I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and productivity lately. Two topics I rarely get far away from. Creativity means something different (though not entirely) in theology, and I know there are meaningful connections to be made there, but in the meantime I will keep reading books about writing and focus on the work.
Last week I read Steal Like An Artist. It has some helpful tips for unlocking your creativity, many of which you have probably heard before, but the book is an example of what it teaches: it steals from the greats to make something new. I’ve been following Austin Kleon around the internet for quite a while, and I was turned off by the idea of stealing like an artist at first, because I’m an academic and I have been taught that the worst thing you can do is plagiarize. This was of course a total misunderstanding of what Austin is talking about. Stealing like an artist is exactly what academics do; we make something original by combining and expanding upon the ideas of others.
Steal Like An Artist is a list of 10 things that Austin wishes he had known when he started. It’s certainly worth picking up and reading through quickly, but two items on the list really struck me: use your hands and be boring.
Learn To Be Creative Away From The Computer
Using your hands is about finding ways to be creative away from the computer. This seemed like a good idea to me immediately, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a challenge. My art is writing, and that can certainly be done away from a computer, but I write slowly by hand. I’m also an efficiency freak and don’t know that I really have the patience to extend my process by starting away from my computer.
I don’t struggle to be creative in front of the computer. Yes, there are distractions, but I can get the writing done. It’s more the way it makes me feel. Not calm and relaxed, but like I’ve been overwhelmed with information and put the majority of my focus into filtering most of it out. Even as I write this, I keep glancing up at the Gmail tab and TweetDeck is scrolling on the left. My productivity would be impressive if there was any value to these distractions I’ve placed in my own way.
Learning to be creative away from the computer is not about rejecting technology. It’s about engaging your work in a physical way–literally using your hands to make things. The computer is still where you edit and publish your ideas, but you create them or at least first imagine them somewhere else. It’s a different way of engaging in creative acts.
This is something I’m still trying to figure out. I do write in my journal by hand, and while it surely counts as being creative away from the computer, I wanted to try something else. Then I was frustrated at work one day and unable to write something with my coworkers talking around me, so I found a quiet area of the library and wrote by hand for a while. It felt like a breakthrough even though I was only writing departmental goals. Since then I have been trying to spend at least a small portion of my creative time thinking about ideas with just a pen and paper. Okay, and some music.
One thing I find so interesting about writers is that no matter how different they may seem, they all spend a large percentage of their time writing alone. Not just Joyce Carol Oates in Princeton, but Hemingway in Paris. As Austin says, it’s the only way to get anything done. I haven’t traveled much this Summer. I haven’t been very social either. I’ve spent most of my evenings in my apartment writing. I must admit that it’s one of those things that seems far more romantic when you imagine writers more talented than you writing in a different time.
In my first year of grad school, I was required to take a vocational class that should have been called “everything you need to know about grad school that no one will tell you.” Every week a professor or PhD student would come in to share their experiences and give us advice. More than one talked about how isolating academic work is. Most of your time will be spent alone researching and writing, so in the first place, you should only do this if it’s what you really love, and in the second place, you better enjoy being alone.
That actually sounded perfect for me when I first heard it at 22, but after six years of living it, I have learned that even I have limits. If I’m going to spend that much time alone working, then I have to also be very intentional about how I spend the rest of my time or I will be unhappy. I have to talk to my friends, I need a place to be every day, I need to be sharing my work, I need to see live music and comedy, and I can’t pass up too many opportunities to get on a plane and go see a new place.
Being boring is of course not actually about being a boring person. It’s more about living a calm life so that you can put all of your energy into creating. This section of the book includes several suggestions, like take care of yourself (working on it), stay out of debt (giant check), keep your day job (always), and marry well (if only JT would return my calls). I have given a lot of thought to this kind of life, and I keep choosing it over and over again.
“Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff. I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk” (17).
“You have to be curious about the world in which you live. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anyone else–that’s how you’ll get ahead” (19).
“The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like” (47).
“You need to find a way to bring your body into your work” (54).
“Don’t throw any of yourself away. Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work. Don’t worry about unity–what unifies your work is the fact that you made it. One day, you’ll look back and it will all make sense” (72).
“Artists aren’t magicians. There’s no penalty for revealing your secrets” (81).
“You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. In the digital space, that means following the best people online–the people who are way smarter and better than you, the people who are doing the really interesting work” (104).
Internet, I need your help, and I’m trying to get better at asking for it. I’m looking for more opportunites to write for more people. What I’m really looking for is more places to submit my work. Something a little more than guest blogging for my friends, but I will consider any opportunity. If there are any sites you read where you think my writing might fit in, please let me know. I’ll do all the work, but I’d appreciate a push in the right direction. If nothing comes to mind immediately, please just store this request somewhere in the back of your brain, and let me know if anything comes up.