which happened to be on right when I got home), and kept the TV on for the entire evening.

I finally resolved to get up an hour early each morning and work on my novel before I went to work. I did that for exactly one day. I felt so sleep-deprived at work due to cutting off my last hour of sleep that the entire day was a slog.

The next thing I tried was writing during my lunch hour. Typically, I didn’t take lunch, because if I skipped lunch and ate at my desk while I worked, I could leave earlier.

Writing during lunch proved challenging. I felt distracted (my mind on the afternoon work I had to get back to), and extending my work day by an hour drained my energy (too overstimulating for this introvert).

The next thing I tried was writing after I got home. I resolved to not turn on Sabrina the Teenage Witch (no Salem for me!), go right to my desk, and work for an hour.

This failed miserably. Once I walked through my door, my system set itself to “relaxation mode” and the hour of writing felt like a climb up a mountainside with a boulder strapped to my back.

Now, you may be thinking at this point, Well, yeah! It’s hard. You have to force yourself to do it!

Except I didn’t want my writing to be constantly tied up with the feeling of forcing myself. The whole reason I wanted to write a novel in the first place was because writing brought me joy and purpose, and because reading novels had felt so joyful and purposeful to me. Forcing myself to write was not going to work for me for the long haul.

So I started looking at the elements that seemed important here.

• It was important to me that I was able to sleep as late as possible in the morning — that worked best for my body.

• It was important to me that I could leave work as early as possible — that created the most hopeful and positive feeling for me in my work day.

• Writing at home at the end of the day didn’t work because it was too tempting for me to succumb to TV at that time — I had to rely far too much on willpower at that time of day in that setting.

But then I thought — hmm. What about a different setting? What about writing after work, but not at home?

So the next thing I tried was heading to the coffee place that was next door to my workplace, right after work. I brought a spiral notebook with me, ordered coffee, and started writing. About forty-five minutes in, it felt right to call it a day.

I went home, turned on the TV, and did my usual nighttime routine — except my writing was done. I hadn’t had to cut off my sleep in the morning to do it, and I hadn’t had to take a lunch hour. And I could go ahead and relax when I entered my apartment.

Eventually, I decided on writing at the coffee place at least four days a week, right after work, for no more than forty-five minutes a day. (I discovered that if I tried to push beyond forty-five minutes, I got too much into the “forcing myself” zone and I started to rebel. If I kept it at forty-five minutes, it usually felt just right.)

Creating takes energy — there’s no way around it. And while it’s true that creating gives us energy (as Maya Angelou famously said), it’s also true that our bodies have needs, very real ones.

Since several years prior to this period of my life I had completely ignored my physical needs and ended up terribly ill, I knew I had to take my body’s needs seriously. I knew I couldn’t afford to let perfectionism take the reins again. I needed a “reasonable, realistic” creative routine.

Ugggh! Reasonable and realistic had to be two of my least favorite words. (Still true for me — I’m an INFP, after all!)

So I had to do a couple of things in order to allow myself to carry on with this “workable but not necessarily exciting” creative routine:

• I had to let myself be a regular, boring human who couldn’t crank out a novel draft in a weekend on a great wave of inspiration.

• I had to accept that my creative identity was changing — it was no longer about great highs and lows — I was no longer flying above the treetops or clutching a towel sobbing on the bathroom floor. My creativity was now going to be built into my daily life, in a quieter, more subtle, more sustainable way.

And this needed to be okay if I was going to have a healthy relationship between my physical body, my emotional self, and my creativity.

It took me about a year and a half to get to a complete novel draft, and another year to rewrite it. I didn’t “crank it out in a weekend,” but I did finish it. (And although this novel makes me cringe now, I used excerpts from it to get into a graduate writing program, where I became a better writer. No creating is ever wasted!)

It’s a fact: as much as we may not like to believe it (I know I didn’t), we have a finite amount of energy available to us each day. (When we’re going through big things, we’ll have less than usual.)

We don’t move forward by arguing with reality. We move forward by embracing it. When we tend to see lots of possibilities, it can be easy to get disconnected from the realities of our physical and emotional selves.

But we’re in physical bodies for a reason (if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be here, having this human experience!). We need to honor our creativity and our physical and emotional needs.

Finding the right creative routine takes testing and trying. I tweaked this routine in small ways many times, and my life is different now and I don’t have this routine anymore. We need to be open to what works for us now, and willing to let it change and evolve.

It’s possible to find a creative routine that works for you — even when it seems like it isn’t. What have you discovered about this for yourself? I’d love to hear from you.

I am currently enrolling new coaching clients. Do you need support in making your creative work a priority while practicing excellent self-care? I’d love to help.

Want to stay connected? You can sign up for my monthly-ish Artist’s Nest Newsletter, here.

Above images by Carli Jeen, Ella Jardim, and Kyle Glenn, respectively, on Unsplash

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Creating rituals around the tough stuff

coffee&computer

For almost everything we call “hard,” it’s hard in part because our tendency is to force ourselves to jump in and “just do it.” We live in a culture that loves the idea of “just do it”.

And sometimes just doing it is totally helpful and appropriate.

And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it makes the hard stuff harder.

When we think of something we want to do that scares us as a big, solid mass, like some monolithic thing rising up out of the sea, and we tell ourselves to “just jump over that!”, of course it’s going to feel really hard.

Everything that we think is hard has many, many increments and layers to it. And we can approach it this way, too.

Once, I was asked to create a piece of writing around a photograph in a museum exhibit, then read the piece to an audience as part of a writing festival. I had only about a week to get to the museum, look at the photograph, write the piece, and practice the reading.

A week goes fast, and I had lots of other stuff going on that week, too, so in reality, I knew I’d only have a few hours to do this. But it felt fun and challenging, so I decided to take it on.

Except when I looked at it all as a whole, it felt really hard. And when I say hard, I mean it actually felt hard, like a glinting black bowling ball. I could feel my abdomen contract just thinking about having to write this thing.

And this is what we often do when we’re confronted with something difficult that needs to be done: we get really hard and rigid ourselves around that thing. We set up walls around it and then we talk about “breaking through them.”

What if we set up softness around the tough stuff? What if we created a relationship with it that we enter and exit?

If I go back to my example of that piece of writing, I notice that there was a lot of entering and exiting the hard parts, within the whole process of getting it written.

There was going to the museum to look at the photograph. I made that softer by wandering around the exhibit for a while, letting the work of these photographers sink in and appreciating it. I made it softer by doodling stars and cat faces in my notebook before I started taking notes. I made it softer by treating myself to coffee on the way home.

Then I made the process softer by giving myself some time after I got home to sit with my notes and the feeling I got from the photograph. I let my notebook simmer next to my computer before I sat down to write. I let myself take a little time to get a good sense of what the picture conjured up in me.

And when I sat down to write, I made that process softer by reminding myself that right now, I was just writing, not sharing. I wasn’t thinking about the sharing until I was good and done with the writing. And I was writing one sentence at a time.

And within that writing, I took little breaks from time to time where I exited the process.

On the day of the actual reading, there was a lot of entering and exiting, too.

I didn’t turn it into, “Just do the reading! Just Do It!!!” Instead, it was more like: Get up. Have coffee while taking ten minutes to do a run-through of the reading. Keep enjoying that coffee while choosing an outfit. Ride train to reading, and while on train, start getting into reading mode — start entering reading mode and preparing for the reading.

Ahhh. Being allowed to enter and prepare, and making that a completely separate thing of its own, made the impending reading feel so much more soft.

There was a little period before the reading, where I congregated with the other readers, who were also freaked out, and acknowledging each other’s freaked-out-ness made it all feel much softer.

And then there was the reading itself, and meeting the warm eyes of certain appreciative audience members. And that made the reading itself so much softer, so much less like a glinty, flinty bowling ball and much more like a marshmallow or some Silly Putty.

Fast-forward to the present. When I sit down to work on my novel, it often feels hard, until I remember about creating rituals of softness.

There’s getting coffee and feeling the warm cup in my hand. There’s turning on my computer and watching my wallpaper come up (it’s a picture of my cat stretched out on the couch, sleeping). There’s opening my document and noticing all the other documents alongside this one, documents full of things I’ve written in the past, and that makes me happy and gives me courage: Oh, yeah, I’ve done this before, this writing.

And then there’s the first sentence of the day. I make that softer by allowing it to be a totally crappy sentence. And I make that softer by reminding myself that I can go back and change it later. And then, nine times out of ten, I’m off and writing. If I get stuck (which I often do), I make the stuckness softer by allowing myself another crappy sentence which I can change later. A lot of days, my cat jumps into my lap while I sit at my computer.

Ahhhh. So soft.

How do you create tiny rituals of softness around the tough stuff? I’d love to know.

Image is “Necessities” © Liz Van Steenburgh | Dreamstime.com