Frustrated? Stuck? Put Yourself in Creativity Boot Camp.

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A few days ago, I posted some mental exercises that are meant to boost creativity and flexibility in thinking. One of my own favorite ways to stimulate creativity is to put myself in Creativity Boot Camp.

If you’ve ever tried to move forward on a creative project, you probably know the frustrating feelings of being blocked—or not having enough time to make progress—or working so sporadically that you can’t maintain your focus.

To address these issues, I sometimes use creativity boot camp to tackle a project in an intense, concentrated way.

I saw this when I wrote a novel in a month. That’s right, a novel in a month. A passing acquaintance told me about Chris Baty’s book, No Plot? No Problem!, in which he lays out a program for writing 1,167 words a day, to produce a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, while keeping your day job. (50,000 words is about the length of The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye.) I immediately went to the bookstore, bought the book, and started three weeks later. It was a fantastic experience.

In fact, I’m thinking about doing it again; I have an idea for a young-adult novel, and although I doubt that it will be good, because I’m no novelist, I can’t stop thinking about it, so would love to get it out of my system. The desire to write outside your field is a common occupational hazard of writers. (How do you like the title “Forest and Horse”? Or “Into the West”?)

I saw the same recommendation in one of my favorite books, Scott McCloud’s brilliant Making Comics. He recommends “The 24-Hour Comic”: “Draw an entire 24 page comic book in a single 24-hour period. No script. No preparation. Once the clock starts ticking, it doesn’t stop until you’re done. Great shock therapy for the creatively blocked. Over 1,000 artists have given it a try so far.”

If you’re intrigued, check out the websites National Novel Writing Month and 24 Hour Comics.

That’s the sprint kind of boot camp. I also like the marathon boot-camp, where you do something daily over an extended period. Whenever anyone asks me for advice about how to keep up with writing for a blog, I always say: “Post every day.” Although this sounds arduous, many people find, as I do, that weirdly it’s easier to write every day than just a few times a week.

I think the Boot Camp approach helps the creative process for several reasons, and it helps with all kinds of projects: finishing a photo album, a gardening project, a wood-working project.

  • Because you have to get so much done, you don’t have time to listen to your internal critic. You just get something done and keep moving, instead of sitting, paralyzed.
  • Progress itself is reassuring and inspiring. Panic tends to set in when you find yourself getting nothing done, day after day.
  • Because you’re so focused on your project, you begin to make deeper connections and to see more possibilities, instead of being constantly distracted by outside concerns.
  • Because of the intensity, you can hop in and out of the project, without having to take time to acclimate yourself. I have a writer friend who’s married to a painter, and she says their test for working well is when they can sit down and work if they have a spare ten minutes.
  • You lower your standards. If you’re producing a page a week, or one blog post a week, or one sketch a week, you expect it to be pretty darned good, and you fret about quality. Often, however, folks achieve their best work from grinding out the product.
  • Practice, practice, practice. My novel was terrible, but I think the sheer doing of it helped my writing, just the way practicing scales helps a pianist. The more you practice, the better you’ll become.
  • Because you have a voracious need for material, you become hyper-aware of everything happening around you — and ideas begin to flood your mind.
  • You can use this approach even if you’re working on a creative project on the side, with all the pressing obligations of a job, family, etc. Instead of feeling perpetually frustrated that you don’t have any time for your project, you make yourself make time — for a specific period.
  • It’s fun! I don’t have the urge to climb mountains or run marathons, but I got the same thrill of exertion from writing a novel in a month.

When I’m having trouble getting work done on a big project, my impulse sometimes is to take smaller, easier steps. Sometimes that helps, but sometimes it helps more to take bigger, more ambitious steps instead. By doing more instead of less, I get a boost of energy and focus.

From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.



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