When I was a young scribbler, I wrote when the spirit moved me, and that worked out just fine. I had plenty of time: time when I was supposed to be doing homework, time after I had conceivably done homework but probably hadn’t, time where few other responsibilities crowded. I could let an idea set a fire and give it the freedom to rage and burn until the ash had settled and the spark was gone, and then I either had a complete creation or I had moved onto the next.

Given these kind of creative habits, it might come as no surprise that when I circled back around to making things much later in my life, I struggled. I no longer had long stretches of time without constriction. I had to fit creating into the hours I bought with early rising, lunches and commutes. I had days full of work, keeping up a home and raising a kid. I no longer had the privilege of waiting for a muse to smile upon me. If I didn’t write when I had the limited time, I didn’t write at all. Which is why I hadn’t written, seriously, for many years.

But as I tried to establish more productive creative habits, I also discovered that it wasn’t so simple as Just Write, at least for me at that time. When I focused on nothing but trying to raise my word count, I caught myself in a grind that didn’t lead to production—it just wore me down. And I then I felt like I hit a wall. I couldn’t wait around to create only when a lightning bolt struck. But I also couldn’t push myself to make things past the point of connection to what I liked about what I was making. Either way, I couldn’t wait until I felt like creating. I had to find another way.

The way through, as with so many things, turned out to be something in the middle. It took me almost a year to work it out and I haven’t yet perfected it in practice, just concocted a reasonable theory that, so far in my limited experiments, has seemed to hold up. The theory of process has four points of reference: routines must be deeply rooted, but flexible; art has to stay connected to the original intention when when made independent of inspiration; new and shiny ideas should be noted and filed, left to either grow or fit into something else or fade away; and it all takes space and time.

Routines

Routine is a loaded word. It has the reputation of boredom and unoriginality. Creative people don’t follow routines. They are wild and unpredictable and disorganized. Chaos is the only way to create. Except it isn’t. And many creative people follow routines. (My favorite example is John Waters, an artist identified by his delight in disruption, who nonetheless lives a strict routine of early rising, organized communication and structured schedules.) It was a relief to me when I realized that the common lore about how creative artists functioned was not the entire reality. Creative work is work, and it requires a work ethic. Even if you love it, you have to work at it.

The danger of a routine, however, is only making space for the work and forgetting the love. That’s when work becomes drudgery. A routine shouldn’t constrict time towards the completion of a task but provide a space for something to grow. It has to be a framework, not a fully-formed structure. It has to keep away other work and it has to bring you, on a regular basis, back to the work at hand. But it also has to be flexible. It has to acknowledge the work takes many forms. Sometimes you need to write, sometimes you need to think. Sometimes you need to put words on the page or color on the canvas or sounds on the track even if you don’t particularly feel like it. Sometimes you need a break. The only rule is that it needs to even out in the end. Routines know how to bend and expand and yet hold their shape, which they do as long as you hold your commitment to them.

Inspiration and Intention

As you keep to your routine and to your work, there’s that note about not forgetting the love. For me, I focused on the details of work, all the little steps it takes to get a creation to completion, because the vision of the work came so easily. Finding inspiration was never a problem for me. There’s so much of it, all the time. The trouble was how to follow that inspiration through to produce art in the real world. I got lost in daydreams. But I discovered that I could get lost in details, too. There’s a balance between the two. As I move through the daily work, bit by bit, it’s important to cycle back around periodically to the goal or the original desire. Otherwise, it’s just the machinery of production. And you are not a factory and your art is not a product.

Distractions and Golden Ideas

If you struggle to find inspiration and ideas, I’m afraid I don’t know how to help you. As I said, my own trouble was the opposite: holding on to one idea long enough to see it through to the end. I found that when I was in the unromantic middle of a project, when I had lost all rosy illusions and flights of artistic fancy, my head was easily turned by new ideas. The freshness of an idea convinced me of its essential rightness. This idea is the one. The one that will slide effortlessly from beginning to end, trailing sparkles and stars in its wake. The one golden idea that will create itself by virtue of being just so right. I used to abandon work instantly for a Golden Idea, which resulted in a long string of half-finished and barely-begun projects. The truth is that there is no Golden Idea. There are just ideas, and the work it takes to make them real. That’s it. Now when I spot a new Golden Idea out of the corner of my eye, instead of rushing to it and devoting all my time and focus to it, I make a note of it and file it away. If it’s an idea with something real to offer, it will grow slowly into a purpose or find a place for itself as part of another idea. Or it will fade away quietly, and all will be as it should be.

Space and Time

The process can be regulated, encouraged and adjusted, but it can’t be pushed. It can’t be any smaller or faster than it is. It needs space and it needs time. There’s no way around it. Moving slowly and spending time is not a sign of failure or dysfunction. It’s necessary. It’s hard to figure out how much of either you need. You just kind of have to … let it go. Until it’s done.

There is a lot of overlap among the guidelines I came up with, which didn’t really become clear to me until I wrote them out. They’re all slightly different aspects of the themes of flexibility, openness and gentle commitment. I can’t say for sure that I got the right ones or the correct interpretations. I’m not sure that the sort-of system I’ve worked out will work. But it seems an usable compass. So I’ll try walking with it for a while and see where I end up.