Not long ago, a colleague dropped a project on my desk. An article by a contractor needed to be rewritten quickly.
"You're creative and a writer," my colleague said. "Can you change the focus, take out the bad parts, add some new paragraphs, and make it 'good' by yesterday?"
I wanted to say: "Shall I pull out my magic wand, wave it over the computer screen, and magically produce a brand-new article?"
Over ten years ago, I was chaperoning a group of eleventh graders on a field trip. During the long drive, the students sitting near me turned to me and said, "We're bored. Tell us a story."
I wanted to say: "Do you think I keep entertaining stories in my back pocket to satisfy your every whim?"
I didn't actually say any of those responses that crossed my mind, but admitting I thought them highlights how frustrated I can feel when someone expects me to create at a second's notice without respecting the steps I need to take to produce a quality article, story, speech, meal, or whatever.
Every creative project I've ever completed is the result of at least a few minutes of thinking, researching, planning, and organizing before I begin to create. These steps are so essential to my process that I shut down creatively if not allowed to use them. In both the situations I described, I was being asked to create without being allowed (I believed) to use these steps.
Perhaps you've been in situations similar to mine where you feel like you're being forced away from your creative process. If that's the case, what follows are a few tips to help you effectively use your creative process to get the job done.
1. Expect and allow other people to have different creative processes than you do.
When I taught high school English, I learned quickly that every student approached the writing process differently. While I must write thousands of words and multiple drafts to get a quality five-hundred-word essay, a few of my students could write A papers in a single draft. While I must write speeches word-for-word and practice them in front of a mirror, some of my students scored much better on extemporaneous speeches than on ones I forced them to practice.
My colleagues have different creative processes as well. While I hate spreadsheets, a colleague cannot create an end product without the use of multiple spreadsheets. While I love planning, organizing, and outlining at the beginning of a project, another colleague creates best in what I consider chaos.
If I want others to respect and honor my creative process, then I must respect and honor theirs first--no matter how different they may be from my own.
2. Believe in your process, even when it's different or criticized.
If you're prone to playing the comparison game, it can be easy to doubt your creative process when you see others working differently.
Several years ago, I was feeling discouraged about a project. A colleague didn't appear to be having the same problems I was. When I asked him how he achieved success, he replied, "I just sit down and do it."
There has not been a single time in my life when I was able to complete a creative task simply by sitting down and doing it. My colleague meant well and was trying to encourage me. My mistake was that I compared myself to him instead of recognizing my unique approach.
Trusting your creative process means believing in the steps you need to take to complete the project, even when your steps are different from those around you.
3. Ask for what you need in order to follow your creative process.
Mind reading only happens in fiction. In real life, people don't know what you need unless you ask for it.
It's my responsibility to own my feelings (especially my creative frustration) and ask for what I need in order to complete a project. I have found that when I do this politely, most people are more than understanding.
My colleague who loves chaos wanted me to jump right into his chaos with him. Here's what I said: "I need an hour or two to read through all the information and get it straight in my head. Do you mind if I do that this morning and get back with you after lunch? When I've had a little time to think, I know we can move forward." My colleague was more than happy to accommodate me. We met later that afternoon when I felt more prepared, and we completed the project without incident.
I used the same technique with the colleague who dropped the article on my desk. "I'm happy to fix this," I said. "I need to read through the source material, think about the changes that need to be made, and come up with a plan. May I check back with you in two hours to talk over my approach? If that will work, I can have this done by the end of the day."
I have found most people appreciate my communicating what I need and respect my process, which allows me to follow the next step without guilt.
5. Put your process to work for you.
Once you've successfully campaigned for the time, space, or other accommodations you need to follow your creative process, you must actually use your process to get the job done.
For me, this means getting my head in the right place to think about the project. Before I start, I often pray for focus, wisdom, and a good attitude since I know those are crucial for me to move forward.
Then I start researching. For the article I needed to rewrite, this meant reading the original source materials and finding additional sources to support the new direction I was supposed to take.
When I had the information I needed, I spent a few minutes outlining what the finished article should like, making notes about what I could keep from the original article and what needed to change.
At this point, I was ready to confer with my colleague and start writing. Because I had taken the time to follow the first few steps of my creative process, I was back on track with my creative process and able to complete the project by the requested deadline (well, almost--completing it yesterday was unrealistic since time travel is also fiction).
You're at your best when you're using your unique creative process--even on a project you weren't initially excited about. You might even come to enjoy the project--or at least find it less onerous.
6. Prove your process works with results.
All this talk about creative process means nothing if you can't produce results. People who are initially skeptical of your creative process often grow more supportive when they see you deliver the results they want.
My teenage son often complained while he was growing up that my initial answer to everything was "No." (He's not wrong.) Because he's a smart guy, he caught on to my creative process long before I did and learned to use it to his advantage.
"If I give you enough time to think about something and make sure you have all the information you need, you usually agree with me," he told me one day.
Similarly, after I explain my process to bosses or colleagues and they see I produce results, they often change their requests from "Do this!" to "Hey, would you look at this and get back to me in an hour or two about when you think you can have it done and what you need from me in order to finish it?"
It's a good reminder that an effective creative process produces results that everyone involved can benefit from.
7. Know when to say no.
I don't recommend saying "no" all the time--especially in a work environment. In many areas of my life I've been trying to say "yes" more often. (My son says I still have a lot of room to improve.)
But there is a time when "no" is appropriate, and that's when you're aware that no matter how effective your creative process is, it will not achieve the desired result. I'm a firm believer in keeping my word. If I can't keep it, I want people to know as soon as possible.
Recently my mom asked me to do some special effects in Photoshop for her. I possess just enough Photoshop knowledge to complete the ten-to-fifteen simple tasks required for my work in progress. When my mom described what result she was looking for, I knew it lay far beyond my expertise. What's more, I knew that learning how to do the task would take me hours of research and practice--time neither she nor I had.
So, I politely declined and suggested she find someone with more PhotoShop knowledge than I possessed.
Similarly, after fixing over thirty articles for my colleague, I found one article I was unable to fix. Based on my writing abilities, the time we had, and the direction we needed to take the piece, there was no way I could meet her expectations.
"I thought that one was probably hopeless," she told me, "but now that you've told me, I believe it." Because I had produced results for her so many times, she respected my "no" and we were able to find another solution.
Saying "no" when appropriate can protect you, your creative process, your working relationships with others, and your creative abilities.
Remember, your creative process is a unique, incredible gift that allows you not only to get the job done but also to do so in the way that allows you to feel confident in yourself and the quality of your project.
Trust your process enough to put your creative process to work in as many situations as you can. You might be surprised how your attitude and your work improve when you do so.
Click here to read part 3 in this series on how to ride your creative emotional roller coaster.