The Creative Habit and the Organized Writer

by Jeff Abbott on December 3, 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and good habits lately. I always sort of do an end-of-year review: what did I get done, how quickly and effectively did I do it, could I have made better use of my creative time (here I tend to be my own worst critic). This has been more involved this year, because I’ve been working on multiple projects and have become more conscious than usual about the relationship between creativity and time. This is also a time where I plan out my work and my time for the next year–which can result in trying out new systems and techniques. Those can either spell more productivity for me, or they could be a waste of time.
Twyla Tharp, the legendary choreographer, has written a book I’ve only just learned about called The Creative Habit. You can read the first chapter here. What she writes about in facing “the white room” applies to any creative endeavor: starting a novel, drawing a cartoon, redesigning a room, taking a photograph, inventing a game to play with your child. I can’t wait to read this book, because there is a world of truth in its title. Creativity is a habit. But developing this habit is hard, and as Tharp notes, making the attempt can be paralyzing for some people.
So–I’m going to be writing a short series here on the blog about how to get into that creative habit. In other words, how to be an organized writer. Even if you’re not an aspiring writer I hope this will be useful. There’s not a person alive who doesn’t need to know how to be creative at points in their work and their life. And that comes, I think, from being disciplined about your work.
In starting this, I’m facing a white room (Tharp’s term for the blank page) of my own. I’m just starting a new book. It’s going really well. The character is a force of nature in my head, and I’ve started without a detailed outline because I desperately want to hear what this new character has to say to me. I want to see what he will do. Of course the momentum will shift, I will need structure to shape the story most effectively and I need to know where the book will go. Right now, I’m not certain–I’m riding on creative energy, not on my usual wave of detailed structure and outline. (Rest assured, that will come. It’s another part of who I am.)
But I’m also facing a white page of this blog and this topic. I haven’t planned out all these entries on how to marry organization and creativity. I’ll be shooting from the hip. But I think there is a need for this. Whenever I meet aspiring authors, I’m often asked how did I find the time to write. There is a sense, it seems, that this writing time is the most elusive time in the world for people to pin down. And creative people seem to be challenged by the idea of regular work and discipline; as though they don’t go hand-in-hand. I love what Tharp writes about Mozart in that opening chapter; focus trumps all.
Finding the time to write will be tomorrow’s topic.
Thanks to 43 Folders for the pointer to the Tharp chapter.

    { 10 comments… read them below or add one }

    C.D. Reimer December 3, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    What helped me was setting up a dedicated office area by walling off part of my studio apartment with bookshelves and a filing cabinet, and painting two walls a light green (which is supposed to be soothing). The office area feels like a separate room, and more cleaner and neater than the rest of my apartment.

    Michelle McGinnis December 3, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Thanks Jeff, this is a great idea for a series of posts. After almost a year of flailing about due to *too much* time to be writing, I’m finally finding my balance – but it’s fragile at best. I’m looking forward to your suggestions!

    janet higdon December 3, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Jeff, thanks for doing this! It’s perfect timing, as I’m juggling some big personal projects with a big ol’ relentless day job. Sigh. Also, I recommend Murakami’s new book “What I Talk about When I Talk about Running.” It’s all about discipline and the creative process. And running.

    JT Ellison December 4, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Advice from you is always welcome. Thanks for starting this series. I’ll be sharing it with all my debut writer friends : )

    Ann Victor December 6, 2008 at 5:37 am

    I read the Twyla Tharp book early this year. It’s an excellent book on creativity. Other books I’ve read recently on creativity were “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art” by Stephen Nachmanovitch and “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read Dr Anthony Storr’s “The Dynamics of Creation” a few years ago; another good one. None of them are as practical as Tharp’s, but they’re interesting nonetheless!

    robena grant December 6, 2008 at 11:15 am

    I wandered over here from Nathan B’s blog and I’m so glad I did.
    With my new manuscript I fronted up to the blank page and wrote like crazy. I’ve never done that before. No outline, no character profiles, no nothing. Just an idea and a vision of the hero in my head. The first three chapters took off like a rocket and the main characters were fleshed out and a plot begun. I even had a couple of interesting secondary characters. I could visualize all of them better than in any other of my stories and their dialogue was great.
    I was flying high, however, this week I came to a grinding halt. The characters now refuse to speak to me. The plot is there but the characters are frozen. So, from what you’ve said above, is it time for me to step back and do the ground work, get to know the characters better before I continue? I hate the thought of letting go of my free-wheeling thoughts. Not sure if a time away is the answer, or is it that I’m trying to squeeze them into a plot that doesn’t suit them? Time to look at motive, I suppose.

    Jeff Abbott December 8, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Robena: I think you have answered your own question with your final observation. Good luck!

    Kristan December 8, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    I’m also here via Nathan Bransford’s blog, and I’m looking forward to what you have to say. Of course, you can tell me the exact secret to being a successful writer, but that won’t help me unless I do it… ;)

    Mari December 9, 2008 at 9:00 am

    It’s interesting that you mentioned the white room because I see that’s a good approach to writing a novel. I found that by making small goals first and then working to achieve them, the writing becomes easier as more time goes on.

    Dorothy Lehmkuhl February 26, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    I was searching for something else just now when I happened upon your page.
    I’ve co-authored a book you might like to read: “ORGANIZING FOR THE CREATIVE PERSON” by Lehmkuhl and Lamping.
    While not addressed to authors, per se, it does discuss nearly all aspects of the issues mentioned here: The relationships of the creative mind to time, goal setting, feeling paralyzed in attempting projects, procrastination, organizing offices, etc. etc.
    It was the first book written on this subject and is still a classic on the shelf. I think you’ll find it offers a great deal of food for thought, and will prove to be very helpful.
    Dorothy Lehmkuhl

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