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How to Make Sure Your Creative Work Gets Done


“It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

You can’t make a cake without a cake pan.

All that delicious gooey batter needs something to hold it in place so the oven’s heat can work its magic.

Although the cake pan is rigid and unchanging, it makes transformation possible.

You cannot get lost in a labyrinth.

There is no wrong path. There are many twists and turns, leaps forward and doublings back, but you are always moving closer to the centre.

Once you enter, you can give yourself over to the path of the labyrinth ~ progress is inevitable as long as you keep walking.

“Conditions for creativity are to be puzzled; to concentrate; to accept conflict and tension; to be born everyday; to feel a sense of self.” ~ Erich Fromm

Our creative ideas, in their state of puzzlement before solidifying, need a structure to pour themselves into.

They need the structure of a discipline, with all of its tools and conventions developed over thousands of years.

The structure of a form or genre, dictating overall shape and essential ingredients.

Much of the required tension lies between the fluid, unformed nature of our inspiration, and the unyielding limits of the medium in which we work.

In the same way, our creative energy and impulses need a structure to channel themselves, so that the required concentration is brought to bear.

We need to build structures into our daily life that guarantee time and space for our art-making.

Physical and emotional structures that carry us along with little effort, so that we can exert ourselves inside the studio, not in getting there.

When we know who we are, and have the assurance that our structures will bear us up, there we find the courage to be born everyday, to start over with beginner’s mind.

The vulnerability of making art is held safely in the labyrinth.

Your ideally designed creative conditions will look different from mine and everyone else’s. There’s no blueprint to follow. But we do have the common principle, the Labyrinth, to guide us in our construction.

And to illustrate the principle, I’ll introduce you to a labyrinth in my own life.

The work of establishing a labyrinth comes at the beginning.

Shawn and I used to own a car, a trusty gray Honda Accord. Selling it required a few hours’ work: taking a photograph, posting it on Craigslist, negotiating with the buyer, and delivering the car to its new home.

A few more hours were invested in researching and signing up for a car-sharing network.

Then we sat back to reap the benefits.

Designing a labyrinth requires big-picture thinking.

We were able to sell our car because we live downtown and can get around without it. In fact, the possibility of living car-free was a big factor in us choosing our condo, even though we didn’t sell our car until two years after moving in.

We looked at the financial costs of car ownership, the hassles of care and maintenance and downtown parking, and decided that we were willing to do without the convenience. The environmental benefits were a bonus.

Once a labyrinth is in place, you can keep your head down and put one foot in front of the other.

We didn’t have to solve all the challenges of living car-free at once. We just needed to decide each day how we would get from one place to another: learning the bus schedules, finding the best bike routes, buying the right kind of winter boots.

We all know walking is good for us. When walking is one of several options ~ especially when it is a less convenient option ~ we have to make an effort to choose it every time. When walking is the only option, it happens effortlessly.

Even though a labyrinth will take us a long way, we can’t see very far ahead at any given time.

When we added kids to our family, people asked if we would be buying a car again. We didn’t know exactly what transporting kids would require of us. But because we were already in the car-free labyrinth, we planned to stay on that path.

And it led us to mei-tai carriers and double strollers, local playgroups and friends on every block.

A labyrinth itself is beautiful, and walking it brings us pleasure.

My life feels richer because I rarely drive anywhere. My body gets regular exercise. I notice and feel part of the city. Riding the bus is a communal activity. When we do rent a car some weekends, it’s a special treat to visit shops and parks and restaurants we couldn’t normally get to.

Even though we know where the centre is, a labyrinth changes us in ways we wouldn’t have expected.

I never would have thought that selling our car would have such a big effect on my creative life. But it has.

Whenever I walk, my mind immediately searches for a luscious question to resolve: what happens in the next scene of my novel? How will I begin my query letter? What will I blog about tomorrow? I do most of my planning and idea generation while I’m walking. And I don’t have to schedule these walks ~ they happen without fail.

The course of the labyrinth may not be easy, but its structure keeps us going.

Yes, there are days when I curse the winter’s slush that turns the trip to daycare into an obstacle course. Having a child tantrum loudly all the way home is not fun. It’s a hassle to make sure I have bus tickets. But the car-free conditions are established, and they stay in place even when the going is tough.

My only regret about living car-free is that we didn’t do it sooner.

What labyrinths come to mind in your own life? How have they affected your creative process?

Image courtesy of BotheredByBees

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Abby Kerr April 4, 2011, 4:12 pm

    Hey, Alison —

    I love this post and love adding new tools like the labyrinth to my artist’s toolbox. Thanks for sharing your example of how going car-free was a labyrinth that’s led you to doing more of your great creative work. Reading this and envisioning you walking through your city reminded me of my days in undergrad when I would walk miles and miles each day on my way to class, to parties, to my favorite little Chinese restaurant for carryout.

    Today, one of my labyrinths {I think this qualifies} is taking myself out to a coffee shop before I get into my creative work for the day. Just being in a coffee shop atmosphere with my favorite Pandora station in my earbuds, pot of tea at hand, takes me into a creative space where I can get great work done. Most days, if I don’t head out of the house early enough, something just feels off and it’s more of a slog for me to get into the right headspace.

    Awesome concept! I’m gong to be watchful for labyrinths from now on.

  • Rachel April 4, 2011, 8:29 pm

    Lovely post. I haven’t analyzed what going car-free has given me back (except the $) yet.
    One thing I do enjoy is the barrier to expectations from others. Having to take time and be more thoughtful in our planning. Delayed gratification is a good thing.

  • Lisa Verdi April 12, 2011, 5:15 pm

    Delighted to have found you via your post on Scoutie Girl. Your point of view really resonates. Love your concept of labyrinths and the idea of eliminating the possibility of choice to set yourself up for success. Last summer I sold my car too and can relate to your experiences. My husband still has his car to commute to work out of town, but during the week days I’m car-free and love walking everywhere. I too do a lot of my biz thinking/idea generation while walking! Along the same lines I got rid of my tv years ago — so liberating! I’d say it’s the best lifestyle design choice I’ve made because it eliminates instant passive entertainment and it makes it easy for me to choose to make time for things that are really important to me. Looking forward to reading more of your blog posts!

    • Alison April 12, 2011, 7:58 pm

      Glad to have you, Lisa!

      Your TV example is a great one. We’ve gone halfway by getting rid of cable, and I’m really glad I can’t idly channel surf anymore.

  • Melissa Dinwiddie April 17, 2011, 3:50 am

    Love this, Alison. The few years of my post-drivers-license life when I lived without a car hold wonderful memories for me, and I have a long-standing goal of someday living right in or near a downtown area, just so I can get everywhere easily without a car.

    The easily part is key.

    Your concept of labyrinths resonates with me a lot. But for me, a labyrinth only works if it’s relatively easy to maintain. And of course, my “easy” may be your “difficult,” and vice versa.

    Exercise, for example: I learned long ago that belonging to a gym that’s more than a 10-minute drive away = not ever getting to the gym. And the best way to make sure I get the exercise I need and desire is to incorporate something “exercisish” that I love to do into my daily routine.

    The year I spent salsa dancing almost every night, for example, was one of my best cardio years ever!

    Now, as a yogini, I volunteer to be the person behind the desk at my yoga studio twice a week, in exchange for free classes whenever I want. Not only does this save me a lot of money (always great!), but it *forces* me to get to the yoga studio at least twice a week! It may be *only* twice a week, but on those two days I’m guaranteed to be there.

    A very effective labyrinth!

    In my art life, I suddenly became as prolific as I’d always longed to be when I made my 15 Minutes-a-Day challenge, committing to at least 15 minutes in the “Creative Sandbox” every single day.

    Several times I’d tried setting aside a day or an afternoon a week, and that never worked — not the right labyrinth. When I made the commitment daily, but short enough to be achievable, that’s when things really took off. THAT was the right labyrinth for me.

    I love reading about other people who have been inspired by my challenge to take on their own 15 Minutes-a-Day commitment. It won’t be the right labyrinth for everyone, but that’s okay — the important thing is to find the system that works for you. And if you can make it an enforced labyrinth — by signing up to be somewhere, or getting rid of your car, for example — so much the better.

  • Miki DeVivo April 22, 2011, 4:42 pm

    “You can’t get lost in a labyrinth.” I love that! So often we feel that the maze is bad, that a container will constrict us and stop up our creativity, but in fact the opposite is true. It’s so liberating to realize that the “limits” of our life–being a mom, having a day job, limited time–actually can fuel the flames of our creativity and allow us to make the most of our creative time.

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