Creativity Like Clockwork

We tend to view creativity as something special. Unique. Ethereal. And therefore entirely difficult to summon or channel on demand. The idea that creativity can be planned and managed—can in fact be scheduled—is therefore one that strikes many of us as ludicrous and unreasonable.

I have certainly been as guilty as anyone else of separating the idea of creativity from that of routine. Like most people, I have experienced flashes of insight at inopportune times (usually when I was doing something else, thinking about something else or engaging in recreation). I have also experienced the mind-numbing dread of needing to come up with something on a deadline while confronted with a brain completely devoid of content.

Accepting the truth of creativity as serendipity is pretty much the first nail in the coffin of any creative project, however. If you accept the idea that creativity can’t be scheduled, your schedule is going to go out of the window. Your brain will accept delays; in fact, it will embrace them. Excuses will abound: “I’m not feeling creative right now”; “I don’t have a clear sense of where I’m going”; “This doesn’t feel like a good time”; “I’m not engaged”; “Inspiration has not yet struck.” If any of the previous statements sound at all familiar (and they will) then congratulations, you’re a procrastinator. That doesn’t mean you are any more creative, mind you. But it does mean that whatever you do create is likely to be late.

Given that I have a number of creative projects (including a book) on the go, I was intrigued by a reference I saw posted by Austin Kleon. The Clockwork Muse, written by Eviatar Zerubavel, is subtitled ‘A practical guide to writing theses, dissertations and books’. Emphasis would be on the term practical. While my thesis is now firmly in the past (thankfully, although finding this book early might have been helpful) a book is in the future. The other night, I poured a martini, cracked the cover and started reading. I’m still reading (although the martini is long gone) but what I’ve encountered so far I have found incredibly useful.

Zerubavel’s primary proposition is that if you are going to create, you have make the time to create. That’s not about shoving everything else in your life to the side (necessarily), in that our creative products shouldn’t also produce divorce, unemployment and sloth as byproducts. It’s about figuring out what our priorities are, what commitments we already have and what that means we have left in terms of time. If you are going to create, it is is essential that you find a sufficient number of sufficiently large blocks every week to get something done.

“Indeed, being able to do any creative mental work presupposes a temporary suspension of other obligations and involvements that might compete with it for your immediate attention.” p. 28-29

That time may be optimal, in that it coincides with when we work comfortably, or it may be the result of necessity. The time that works for each person is different. Tom Stoppard wrote at night when everyone else was in bed; Hemingway wrote in the morning, when he would not be disturbed; Anthony Burgess thought the afternoon offered the greatest time for quiet. The point is finding the slots that work for you, where what ‘works’ is what actually lets you focus on creativity and put other influences aside.

“While the quiet time slots may vary from one writer to another, our ultimate goal is basically the same: to be out of phase with our immediate social surroundings, so as to minimize the risk of being interrupted when we are writing.” p. 30

The guidance in the book is not about how to tap into creativity, per se. It is about creating the routine and discipline that allows creativity to happen. What I’ve read so far is excellent advice; I’ll weigh in with my final thoughts once I’m done.

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