Structure and creativity

Today marks the fifth work day in a row when I’ve been unable to work, not because I am ill or taking vacation but because the government is shut down and I’m classified as a “non-emergency” employee, as is my spouse.

Now, first off, I haven’t exactly been sitting at home twiddling my thumbs all day, bored senseless. We’ve gotten out a bit, including spending an afternoon with my stepdaughter, her husband, and their adorable 7-month-old, which was a great zen moment. (He can now stand up by himself, although he’s still not entirely sure what to do next.) And we’ve started making real progress in going through closets, desks, and bookcases (all 17 of them!!) to cull our holdings as part of our preparations for moving to another house sometime next year (if all goes as planned, knock on wood).

But what’s been most interesting about this interval of unemployment is how much clarity it’s given me into my strengths and foibles, particularly as they relate to writing. In Meyers-Briggs terminology, I’m an INFP, which sometimes astonishes co-workers who point to all the spreadsheets and charts and checklists that I make for myself and my teams to help keep our work on track and moving forward. (Some of them are pretty impressive to look at, I must admit.)

The reality, though, is that I make and use spreadsheets and charts and checklists precisely because I need to compensate for a natural tendency to drift and go with the flow and just let things happen. And I didn’t fully appreciate until this past week how much I’ve used my full-time day job as a kind of super-checklist, an external structure that helps me impose a certain amount of self-discipline on my writing schedule at home.

Now that the day job is no longer there, I have a lot more writing time. Oddly enough, though, I’m not necessarily a lot more creative. Somehow I feel more creative, have more creative ideas, feel more creative juices when I know that I have to squeeze as much as possible out of the precious little time left over each day after getting ready for work, going to and from work, being at work, doing the family finances, keeping the household in order, and all the myriad other things that make up the Real World that we all have to deal with.

I still get up early each day to write, though now between 5:30 and 6:00 instead of 4:30 and 5:00, as I normally would on a real work day. I still curb my use of the Internet and e-mail until after I’ve either edited or reworked a given number of pages. (Surfing the web can be such a time sink!) And I still try to use those extra hours spent doing chores or other mindless work to mull over some plot issue or character description that has been eluding me during my daily writing time.

But somehow my creative time feels diluted, and perhaps it is. Perhaps I’m holding on too much to the idea that I’ve got, now at least, as much time as I need to write, so gee, what’s the rush?

John Cleese mentioned this pitfall in his brilliant presentation on creativity many years ago. He says that he has found it absolutely necessary to keep to a scheduled time for creative thinking and to be self-disciplined and not drift off and think about or do other things, but simply concentrate on one’s creative work. (Here’s the link to his presentation on Vimeo; see 15:30 and 22:10 for these parts.)

This is rather counter-intuitive, isn’t it? After all, “self discipline” and “creativity” don’t seem like natural corollaries. But perhaps they are, in a way. That when we say to ourselves, “I’m now going to concentrate on my creative work for the next 90 minutes,” we are somehow freeing ourselves, giving ourselves permission to set everything else aside and do nothing but that. That knowing our time is limited helps concentrate those creative energies to a greater degree than we could ever accomplish if our time were limitless.

I guess the challenge is doing that at a time when I have no external framework imposing a structure on me. Haven’t quite figured out exactly how to do this, but it’s something I’d like to work on.

Any suggestions you’d like to share?


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