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The muse always comes late


Is it possible to be creative on a deadline?
Last Friday I went to a wonderful presentation at The Conference on World Affairs where film critic Roger Ebert hosted Dave Grusin, Oscar-winning film composer and jazz musician (and founder of indie label GRP). The guy has more than 90 film scores to his credit!

During the Q & A, a music student asked Dave, "I'm a song writer, and I want to know how you can be creative on a deadline. How you can come up with something because you must. I have to wait until it hits me before I can do anything... I can't seem to make it happen; I just have to wait for it to come to me."

Upon hearing this, Roger Ebert jumped in with a comment about how "The muse never shows up at the beginning." Dave Grusin laughed, said he appreciated the guy's pain, but was very clear that creativity is not something you "wait for the muse to appear before starting." He said you just sit down and start the hard work, and trust that it will happen, even if it doesn't feel like it.

A long time ago I worked as copywriter for a radio station, writing 30 and 60-second commercials. That was my first experience with "creativity under pressure", and I was surprised to find out that when you must be creative, you can. (Using all the tricks and tools for creativity, of course.) It's like the advice a mother might give a shy teenager, "Just start acting as though you have confidence and eventually it'll become true." The point is:

When it comes to being creative, you have to make the first move!

We have to do this a lot with our books, which (unlike how one might imagine writing a technical text book might be) involve a great deal of creativity. But we use tricks! All four of us, for example, use mind maps for (among other things) initial brainstorming and idea-generation (I talked about mind maps a little in the why I want a tablet PC post).

The key to using mind maps for brainstorming (as opposed to using them for "graphical organizers" that I showed in my earlier post) is to go really fast. The idea is to engage your "right" brain (metaphorically speaking) while simultaneously supressing your judgemental, logical, rational "left" brain. Something magical happens when you just start throwing down nodes and drawing connections and linking ideas without giving ANY real thought. The moment you start thinking/analyzing, you're screwed. But if you just let it happen, you'll find yourself looking down at your paper 10 minutes later and seeing things you never would have come up with using a logical thinking process. So it's not a matter of "waiting for the muse", but it's also not a matter of using brute force thinking. You just have to do something!

Beth offered a ton of great resources for creative brainstorming in this post, which is a great place to start.

So if you're procrastinating or waiting for the muse to show up before you can be your most creative brilliant self, don't bother. Chances are, the muse is waiting for you. When you're smack in the middle of work, even if what you're coming up with is total crap, the muse will reward you for the effort, and for sticking it out no matter what (or how little) stuff you're coming up with.

And here's another little article from US News on how anyone can be creative. It references a book on creativity by the brilliant choreographer Twyla Tharp called The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for life (OK, no muse around during the creation of that title, but still...)

Twyla says, "Art is work. It is not inspiration." But she also mentions the creativity killers including, "Routine, habit. That we become enmeshed in patterns of behavior and we don't question them. We can become complacent, we can start taking things for granted, and we don't ask questions. Creativity is about questioning."

So, what are you doing to shake things up for yourself? To break out of your normal habits? Which, by the way, is also a key to keeping your brain in top shape. Check out this article on brainfitness that mentions a book (and approach to life and work) that I highly recommend, Keep your brain alive by Lawrence Katz.

And you can start by eating your next meal using your non-dominant hand (the trick used by the teacher played by Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society), and taking a slightly different route home from work. And picking one unusual new thing you're going to learn this week, that isn't a work-related requirement.

Have fun : )

Posted by Kathy on April 13, 2005 | Permalink


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I love Twyla Tharp's book! Even though there was very little *new* info to me about the hows of creativity, I still found the book to be engaging and inspiring. Maybe it was the specific stories she included to illustrate her points. Or maybe it was the fact that she validated one point that I have always felt to be the case for me: routines and rituals can be good. They do not have to lead to ruts. In fact, they can (and do, at least for me) help the muse to show up earlier rather than later :-)

Posted by: Cyndi | Apr 13, 2005 6:40:11 PM

Agree, agree, agree.

Emphatically agree.

Did I mention I agree?

P.S. this is currently my favorite blog.

Posted by: Keith Handy | Apr 13, 2005 6:58:21 PM

Thanks for another great post Kathy. It gave me a poem draft,

Stay sporting of mind
I've just run out of assertive and the jar
of easy ideas has dripped it last, so
will a smear of disease to please do
for your toast? will my showing up
with a cracked cup of words get me
any of your sugar? Or must we
chitchat world disasters first?
too much water use has dropped
the aquifers. lawns, car washes,
golf courses, matter of course
druking water down the sewer
and the lake has become a wetland
in spring, it looks like its old self
with the ducks diving. I hear the
rich and famous muse is vacationing
nearby, picked up some speculative
real estate on a sandbar island
she's waiting for you to arrive with
autograph pad and picnic basket.
you're hemming and hawing
waiting for her to arrive but its you
who has to swim and don't worry
piranhas are tropical and this
is more a polar bear dip among too many
ideas in seaweed, reeds an rot
jump in, start thrashing, there
are no points for style. Like
kindergarten, did you try?
just dive into the water hazard,
doggie paddle with all the balls you
can muster and come up swinging
knock that old muse back on her heels
she'll roundhouse you soundly
but keep at eachother until your
meaty swings get sloppy and you
collapse on each other, grinning.

Posted by: Pearl | Apr 14, 2005 1:19:53 PM

Oi! Seven years as a tech writer has taught me not to wait for the muse, but some days when you're staring at 10,000 words of marketing copy over a stack of empty latte cups it can feel a lot like purgatory.

Posted by: TonyD | Apr 14, 2005 6:06:12 PM

Hi Kathy,

Today's post reminded me of something that Robert Mager, the great guru of criterion-referenced instruction, said about writing:

"The Muse strikes those who strike the Muse first."

Or something like that!

Posted by: Dave Rogers | Apr 14, 2005 7:04:14 PM

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