Recently I had a fleeting thought about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), as I intermittently do for some reason. Let’s face it, November is not all that far away for those who might be inclined to participate this year. Myself? I won’t be grinding away at the keyboard again this November – with the exception of an occasional blog post of course. Although participating in NaNoWriMo is definitely something I highly recommend, I’ve opted out this year — with 2014 of course being the first time I had opted in.
Which brings me to the few thoughts I had which generated this post.
What about those who never opt out? I read, listen to, and follow many very talented people in this corner of the internet, and you will have already seen links to many of them grace these pages. People I like to think of as creators. People for whom “opting out” is not, well… an option. Those whose living — either in full or in part — is made through their creative work.
Here I am not talking about the overt success stories — the best-selling novelists; the rock stars; the internet sensations. For every one of those, there are a thousand others locked in the knock-down drag-out battle to not only create great work, but to somehow survive by that very means.
Those who sit in front of an empty page, screen, canvas or microphone and produce something great — or not — and if not, keep coming back until they do. Every day without fail, they show up and create. Pushing on, and approaching every day as though it will produce their best scene, verse, or sketch yet.
The faith, hope, and perhaps on some days — the desperation. Those who push through meaningless comparisons, second guessing, and maybe repeated rejections. Those who won’t be stifled. Those who flourish — perhaps in spite of it all. Even if you half-heartedly believe everyone has that killer story inside them somewhere, not everyone has the desire, nor the ability to tell it — and perhaps some who do will never try.
Now in this, my fourth NaNoWriMo inspired post reflecting on last November I ask: did I produce something great? Definitely not (believe me – I’ve read through it). However I did manage to produce — or should I say to create— something I thought I never would: a 55,000 word novel. Although I am now finding the revision and re-write that much harder, lets face it, I really don’t have much riding on it do I? Yet there are many who do.
So here’s to the creators out there.
Whatever you might be working on today (or in November) — keep working. On those tough days? Might I at least encourage you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and stand tall. If it looks a little dark and empty ahead? Just keep walking, and above all — blink last.
Your best creative work that is. Somewhere between soap and rinse you will often find a solution to the creative roadblock that has been in place all day, or perhaps even all week. I find this to be an extremely common occurrence.
Much has been written about the phenomenon of creative ideas occurring when we are undertaking anything but the actual work itself. There are both differing views and at times outright disagreement on the neurological mechanisms behind it, as seen in the comments below a post written by Leo Widrich on Buffer. Whatever the view on the mechanism behind this phenomenon – it exists, and is a powerful, if unintentional way of moving forward on solving a creative problem.
So, if we know this exists, how to harness the power? Featured on 99u, a book review of Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Sound of Color, outlines some of the techniques Eno successfully used in overcoming blocks in the creative process. Whilst some of these techniques are deliberate ways to stimulate creativity, in my view, none is more important than this one:
The point about working is not to produce great stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can.
Simply applying the same techniques (though well worth a try) of someone as successful as musician and producer Eno (U2, Talking Heads), will most likely not provide you with the same creative rewards, which is why the sentiment above is so important.
A great idea is worthless unless it is remembered or recorded, something eloquently put in the tag line of Field Notes notebooks:
I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.
Whether or not your best ideas come in the shower, or even while running, get them down as quickly as you can and solve many a problem seemingly without “thinking” about it. Move your projects forward, around the barriers that seem so impenetrable, without having to brute force your way through, using up vital resources and time.
Granted, there are times when a deadline will be rapidly approaching and a solution will need to be finalised, with the time for relaxing in the shower waiting for the next breakthrough having come and gone. In times like these I have found it useful to consider past ideas, reviewing notes captured on similar problems or even unrelated ones for possible inspiration. Again, record the ideas, and in addition, keep the ideas!
So our brain has done its job, subconsciously exploring all possible options and avenues available, placing a great idea front and centre – what next?
Capture it by any means available to you. Pen and paper, whiteboard, digital device, Hipster PDA, tell Siri if you have to. Just get it down somehow. How do I capture these ideas? A few different ways:
Drafts app – can be used simply as a digital version of a piece of paper, or is capable of more complex functions. This app will quickly grab any idea or text entry, which can then be ‘sent to’ or ‘opened in’ just about any app you can imagine
3×5 index cards – a stack of these are kept in the top drawer of my office desk. Once the idea is captured, the card is placed in the pocket at the back of the Moleskine notebook for processing at a later time. Any post it note or scrap of paper also substitutes well here, and I have also recently commenced using a Field Notes notebook in this particular area of my workflow.
Omnifocus – for any ideas that I know are part of a larger project, or will be one themselves, I use the Omnifocus inbox as the first port of call, as all of these will end up here eventually
I have never been a fan of the notebook on the bedside table, in the bathroom, or the whiteboard in the shower, as I find constantly looking at an empty page or board that is meant for “great ideas” has the opposite effect. The tools are simply required to be close at hand when you need them. Not for when you think you should use them.
To any of you familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), I have obviously skipped the processing of the notes and ideas, however that aspect is beyond the scope of this post. As I have mentioned above, there are times when it is very useful to be able to go back and review previous ideas, even if unrelated to the problem at hand. Personally, I store these notes and ideas in:
Evernote – I use a free account which allows searching of both notes and tags
Moleskine Cahier Notebook – as mentioned above. The key in using this for both capture and storage is the index page, cross referenced to related pages; a copy of the index is also scanned and stored in Evernote, allowing a better overview across multiple books
Plain Text File – this is used also when at my office desk for ideas that will remain in the digital realm at the office, often stored in the project folder with any associated reference material
The most powerful form of capture and storage for me? Probably capturing in Drafts and utilising the ‘send to’ feature, where I can send the idea to Evernote, my work email account, or to another app to be fleshed out further should that be required.
Putting these ideas into a more cohesive project and action type framework occurs in Omnifocus, however again this is for a separate Processing post.
Irrespective of when or where they occur, these ideas will come to you. If you are at least somewhat prepared to capture and store them, they will not be lost to the ravages of time or distraction.
The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory (Chinese Proverb)