How To Be Creative in Thirteen Easy Steps

A semi-frequent question I get is “how do you find the time to [insert creative activity]?” I usually respond with an easily digestible response like “oh, I need to do it for my sanity,” or, more tongue-in-cheek, “I just completely neglect my family’s needs.”

That last one is not entirely untrue, but I digress.

I don’t really know what I’m doing. I haven’t even finished reading the book that I should be reading about art, independence and spirit. I can almost guarantee that what works for me isn’t a universal guide for creative success for everyone, but let me tell you how I do it anyways.

Step One: Think about all the things I’m not doing.

I haven’t made a video in over a year. I haven’t recorded a new piece of music in a similar amount of time. I update my blog very sporadically. I haven’t submitted any writing to the publications I’ve wanted to submit to. I could go on, but I’ll spare you the flagellation I inflict upon myself.

The point is, everything I try to do will be set against that backdrop of things I feel I’m failing at. In the moment, the moment when I’m sitting down to create, my mind becomes so cluttered with these unmet goals, the if-onlys and the why-didn’t-I’s that I cannot think straight.

It’s especially frustrating when I have actually taken the time to write down goals and have subsequently not met them. Partly this is because I think in terms of a big picture, i.e. “make a video for Purim,” and neglect the details.

What would be helpful to do is to chart out a schedule beforehand which would then allow me to see how my time is going to need to be managed.

So while I had the best intentions, and actually wrote my goal down (that is a big step, and I think I definitely get a gold star for that), I didn’t take it far enough. I didn’t get down to the nitty gritty to write down when the song needed to be done, when the video needed to be shot, and to estimate how much production time would be needed to make the unrealized goal come to fruition.

It’s necessary to remind myself that the things I have not accomplished do not matter. They are good for one thing: motivation. I can look at what happened, learn from it, and move forward. I can either let them paralyze me or I can look at them and say “Feh. I also haven’t run a marathon or unpacked those boxes in the basement. You think you’re the only things not getting done? Take a number.”

Step Two: Start doing something else that’s actually important.

This is an easy one. For example, I started writing this article when I should have been making dinner. As the strawberries I needed to wash were sitting out on the counter, slowly shriveling from the lack of refrigeration, I was frantically typing out (with so many misspellings, you have no idea) the first two or three steps.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t serve strawberries for dinner, they were the dessert. I don’t usually do dessert on a weekday, but they were going to go bad if I didn’t use them up and that would’ve been such a waste, one more thing to add to my list of failures, so I figured why not give everyone a treat?

The idea is to get my yetzer hara to work FOR me instead of against me. I’ve noticed that whenever I sit down to write or practice, I suddenly remember seventeen things that I need to do that minute. Items to be put on the grocery list. Appointments that need to be scheduled. Clothing that needs to be ordered.

Sometimes it happens even before I ever sit down to create.

Yesterday morning, instead of writing or practicing, I went through my kids’ clothing and started the mammoth task of switching out the winter clothes for the summer clothes. This includes the process of discarding those items that have somehow made it through eight years of being taken out and put away yet never actually worn because I just don’t like them.

While this sorting operation is a completely 100% guilt-free activity, even something I would term a “productive grown-up-who-has-it-together” activity, I still felt bad about it. Of course I did. The yetzer hara reminded me that I should be practicing music then because I can’t practice when my toddler is home. Of course, I can’t sort clothing when my toddler is home, either, so really, I was doing exactly what I should have been doing.

Right. Doing one thing while feeling that I should do another.

Fortunately, I’ve noticed that I can channel this behavior. Right now, if I weren’t writing this article, I could be tidying up my house, throwing in a load of laundry, going through the steadily increasing stack of papers on my dining room table (a/k/a the Shabbos table), or relaxing.

I do feel a bit of anxiety that the housework isn’t getting down now, since it will inevitably need to be done. But this is a triage situation, and with a deadline looming, the writing wins out over the other productive activities, and my yetzer hara doesn’t have much to hold over me.

Sometimes, based on this principal, my ideas come much more freely when I’m putting my children’s clothing away, making dinner, or doing laundry as opposed to when I’m sitting at my desk, staring at my screen, waiting to type. As a bonus, I get a decent amount of exercise as I run to my laptop from wherever I am in my house when the ideas strikes me.

I refine them later, but in the moment, I just type the rough outline of what might become an actual piece of digestible writing.

Step Three: Constantly have multiple tabs open.

Not only will I become distracted by the billions of stories, pictures or ads vying for my attention, I also might get to see someone else’s successful completion of a creative work. Then I can compare their success to my relative lack of success and completely give up on making whatever it was I was starting. Or, rather, starting to start.

Seriously. The only tabs I should ever have open when writing are Google Docs, thesaurus.com and, no, just those two. That’s it.

When I sat down to do the actual writing work on this piece I also had Facebook open, plus Netflix on my phone. This was a ludicrous and obstructive setup.

As I’m just starting to really dig into a piece, I don’t fully commit to the necessary focus level until I realize that I am accomplishing nothing and finally close those tabs and put my phone away. Away away, not just next to me. Or, if it’s next to me, on silent.

Jonathan Franzen said that “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

I’m not a fiction writer, but I can relate to that. Really working on something, be it writing or music, requires a disconnection from the outside world, a confinement to allow the focus needed to refine a piece or a craft. The internet is so tempting, so distracting, and makes it so easy to lose large swaths of time that could be spent in improvement.

But I guess the cat pictures and gifs are worth something, right? RIGHT?

Step Four: Compare yourself relentlessly.

I do this all the time. Online, obviously, and also when listening to podcasts. Listening to Hevriacast, which I heartily encourage, is sometimes an exercise in masochism for me. All these creative, successful people, who aren’t “just” creative, but DO things with their creativity – create organizations, groups, movements, actively make the world better in a way that is completely inconceivable to me.

I don’t know how to start things, how to look past my little corner of creativity, the corner that I fight tooth and nail (mainly against Netflix and social media, plus my yetzer hara) to maintain. So listening to these visionaries can be dispiriting.

But you should still listen! This is clearly just my neurosis, the conversations on the podcast are really amazing.

After listening to these incredible people and feeling inadequate, I had a conversation with my husband about accepting my limitations in this area. I really admire people who start schools, businesses, organizations, websites. Who start anything, really.

I am much more of a plugger-inner. If there is a concert, a website, an organization, plug me in and I will work so hard to get things done. I will be your champion, absolutely. But to start something? No way. I have no idea how to do that. It is as unfathomable to me as, I don’t know, think of the most unfathomable thing you can think of, and then it’s like that.

In this mindset, why should I bother creating anything? If my creativity is only a self-centered, small-minded non-world-changing thing, what good is it? Is it all just for my ego?

The answer is (probably no spoiler alert needed here): hello, keep creating. If Hashem gave me a desire to create, if it is something which is coming out of me anyways, who cares if it’s not like what so-and-so or ploni-shmloni is doing. I’m not them. They’re not me. I need to make what I’m supposed to make.

And that doesn’t mean making what I think I should be making, or what I wish I could be making, or what I think would make me look cooler if I could make it. It means being honest with myself about what the authentic expression of my individual neshama will be, and then to do that.

It’s tricky, because I can be really convincing about what I think I should be doing, and it takes a certain amount of restfulness and quiet to pay attention to what is really my voice.

Step Five: Always make it a battle between Domestic Work and Creative Work.

I only have so much energy (and as I continue to move through my mid- to late-thirties, I seem to have less and less, though maybe that’s just because I keep telling myself that and also because I don’t exercise enough), and many days, after I’ve accomplished all I need to at home I do not have energy to do much else besides fall onto my couch and stare at a screen or a book.

These domestic tasks, most times, don’t even include doing the dishes in the sink or vacuuming or mopping. It’s mainly just tidying up. Yet even that feels like a monumental task.

I lived with a family once (an amazing experience, I highly recommend anyone who is in the process of conversion or becoming frum to do it, if possible) and I distinctly recall her mopping the floor every night. EVERY NIGHT. I am still, more and more each year, impressed with her dedication to a clean floor. I don’t think I will ever be that dedicated, but I can really appreciate it.

Lest you think me slovenly, I actually do like to keep my house neat, even clean(ish). It’s not even just a like, it’s more of a need. If my house slides too far into entropy I cannot function. It’s as if the more clutter that accumulates, the volume on a white noise machine gets turned up more and more until the only way I can operate is by yelling.

It does feel, many times, like an either/or situation. Either I can dedicate the time needed to keep my home in order, with laundry done, the counters clean, the clutter contained, or I can devote that time to practice or writing. But I cannot do both.

Eventually something has to slide, and as my children grow, I have found it more difficult to put off my domestic obligations. It means I’ve had to be more disciplined about the use of my time, and, as I pointed out in Step Two, if I’m supposed to be doing one thing, I find it very compelling to do something entirely different.

So while I have to be more disciplined, I also chafe against that structure. I’ve accepted that right now it is a skirmish between the domestic and creative needs in my life. While somehow, everything more or less gets done, there is a price to pay when I feel my stress level rising when I can’t find clean socks or haven’t replaced the pants whose knees have all been worn out (boys), or haven’t practiced and a rehearsal looms.

Step Six: Demand perfection and never share or submit anything until I’m sure it’s absolutely amazingly perfect.

If I really followed this rule, my cosmic carrot video would never have been created. In that video the piano is out of tune, so is the clarinet, the quality of the video is fuzzy(ish). It was very slapdash, but that was part of its glory, in a way. No one seemed to care. If they did, they didn’t say anything to me about it, and, more tellingly, no strangers on the internet said anything.

Part of the reason I haven’t made so many more videos is because I want them to “look more professional” and to have a “better recording quality.” It’s a good goal, I won’t deny that, but it has essentially paralyzed me from making anything.

On the plus side, when I realized that I didn’t love how I sounded on clarinet, I started taking lessons, which has been incredible.

A benefit of having written a small personal blog for so many years is that I often just pressed “publish” without stressing too much about the quality of the piece. It was good enough for the venue, good enough for my readers, and, anyways, the important part was the communication, the connection, so I shared away. It felt intimate, safe.

The irony of when I started to gain a little more attention is that I began to suddenly feel shy, insecure, anxious. The combination of the habit of sharing plus a certain lack of inhibition on my part helped keep me producing work. When I feel comfortable. When it’s a venue or audience I know.

If it’s a new venue, a new audience, I use the guise of perfectionism and “standards” to mask my nervousness, my unease, my fear of rejection.

It’s much easier to tell myself that I don’t have the equipment, that I need a new camera, I need this gadget or that one before I can make another video, before I can put together a concert. If I could only find the perfect this, that, or the other, then, then I could create.

How clear it is when written out like that, but it’s been a constant block for me. It’s not entirely in my head, it’s not a bad thing to have standards. It’s when the standards aren’t really standards, but excuses. That’s when things get tricky.

Step Seven: Only create when the environment and timing are absolutely right.

Do you have an ideal setting for creativity? For me it’s when my kids are off at school or playgroup, my house is clean, to-do list is organized, I’ve said brachos, had breakfast and can sit down for at least a few uninterrupted hours.

There are times when that really works out, and it feels great.

Then there are times when all the conditions are in order – and I end up scrolling mindlessly through Facebook or vegging on the couch with a book or video for two hours.

There are times when it feels absolutely necessary to run to Target for “just a few things” after I drop off my kids.

What happens when the plans go off the rails? When the creativity needs to happen but the setting is less than ideal?

This article was started in between the all the hectic activities of the afternoon, after the kids came home from school. A mother’s helper was in the basement with the two littlest, my oldest was in the bath and my second was at a friend’s house. The piece started coming out of me and I knew I had to get it down (also, there was an impending deadline, always helpful – see Step Thirteen).

When my husband came home from work I was in the middle of writing down a sentence and I absolutely said “hello” while staring at the computer screen (as opposed to being a mentsch and actually looking at him), rushing to get the idea down before it slipped through the colander of my mind.

I would start to tidy up a room upstairs and another idea would come to me and I would run to my laptop to write it down.

Not convenient, not ideal, but the reality of creating around the other parts of life.

When I was practicing for my performance of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto at the recent ATARA conference, I would practice in every possible nook and cranny of the day. Dinner was in the oven? I would practice. After dinner but before bedtime? I would practice. While my older kids were taking a bath? I would practice. After bedtime? I would practice.

Now that I don’t have an outside pressure to motivate me, I do not do this. I should. Maybe not to the same degree, but I shouldn’t cave so easily to the excuses I make about “not waking up the kids” or just not wanting to put my instrument together.

Step Eight: Never intake other people’s works.

This is partly connected to Step Four, because observing and appreciating other people’s works can certainly lead to a feeling of inadequacy. So maybe starting with works in a completely different and unrelated genre would be a good idea.

You also don’t want your work to become derivative, like what happened the time I wrote a Sonata for Clarinet and Piano with Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in mind. When I emailed it to my former composition professor, one of the first things he mentioned was how it reminded him a lot of the Poulenc Sonata.

Don’t do that.

Not taking in the work of other people, though, leaves me to just stew in my own juices, to not be open to inspiration from other sources, and that just seems like a recipe for boring non-growth.

Reading the writing of other people helps me appreciate how everyone has a unique voice, a individual viewpoint and their own set of issues that speaks loudly to them. I tend to read with a mind of agreement, to see where I align with the writer. But lately I’ve become more open to seeing where the views of the writer and my own views diverge.

I used to want to be like the writers who I enjoyed reading, and often I would end up absorbing a little of their style, mimicking it, trying on a different persona. This was all part of the process of finding my own voice.

Step Nine: Always worry about what other people think.

This can take on so many different angles. Do I worry about what a specific piece will do to my reputation in my community? Do I worry about what my parents will think? What my editor will think? What a particular writer I admire will think?

Will the piece be well-received? Will I come across as relatable? Or maybe smug, annoying, condescending, out of touch?

Is it fluffy and harmless? Is there even such a thing?

Years ago, I wrote a piece on Kveller about how I would often “explain” Purim to people as “kind of a Jewish Halloween.” It would typically happen around actual Halloween time, when I would be grocery shopping, or at the doctor’s office, and the cashier or receptionist would ask me what my kids were dressing up as for Halloween.

Because I have not yet learned the very important and helpful skill of giving short, short answers to questions, I would say some sort of too-long explanation of how my kids weren’t dressing up for Halloween, but that we had this holiday in the spring where my kids got to dress up, and they gave out and received candy and food to/from their friends and isn’t being Jewish just nifty?

So I wrote an article about that, sort of a compare and contrast piece, very light, nothing controversial, or so I thought. I included a cute picture of my kids, where my boys were dressed up as ninjas.

To my shock and dismay, I received such vitriolic comments on that piece, comments that questioned my Jewishness, that criticized me for even comparing Purim to Halloween, that claimed I clearly didn’t value Purim and wasn’t teaching my kids the real meaning of the day, blah blah blah.

I was so surprised! Since then, I’ve tried not to make assumptions about how pieces I write are received by the creature that is the internet.

Generally speaking, writing is like that. There are some pieces I’ve thrown my heart and kishkes into and have received very little response. Other, more slapdash pieces, have generated great conversations. So who knows, really?

Even with this piece, I talked myself out of writing it many times. Who am I to give advice, are people going to just roll their eyes? I feel like I should be more established before doling out a how-to, but, hey, I’m following Step Six, baby!

Step Ten: Don’t take time to stop and reflect on the past.

Life is so busy that it’s easy to think that these circumstances and this routine is the only routine I have ever had and this is how things have always been.

One way to reflect on the past is to read past pieces I’m written. This is both illuminating and horrifying.

Looking back on how much I’ve grown and developed even in the couple years that I’ve been writing for Hevria is a powerful anchoring point to remind myself that I will probably look back at this post in a few years and marvel at how much I’ve changed.

It’s convenient, in a way, to view my life in a vacuum, to only focus on the task immediately at hand. That’s the way of the busy life, many times. But the lack of reflection is missing the chance to see what’s worked in the past, what to try to implement and what to hopefully avoid.

When I think about how anxious I used to feel about being a convert or having a tattoo on my ankle compared to how little I care now, it’s extremely encouraging and reminds me not to be too scared to write pieces that go deep and reveal parts of myself that are hidden not for reasons of tznius, but for reasons that are unnecessary.

I take it for granted now, when I put on my clear stockings and walk around my neighborhood with zero self-consciousness, whereas in years earlier my entire being would be concerned with if someone would maybe notice that there was something funny going on on my ankle.

Or when, a few Shabboses ago, one of my boys had a friend over. The friend noticed a family photo he had up and remarked, “Hey, there are not Jewish people in that picture.”

Without missing a beat, my son responded, “Of course there are! Those are my grandparents. And they’re not Jewish!” I was so proud of him, and also proud of myself for overcoming whatever fears I had had, and seeing how unabashedly he owned that part of our family. Five or six years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that was possible.

It’s something I should keep in mind when I feel down about things like being in a stage where I’m only saying brachos instead of davening more of Shacharis. Things change. Situations change. Gam zeh ya’avor. Something I feel passionate writing about now, that I feel I am absolutely never ever going to change my mind on, in five years I could feel very differently about.

I mean, that’s how I felt when I was getting tattoos. I was definitely like “oh yeah! I will ALWAYS want these.”

Step Eleven: Do not change as your life circumstances change.

The difference between how I was able to create when I only had two kids, or when I had three kids but they were all in pre-school versus my ability to create now is huge. My time is so much tighter, and it’s been a big adjustment that I haven’t entirely adjusted to.

In the past, it was no thing if I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to finish something. Now, if I stay up much past one I am non-functional the next day and liable to get sick later in the week. The stakes are higher now. I have more people relying on me.

It was also an adjustement when my husband had an erratic schedule as opposed to his more “normal” schedule now.

Or when I was working outside of the home versus being a homemaker (newsflash: it is not easier to be creative when not holding an outside job. Oh, the grand plans I had when becoming a SAHM, all so unrealistic).

Even without the individual schedules that we all deal with, there is the greater challenge of Jewish time. I don’t mean the at-least-fifteen-minutes-late-to-everything phenomenon, but rather, the existence of Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Pesach really threw me off my routine, I am still very much trying to get back on track. And every week, my Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are dominated by planning for and making Shabbos.

These are all parts of life I enjoy, I get pleasure from, but they also take away from creative time, and they can throw me off schedule enough that it takes work to get back into a groove.

Step Twelve: Be very hard on yourself and don’t forgive small “failures.”

If you are submitting pieces, you will being getting rejected. If you are a creative person, chances are you’re also sensitive, and so these rejections can really put a damper on your desire to ever submit anything again ever anywhere.

Persevere.

It’s easy to type this, harder to put into action. I’ve avoided submitting written pieces to a couple different magazines because of a couple unpleasant or uncomfortable interactions. I’ve avoided connecting with other composers because of a snarky response I got from a group in Baltimore years ago.

My skin gets very thin very easily and that makes it hard to keep going. Because it hurts.

But it also hurts to practice clarinet for hours at a time. I have a callous on my thumb and also on the inside of my lower lip to prove it. It hasn’t stopped me, and neither should these rejections.

Writing for publications or sites is like a shidduch, you don’t fit with everyone, and trying to work with a bad fit can be horrible. Better to keep searching for a good match.

Step Thirteen: Only rely on your own person motivations.

Like I mentioned earlier, when I have a performance or deadline looming, it’s much easier to find the time to write or practice. It’s like magic!

No, it’s like pressure. And fear of crashing and burning.

There is nothing quite like outside motivation. I have not yet been very successful, outside of my somewhat regular blogging on my personal blog, at self-motivation. It has always been when I find an external demand that I buckle down and work.

Sometimes it’s been a concert, sometimes it’s been accepting a pitch that’s been handed out in a writer’s group, sometimes it’s been taking or giving lessons.

There have been times when I’ve given myself a goal, like submit two pieces to a major site every other month, and vocalized that goal to a partner, someone who will hold me accountable. That’s been somewhat successful, but it’s been years since I did that. Maybe now is a good time to start again.

~~~

There you have it. A summary of all the things (or, at least, a lot of them) that make my creativity tick. I suppose the next time someone asks me how I do it, I could just hand them a printout of this piece. Or, better, I’ll just write the link on a piece of paper. Or, even better, I could text it to them.

What helps you be creative? What are your hacks or tendencies, your successes and hurdles?

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go tidy up my home.