Your Great Creativity Practice
How creative and performing artists can fashion a powerful daily practice.
Posted September 23, 2020
I’ve been working with creative and performing artists for more than 30 years; and so, the most usual daily practice that a client of mine needs to create is a daily creativity practice. This might be a writing practice, a painting practice, a composing practice, an instrument practice, or some similar practice. I encourage every client to begin and maintain such a practice, because without it, realizing their dreams and accomplishing their goals is just that much harder. An already hard thing, living a creative life is made that much harder when you don’t have a strong daily creativity practice in place.
Consider Joanne. Joanne had been hoping to write a fantasy novel for more than a decade. She had a vague idea for it and a handful of notes but spent very little time actually being with her novel. The way she let herself off the hook was by saying, “I don’t feel inspired.”
Partly she meant it, as she did hold a core belief that without inspiration she would produce a lifeless thing. But more centrally, invoking that “need for inspiration” was the way that she avoided the hard work of bringing a novel-length work of fiction into existence.
I shared with her one of my favorites quotes, from the Russian composer Tchaikovsky: “I’m inspired about every fifth day but I only get that fifth day if I show up the other four.” She smiled at that and nodded.
“I’m sure that’s true,” she said, but without much conviction. She did, though, agree to commit to a daily writing practice of 20 minutes a day, first thing each morning. But over the course of those first few weeks, she got to her writing a total of three times.
As she struggled to put her daily practice into place, it became very clear to her which element of practice looked to be the hardest for her: discipline. “It isn’t that I can’t be disciplined,” she told me. “It’s more like, I’m fighting with the idea of it. I feel like a little kid who’s been told to sit still and just hates the idea.”
I advised her to try a very simple thing: Write “Hate” in big letters on one side of sheet of paper and “Love” on the other side of that same sheet of paper, in equally large letters.
“Just do the following thing,” I said. “When you think about your daily writing practice, look at that sheet of paper. Look at the ‘Hate’ side. Really be with your hatred. Then turn it over and really be with ‘Love.’ You are trying to turn hate into love. Right now, in some deep place, you hate the idea of discipline. Let’s see if we can turn that around.”
A week later, in a Zoom session, she caught me up. “I wrote four days this week,” she said. “And I had this vivid memory. It had to do with practicing the piano. My mother wanted great things from my piano playing. I think that secretly she wanted me to become a concert pianist. But I hated it. Not the piano, not the music, not even the idea of it, but the ridiculous pressure, her watchfulness, her false praise, the whole thing. Discipline and my mother are the same thing.”
I asked her what she wanted to do with that insight. “I can’t do what I would like to do, which is rip up a picture of my mother. But I could maybe ceremonially cut something—a thread, maybe—to cut the connection between my mother and the idea of discipline. I do want to love the idea of discipline. Maybe somehow literally cutting that cord is the thing to try?”
Joanne knew that she was embarking on something edgy, something that almost felt like a betrayal, but she committed to that ceremonial cutting. I heard from her a week later.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I did that cutting. I literally cut a piece of rope. And something really did change. All that work around the word ‘discipline’ and around the idea of discipline and suddenly that all receded into some distant background. It was like it was never an issue at all.”
As with so many clients, Joanne then proceeded to work steadily on her novel. She had her bad days, her days of crisis, her days of loss of faith in the project, and all those skipped days because life got too busy, too chaotic, or too pressure-filled with other things. But most weeks, she wrote four or five mornings, which naturally led to the novel getting built over time. Within six months, she had completed a draft of her novel, a feat she really hadn’t believed she could pull off.
There is no single more important thing that a creative person can embark upon than creating and maintaining a daily creativity practice. That practice will likely make all the difference between having and not having a creative life. When that daily practice becomes natural—when nothing could feel more natural—you will become one of those very rare creatures, someone who virtually effortlessly produces a body of creative work.
You’ll be asked, “How did you pull that off? How did you become so amazingly productive?” And you won’t know what exactly to say, since the true answer will sound just too simple. But that simple answer is the true answer. “I just get to work every day. That’s about it.” What you’ll get in reply is a shake of the head, meaning, “No, there must be more to it than that!” All you’ll be able to do is shrug and repeat yourself: “No, it’s really that simple. I show up just about every day and the work accumulates.”