November is NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – and people all over the world will be making the commitment to themselves, and their writing, to sit down each day and write. The aim is to write around 1600 words a day, every day, and to end the month with the first draft of a novel. Ta da!
Well, it will probably be a pretty ropey first draft, but that’s not the point. The point is to do it. To get started, to show up, to build a habit and to launch yourself towards something you’ve always dreamed of doing. It’s a cliché that so many people want to write books, but how many people actually do? There’s even a term for it - the ‘someday’ writer - as in ‘someday I’ll write that book…’. I think the person who started NaNoWriMo realised something crucial about creativity: that it’s something we need to work on every day if we’re ever going to achieve the things we want for it.
This November I’ve decided to play along with NaNoWriMo, but as I am contrary I’m not aiming for the first draft of a novel, I’m using the structure to get myself into the writing habit. For too long I’ve been saying I’m going to give some proper attention to my creative practice, but it always ends up being sporadic and a bit fair weather. Not anymore. Next month I am going to show up and write whether I feel in the mood or not, whether I am inspired or not. Because, lately I have begun to realise that it is the act of showing up that is the most important element of our creative practices. It’s not the finished work, it’s not the moment of inspiration, it is doing the work you need to do come rain or shine.
I first read Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit about 7 years ago (you can read my recommendation here) and it has always been on my bookshelf ever since. I appreciate that that doesn’t sound too impressive but in that time I have moved house 3 times and each time I have kept the book out when others have been packed away, consigned to storage or to charity shops. Why? Because it is excellent and she is no-nonsense in her attitude to creativity and work, which is exactly what I need to hear. Twyla Tharp is a world-renowned dancer and choreographer and for the last 50 odd years she has been following the same creative routine and using the same approaches to create her work – she knows her stuff. She has cultivated a practice of discipline which has become her creative habit:
Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit. It’s the same for any creative individual, whether it’s a painter finding his way each day to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory. The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. … I will keep stressing this point about creativity being augmented by routine and habit. Get used to it. In these pages a philosophical tug of war will periodically rear its head. It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work. If it isn’t obvious already, I come down on the side of hard work.
I’m interested in this ‘philosophical tug of war’. It’s something I realise I have unconsciously been struggling with and it’s been affecting my work. I’ve been guilty of thinking that my creativity is something that should come easily, because when I do have those moments of inspiration and a desire to work then wonderful things do happen. But what happens when I’m not feeling inspired or motivated? I resist, I struggle, I often end up doing other stuff (stuff I can justify like admin or accounting) until I feel ready to work again. And this happens because I have accepted the belief that creative work is supposed to be ineffable and magical. Well, I think that’s rubbish. I think it’s the same as any other work – it can be hard and boring and you just have to get through it; you have to prepare yourself to be creative by being ready. As Tharp says:
There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other. It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world: to use words to create believable lives, to select the colours and textures of paint to represent as haystack at sunset, to combine ingredients to make a flavourful dish. No one is born with that skill. It is developed through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and reflection that’s both painstaking and rewarding. … If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.
I like this idea – that skill is the link between you and your creative work. That when things aren’t flowing and you aren’t feeling it, that you work on your skill, you practice, you do exercises, you train yourself. You prepare so that you are able to get there faster next time. None of this work is wasted, even if the results won’t ever be seen by anyone else by you.
I think we are taught, at school, college and uni, that we are supposed to be able to come up with ideas easily, to design or prepare to make work with no problems and to execute our ideas smoothly. We are asked to create final products for project brief after project brief which are often unrealistic in time-scale and not at all what it’s like when you work for yourself. But we are not taught how to just keep working. To motivate yourself when maybe there isn’t a deadline looming, and how to deal with that uncertainty or sluggishness. That’s where the creative habit helps. By showing up each day and saying ‘I’ll do the work, however that happens and whatever that looks like’ you give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft, to throw really wobbly pots, to keep snapping your piercing saw blade, to not be able to mix the exact shade of orange that you wanted. And that is ok. That is part of the process, it is what creativity is made of.
So, next month I am going to work on my discipline, I’m going to try to turn up each day and write, but mostly I am going to forgive myself for it not being perfect; I am going to try to see it as essential skill-building work I need to do. Just like a musician practices their scales and arpeggios so that their fingers are agile when they need them to be, I am working on my craft.
Is there anything you could be doing in November to build your skill-base? Any habits you could be building into your routine to help your creativity along? Or maybe try reading The Creative Habit – it’s full of practical tips and exercises to inspire you.