Creativity and Setting Limits

IMG_3508 copyExcited about mixed-media; discovering new magazines; Tinkerbell movies and playing with pixie dust; sap flow; maple syrup; spring; home renovation projects; memoir; writing; art; life; catching a miserable, horrible cold.

These were all things rocketing around my brain as I watched the kids get sleepy, just on the cusp of a nap, my mind already wandering ahead to my wordcatch of the day.

Things I wanted to write about. Ideas I wanted to express, capture, craft.

Limit-setting isn’t something we often think about in discussions of creativity, but for those of us hoping to make a career out of it, the two are mostly just flip sides of the same coin. There are the obvious connections, of course. If you’re not very good at limiting that Netflix habit, it’s awfully hard to pound out a 400 page novel.

But there are more subtle traps too.

I, for example, have grown a fat and disorderly desktop of half-finished art pieces since starting my Project 52. Having good ideas hasn’t been a problem. I’ve started watercolor illustrations for this book I also haven’t written, gotten half way through a zentangle inspired trio of north woods animals, played with geometrical shape paintings, and fallen in love with mixed media. (You guys, you get to include JOURNALING!!)

There is nothing wrong with any of these ideas.

But, hard truth alert: You can be the most creative person in the world and still have nothing to show for it at the end of the day.

Here are some of things I’ve been learning about setting limits lately:

1. Think of them as separate activities (and stay organized): this is classic advice, right? Any writer out there will tell you for the love of all that’s publishable not to waste your writing time looking up that one street name or researching 18th century surgical instruments. That’s solid advice, but I’ve also gotten swamped by coming up with too many interesting themes/characters/etc for one book, and then it turns into a saga, and before you know it you’ve landed in a diffuse trilogy. Just don’t. If you’re organized enough, you don’t even have to think about it. Set aside times to let your mind go crazy generating ideas and times for dedicated work. Whittle ideas down to the salient bones and then file accordingly. Characters; incidents; settings that made your mind explode with possibility.

2. Respect your creative energy (you only get so much of it). I was floored when I realized a few months ago that my output as a mom is about 50-75% what it was when I was writing full time. So, to rephrase: 8 hours of golden silence a day vs. two kids in two years, a variable sleep deficit, and 12-14 hour days 7 days a week. My productivity, it seems, has very little to do with having major responsibilities and a whole lot to do with focus and a drama-free lifestyle. I wasted a lot of time in those first couple of years feeling insecure about myself and my abilities, obsessing over family dramas and working to get clean from the codependency drama I grew up with. Having kids actually made life a lot simpler. I don’t have time for this, is basically my feeling about all interpersonal drama, and whatever it was that used to Hamlet it up in my brain about existential purpose has apparently died because I just don’t hear it anymore. I make no excuses for prioritizing peace. The fewer holes in my bucket, the more water I have when I get home. It really is that simple.

3. Focus on the things you’re gaining (clarity! complexity!). Setting limits often feel sad. There’s no way around that. If your crime-solving, hunchbacked ginger with PTSD and a penchant for donuts doesn’t ALSO play classical guitar and turn out to be his own nemesis in a denouement involved trap doors it can be sad. You’re allowed to mourn. On the other hand, think of what you’re gaining. Clarity is a hard-won gem, and clarity comes from restraint. One of my saddest days as a writer was the day I realized my novel would never work as it was because I’d written one of my supporting characters into a second protagonist. Can there be two protags? Of course, but not the way I’d set this book up. Since I loved both of them, the only nonbandaid solution was to rip the story in half and develop two separate books. Clunky and time-consuming. I’ll probably get around to it eventually, but the wind, as they say, is still knocked out of those sails. The other thing worth gaining is the possibility for complexity. Complexity isn’t just a lot of random, entry-level crap pasted together. There are a lot of great thrillers and epics out there, but for most of us wanting to write a rich, complex novel we’re probably going to have to write about something a little more specific than THE CIVIL WAR. You know?

I can not believe the kids are still sleeping. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go work on my oceanic mixed media project. BECAUSE I SWEAR I’M FINISHING THIS ONE BEFORE I START ANYTHING ELSE.

(Disclosure: I totally have a list in my journal of all the other great ideas I keep having).



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