How I Make Stuff from Nothing
10 Phases of Creativity
People have weird relationships with their creativity. Some of them see it as a playful daemon. Others, a heavy millstone. For those who see the world in pure logic and science, creativity can be marching orders, a series of blueprints like the DNA we pass down.
This difference in regard makes generalizing a creative process damn near impossible. The more experienced someone is with their creativity, the more they’ve learned to work with their own diamonds and warts.
I’ve had many relationships with my creativity, some healthy, some adverse and a few rare negligent patches. We’ve been on the road together long enough that I’ve seen what happens when I feed it and what I lose when I starve it (mainly, my judgment, sanity and ability to be polite to people who do careless things).
All of my work, professional and personal, design and writing, follows this rough shape:
Phase I: Ghosts
Projects begin as ideas, and ideas begin as ghosts.
For me, they are eerily reoccurring themes, or events that seem correlated because my brain is looking for signs. Either outlook suits me fine, it depends on how miraculous I’m feeling that day. I can’t look at these disparate bits straight on, because I don’t have the information to understand what information I don’t know yet. It’s similar to that feeling when you need to Google something, but you don’t even know what to type. It’s easy to be led astray until you come up with the right query.
I’ll write down thoughts casually, or daydream about concepts at this point. I’ll think about urban planning, or ancient curio cabinets built by Chinese emperors. I allow myself to be amused by things that are outdated, strange, hideous or useless. Likewise, I examine beautiful turns of phrase, giant paintings and scenes in nature. I withhold all judgement and simply take it all in.
I’ve had a lot of ideas lose interest in me at this point. That’s okay. I had to teach myself not to be stressed by idea loss. I didn’t consistently make great work until I accepted that there’s no scarcity of ideas in the world if you know where to look. A single great idea can be an accident. A series of great ideas is merely a consistent, curious lifestyle.
Phase II: Research
Now we roll into miniature obsession. I begin to buy books, spend hours on the deep web, where line lengths are long and type is very small. I hoard images and stories. I muddle my way through basic concepts and begin to tell friends about my latest fascinations.
Often, a friend will point me to something they read on the subject, or someone they know who is also examining this topic. I realize what I realize every time I try to learn something: the more I know, the more I realize how little I know.
I’m still neither focused nor serious at this stage. I’ve tried to will projects into being at this phase and it doesn’t work. The idea is either flat and stilted or I kill the love. Sometimes projects hibernate for a while if I do this. It’s as if they have to re-inflate after I’ve hugged them too hard.
I’ve been experimenting with using The 100 days project concept to direct this phase and start making earlier. You can see the results of that with my Meralta city building project, where I’m trying to figure out what makes cities healthy and happy. It’s going very slowly and I’ve no plans to rush it along.
Phase III: Lightning
At this point, I’m educated enough to have an opinion. I understand how this concept relates to my life and the interest becomes more intense than a casual flirtation. An example of how this happens to me:
In 2013, I think about curio cabinets for a long time, and then I think about how hipsters would love these puzzle boxes full of poems and figurines, just as emperors did. Then I try to think of a literal hipster curio cabinet and am immediately bogged down by production details and trying to find partners and cost analysis sheets. After a Kickstarter page I never launch, hours spent on cute gifs and picking colors, the idea wants to leave. The work becomes difficult in an ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing’ way. I let it go. I don’t think about curios for a while.
A year later, I want to keep a promise to myself. I want to make things at a consistent clip, and I want to make meaningful things that make people feel understood. I think of the feeling of curios, of little Chinese poems hidden in tiny jade vases. I understand how this idea is relevant and what hooked me in the first place, this private delight of hand-made art pieces, where one never knows what one will get.
Mysterios Curios comes back to me and the work comes easily. I am now ready to try this project as a monthly subscription of themed and meaningful handmade goodies.
Phase IV: Elbow Grease
Now I finally become serious. The idea and I have struck a deal and the ink dries. I commit to finishing and I get into flow. Now the work becomes difficult in an ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing! Hahahaha!’ way. I know enough at this point that I can understand what good will look like. I understand how someone should feel consuming this piece of work and that gives me my flight plan.
I begin to write. I begin to design. The house fills up with paper mockups and used X-acto blades. My wrists hurt from moving pixels around. I lose hours and hours fixing curves and scrolling through serifs that have heart but aren’t too sassy.
As it becomes clear what I’m making, I set a calendar and pick a launch date. I work backwards and figure out when I need to hit major milestones and punch them in. My projects all inevitably swerve into one another. I find this messy dance exhilarating, a madwoman at the helm of her very own R.S.S. Whooooa Buddy.
Phase V: Moments of Rest
Sometimes this is two weeks. Sometimes it’s just a night off. I like to think of the things I make as bread. They need to rest without me. They need to rise in the back of my mind so I can see them with clear eyes. It’s easy to get caught up in the details. Leaving space gives things room to remember how things should feel.
Phase VI: Ugly
It’s important to be alone with an idea in this phase, or with people who have fought this mother before. Everything is coming out on the page, all of the ideas at once. It’s a right mess and it isn’t pretty. Making things requires great faith, and that is probably the only thing I’ve seen that separates the truly serious from those who dabble. Not that there’s anything wrong with dabbling, if that’s your bag.
The ugly phase has caused me great artistic suffering because it’s the least understood and most frightening phase for outsiders to experience. Suddenly expectations and the work do not match up. People begin to wonder if I have it in me and see my earlier work as a fluke, an anomaly from a woman of mediocrity. They begin to micromanage. Their lack of confidence shakes my faith.
To continue, I understand that the ugliness is temporary. Everything is temporary, even this. It cannot stay ugly forever, so if I just continue to work, the ideas will begin to connect. The themes will bicker with one another until the weaker ones fall silent or go dormant to wait for a later project.
If the work is new or interesting, there’s an ugly phase. Faith.
Phase VII: Doubt
‘What the fuck are you doing? Why did you spend so much time on this? You should just let private #feels be #private. Someone would have done this already if it had any value. Who are you to decide your opinion means anything? Do some actual work that has actual value in the world.’ — a selection of my inner critic’s favorite methods of slapping me in the face.
That’s okay. When that bitch comes out, I know things are about to get good. There’s fear around the new, around doing something I haven’t done before. My inner critic isn’t a monster, she’s a watchdog. She thinks she sees danger, but sometimes it’s just a plastic bag floating sadly in the street. More often it’s a beautiful situation she’s never seen before. It’s people splashing in a pool in the sweltering heat, or fireworks on Independence day.
Phase VIII: Hovering Art Director
By now things are starting to gel. The work looks like it belongs in this universe and carries some semblance of the message I’m aiming for. I start to stare at it instead of getting elbow deep. I push one pixel back and forth, change a word, change it back, change it again. I’m stalling. I’m looking over my shoulder and making changes just for the hell of it. It’s time to show this to some trusted humans. I want to see the themes people take from the work, the message they get.
From here, I hop in and out of IV–VIII until I get everything together. Until it begins to feel real. I’ll open documents in the morning and suddenly feel a rush of excitement. I’ll accidentally start clicking on buttons as if they actually do something.
Phase IX: Checkboxes
When I sign the contract of Phase IV: Elbow Grease, I re-read the clause titled, It’s never going to be perfect. This is an agreement I’ve learned to make with myself because I want to improve and get real world feedback. We think we’re great at forecasting trends or predicting success, but we’re actually quite shitty at it. Think of all the ridiculous things that we’ve loved that don’t make logical sense: crocs, Twitter, Shia La Beouf, selfie sticks, corgis, glass phones.
That’s because logic is sometimes stupid. Logic is the inner critic watchdog and assuming yours has all the information it needs is folly. The only way to know if something new actually works is to try it.
So I craft the guidelines for the experiment. I define the roadblocks to launching, questions I have to answer before I can open the bridge (maybe the cover has to evoke sadness, someone reading the site needs to understand what a thing does, the joke needs to be funny). If it’s ready, it goes. Often some level of polish is a roadblock, but never perfection.
I define success (maybe how much money I want to make, how many books I want to sell, how many people I want to sign up). I make a vague plan for what I’ll do if it’s not successful, if it’s successful, and if it’s wildly successful. I prepare to fix things, to try again if I have to.
I look my launch date in the eye. Let’s tango.
Phase X: Tell People
I keep hearing this phrase: ‘Make good work. Tell people about it. Repeat.’ Maybe I should have just written that and saved you 10 minutes. It’s pretty sound advice.
My heart does a little squeeze when something goes public. A project doesn’t feel done until a stranger has spent time with it. Once this happens, work no longer belongs to you. No takebacksies. You are serving it to people and they’ll eat your creation however they damn well please.
This is particularly grueling on projects like books, where the typos are forever. You can’t submit a pull request on the five hundred hardcover books floating out there.
Then it’s the accountant riding the emotional roller coaster. While I’m disbursing feelings of joy and relief and loss and conquest, I’m doing the math. I have a lot of spreadsheets. I calculate success using the agreed upon metrics.
And then I take a beat and celebrate. This is a very important step and as a formerly self-downtalker, I used to skip it because it felt indulgent. It doesn’t have to be big. Maybe it’s a bath with a fizzie bubble contraption or a nice dinner with a few conspirators. Without this step, a project will gnaw at you. It will not feel complete. You won’t feel like you’re making progress.
Don’t live like you’re stuck, like you’re haunted by old phantoms. No one likes a paranoid parrot. Seek a novel ghost, or merge them all together so two old ghosts become a new one.
And then, begin again.
So, is your process similar? I’d like to know!
Leave a response.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this:
I write a tiny weekly newsletter with other stuff I’m up to, book recommendation and quotes.
I write these essays for free so they are accessible to everyone. If you are able and feel so inclined, kick me a tip to help me set aside more time to write essays like this.