Finding Creativity in Chaos

writers toolkit

I recently gave this talk to a group of creative professionals at ChappellRoberts about ways to stay creative during chaos.  This is also a topic that some of my author pals and I have touched on during our weekly #Authortalks chats on Twitter. When I was preparing my points, I was reminded of a New York Times Book Review article I read about author Jenny Offill. She asks “Can you still just tend to your own garden once you know about the fire outside its walls?” This was back in February — which seems distant now. She was talking about climate change, and the suffering planet. But her question is also relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic, as we creatives try to find space in these times of global flux.

Here are six tips that may help you find your creativity:

  1. Write, compose, paint or work early (or late). Write before your kids get up, or after they go to sleep, before you’re tempted to ingest the brain candy of social media, or drink from the well of toxic sludge that is the news, or after you’ve had so much that you can’t possibly consume any more. Find the quiet space and use it. Sleep another time.
  2. Remember that creativity is the place that you can go to escape chaos. You might have to run a whole new gauntlet — Zoom meetings, homeschooling, cooking for many people, many times a day — but once you’re there, on the page, you are in control. Maybe no place else in life will you ever have more control than you do when you’re creating something.
  3. Breathe. Nothing of quality ever came forth in a panic. Believe in your craft, in your gift, in the power of story. If you show up and open up, the ideas will come.
  4. Observe the madness, the world, yourself. Everything you are feeling, experiencing, fearing, hating, loving, everything that hurts, that brings joy will at some point find its way into your work. When we live authentically, paying attention, and being present, all the texture and experiences of our lives make us more creative. This moment is like no other. Be present for it.
  5. Anything you do creatively right now is a win. Anything. A sentence, an idea scribbled on a paper towel, a character sketch, a craft you do with your kids, a pie you bake. Count your wins. Cut your losses. Everyone gets a pass right now. Here’s a funny article about what Shakespeare REALLY did during the plague.
  6. Scheduling. This one is especially for parents who are now, suddenly, working from home — and parenting all day, and maybe homeschooling. Okay, that’s a blender without a lid. And I know, because I have been doing it for fourteen years (not the homeschooling part, though helping with school work is always a parenting responsibility.)

    Managing a schedule is an ideal. Because with kids, things are always changing. So, first, be patient — with yourself, with the kids. If there are two of you, I suggest dividing the day. One person works in the morning, while the other works in the afternoon, switching off the primary parent role. This won’t always work — but it’s a start. More important than this, is to set a schedule for the kids. Here’s how my husband and I have done it: Wake up, breakfast (all together), mom or dad goes off to work (hopefully in a separate space), morning activity (might be school work, might be a walk around the block, or a dip in the pool), snack, screen time, or independent/assisted craft, (here maybe the on parent gets to check work email), lunch (all together maybe), parents switch — repeat morning schedule. Then dinner, bath time, story, bed. After kids are in bed, couple time.

    The important part about this is that both parents respect the other’s work, enjoy their time with the children, and honor the schedule. Kids do way better when they know what to expect, when parents are calm and in control, and set understandable, predictable boundaries. And if you manage to set and mostly honor a schedule that offers creative blocks — guess what? You’re teaching your kids to be creative adults, who can honor a schedule and get to work in times of crisis and chaos.

    And when it all goes out the window? Kids have a melt down? Siblings acting like rival gang members? YOU have a meltdown. Hey, you know what, there’s a global crisis right now and nothing was ever going to be perfect anyway and especially right now. So take a break, do something you all like, even if that’s just watching television for a while, and start again when everyone is a little calmer. The loving time, peaceful, happy time you share with your kids right now is so much more important than anything else, even if you’re worried about work. Because they’re struggling, too. And the world seems like a scary place to them — because it is. Make a safe place for them at home if you can.

Remember that the problem of finding space to be creative is a luxury — if you’re home, safe, healthy, and not worried about feeding your family and paying medical bills, you’re one of the lucky ones. Gratitude is in order. Kids can be taught that, too.

The truth is that life — normal life — will always conspire to rob you of your creativity. Chaos is frequently knocking on the door. Your sleep will be disrupted. Your child will get the flu. You’ll have a fight with your spouse. There’s a normal day-to-day gauntlet that we must run to get into the zone. At my house, we call it the runway — sometimes there are obstacles that impede flight. But the fact is that with tenacity, self-discipline, scheduling, and a deep breath you can get yourself there often enough to accomplish your creative goals — while being present for your family, and staying sane. Most of the time.

Suggested reading: DEEP WORK by Cal Newport


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