If you’re doing that, you need to stop right now.
Trust your process.
Two former bosses I had were masters at honoring each employee’s creative process. When I would get frustrated or stuck while working on a particular project, they used to say, “Trust your process and use it to your advantage.” This was perhaps the most valuable advice for creativity that I have ever received, and that’s why I’m devoting a series of blog posts to this topic.
“But Michelle, I don’t have a creative process.”
If you're a human being, you've got a creative process. It's a God-given quality we each have to create any plan, idea, product, atmosphere, program, solution, action, relationship, work of art, home repair, environment, or conflict that you can imagine. Every single person on the planet has the ability to create something (tangible or not) and therefore has a creative process. (Granted, not everyone uses this power for good, but that's a subject for another time.)
That’s why this first post of the series is devoted to helping you figure out your own process. Once you recognize your creative process and embrace it, you'll be able to harness it to accomplish all kinds of amazing things you didn't think you could do.
So, how do you discover what your creative process is?
Get a pen and paper to jot down some ideas as you read. If you’re a religious person as I am, I also recommend praying for guidance. Your creativity is a God-given resource, and I believe He enjoys it when we ask for help about how to use the gifts He has given.
1) Think of something you enjoy doing and actually want to do.
You might choose "inciting drama among my co-workers," "planting a garden," "teaching my teenager to drive," or "convincing my friends to watch the that Jane Austen film I've been dying to see." It doesn't matter what activity you choose as long as it's something you enjoy and it involves activity on your part beyond sitting in a catatonic state.
(Choosing a catatonic state could be a creative act, I guess, if you do it on purpose to achieve some sort of desired outcome--such as encouraging the people around you to stop interacting with you.)
I’ll use painting (as in a picture—not a wall or a room) as my example.
2) Make a list of all the steps you follow to complete thing you enjoy, no matter how insignificant.
I've enjoyed painting since I was a kid but I haven't done it much as an adult. About six months ago, I discovered a talented artist friend was teaching a painting class. My first thought was, “I want to paint again.” A few months later, I had a wonderful evening at my friend’s class and came home wanting to paint some more.
Over the next two months, I thought about painting a lot, priced supplies, read about techniques, and asked myself, "Do I really want to invest in this or is it just a passing fancy?" Satisfied that I really wanted to try it, I researched the tools I would need and bought inexpensive paints, brushes, and canvasses.
Once I bought the supplies, I checked out a book on acrylic painting for beginners from the library and read it through to give myself an overview. Then, I set up my supplies and created a work space to paint in. If I have to pull out my painting supplies every time I want to paint, then I will never start.
Finally, I started painting. I copied a sailboat painting I already owned because I liked the color and shapes and thought it would be fun to try. It took two nights to complete. I had a blast while I was working on it. Blending the colors was fun and I liked the feel of the brush in my hand. I was enjoying myself, and that was all that mattered.
While my painting dried, I cleaned up the area and reset to start painting the next night. I took a photo of my painting and emailed it to my family, eager to show off what I'd done. As I went to bed that night, I started fantasizing about what painting I could try the following night.
Now, you do the same thing. Jot down the steps you followed to complete the activity you chose in step 1.
3) Break you process down into basic steps.
After studying my painting story, I grouped my actions into eight basic steps that made sense to me:
- Fantasize - I think about painting and have a desire to try it.
- Tipping point - I was invited to a painting class--the perfect opportunity to try with expert help!
- Research - I looked into supplies and read books about how to paint.
- Plan - I bought the tools I needed, set up a work space, and decided what scene I was going to paint.
- Creation - I used the brush, paints, and canvas to paint a picture.
- Clean up - I cleaned everything and put it back in its place, ready to be used on another painting.
- Pride - I took a photo of my painting and emailed it to my immediate family to show off my creation.
- Repeat - Almost immediately I started fantasizing about my next painting.
4) Test your process against something else you like to do.
You know you've correctly identified your process if it applies to other things you like to do. While some revision of your steps is possible at this point, hopefully everything should line up. If it doesn't, try steps 2 and 3 with another activity you enjoy to see if that provides you any more insight. You may need to combine the insights from two or three activities to see some consistency in process.
I knew I had correctly identified my creative process when I saw how easily the steps used in painting applied to every successful writing project I had completed:
- Fantasize - Before I start a book or blog post, I enjoy dreaming about what I could write and play with possibilities.
- Tipping point - I have so much fun fantasizing that I start writing down the ideas for fear I will forget them.
- Research - I watch movies, read books, and do Internet research to find out as much as I can before writing the book.
- Plan - I outline the book so I know the major plot points in advance. This is especially important if I'm writing a mystery. I set up my project in Scrivener, gather all my research into one place, print maps and time lines to hang on my wall, and choose music that will inspire me while I'm writing.
- Create - I write and revise the book. Sometimes I do more research and planning if I discover a gap that needs to be filled.
- Clean up - Once a book is done, I order the cover, have the final proofing done, archive my electronic files, clean my office, and file away all the maps, outlines, and notes I had hanging on my wall.
- Pride - I publish the book and tell people about it. Regardless of how much praise I do or do not receive, I’m proud of myself and what I’ve accomplished.
- Repeat - Often before a book is even finished, I’m fantasizing about the next one. I love the process and want it to start all over again.
5) Make a list of actual times your creative process worked.
We all need reminders that we have produced good things. Make a list of projects you have completed in the last six to twelve months using that process. You can go farther back if you need to, but setting a limit is good since looking at your entire life can feel overwhelming.
Here's a list of just a few things I have finished or accomplished within the last twelve months using my creative process:
- Started a blog and published 18 blog posts.
- Taught a Bible study class at my church approximately 25 times.
- Painted mugs with original designs for my family for Christmas presents.
- Took a trip to France with my sister.
- Created a DVD of our trip to France.
- Painted three canvases.
- Wrote and published my novel Portals and Poison.
- Learned Photoshop and used it to create cartoons for a work in progress.
- Redesigned the first floor of my house and my home office for better functionality.
- Packed a lunch for work every single day.
Don’t be afraid to make a list of your creative accomplishments, no matter how meager. You have to start somewhere. Past success paves the way for even greater future success in your creative endeavors.
6) Remember that bad days may be part of your process.
The other day I lamented to my sister that my writing projects weren’t going well. “Everything I write stinks,” I complained. She laughed and said, “Michelle, hating what you’re working on is part of your process.”
While I’ll address the emotional roller coaster of creating in a different post in this series, I want to emphasize right now that creating doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sad, anger-inducing, or discouraging.
On those bad days, remind yourself of how you like to work and use that to your advantage. Remind yourself of what you’ve accomplished in the past and allow it to encourage you that you’ll get through this rough patch, too.
Most of all, trust your process. You know yourself and how you like to work. Use your knowledge of your process to change your setting, circumstances, focus, or even aspects of the project itself to make it something that better aligns with the process that works best for you. When you believe in your ability and your unique way of accomplishing things, you can make your creative goals a reality.
Click here to read Part 2 of this series on how to put your creative process to work.