Accessing that creative space isn’t unique to writing. It’s something all artists need to do. I have a painter friend, for example, who begins each day with the following ritual: First, he cleans his pallet of the prior days’ work. This is the most important part for him. Having his tools fresh and clean and all laid out in front of him allows him to sweep away the toil and struggle from the day before, thereby opening up new artistic possibilities. Then he puts on some music. He also makes sure to always have numerous pieces in progress hanging in his studio. He takes some time looking at them until one catches his attention and then he begins work on that. When he gets really stuck, he tries something completely new.
My routine isn’t all that different. In order to “cleanse my pallet” of the prior day’s work, I spend one hour – but no more than one hour – editing whatever it was I was last working on the day before. This might be a chapter from my book, a blog post, or a personal essay. Spending one hour editing allows me to feel that I’ve “fixed” whatever it was that I allowed myself to leave on a loose end the day before. If other thoughts come to me while I’m in editing mode – sometimes it’s just a snippet of an idea or an image – I jot them down in a notebook so that I can remember to file them in the appropriate place later on.
Then I start the main project I’m working on and continue to pursue that for the next several hours. Even if it’s completely different from the piece I was editing, having spent an hour editing one project frees me up to be creative somewhere else. When I get stuck, I start a new chapter. And I never, ever listen to music while I’m writing.
I also have a few gimmicks I employ to get myself started. For instance, I never start writing until the minute hand is resting on one of the numbers on the clock face. So, for example, if I sit down at my desk at 9:17 a.m., I wait until 9:20 to start writing. Why do I do this? Lord knows. But I’ve been doing it for so long that, at this point, I need to do it in order to begin working.
Other writers have their own rituals. Some people need to face a blank wall in order to start. Others need to have a view out a window. One friend always eats an apple before she begins. Philip Roth famously wrote standing up.
Lately, I’ve been focusing less on my creative routines and more on my creative environment. On the advice of Julia Cameron – of The Artist’s Way fame – I’ve made sure that my physical writing space is an upbeat one. So I’ve taken everything off my desk that’s dull and administrative and left only a handful of objects that make me happy, including: a ceramic heart my son made for me when he was seven on Valentine’s Day…two pins that read “15 Today” which my husband and I wore out to a restaurant on our 15th anniversary…a miniature Big Ben trinket that someone gave me for my key chain when I moved to London for good luck.
I’ve also hung up some quotes – what Cameron calls “affirmations” – above my desk, that are there to remind me to feel confident as I embark upon my creative endeavours. When I left my job, a colleague friend gave me two cards – one that read “You are a flamingo in a flock of ordinary seagulls” and one that read “You leave a little bit of sparkle wherever you go.” I look at those quotes every morning to remind myself of what I can bring to the world.
Finally, I’ve even started to “dress” for writing. A friend of mine just published a (great!) book entitled Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore. It’s a book about the mutually reinforcing relationship between an author’s signature look and their writing style. At her book launch in London, my friend was asked if she had a “uniform” that she wore while writing the book. Turns out that she did: even if she was going to spend the entire day at home and never see a soul, she dressed up in a nice frock to inspire herself to tackle this material.
In a similar vein, right before I left my old job, a younger colleague whom I’d mentored gave me a necklace with the words @RealDelia inscribed on a small pendant. For me, that necklace symbolizes this blog, which I launched way back when as a way of rediscovering my voice as an adult and sharing those insights with others. I wear the necklace now when I’m writing my book to remind myself to always circle back to the authentic me.
The bottom line is that creativity isn’t just about having the talent or the time. It’s about being able to readily call up whatever it is inside you that draws that creativity out. And it takes awhile to figure out which routines and props are most conducive to that process.
How do you access your creative space? I’d love to know.
Image: Phoenicopterus ruber via Wikipedia.com