I’ve wanted to tell stories since I was old enough to read, but like many people, as I grew up I learned to doubt myself.
You’ll never write anything good, the voice in my head sneered, and if by some miracle you ever manage to publish, you’ll be a joke.
It doesn’t say that anymore.
In 2009, I started reading about creativity, writing, and the creative process. My study began with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and continues to this day. It has involved countless hours of research and practice as well as conversations with writers, painters, musicians, comedians, philosophers, dancers and photographers. Along the way, I’ve learned nearly all creatives, regardless of discipline or success level, face the same struggles. Writers aren’t the only ones who get blocked; they’re just the ones who write about it.
It took 8 years of research and practice to transform my relationship with my creativity from one of twisted self-abuse to one of passion, commitment, and bone-deep love, but if you’re struggling to create something that matters, it doesn’t have to take that long.
All it takes, I’ve discovered, is following these three rules:
- Accept what you are.
- Take it in.
- Devote yourself to the process.
1. Accept What You Are.
Paraphrasing Aristotle, Will Durant writes, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
We’re also what we most long to do, and what we long to do is often what we’re most afraid to do, because when something matters to us, the stakes are high.
If in our heart of hearts we want to write, we’ll be terrified of proving we are, in fact, terrible at it. It’s the same with any creative pursuit. It’s why writers get writer’s block, performers get stage fright, and entrepreneurs sometimes want to run screaming from their own business ideas.
So what do we do about it? We use our fear as a compass, and in doing so, we begin to dissolve it. Are you terrified to write a novel or blog? Congratulations! You’re a writer!
When I finally accepted that, regardless of what happened to my words, I was a writer, writing got easier. I entered a beautiful feedback loop wherein the more I believed in myself, the more I wrote, and the more I wrote, the more I believed in myself.
So listen to your fear and what it tells you not to do, because that, my friends, is your True North.
2. Take it in.
Once we know what we want to create, we need to assemble the tools for creating it. I don’t just mean the physical tools (although they help); I mean the mental ones. Creatives are famous for breaking the rules, but it’s always most effective when they break them deliberately, and they do that by knowing them.
I’m not saying you need a degree in Fine Art before you start painting, an MFA in Creative Writing before you begin a story, or an MBA before you execute a business idea.
Most of us never feel prepared to get started, and the best way to learn is by doing. But while we’re mucking around with messy beginnings, we can accelerate our progress by observing leaders in our field.
Jack Kerouac, a giant of American Literature, wrote novels that defied conventions of the form, but he also read the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Miguel de Cervantes, and Leo Tolstoy.
If you’re a writer, write and read. If you’re a musician, play and listen. If you’re a dancer, dance and attend performances. And if you’re starting an online business selling crocheted bunnies, connect with other niche retailers.
As you allow yourself to fall ever more passionately into fandom, you’ll naturally surround yourself with others who love what you love, and their devotion will fuel yours.
3. Devote yourself to the process.
Devotion means working from the heart. It means thinking of your projects as offerings instead of badges to wear.
The point of writing a beautiful book isn’t to win a bunch of literary prizes; it’s to inspire, delight, and entertain readers.
The point of manufacturing and selling a product isn’t just to make you rich (although that’s always nice); it’s to make people’s lives better.
Devoting yourself to a project means following the entire creative process from start-to-finish, even (maybe especially) when you’re discouraged and want to quit.
In his 1926 book The Art of Thought, English Social Psychologist Graham Wallas outlined 4 steps every creative genius follows: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification. More recently, Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named a fifth step: Elaboration.
The 5-Step Process Every Creative Genius Follows
- Preparation involves immersing ourselves in our subject and asking questions about it.
- Incubation requires putting our project aside for awhile to rest or work on other things.
- Illumination is the part where the information we gathered in stage 1 coalesces. It’s where inspiration happens, especially when we keep a regular work schedule. Jack Kerouac described the attitude it requires: “submissive to everything, open, listening.”
- In Verification, we look for ways to improve our work.
- And finally, in Elaboration, we repeat steps 1-4, not necessarily in order, until we’ve reached a deadline or we’re happy with the result (whichever comes first).
A more in-depth guide to tapping your inner creative genius
My book, Creative Unblocking: Bypass Self-Doubt, Tap Your Genius, and Complete Your Best Work, describes the above steps in more detail. When you follow them, your work will always be as good as you can make it, and every project will be stronger than the last.
It takes commitment though, which comes most easily from love: for our audiences, our work, and ourselves. Finding and sustaining that love, then, is the ultimate secret to doing our best and most important work.
And it starts with acknowledging what scares us.
Featured Image: Photo © Kevin Urbanski.
Want to finally create what’s calling you to make it? Download a free preview of Creative Unblocking: Bypass Self-Doubt, Tap Your Genius, and Complete Your Best Work.