Creativity Series: Is it Possible to be an Orderly List-Maker AND a Creative Individual?
Hello, folks! I’ve sorely neglected my blog and website upkeep, but I thought I would jump back into the swing of things with a series on a topic that has deeply engaged my work and personal life recently: CREATIVITY. I’m certainly not an expert, nor am I an outwardly hyper-creative individual. (In fact, I’m certain that I’m not even the most creative member of my household.) But I’ve really enjoyed reading the works of various “creativity experts” and learning their views on how creativity works and how it can be developed.
The first issue I wanted to discuss in this series is the concept of order. Does structure and organization help or hinder an individual’s creativity? Here’s my personal experience in how I used my need for order to actually bolster my creativity:
I’ve always had a hard time reconciling my creative predispositions with my orderly tendencies. I am an idea-generator and am frequently inspired by what I see, do, and feel throughout the day. This means I take lots of photos, jot down assortments of quotes and notes on napkins and receipts, and try to absorb meaningful experiences as they happen. But I’m also a planner, a list-maker, and a big-time scheduler. This means that I immediately feel jittery if I don’t download my photos, turn my scribbled notes into systematic lists in my planner, or tidily record my meaningful experiences in my journal. My ideas have to live on paper or in a schedule, not just in my consciousness.
I’ve found myself wondering if the two sides of my brain are in such direct competition with each other that they are actually prohibiting me from making true strides in either personal organization or true creativity. While I know that I’m both pretty creative and fairly organized, I still think, “I’m sure I could be much more creative if I weren’t such a color-coded scheduling nut-job,” and “If I didn’t stop the car and jump out to take a picture of that cloud, I bet I would have remembered to pick up the dry cleaning.”
For my fellow FRIENDS enthusiasts, I’ve diagnosed myself as both a Monica AND a Phoebe.
This summer I was on a kick to read the books that have been on my “on-deck” list for ages. One book was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book has been around for a while but artistically-blocked individuals still turn to its pages to recover or reignite their creative ways. At this time I had a ton of partially-finished poems and stories floating around my computer and in my brain, so I wanted to see if this book could help me feather the dust off of my words. After starting the book (which is more like a class or workshop), I immediately realized the importance Cameron places on writing every day. She starts her book emphasizing this practice and continues to insist upon it throughout the text.
Three pages of writing, first thing in the morning, no rules, no matter what.
Now I’m not one to do any serious writing before I’ve checked my emails, kissed my daughter, and inhaled a gargantuan cup of coffee. But the purpose of this habit is not to produce serious writing. It’s to produce ANYTHING. Cameron states:
These daily morning meanderings are not meant to be art. Or even writing…Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included (10).
Now I’ve done “free-writing” exercises before…but not every day…at 6:30 in the morning. And as you might imagine, I’m the type of person that needs to look at a list of to-do items when I wake up so I can create the semblance of order to start my day. I’m not in a creative headspace when my alarm goes off…or even two hours after my alarm goes off.
But I still wanted to commit to the process of reigniting my creativity…which meant committing to the process of writing every sleepy-eyed morning. Very quickly I realized that this writing was going to be a monumental waste of time. This is because I was only writing lists. Three pages of lists. Page after page of full-blown list-making took place day after day. I made lists of groceries, lists of people to email, lists of books to get from the library, and lists of gifts to buy for birthdays. I took the to-do lists from my planner and just re-wrote them in my notebook. I felt like a kid being punished in school by writing sentences on the chalkboard over and over again. But instead of writing, “I will not chew gum in class,” I was writing, “Drop off Stella at my dad’s by 10, finish grant reports, go to the post office, write the vocab quiz for chapter 6, buy liquid Vitamin D.” A real page-turner, right?
My lists of daily activities, items to buy, and errands to run quickly filled up the pages of my notebook for two straight weeks. TWO WEEKS! If this process was supposed to make me more creative, it certainly wasn’t apparent by the first 42 pages of my notebook. But then one day as I was reading the weekly “class” in The Artist’s Way, Cameron presented a list-making task as a separate assignment from the regular morning writing. It went something like, “List five things you liked about yourself as a child.” It was a thought-provoking heading and a fun list to make. Once I completed this task, I started thinking about other things I could list in my morning writing that didn’t involve work responsibilities or groceries.
My lists finally evolved each morning: lists of people I admire, lists of weird dreams I had as a child, lists of things I wanted eliminated from the world, lists of things I secretly enjoy doing, lists of words that rhyme with “eat,” and lists of my bad habits. Once again, these were obvious lists, complete with underlined headings and numbers down the left margin of the page. But these were fun lists, thoughtful lists…creative lists.
As I looked back at these lists during my times of work and “serious writing,” I found support in the pages. I was able to use these lists to develop creative writing prompts during my curriculum work. I turned some list-items into new poems and children’s stories. One list helped me articulate the purpose of a new community program when writing a grant for a local non-profit organization.
And I was quickly reminded of the importance of list-making as I turned to my favorite therapeutic activity: reading children’s literature. One of my favorite collections of children’s poetry is Falling Down the Page edited by Georgia Heard. The jacket flap states, boldly and unabashedly, “Lists of everyday things become the stuff of poetry…”
(Insert self-inflicted slap upside the head here.)
The poems in this book are beautiful and are exquisitely simple in that many are comprised of lists: lists of ways children spend their day at school, lists of how to say “hello” in different languages, lists of common items kids collect, lists of objects in a lost and found box. I love these poems…probably because I love lists. It’s amazing that I spent so much time being ashamed of making lists and being preoccupied with making lists and thinking that lists wouldn’t flip the switch of my creativity when all the while lists were the essential ingredient in one of my favorite children’s books.
My morning writing still hasn’t changed. I occasionally throw in ideas for new stories or projects, but I primarily still write lists. I’ve realized that I need those lists to make my brain function in a manner that allows for any creativity to take place at all. I often wish I was still more creative or more structured, but I’m now realizing that I can use my inner Monica to strengthen my innate Phoebe-ness.