creative process

One Essential Truth for Creating Anything

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

I hear it all the time…

Ryan, I’m not able to write the book, start the relationship, or build that nonprofit. I’m a busy person. Ryan, that might work for you, but not for me. I have unique circumstances…

I get it, you’re a special snowflake, and no one has faced the challenges you face.

But the reality is with creation we’re all in this together.

Humans are given twenty-four hours a day. We can only be in once place at one time. All of us have work, relationships, a need for food, water, and sleep. Not to mention the dog that needs food, water, and a walk.

The challenges are the same. We all need the same stuff and have similar responsibilities.

So how can we be more productive with the limitations and needs of daily life?

You start with the first thing.

Did you hear it? The first thing is always the next thing, next step, and most important step of creation. It’s so obvious that we often miss it and forget these foundational truths of creation.

The next step is always the next word, sentence, or detail in the project. Problems arise when we obsess over step nine, ten, or three hundred and thirty-nine. Those steps of creation will come later, much later.

Our situations are unique because we’re unique and our stories are unique. But the path of creation and writing and making things for the world to enjoy and doing work that matters is always the same…

Start here, and then go here, and then here, and here.

I’m sure woven into your story, and my story, are unique complexities and situations. Maybe it’s long hours at the office, a sick family member, or chronic illness. But wherever we find ourselves the truth is this:

The next step in your creative process, the next hour of writing your book, will be the same for you and me.

The path is always the first thing.

We have no idea what will happen after that. But that’s the beauty and fun and adventure of creation… only God knows where we’ll end up.

If you feel stuck and aren’t sure why the project isn’t going anywhere. Remember, just do the next thing. Don’t worry about step ten, worry about step one.

*Originally published on

(Most of) Life is Out of Our Control

Most of life is out of our control. Life is a mystery and complex and a gift.

You can eat well and exercise and still get cancer.

You can work your tail off at a prestigious college and still not find a job.

You can raise your kid’s to love and respect others and they can still turn out to be monsters.

Life is complex and a mystery. As much as we like to think we’re in control of, well, anything, it’s not true.

Does this mean we throw up our hands and say:

“We’ll leave everything up to God, chance, or luck?”

No, we control what we can control.

The artist, creative, and writer often forget these truths. They’re looking for that perfect moment or season of life when everything will line up. When the creative gods will drop an idea, image, or project in our laps.

David Long comments on inspiration for the writer:

“You can’t rely on inspiration. I don’t even believe in inspiration. I just believe in working. Work generates work. What frustrates me horribly is not knowing what I’m going to do next. And so you force something to happen… . You can’t sit around thinking. You have to sit around working.”

Long is right. Inspiration is a myth. Ideal situations and circumstances are not a thing. We can’t control if our health will hold out today, but we can control doing the work. Sitting around thinking about the work, is not work. Adding new words to the page is work.

A writer can’t control a bad review or a family member who doesn’t understand why you’d spend months writing a novel.

A writer can’t control rejection. I found out this reality last week after submitting a novel to a publisher.

“No thanks, not what we’re looking for.”

I couldn’t control rejection from a publisher but I can control the work. I can control the work that allows for the possibility of submission which might lead to the path of acceptance.

But it all starts with the work.

The artist and writer and creator can’t control their health. Or the health of others. I’m in and out of hospitals this week as I write these words. A family member is ill. Perfect health on Saturday, in the hospital Sunday.

Such is life.

I can’t control what people say, what they think, or the circumstances and events of my life. But I can put my butt in the chair. I can tap one word after the other.

No one can take away the sacred process of creation.

You can control paint on canvas, words on a page, or working on your next project. No one can steal that part of the creative process. The results are up to the gods.

We aren’t able to predict future results. No magic eight balls or prophets telling us how it will all turn out. We go in faith.

But we can do the work. You can control that today.

Toni Morrison said:

“I can’t explain inspiration. A writer is either compelled to write or not. And if I waited for inspiration I wouldn’t really be a writer.”

We can wait for inspiration, wait for the perfect situation, or we can control what we can control…

Doing the work.

*Originally published on The Prolific Writer (publication)

Outcomes Versus Process- from Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston from the iconic TV series, Breaking Bad, wrote in his biography, A Life in Parts, about a switch that happened in his career:

“Early in my career, I was always hustling. Doing commercials, guest-starring, auditioning like crazy. I was making a decent living… but I felt I was stuck in junior varsity. I wondered if I had plateaued. Then, Breck Costin [his mentor] suggested I focus on process rather than outcome.

I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete.

I was going to give something.

I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. I was there to give a performance. If I attached to the outcome, I was setting myself up to expect, and thus to fail. My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Enjoy the process.”

The danger for anyone working in the public eye is an unhealthy obsession with outcomes. A speaker who hopes her last talk will lead people to action and transformation. The entrepreneur hoping the presentation will lead to investment dollars. The mom that corrects a child desiring for better behavior. A writer hoping their novel makes a bestseller list so they can swim in boatloads of money.

Outcomes aren’t evil and wanting people to enjoy and find our work helpful isn’t wrong. Making a few bucks, some acknowledgement, and kind reviews, after our blood, sweat, and tears isn’t a problem.

But when outcomes become a hand around our artistic necks choking out the life and passion and authenticity of our work… Houston we have a problem.

Bryan Cranston mentioned later in his book what happened when he stopped obsessing over outcomes and focused on the process:

“Once I made the switch, I had power in any room I walked into… Which meant I could relax. I was free.”

Wayne White on the Nerves to Create

Wayne White creator of the 80’s cultural phenomenon Pee Wee’s Playhouse was asked what it takes to be an artist:

I follow instincts instead of intellectual ideas. I really don’t think the artist is an intellectual. I believe that the artist is a set of nerves, nerve endings. That’s what an artist is.

We are nerves and nerve endings. The role of an artist is not to determine the value and intellectual warrant of the art. Whether the thing we make is good, worthy, or commercially viable.

The true artist needs nerve. Lots of nerves because we don’t know what we’re doing. Art is not math and science. Not an intellectual exercise. The creative process comes from a deeper place… the gut, heart, and soul. 

Art is hard to quantify whether it’s quality or not. Some people like genre fiction and others grab literary. One person enjoys the clean lines and sparseness of modern art… while others think Monet nailed it.  No one knows why we have to create, or where it comes from, and what is worth keeping around. 

Art is birthed from nerves.

The nerves of ordinary children, men, and women, who sit with pencils, crayons, canvas, camera, clay, computer, or tap shoes, and express and make whatever comes through the mind, heart, body, and soul.

When I write… this article, my next book, or a letter to a friend… I need nerves. Nerves to tell the truth. Nerves to love others through the work. Nerves to create whatever The Muse brings into my brain and soul.

I spoke with a fellow writer and creator about why we create. We didn’t know. But we knew… You have to… there’s something calling it out of you. It’s not boredom or wasting time. Creating and art is not a hobby or an indoor activity when it’s hot. We write and create because we have to, and can’t stop if we tried, and want to believe a gift from the Creator being made in his image. We create because it’s in the DNA.

Nerves. Nerve endings. More often than not we need the nerve to create regardless of where the chips may fall. Many artists and creators fall to the wayside because of lack of nerve. They make the thing, and the thing didn’t make them millions, or get their work in a gallery. They quit.

Wayne White gives more advice to the aspiring artist who is losing nerve and wants to quit:

Never rest as an artist, that’s one thing you‘ve got to realize. The minute you get satisfied with yourself, that’s when the work starts to fall apart.

Never rest. Don’t get satisfied. Have nerves. Sounds like good counsel.