A Ten-Step Creative Process That Absolutely Works

Today in my Quora inbox:

What sort of approach or strategy do you most often use in your creative work as a writer, from the very early beginning stages and onwards?

I found this question baffling at first. Asking about “process” seems antithetical to creation itself. I don’t have a process! I channel the inspiration of the gods themselves!

Except I do, of course, have a process. All creatives do.

I can’t guarantee my process will work for anybody else. (Notice that the headline doesn’t say who “a ten-step creative process that absolutely works” works for.) I frequently disappoint aspiring creatives by regaling them with a discussion of my methods, only for them to list 5,000 ways those methods won’t work for them.

So your mileage may vary. Please consult the manual before driving. Do not feed this advice to babies or small children.

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Phase the Early: Ideas

Perhaps the most queried-after item in the whole “creativity” topic. Where do you get your ideas? How can I have more ideas? 

Step One: GET BORED.

Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from.

I took up running on the elliptical in order to get bored. I put a stationary bike in my basement so I can get bored. I’ll put my phone out in my car in 0F weather to force myself to get bored. I show up to dentist appointments an hour early to get bored.

It only takes a few minutes of boredom for my brain to start making up the most bizarre nonsense in order to alleviate its own boredom.

Step Two: MACBETH HATH MURDERED JUDGMENT.

All ideas at this stage are worth entertaining. No matter how truly terrible they are. In fact, the worst ideas are the most worth entertaining.

Last summer, I took several dance classes at the Music for All Summer Symposium with Vincent Thomas, who teaches at Towson University. We started every session with four agreements, the first of which was “To be full of my own value and free of judgment.”

Step Two is my “full of my own value and free of judgment” stage. If an idea comes up, I’ll play with it. The kookier the better.

Phase the Middle: Not-Terrible Ideas

The transition from the early to middle stage occurs when a single idea recurs enough times that I realize I’ve been thinking about it more than once. It doesn’t want to let go.

And since it won’t let go, it gets to move on to Step 3.

Step 3: JOT IT DOWN.

If an idea won’t go away, I write it down.

Writing it down tricks the idea into thinking I’m actually going to do something with it. The vast majority of ideas fall for this scam. They then get shoved into a closet, where I look at them once every 20 years.

The most persistent ideas, however, are too smart to fall for it. They keep coming back even after I’ve written them down. These ideas get to move on to Step 4.

Step 4: A LITTLE JUDGMENT IS OKAY.

I say “judgment,” but I mean “discernment.” This is where I start thinking about how the idea would work in practice.

What would the end result look like? What are the practical steps required for me to make it work? Is it worth the time and effort required?

Some ideas aren’t worth what I’d invest to do them. For instance, I have a long-pestering idea for some bathroom wall art made from repurposed pages of Moby-Dick (to do with my kraken shower curtain). But learning the skill to execute what’s in my head will take time and effort I’d rather spend on other things, like getting these novels out of my head.

Phase the Late: Making Art

If an idea survives steps 3 and 4, it gets one free ticket into the late stage.

Step 5: RESEARCH.

Step 4 is about whether the idea is feasible for me, personally and individually, to execute. Step 5 is about whether the idea is feasible within a broader social and economic context.

Is there a realistic marketable version of this idea, and if so, what does it look like? Is there some related topic or idea out there that is way cooler and more interesting? Are there 500 other artworks on this idea (hint: Yes! Always!), and what do they look/sound/feel like?

Step 5 is Wikipedia rabbit hole o’clock. I cram related creative works until I just can’t hold any more.

Step 6: OUTLINING/SKETCHING/NOODLING AROUND.

Now that I know WAY TOO MUCH ABOUT EVERYTHING related to this idea, what will my iteration look like for reals?

This is where I generate a bunch of really terrible proto-versions of the idea. Once again, judgment is locked out of the room. Quantity, not quality, is the goal here. 15 different marching band show ideas on the theme of “Angels”? 20 sketches of the same sleeping cat? Hell yeah, you can never have too many of those.

Step 7: REFINEMENT.

Write, draw, dance, polish, edit, repeat, repeat, repeat, whatever.

Blood is sweated, sweat is cried, tears are bled.

I become convinced that creating art in the first place was the worst idea I have ever had. Seriously, why can’t I just be a nice, boring insurance adjuster? O Muse, why dost Thou torment me so??!?!

This is the phase in which I start to question why I haven’t taken up a less self-destructive habit. Like skydiving. Or smoking opium.

Step 8. TENTATIVE PRESENTATION.

After blood, sweat, tears, and not nearly enough day drinking, a draft is born! And like someone who has just given birth, I’d be more excited if I wasn’t utterly exhausted.

I show the draft to people who love me, who love the art, and who have zero fear about telling me exactly how much the work sucks. They tell me exactly how much and in what ways the work sucks. I can’t believe I’m friends with these people.

I get spiteful: Oh yeah, well, I’ll show YOU whose book needs to explore its themes in more depth! I tear into revision with a vengeance, and I question why I ever thought I’d ever do anything else with my life except creating art.

Step 9: ABANDONMENT.

As they say: A creative work is never finished, only abandoned.

Eventually, I kick the piece out to its final destination – my publisher, a marching band director, my bathroom wall, whatever. I promptly forget it exists. Months later, when I get an email informing me that my short story was accepted or that some band director wants to give me cash moneys for making their 150-piece ensemble imitate starfish, I wonder how the heck it got addressed to me.

I’m not into short stories or starfish dancing anymore, see. I’m onto something new.

Step 10: REBOOT.

I find the most mindless activity I can (Sims, anyone?) and do it until I start to get bored. Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from….


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How to Get Better at Art By Producing Fifty Pounds of Crap

Art & Fear, by David Bayles & Ted Orland, has been one of my favorite books of creativity since my now-spouse introduced me to it in graduate school. In particular, I’ve come back to this story again and again:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Which brings me to a seemingly unrelated topic: Why do I keep spamming my blog audience with terrible Christmas songs?

Simply put: I’m trying to make fifty pounds of terrible pots.

Beginners are frequently the loudest about their struggle with “perfection paralysis,” but it can plague creators at any stage in their learning curve. For those of us in the performing arts, attempting to switch from performance to choreography or composing can cause a mental Blue Screen of Death. We’ve always executed what we were told to do; what should we do when there’s no one telling us how?

I became interested in composing back in high school, but it wasn’t until recently that I had both the tools and the time to try my hand at it. I’ve been playing music since my mother taught me how to plunk out the chorus to “Jingle Bells” on the piano when I was five, but except for a brief course in blues improv in high school, I’d never tried to write any.

And the sheer volume of my knowledge of music served to stall me out – big time. With thousands of hours of playing and hundreds of hours on music theory behind me, I should be able to produce something good on my first try, right?

…If you believe that, go listen to the Bad Carols, in order.

They get consistently better as you go down the list. The first one, in fact, is crap compared to any of the others. I didn’t really hit my stride until “Skin Carol” at the earliest, and I wasn’t close to happy with a piece until the melody of “By Candlelight Swans Three.” Halfway through “In Christmas Hot Damn” I switched gears to writing an arrangement of “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” which I also currently hate.

I had to get past my belief that I had to produce something good. I had to produce just anything.

And I was getting bored with just asking Botnik’s predictve-text keyboard to generate histories of various holidays. I wanted to do something more involved with the tool.

Hence “Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For.” They didn’t have to be good – in fact, limiting my lyrics to those generated by predictive text pretty much guaranteed they wouldn’t be good. They just had to appear regularly. And the automatic deadline of December 25 made it fairly easy to ensure they’d happen on time.

I generate a lot of creative work, every day. It’s literally my job. And I recommend this method for improving in any creative genre.

Want to be a better writer? Assign yourself half an hour a day in which your only goal is that your pen/fingers never stop moving across the page/keyboard. If you write “I’m a terrible writer and I should go walk into the sea” fifty times in that half hour, so be it. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to be a better choreographer? Write 32 to 64 counts (4-8 sets of 8) at every rehearsal/practice session you have. If you can’t decide on a piece of music, set your playlist to random. If all you do is plies for your first 32 counts, fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to create a better vlog, host a better podcast, draw better Lovecraftian horrors? Generate five new ideas every single day. Hell, make it ten. Make it twenty. If the first hundred are all variations on “Interview [insert Lovecraftian horror here],” fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

A lot of beginners, in particular, fear that if they just start with the basics – simply writing “My mind is a blank and I suck at writing” over and over, or drawing the same anime characters again and again – they’re wasting time. They’ll never move past those basics. Their masterpiece novel/manga/interpretive dance will never materialize.

As the ceramics class proved, however, the masterpiece won’t materialize if you don’t make fifty pounds of crap first.


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