I’ve been a creative person since the get-go (frankly, I think we all are—but that’s a topic for another time). I’ve always thrown myself into creating all sorts of projects, mostly of an artistic nature, whether I was building a worm farm out of clay with my brother, George, or creating a miniature circus wagon from scratch to go along with a written paper on the subject my senior year at Brown University.
Throughout the years, I’ve created one-woman theatrical shows, written almost two hundred songs, and recorded four complete CDs of my original music. I've drafted three screenplays, an award-winning book, a 30-Day Touch the Sky journal, a comprehensive Presentation Skills self-study course, a 30 day audio-visual Fearless Speaking virtual course, numerous signature keynotes (for myself, and countless coaching clients) a plethora of presentations and training classes, and a few hundred blog posts (one of which you’re reading now). And each time I step onto the doorstep of a new creative project—whether it’s for myself or a client– I know that I am poised to enter the messy, scary, thrilling and often confounding experience known as The Creative Process .
Over the years, I’ve learned that, to set myself up for creative success within the rollercoaster ride of this process, there are certain conditions that need to be in place. These conditions invite the creative muse to come out and play and allow a greater sense of freedom and openness to whatever ideas present themselves –even under the pressure of a deadline.
I learned about these conditions for creativity through the master-level theater directors and teachers I worked with as a professional actress. They made sure that these conditions were part of every rehearsal or class in which I participated…just as I make sure these conditions are front and center when I’m working with a client to create a killer keynote or sales presentation.
Here are are those conditions, boiled down to a list I call 8 Ways to Cour the Muse and Catalyze the Creative Process:
- Set the Stage: During my years as a singer and songwriter, when I was pumping out songs almost daily, I understood that it was up to me to court the creative muse by creating a safe and inviting place for her to come play. For me, this included a room with a door (guaranteeing privacy and silence) often, a scented candle or incense, and a space filled with objects that fill me with joy, warmth and inspiration. A safe, comfortable space to play is what every great acting teacher or director I’ve ever worked with has provided me, and what I always hope to provide for my coaching and training clients.
- Gather the Tools to Gather Your Gold: Once the stage is set, it’s important to fill it with the props and tools you need that not only symbolize and invite the creative act but that will allow you to capture your gold (the ideas that are invariably going to pop up.) Whether I’m writing a song or taking notes while working with a coaching client, my props always include a specific brand of pen (I’m currently in love with Office Max’s TUL gel pen, in black with a medium point), a stack of fine-lined 8 ½ x 11 margin-less white notepads, my guitar (tuned and ready to play) if a song is being born, a surface area on which to place the paper, (I use a sturdy purple leather folio), a recording device, and, often, incense or a scented candle. I use every one of those tools (except the guitar!) when I’m working with a client to hammer out a presentation. I also have a giant whiteboard, dry-erase markers and post-it-notes of various colors at the ready, in case I am moved to capture ideas in those formats.
- Just Dive In: There’s no better place to start than right where you are, even if you think you have no idea how or where to start. That means put your pen on the paper and start writing; or get your lips flapping and start brainstorming ideas. Don’t wait for the creative muse to announce herself, just wade in and start splashing in the creative waters. Once you dive headfirst into the process, the creative muse will appear, take you by the hand, and guide you to what’s next.
- Suspend Your Judgement: To just dive in, you have to be willing to banish your little inner judgers (I call them Moe and Schmoe) who are screaming limiting beliefs at you like “you’re going to say or do the wrong thing, you idiot!” This is hard for most of us, as we’re all so invested in being perfect. We expect and want the perfect phrase or idea to immediately pop out of our pens, appear on our computer screens and spill out of our mouths. It’s taken me years to understand that great ideas often come disguised as stuff and nonsense… if we’re willing to acknowledge them, fling them around a littand and look under their messy exterior. That’s why, when I'm penning an article, for example, I advise myself to “write first, edit later.” I just sort of puke it out on the page, and then go back in later to mine it for ideas or finesse it through the act of editing. It’s a very freeing process, one I learned from reading Natalie Goldberg’s primer on the art of writing and creating, Writing Down the Bones.
- Let Go of Outcomes: As a control freak, this is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again. Simply put, the more you try to control the outcome of the creative act, the more frustrated, stymied and disappointed you’ll be. I’ve had songs, articles and presentations that I initially insisted should go one way wind up in am entirely different, wholly surprising and even more satisfying way just because I was willing to let go of the rudder and let the result find itself.
- Throw it out, Start Again: I had to write four different songs to finally write one that fully expressed what I wanted to say about losing my mother to Alzheimer’s disease. By the time I wrote song number three, I was starting to think “I’m never going to be able to do this.” I can’t tell you how many pieces of white, thin-lined, ink-filled sheets of paper I crumpled up and flung into my wastepaper basket before song number four – Devotion Street, one of the best songs I have ever written and recorded–was finally born. Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board—over and over and again!
- Embrace the Murky Middle: Please know that not knowing (where you are, what to do, where to go from here) is a natural part of the creative process. My husband can attest to the zillions of times I’ve tearfully and dramatically exclaimed—“This stupid presentation is just not working, I am never going to figure it out!” And then, of course, it always works and I do figure it out. Believe me when I say chaos really does birth clarity.
- Take a Break: Whenever I get stuck in the murky middle, and ideas aren’t popping freely or the creative idea I’ve been exploring leads to a dead end, I drop what I’m doing and take a break. I move my attention fully to something else, like washing dishes, or vacuuming, or reading emails, or (my favorite) taking a walk around the block. My subconscious mind gets the chance to solve the problem on its own time, without me hovering over it. And I always—always—get the creative answer I need to move full steam ahead—sometimes six hours later in the middle of the night, sometimes right away (which is why I always place pens and Post-it notes within reaching distance).
Whether you're putting together a presentation, or trying to solve a tricky problem under pressure of a looming deadline, the creative process is a vital and necessary part of your personal and professional life. Cultivate the right conditions for creativity, and step confidently into the creative process, knowing the creative muse is eagerly waiting to join you.