Matt Gemmell

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Staying creative

Productivity 6 min read

I recently read Shawn Blanc’s Fighting to Stay Creative, which is about the challenges of maintaining creativity over long periods. I’d like to add a few of my own thoughts on that topic.

I write every day: seven days a week. I’m working on a novel, and I also write for this blog and various magazines. It’s my full-time job now, and I don’t have another one. Staying creative is thus absolutely critical for me.

I’ve learned a lot about the obstacles to continued creative output, and I’ve found a few techniques that can help. Many of these are just common sense, but it’s useful to have them all in one place.

Anything is a topic

In order to produce large amounts of output in any creative field, you need constant inspiration. Whether they’re scene or story ideas, app concepts, song ideas, or something else, you need them all the time. That means being vigilant, and always having a pool of thoughts to draw on.

My advice is to record everything that occurs to you, or that you encounter, which could possibly be useful as the genesis of a piece. Always have the means to record an idea, and always take the time to do it. I keep my iPhone around, but my two favourite (and most successful) idea-recording ‘modes’ are:

  1. Paper. Keep a pen and notebook handy; tucked into your purse or jeans or inside jacket pocket. When something occurs - like something happening to you, or when you read something, or someone else shares an anecdote - write it down then and there. I find pen on paper to be a very freeing medium for spurring related thoughts, and helping me develop the initial idea. You can of course do this with a notes app on your phone, but you’re missing out. My stationery of choice is a Staedtler pigment liner Fineliner 0.3, and a pocket sized, squared-paper Moleskine notebook.

  2. Voice. When I feel block beginning to set in (and you can feel it approach; it doesn’t tend to just drop down suddenly), I get up from the desk and grab a voice-recorder, then just brainstorm as I pace around. There’s something magical about just talking aloud. Pause and resume often, and you’ll find that your mind manages to fill in the gaps. You can do this with an app too, but I’ve had much more success with a dedicated device that I keep in my desk drawer. I searched long and hard for the perfect dictaphone, and what I settled on was the Sony ICD-PX312.

Give yourself permission

When you’re producing output on regular basis, you really need to identify which constraints are essential, and which are artificial and unnecessary. The artificial ones have to go, otherwise you’re making life much harder for yourself than it needs to be.

Taking writing as an example, this advice means:

  1. Be flexible on topics. I long ago gave up any pretence of writing only about technology, for example. I also don’t tend to subscribe to any periodicals (blogs, magazines, and so on) that have a self-enforced limited topic area. Sooner or later, the cracks start to show. Instead, be flexible and fearless on topics. If you want to write about it, someone wants to read.

  2. Be flexible on length. Some pieces are naturally 3,000 words, and some are naturally 600 words. The vast majority fall somewhere in between, but they’re all valid. If you can say something worthwhile in 600 words, then for goodness’ sake do so, instead of producing something that’s diluted just to hit an artificial minimum length.

  3. Have a schedule. “I’ll post at least once a week” is sort-of a schedule. “I’ll post on Tuesdays and Thursdays” is better. It’s incredible how motivating a deadline can be.

Consume the product

If you’re going to write, you have to read constantly. If you’re going to make apps, you have to use apps. If you’re going to produce art, you have to be exposed to relevant stimuli. I don’t believe that sustained creativity is possible if you’re in a vacuum of outside influence in the same field.

It’s good for motivation, for inspiration, for stylistic correction, and just for awareness of the creative zeitgeist. For me, making time to read is part of my job.

Manage stress

Nothing kills creativity as quickly as stress. You can work very well under moderate stress, of course, but the big kind - the brain-freezing, emotion-amplifying sort where you’re really a different person - can throw you off for days on end. It destroys your ability to do whatever it is that we do when we’re being creative.

If you can do a little bit of work now to head off a stressful situation later, do it. Similarly, if you can pay someone (lawyer, accountant, agent, insurance company) to help you avoid future stress, do it. It’s almost always worth the investment.

Beyond that, two thoughts:

  1. Get any dreaded or annoying tasks out of the way as soon as possible. Don’t leave things hanging over you. Do the admin in the morning, including your email diligence. Make phone calls in the morning. Do your taxes in the morning. Pay bills in the morning. Schedule your doctor’s and dentist’s appointments in the morning. You get the idea. Bring these stressful activities to you, dispatch them, then refocus yourself for the rest of the day.

  2. Try to hold and act upon the belief that there’s no point in worrying about something until you can productively do something about it. That’s impossible in the absolute sense, of course, but you can at least keep it in mind and minimise the amount of aimless, free-form anxiety you experience. I’ve become a lot better at it over the last year or so. You can actually talk yourself out of thinking about things, with some practice.

Accept doubt

Creative people, in my experience, are plagued with doubt. This is awful! they all think, definitely including myself. It’s a very personal thing, and it’s insidious because you’re the only one who gets to see the first drafts, and the refinements, and whole, messy stop and start and double-back of producing something worthwhile. It’s hard to keep in mind that the first version of everything is garbage, and the final version of everything is still garbage to the person who made it.

I’d advise you to depersonalise that doubt, but that’s impossible. Instead, try to defer it, and open it up to your consumers - readers, users, viewers, or whatever you call them. If you’re terrible, you can be damned sure that people will tell you, because there are enough broken people out there you will tell you you’re terrible even if you’re not. The critical reception of your work once it’s complete is literally somebody else’s problem. It’s a worry for another day.

Take time off

You need a few (waking) hours off each day. This is a brief and simple rule, because it’s a fundamental truth. As a permanently creative person, you’re probably burning mental energy at a rate that would zombify other people. You need a compensating period of recuperation besides your sleep.

Aim for three hours per day of uninterrupted non-work activity. For me, the evening is best for this, but you may differ. TV, videogames, reading and socialising all count. If you skip your waking downtime regularly, you will burn out.

In the worst case, if you’re on a deadline and temporarily working every hour that the Earth spins, I can heartily recommend a minimum of thirty minutes of slack-jawed, dazed staring at a blank wall, perhaps with a drink in your hand. Thirty minutes is just about the minimum for the gears to disengage. Do it just before bed. I’m completely serious.

Closing thoughts

Creative burnout is a legitimate worry, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous or as prevalent as atrophy. You have to use it, all the time, or you’re not going to be doing your best work. You also won’t be doing your best work if you’re fatigued, though, so there’s a balance to be struck. Find your rhythm, and reassess every few months. Listen to what your mind and body are telling you.

Finally, a truth that’s rarely offered: don’t be afraid to let it hurt a little. Creativity is agony, and it’s supposed to be. It’s meant to stretch you, and test your mettle. It should sicken you - just a bit - from time to time. Your’re making universes, after all.

We’re here very briefly, and once we’re gone, we’re gone. Nothing worthwhile comes without cost. You can always walk away.


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