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8 Ways Discomfort is Good for Creativity

Novelist tells how she became comfortable with the unknown.

By Jessica Keener, author of Strangers in Budapest

Roger Gordy
Source: Roger Gordy

Discomfort. What does it mean? What is its purpose? Why does it always seem to land dead center in the process of creating—in my case a novel? I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I confront the prospect of diving back into a messy new draft of my fourth book.

What have I learned about the state of what I call creative discomfort from my previous efforts? Are there patterns I can use that have helped me in the past? I’m going to stick my head out of my shell and say, yes. Most definitely. So here are a few suggestions I hope will help you manage your own discomfort when creating something—whether it’s a novel, or building a business, or simply trying to bring a more creativity into your daily life.

1. Consider changing how you perceive the state of discomfort. Most of us will do anything to avoid discomfort, but this time around I’m going to let it do its proper job. I’m going to see it as a reflection of my urge to grow, change, shed old skin, and expand something in myself. For example, when I sit down and try to organize and clarify my messy draft, I’m going to do my best to welcome discomfort—rather than reject it—and invite it into my writing world as I would an old friend. I’m going to view this friend as someone who nudges me to speak the truth when I write, and to work harder to build a scene or character, or to reach further than I thought was possible.

2. Find a comfortable creative space to help you engage — positively — with discomfort. For example, if you’re a writer with children or your living quarters are crammed, leaving the house can be a necessity. Find a comfortable space where you can go on a regular basis and switch on creativity — in a café, a library, or even the backseat of your car if necessary. (Famed short story writer, Raymond Carver used to do just that.) Ideally a room is best, of course. But, you can make one end of the dining room table strictly yours or repurpose a closet and let the safety of that dedicated space help you hike the steep slope of discomfort.

3. Clear your mind. Recently, I started meditating, starting with three minutes, and working up to eight minutes per session. It’s an easy, free resource that can open your mind and ready yourself for the inevitable discomfort that creating something engenders. On that same note, I recommend any activity that puts you in a calmer frame of mind — walking, gardening, etc.

4. Commit to a regular schedule devoted to creativity. A novel, or most any long-term creative endeavor, needs steady attention to power through. Even if I only have 30 minutes a day, a regular schedule builds a healthy writing habit. This, in turn, helps me manage the challenge of figuring out what the hell I’m doing with my newest novel. A defined writing time helps me cope with often overwhelming — undefined — scary sensations that discomfort unleashes in me.

5. Break things down into smaller parts. This pairs well with keeping to a regular schedule. When writing a novel, or taking on any large task that is creative and meaningful, start with smaller units. When I wrote Strangers In Budapest, I committed to 500 words a day. For my current novel-in-progress, I wrote 1000 words a day, three days a week, because I had to write primarily on the weekends. Now, as I work on subsequent drafts, setting aside a manageable amount of time is the more important factor — such as 30 minutes in the morning during the week, and two hours on the weekends.

6. Use the energy of discomfort to nudge you forward. This time around, I’m going to imagine discomfort as an energy producer, something that activates my creative mind. When I look back at how discomfort has worked for me in the past, I can see that it has the power to push me beyond what I think I can do — imaginatively.

7. Write simple, positive affirmations and recite them daily. I write mine on file cards — one sentence for each affirmation per card will do. A few examples of affirmations: a) I believe in myself and b) I welcome the challenge of discomfort. Keep your affirmations in the present tense.

8. Be grateful for what discomfort has to teach you. Until I had read Brene Brown’s book, Rising Strong, this past year, I thought discomfort was a “bad” thing. In her book, she talks about “leaning into discomfort.” That opened a window in me. She helped me see how we all live with so much discomfort in our lives — small and large — and there is actually a beneficial reason for its existence. Creating is an act of devotion. It requires regular attention and attendance. So, I’m going to do my best to thank my pal, discomfort, for sticking with me all these years and for fortifying my desire to write better.

Jessica Keener’s most recent novel, Strangers In Budapest, was chosen as an Indie Next pick and a “best new book” by Entertainment Weekly, who described it as a “rare achievement for an American novel of this international emphasis.” Keener’s debut novel, Night Swim, was a national bestseller. She is also the author of an award-winning collection of stories, Women In Bed.

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