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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Top Five Books for Figure Skaters

Me in 2003, competitively practicing.

 

True Story: Once upon a time, I was a competitive figure skater.  And, like I do with most Awesome Things I Totes Just Discovered Are Awesome, I read about the sport.  A lot.  And I learned two things:

1.  Most books about figure skating are surprisingly gossipy, and

2.  It is possible to save quite a bit of money on personal trainers and things of that sort if one obsesses over the right books.

This is not to say, of course, that you can learn to skate without a coach.  You can, but your chances are excellent to certain that you’ll learn some crucial basic skills wrong and have to spend twice as much time and energy un-learning them as you spent learning them in the first place.  Trust me.  I know.

That said, there are some excellent books out there that every skater should know.  My personal top five are these:

1.  Dancing Longer, Dancing Stronger: A Dancer’s Guide to Improving Technique and Preventing Injury, by Andrea Watkins and Priscilla Clarkson (ISBN: 9780916622985)

Yes, it says “dancing” and not “figure skating” in the title, but figure skating is, simply, dance on ice – and when it comes to avoiding injury, improving turnout and range of motion, and skating well for years past your prime, this is the best reference guide out there, bar none.

Dancing Longer, Dancing Stronger uses simple exercises developed by physical therapists to focus on the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that dancers (and skaters) tend to blow out easily because they’re constantly using them, but most stretching and strengthening programs don’t provide the kind of support necessary to develop these body parts at the same rate they’re being blown out on the ice.  Among other things, this book helped me resolve that nagging tendon pain in my right hip that resulted from years of jump landings.  I love it.

2.  Figure Skating With Carlo Fassi, Carlo Fassi and Gregory Smith (ISBN: 9780709188254)

Carlo Fassi was one of the world’s best figure skating coaches, and it shows in this book.  One of the few things this book does exceptionally well that most skating books don’t do at all is shows each step in executing a certain move correctly – everything from crossovers to triple jumps.  The images are sketches, not photographs, but they’re very well done.  If you have the capacity to learn by comparing photos or video of yourself to images of people executing moves correctly, this book is an invaluable help.

3.  The Dancer’s Survival Manual: Everything You Need to Know About Being a Dancer…Except How to Dance, Marian Horosko and Judith R.F. Kupersmith, M.D. (ISBN: 0060961996)

Yes, this one also has “dancer” and not “figure skater” in the title, but it’s another great resource, even if you’re not taking ballet lessons to supplement your ice time (and if you’re not, shame on you, unless you have no plans of (a) executing skating moves correctly or (b) competing).  This handbook truly lives up to its name.  It covers lessons, auditions, body care, stress management, relationships, and how to prepare for a career as a professional dancer (which is not unlike preparing for a career as a professional skater).  A bit of the information doesn’t translate, but since there is no comparable figure skater’s manual, this is still the best book of its kind for skaters who want to progress – and perhaps make a lifelong commitment to – their art.

4.  Choreography & Style for Ice Skaters, Ricky Harris (ISBN: 0312054017)

This book is also a great reference for dancers (it’s almost as if dance and figure skating were overlapping disciplines!).  Its main focus is, of course, the basics of choreography, including body shape, poise, efficient and inefficient movement, and how to interpret elements such as dynamics (changes in music volume), tempo, and style.  Warm-ups specially designed for skaters and instructions on how to choose, edit, and interpret musical pieces round out the book.  This book taught me more about what I was really doing during a skating program than any other book – or coach – ever did.

5.  The Complete Book of Figure Skating, Carole Shulman (ISBN: 0736935486)

This book comes last because it doesn’t quite live up to its name – but then, I’d like to see the book that could live up to a name like “The Complete Book of Figure Skating.”  This book does, however, give a good, thorough overview of the sport, including singles, pairs, and ice dancing; basics, footwork, grace elements, spins, and jumps; and how to choose equipment, music, and costumes.  It would make a great gift not only for beginning skaters, but also for anyone who lives with or loves a figure skater.  (For instance, I have had more than one boyfriend benefit from perusing this book.)

A comparable online guide is http://www.sk8stuff.com, which provides exhaustive detail about current and upcoming competitions, video clips demonstrating various elements, and sections on adult skating and synchronized skating.

In addition to these, U.S. skaters will want to invest in a copy of the most recent U.S. Figure Skating rulebook(s) for their disciplines, though synchronized skaters can probably skip these.  Copies of the test patterns and updates are usually available at the U.S. Figure Skating official website, http://usfigureskating.org.