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Rituals, Routines, Habits: The Secret to Constant Creativity

creative rituals

"If I waited to be in the mood to write, I’d barely have a chapbook of material to my name. Who would ever be in the mood to write? Do marathon runners get in the mood to run? Do teachers wake up with the urge to lecture? I don’t know, but I doubt it. My guess is that it’s the very act that is generative. The doing of the thing that makes possible the desire for it. A runner suits up, stretches, begins to run. An inventor trudges down to his workroom, closing the door behind him. A writer sits in her writing space, setting aside the time to be alone with her work. Is she inspired doing it? Very possibly not. But this is her habit, her job, her discipline. Think of a ballet dancer at the barre. She is practising, because she knows there is no difference between practice and art. The practice is the art."

Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

Last year a friend gave me a Tarot deck for my birthday and I tried a reading for the first time. It was a time of upheaval and uncertainty so I asked the cards what was the next step I should take in my business. Many of the cards made a lot of sense but one that confused me a bit was the Hierophant card. Here's an interpretation: "The Hierophant Tarot card suggests that you may be wise to follow established social structures and traditions. You may be involved in some sort of ritual, ceremony, or the trappings of religion. There is also a need to honour some tradition in your life, or maybe start some traditions of your own if you have none."

After thinking about it for a bit it became clear what kind of  "rituals" and "traditions" the card was asking me to try. Creative rituals.

"It’s vital to establish some rituals -- automatic but decisive patterns of behavior -- at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.

A ritual, the Oxford English Dictionary tells me, is a “prescribed order of performing religious or other devotional service.” All that applies to my morning ritual. Thinking of it as a ritual has a tranforming effect on the activity.

Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed. The cab is moving. I’m committed. Like it or not, I’m going to the gym.

The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing. (I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.)"

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

In 2014, one of my 3 resolutions was to establish new habits of creative productivity. You can read about the goal-setting process here and my system for staying accountable to these resolutions here. The quick version is that every week I come up with a new mission to help me get closer to my goals. Since I've also been reading everything I can get my hands on about creativity, I've been paying close attention to what other creative people have written about habits and incorporating these ideas bit by bit into my weekly missions.

"It doesn't matter what the deal is that you strike with yourself, as long as you keep up your end of it, that you establish a working routine for yourself, a rhythm. I prefer to think of it as rhythm rather than discipline. Discipline calls to my mind a taskmaster, perhaps wielding a whip. Discipline has a whiff of punishment to it, or at least the need to cross something off a list, the way my son Jacob does with his homework. Rhythm, however, is a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work."

Dani Shapiro

Some of the things I've tried to help establish rhythm in my own life include:

- Moving down from full time to part time work so I have two whole days to create

- Getting chores done on Sundays or evenings during the week to protect my creative days and keep them open

- Doing creative work first thing in the morning - writing when I'm at the office (I have a lot of free time at my job) and developing new projects at home. I always start with the hardest thing, the thing that I would rather avoid doing.

- Writing down a numbered list of projects for each day. Instead of scheduling blocks of time, I just number my to-do items in order of priority. This helps me fluidly move from one thing to the next at a comfortable pace. When it's time for the next thing on the list, I jump in and do it, whether I feel like it or not.

- Keeping track of time spent on all creative work and trying to increase the count each week

- Creating and keeping up with online creative challenges every other month (there's one coming up in October!)

- Working on projects just for me - not to sell - to experiment and develop my skills

"There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other."

Twyla Tharp

If these things sound really organized, methodical, clinical - the opposite of creative - that's because they are. My goal is to make space for creativity by creating routines. If I don't have to wonder about what to do next, if I have fewer decisions to make then I have more juice, more creative energy left. I want to make creative production as seamless and easy as possible so that, rather than fighting with myself to sit down at the computer or the craft table, I end up there without even realizing how I did it. I'm not there yet - certain days are easier to program and my plans frequently go off the rails. But I have noticed my production increasing, my ideas increasing, my level of satisfaction increasing - which is why we do this after all, isn't it?

“I keep to this routine without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Haruki Marakami

Will you join me in making creativity a part of your daily life? How can you set up routines, rituals, rhythms, habits to help you get there? Leave a comment below!



I Invite You to Try...Visual Journaling

  visual journalingLast week I wrote about my experiences with journaling and apparently I'm not ready to let the subject go since this week I want to talk about visual journaling - about how I got into it and how you can get started.

What is a visual journal?

Any form of record keeping that uses images can be described as a visual journal. In the book, Drawing from Life: The Journal as ArtJennifer New explains that the word journal can be used almost interchangeably with sketchbook, field notes, notebook, or logbook. Visual journals are most frequently associated with artists, but they can also be kept by scientists, musicians, travelers, parents, or anyone who wants to keep track of their ideas and observations. In fact, rather than dividing her book into sections based on disciplines, New called her chapters Observation, Reflection, Exploration, and Creation - though most journals contain a little bit of everything.

New explains the magical properties of visual journaling:

"Visual journals are created in a secret language of symbols. Intentional or not, they are private maps only their makers can follow. No one else can look at a page and understand the specific meaning of a punching bag or a set of arrows. And no one else can remember the moment of its making. Joni Mitchell blaring on the stereo. Sage wafting in a hidden garden. The discomforting echo of last night's argument.

That said, visual journals may provide stronger records of the cultural milieu in which they were created than their purely written counterparts. Rather than describing the stuff of the day, they are often made from it. Anyone who has used primary source materials for research knows this. The difference between reading about someone's life and opening old, yellowed letters is startling. When pressed flowers and handwritten recipes escape from a tattered envelope, one can almost see hollyhocks growing in the garden and smell bread baking in the oven."

visual journaling; Sabrina Ward Harrison

How I got started

As with many things, I first became interested in visual journaling when I saw someone else doing it. Somewhere I stumbled on the books of Sabrina Ward Harrison, who became famous for her "visual memoirs" - messy, chaotic art journals that vividly capture the rawness of certain moments in her life.

In the introduction to Messy Thrilling Life, ward explains:"This is a document of how we can traipse about wondering how we can devise plans and theories on how to make life feel better, more safe and right, more beautiful, and how all the while our life, this big messy thrilling life, is waiting for us to step into, to dance to, to write about and to live. This is a book about doing just that."

Her words are mingled with photographs streaked with paint, pieces of detritus from her daily life, and collaged paper dolls and vintage images from the covers of sewing patterns. She draws herself as a sad-eyed girl with pursed lips, staring out of the pages, watching and wondering. The pages of her books showed me how beautiful the art of visual storytelling can be, and gave me the desire to move beyond the written word in my own journals.

It's clear that journals like this are not made on the fly - they cannot be carried around in a purse and worked on casually. These take serious commitment. I was never quite so committed in my visual journaling efforts. I started when I was in University, and between classes, a part-time job, writing papers, rehearsals for theatre projects, and a social life, it was simply impossible to find hours for exploring in a journal. I would make a quick collage, or an even quicker drawing, before racing off to my next commitment. My efforts were sporadic and often disappointing, but it was enough to give me the desire to press on and to experiment more with different ways to tell my own story. Now I carry a small notebook with me to record observations, feelings, and quick sketches, and I have one at home for more elaborate collages. Though I may go months without creating an image, I always find myself returning eventually to this satisfying form of creative exploration.

visual journaling; Lynda Barry

Your turn

You don't need to spend money or have the right materials to start journaling. Cartoonist Lynda Barry uses a yellow legal pad because it reminds her that she's just playing. You can use computer paper, old notebooks, or whatever you can find.

If, like I was, you're excited to get moving but don't know where to start, here's a suggestion from Barry's memoir/creative instruction manual What It Is

1. Number your page from 1 to 10.

2. Relax.

3. Write down the first 10 images that come to your mind from the day before, regardless of significance.

I would then add the fourth step of choosing one or two (or ten!) of those images and finding a way to represent it visually. Can you find pictures in a magazine to evoke your image? Can you sketch a literal version or even a rough cartoon version? (stick figures can be surprisingly evocative!) If you took a photograph, can you play around with the photograph, adding text or doodles? Do you have any physical objects you can include, such as napkins, paper bags, coffee cups, feathers, or flowers?

Give yourself room to play, to experiment, and most importantly, to make mistakes. Go easy on yourself. The point of this practice is not to create works of art. For every page I made that turned out nice enough to show on this blog, there were 10 that I wouldn't want to show to anyone. I had to remind myself over and over that this was an experiment and that no one would be judging my work.

Think about all the different subjects you can explore in your journal: your emotions, your dreams (the collage with the fish at the top of the page was based on a dream I had), your experiences/memories, your favourite moments with friends and family, the things you notice throughout your day. Or, if you prefer not to use yourself as the subject, you can record what's growing in your garden, how your city is changing, or world events. Anything that involves noticing and interpreting what you find.

Once you've gotten a feel for what medium you enjoy working in and what subject matter you want to explore, then you can start collecting the materials you want to use. Decide if you want to carry the journal around with you, or leave it at home. Find a routine that works for you. You could leave it out and do a few minutes a day, or work on a page until it's finished. You can cram a ton of things onto one page, or spread them out. For more inspiration, look for the books I mentioned in this post at your local library. Have fun!

visual journaling; david byrne

Have you ever tried visual journaling? What does it add to your creative practice? Leave a comment below!




What I've learned in 22 years of keeping a journal

keeping a journalI have been keeping a journal of some kind since I was around 8 years old. I have always been afraid that if I didn't write things down my life would fade away from me and I would be left with nothing. My record-keeping has evolved over the years from a strict diary of daily events, to a dumping ground for negative emotions and self-hatred, to colourful experiments with poetry and drawing, to a record of my growth and progress and a celebration of life. I've gone from writing every day, to every week, to once a month, to everything in between. I keep my diverse collection of books in a Rubbermaid bin that I drag from one home to another, and though I can't bear to read some of them, I wouldn't dream of letting them go. Without these books I honestly think I would be lost. They keep me in touch with myself and with all my past versions, and they constantly give me something to aspire to. Without these books holding me accountable to myself, I imagine that I would drift aimlessly through life with no intention or goals.

If it sounds pretty dramatic, that's because it is. These books are my lifeline. They hold my wisdom and my mistakes, my triumphs and my failures, my joys and my sorrows. They ARE me. Writing about what I've learned about journaling is sort of like writing about what I've learned about life. It's a big topic. With that said here are some things I've discovered in my journeys through journals:

1. Keep track of the good times. One of my primary goals is to write about everything good that happens, and everything that I want to remember. Lately I've taken to simply writing a list at the end of every month: I spent time with this person, I tried this exciting activity, I read this amazing book, I learned this important new lesson. For our first anniversary I made a zine for my boyfriend, with each page being a record of my favourite shared memories from each month of our relationship. Thanks to my journal I was able to recall these memories with ease.

This year I started a self-care journal where I write down, every day, the things I did that made me feel good and the things that I'm grateful for. When things aren't going so well this record helps remind me that I am doing okay and that life is actually quite lovely.

2. Keep track of what you learned from the bad times. As a teenager I use to write about every miserable little feeling that I had (and at that age I had a lot) so books from these years are filled with drama and whining. When I do dare to crack one of these books, they make me grateful that I grew up. Lately my strategy has been to hold off on writing about a negative situation until I can get some perspective on it and give myself some advice for dealing with similar situations in the future. This makes it feel like a constructive activity, rather than self-indulgent.

3. Use the right book, and the right pen. I don't mean to stress you out, but this is a very important decision. The book needs to be portable, yet sturdy. I stopped buying coil notebooks because the coil will collapse after being crushed a few dozen times in my bag, making it hard to open. It needs to lie flat, and be stable enough to be used on my lap, or on the ground. The paper needs to have the right texture for what I want to do with it. On my South American trip I found I did the most drawing in a square hardcover book with slightly rough pages. Something felt so right about drawing on those pages, whereas the book I bought when I finished it barely got used. I will spend an hour in a stationary store feeling the pages, holding the books in my hand, imagining how I will use it. I would recommend blank pages, as they're more versatile and you can pack more in, but lined pages definitely have their place.

If I do get a lined book, I use a plain ballpoint pen. But my blank journals call for something a little more decadent. A gel pen flowed across the pages of my last book, while a fine-tipped Sharpie scratched across the one before that. I can't say this enough: it has to feel right. I has to feel like the most natural combination, like something you can't wait to pick up again. If I find that journaling has become a chore, sometimes getting a nicer pen is all it takes to get me going again.

4. Don't discriminate. Record everything. When I'm traveling I am the best at journaling. I write down snippets of conversation or overheard exclamations, I describe my surroundings in great detail, I sketch what I see, I record all five senses, and I write about what I'm learning - about myself and about the world. I basically pack the pages full of wonder and curiosity, and joy. And when I'm at home... I occasionally remember to write about dinners with friends and special date nights. But those times when I do bring my journal everywhere and use it religiously, I can feel my life expanding and becoming infinitely richer. I pay closer attention, I feel more attuned to the different textures of my life. And these journals are the ones that I love going back to, to be inspired and to remind myself of what it feels like to be fully present and alive.

5. Play. Since I've started trying to make a living making art I often forget about playing with writing or with art, though as a child and early teen, that's all I ever did in my spare time. I have books full of poems, attempts at non-fiction, drawings, paintings, and other assorted bits and pieces. Lately I have to remind myself to write about an adventure longhand - to try to squeeze some juice from my experiences - or to illustrate my emotions, or to make a collage to help me remember a dream or an event. It's important to create for the sake of creating, without an audience in mind, and the journal is the perfect place for these adventures since it is a solitary place with no critics and no judgement. It is the best venue to try something new, to experiment.

Keeping a journal is one of my most important creative practices, no matter how intermittent it may be. Writing about it has me feeling inspired and excited: I can't wait to open a new book and start recording.

Have you ever kept a journal? What did you love most about it? If you've tried to keep one and given up on it, what was your biggest challenge? Leave a comment below!