Make the Most of Your Creative Cycle
I sat on my couch this morning, laptop in place, ready to continue work on my novel. Only instead of jumping in like I’d done the past few days, I found myself crippled by a sense of restlessness and insecurity. Never mind that I need to write consistently if I’m going to achieve my writing goals. On days like today, the mere act of writing is elusive and exhausting. And if I do finally manage to put something on paper, it doesn’t feel worth the time it took to get it there.
As I’ve experienced more and more days like this the past year, I’ve had to evaluate my expectations and approach my creative efforts differently. This includes forming a better understanding of my ups and downs, as well as approaching my creative lulls in a new way.
Acknowledging creative patterns
The first step to understanding the creative cycle is to recognize its inherent pattern. It’s easy to convince myself I’ve been productive when, in actuality, my writing is made up of ebbs and flows, bursts of energy followed by times of rest. An objective review of my journals and work logs helps me to see this, and knowing that ups and downs are a natural part of the creative cycle makes it easier to pinpoint what phase I’m in.
Reviewing my creative history also reveals I’m not good at managing these phases in real-time. Instead of accepting the ups and downs as they occur, my initial reaction is to try and force my way through whatever lull I’m experiencing, ignoring the internal pleas to stop, step away for a while, or simply take a break. Accepting my creative cycle as a natural and recurring process makes it easier to recognize these fluctuating states… And this makes me less likely to beat myself up when the words just aren’t flowing as they should.
Accepting the cycle
As I look back on my writing progress, I realize I’m most productive when I accept the natural creative cycle instead of fighting it. When I let the cycle play out, I take the ups and downs as they come and find other ways to spend my time until my creative flow returns. This requires paying attention to my internal state and making a concerted effort to shift my focus elsewhere even when I think I should be writing. When I’m able to do this — even if it’s just for a short while — my writing is inevitably better for it.
Learning to do the opposite
Although recognition of creative patterns is important, deadlines and other commitments demand attention, and they don’t always match my mood or creative energy. So how do I maintain creative aspirations and meet deadlines when I’m in a lull or my creative self just won’t cooperate? I’ve learned to implement the “opposite” approach.
Based loosely on the Seinfeld episode in which George does the opposite of his natural instincts — and is rewarded with success — this approach means pursuing writing-related activities that are the antithesis of what I’m trying to accomplish. I switch from creative work to administrative tasks, from writing my novel to brushing up on techniques for plot progression. This simple trick clears my head and improves my creative output more than trying to push through the resistance ever could.
The next time you feel stifled or like you’ve hit a wall with your writing efforts, try shifting to an opposing task to energize your creative side. There are countless ways you can do this, and below are a few I’ve found helpful. I encourage you to experiment with your own “opposite” activities until you find which ones work best for you.
- Do some brainwork. Using our brains for non-creative tasks really can jumpstart creative efforts, and crossword puzzles are my personal activity of choice. Deciphering clues and analyzing word construction relieves my creative angst because it shifts my focus away from writing for a while and relieves the pressure to perform. It also enhances my vocabulary. Not a crossword kind of person? Try working jigsaw puzzles instead. They may not provide the vocabulary boost, but they do force your brain into action as you analyze shapes and patterns. Whatever activity you choose, assess your progress afterward to determine if it helped boost your creativity. If it didn’t, consider a different activity or take a longer break.
- Clean your office space. I don’t know about you, but I need to have things laid out rather than tucked away where I tend to forget them. So, when tax time rolls around or I start brainstorming a new story, I end up with a cluttered office. If this is the same for you, cleaning (and organizing, in general) can help you feel that you’ve accomplished something while giving your creative side a break. The only drawback? If you’re not careful, the act of organizing can quickly turn into its own form of procrastination.
- Do something administrative. From preparing taxes to ordering supplies and creating invoices, there are many non-creative tasks in which I immerse myself when I’m not feeling the creative flow. These distractions not only help to revive creative energy, they can give you a head start at tax time. They can also help you to feel more structured when you finally sit down again to write.
- Read. Even when I’m not doing any actual writing, I continue to hone my craft. Reading books on writing is perhaps my favorite method to kick-start creativity. The authors make me think about how to improve my work and, sometimes, force me to mentally defend a habit or approach that goes against their suggestions. Being engaged in this way uses the analytical side of my brain while my fanciful, creative side takes a nap. When the creative part of me is finally ready to get back to work, I’m more motivated to write and put what I’ve learned to use. If you’ve never implemented this approach, consider books by Jeff Gerke or Donald Maass for help with novels, or any of the Writer’s Digest compilation books on fiction or non-fiction writing.
- Edit or analyze existing work. From brainstorming to drafting and revising, there’s a time and a place for every writing task. Knowing where I am in the creative cycle helps me to determine whether to work on a draft, do research, spend time with character development, or focus on editing and revisions. These tasks are essential to overall output and, because they rely on different skill sets, provide plenty of options for staying productive even when you are not feeling particularly creative.
- Jump into a new project. Sometimes simply starting something new is enough to ignite that creative spark. This tends to work best when you jump to a different form of writing. Going from a short story to a novel doesn’t provide the same mental break as going from a novel to, say, a post about the importance of managing creative flow. Switching writing styles keeps you fresh and, in the case of this particular post, provides the respite needed to return to the original project.
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