Thoughts on Creativity: Lessons from the Journey

Reflecting on the last year of creativity after having quit my full time job in order to pursue some creative stuff that had become too lively to be confined to evenings and weekends, I have learned a few lessons:

1. It Takes Longer Than You Think

Wait for it!

Firstly, until I tried to give myself over to creative paths on more than just an “ad-hoc” basis, I never realised what a long time the act of creating actually takes. Previously, I had worked when compelled and inspired and with not much expectation that what I was doing needed to be really all that amazing. As a result, things got done easily and quickly and there was not even an expectation that I needed to finish anything if I lost the muse during the process. Now it is different, I need to write when I feel less like it, when the words come slowly, or when my imagination takes a vacation.

However, this has not been the most time consuming thing.The real time-sink has been the slow process of facing down the chatter of the demons we encounter on the creative path:

  • Motivation – Why am I doing this? Am I just being selfish? Is this really contributing to society? Does it matter what other people think? Who am I doing this for? These kind of questions can put a dampner or things for weeks. And just because we have answered them once, it doesn’t mean we won’t have to answer them every day.
  • Vulnerability – Putting creative work out there, sharing it, publishing it, is all very exposing.We make a deep personal investment in our work and then others get to see into us through it in ways that we might not be ready for. Am I ready to go public with this?Am I ready for criticism, or indifference, or misinterpretation?
  • Doubts – Does anyone really care about what I create? Does that matter? Am I good enough? Look at what other people are doing, they have been doing it for years and they are brilliant. I’m not a natural like them. I should get a proper job. I’ll never be world class. Should I care if I’m not?
  • Discipline – I’m so badly disciplined. I’m supposed to love what I do and it’s a privilege but I can’t settle to it sometimes. Most people who have jobs with bosses breathing down their necks and set work hours have that extra incentive to stay on task. I have none of that. It is hard, every day I have to start by re-discovering my reasons for doing this.

2. Persistence

From my observations and from the received wisdom of others, the difference between great writers and the rest of us is not necessarily innate gifting but pure graft. This goes for all the arts. Some talent helps but there are more talented people out there who have fallen on the first hurdle of of applying themselves to their craft. Working on your creativity daily brings two rewards:

  • Upping the Average – If 2% of what you write is pure gold then you just have to write enough for that 2% to be significant.The analogy is often cited of a photographer. Again, the difference between a pro photographer and the rest of us is that while I take hundreds of pictures, they take thousands. Even if one in every thousand pictures is an iconic masterpiece, you have more chance of hitting it if you take more pictures.
  • Practice – Honing and improving your work comes through practice, repetition, iteration. The more you create the more practice you get creating. I once spoke to a silversmith who had his own business and he told me how when he first came out of art college and went for his first job, he was walking around the workshops and the boss picked up a ring off a workbench. “How long would it take you to polish this?” he asked. “About an hour, maybe two,” he replied. “That’s a four minute job,” said the boss. Sure enough, after several months at the workshops, doing not much more than polishing,this guy could do a two hour job in four minutes. Practice!

The basic skills of our work need to become second nature whether that is mixing oils, playing scales, or writing dialogue, so that we are not hindered by technique.

3. Finding the Right Motivation

Whatever our initial reasons are for embarking on a creative career, sooner or later it has to become about more than wanting to be noticed.


Most people I know, who are trying to get traction or considering putting significantly more energy into their creativity, are actually not after fame or recognition. In fact it is slowly dawning on them that what they have been doing as a hobby might be something that others will enjoy, and it is time to “come out”.

I think a lot of writers, however, have a desperation to see “their name in print” as if there is something magical about that. We have to find better motivation than that, otherwise (among other things) we will be in danger of feeling bitter about the “success” of others who get there before we do with what is often quite lousy manuscript.

We have to joy over the intrinsic rewards of our process and product, and hold the adoration of fans lightly. I’ll admit that on weeks when my Borders of Sleep podcast is getting 50-100 downloads a day, I feel great. The problem is that when it drops to 20, that affects my mood, too. I forget that I’m not doing this for the hits but because I love creating stories.

Do what you do, well and lovingly, and if it turns out that you are the prophet of the zeitgeist then let that be what it is.

4. Community

In spite of the “cult of the artist” and this idea that the creative’s lot is to slave away in a windy garret, that’s all bunkum. Yes it is lonely at times, but that is why we need others. Really one of the most enjoyable aspects of pursuing creativity, for me, has been the community that forms around it. I think the community gives us two things:

  • Accountability – I know that if I talk to people about my plans and dreams, they are more likely to happen. As long as they stay in my head as a vague nice idea, they are safe; and if I never tell anyone then I’ll never need to try them and risk failure. Even better, I know that if I can rope people in collaboratively then a project is even more likely to fly. I cannot overemphasise the value of this. For example, with my podcast, if it was not for the producer (Tim) and illustrator (Robyn), I doubt if it would have been sustainable. Having other people involved and interacting with ideas keeps me working on it week after week.
  • Synergy – Actually working with others often means that, together you are more than the sum of your parts. That extra element of “synergy” comes into play. It is great to have friends who say, “that sounds like a great idea, why don’t you go ahead” but it is even better to have allies who say, “that sounds like a great idea, let’s do it together.” In order to open yourself up to synergy, you have to let go a little of the control but I think it is a small price to pay for having a creative ally.

So …

What are the core lessons you learned along the way that it would have been helpful to have known before you got started?

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Creativity: Lessons from the Journey

  1. Jess Dunton says:

    Here’s a lesson I have learnt over and over while working on my novel: a day in which I cut a thousand old words can be just as productive as a day in which I write a thousand new words. The goal should always be quality over quantity, and therefore judicious cutting can represent turning fat into muscle. It isn’t a creative act, but it is part of the creative process. Removing words or ideas that don’t earn their place releases me to come up with something better.

    1. Wow, I have heard that is true, too, but I have never been that severe. Muscle, though … I like that analogy. I’m generally incredibly bored by what I wrote last week and fear that if I gave myself time to think about it I’d cut the lot and, well, waste it …

      You’ll know, from editing, that writers are very seldom the best assessors of their work. I almost think I’m too much prey to the vagaries of emotion from day to day to trust myself with the job of pruning – I might cut all the good stuff out and leave the dreck.

      Any advice for the editing-shy writer?

  2. It’s so lame to write ‘good stuff’ or ‘great post’ or ‘right on.’ But that’s what I feel like writing. It IS a great post. I heard myself in what you wrote.

    To answer the question you posed at the end of the post…

    +Never stop discovering and learning. Be a toddler in regards to discovery and learning.

    +Embrace foolishness. Giving myself the freedom to be foolish, make mistakes, and stop censoring myself just might increase that 2% to 3 or 4%–doubling my chances of creating something amazing.

    +Enjoy discipline. It’s tremendously freeing to get up early and create every day. Even if it’s just for 15-20 minutes. It feeds that part of me that needs the fuel. If I don’t feed it, my day is bland and tasteless. If I do feed my ‘creative,’ he makes appearances in the would-be mundane of my everyday activities.

    1. Jess Dunton says:

      Couldn’t agree more, Andrew. Another thing I’ve learnt to enjoy is being in the house on my own. Right now, from my dining-room table, I can see a squirrel hanging upside down from the bird-feeder and a mob of sparrows gossiping in the hedge. I can hear the wind blowing my washing about, and the buses surging up the hill past the house. The house and garden feel so much more precious to me now that I spend more time here, and for the first time in my life, I actually enjoy housework, because my house is no longer somewhere to do nothing more than collapse and recover from a day spent somewhere that I didn’t want to be. It’s hard to be thrown back on your own resources, (both creatively and financially), but the rewards are enormous.

    2. Thanks, Andrew,

      Yeah, these are great points, too – the makings of a follow-up post, perhaps? I have to agree that a foolish sense of humour gives us the audacity to try things we wouldn’t dare and, well … enjoying discipline? Yes, I find creating daily does bring the mundane to life in new ways, too, and that is a serious natural high.

      Great to meet you and thanks for the comment.

      1. I will be doing a follow-up post, agreed!

        I’ll be linking to your article soon as well. Already sent a friend of mine here and he read it several times.

        Your work come to good. Thanks for doing it.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Xe!

      It seems to be striking a chord with quite a few people.

      Amongst other things, I am extremely grateful for the encouragement you have given me, too 🙂

    1. Jess Dunton says:

      Editing is hard, for exactly the reason you give: it’s so hard to be objective. The one thing I have found that always works for me is that every word has to justify its presence. Would the novel as a whole be changed for the worse if I took out that word, that sentence, or that idea? If the answer is ‘no’, then it goes. Stuff that I like but that doesn’t justify its place goes in a folder I call Potsherds to be recycled into something else (analogous to the three boxes on my piano of offcuts and scraps from sewing projects, which I recycle into ginormous quilts and curtains). I do this because I found there were things I was keeping because I thought they were too good to be thrown away, but that nevertheless weren’t right for the project they were part of. I also have a reader, who looks at everything I write. He’s brililant at pointing out things I haven’t explained or thought through properly, and that really helps me edit too.

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