Developing Creative Stamina

"NO! What you are describing is finger painting."

I saw this ad recently for a masterclass by Aaron Sorkin on screenwriting. In it, he likened the approach of wanting no rules in art and expecting it to just happen to finger painting. I love it!

Here's what he said exactly: "There is a tendency to think that art is finally the place where there are no rules. Where you have complete freedom. And I'm just gonna sit down at the keyboard and it is just going to flow out of me on the paper and it is going to be pure art. NO! What you are describing is finger painting! Rules are what makes art beautiful!"

Sorkin talks about the idea that art is supposed to just come out and instantly be great. And it should be rule-free. It's a view that I encounter regularly too. And it applies just as much to other forms of art/creativity as to screenwriting.

The idea that you can only be creative when the inspiration is there, you feel great and it strikes you. Like the lone genius that gets struck with the perfect idea. Nice and clean.

Because creating should be easy and fun. Right? And I'll create when I feel it. No obligations. Putting pressure on it stifles me, so I can only create when I'm in the flow. Right?

An excuse

It's tempting. Believe me, I want to believe it. But I think it's an excuse though. Well-spread and seemingly legit, but an excuse nonetheless. And I can see why.

Because, when you've just started out, what you create is bad a lot of the time. If that's not due to bad timing but how it's supposed to be. If it's going to continue to be a bumpy, messy and frustrating ride. And if you have to push through all of that...

Not a great prospect.

You're strapped for time. You're under pressure to deliver and got no time to waste. So starting something that is super uncertain to have a good outcome...

Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Because, when you have finally found a free place after so many years of rules-filled, obedience-instilling and competition-based school or work. A place where you FINALLY just get to create. And when it's not that simple...

Glass. Shattering.

If inspiration is not a prerequisite to creating, it means that you can't blame not-creating or the bad quality on a lack thereof. The onus isn't on some outside and uncontrollable thing. But when it's on you...

That is hard to accept.

Moreover, it means that the main difference between a pro and you is not that they get more or better inspiration. But that they practice, dare to be messy and push through the uncomfortableness. That anyone could do it so you are the reason that you haven't...


Limiting belief

The problem with this excuse is that it's the view of art and creativity is wrong. And it's holding you back if you want to become better at it.

Most of the times you're not going to feel "it" so you're letting time pass you by.

By not starting, you're wasting an opportunity to get better.

You won't be ready for the moment that inspiration strikes you, simply for not being at your "desk" or because you won't know what to do with it.

Not starting because you don't want to waste time, only works when you can get an insight that instantly makes everything clear. When an insight can help you get to a finished product in a straight line. Problem is, no book, program or building design was created this way. You can't think your way to something as complex as art. If only you could. You need to try things out, play and prototype.

So there will be opportunity costs. You could be doing something more valuable. If you can, do that. But don't expect to be able to figure out the whole thing in your head while you wait.

And have you ever seen an athlete say they can only run fast when they feel it? Sure, some days they're better. But surely practice is required to get better.

It's much easier to believe this than the alternative; that creating is not dependent on inspiration. That it's not supposed to be clean, easy and pretty. That it's not supposed to be great instantly but requires practice. And that it's hard is exactly the point and what makes it useful.

Not inspiration but practice

Art - all forms of creativity for that matter - are not exempt from practice. Be it writing, painting or filmmaking. Or basketball, facilitation and even things like gratitude. All are skills that require regular practice. So expecting to be instantly great at them is foolish.

This practice consists of two types of practice. There is the practice of the actual craft. Being good at writing includes things like a quality of style, clarity, structure, story or word choice, editing etc. Painting includes color, brush strokes or composition. All these things require practice. Pretty clear right.

Then there's the practice of the creative process. The getting into flow from a place of standing still. Where a creative skill differs from other skills is that creativity is an expression of you. Thus starting it is much more a way of putting you out there. But, this is trainable. Think of it as a warm-up for your training.

Art is not the inspiration. The professional artist has learned to get going without inspiration and knows the inspiration will catch up with him.

Just like for the entrepreneur it's not about the initial idea. It's about the execution and the idea will catch up after you start.

It's that you do it. And not even how you do it. But simply that you got to doing it.

Good art is rare. Thus it's valuable

Rare things that have a positive effect, are valuable. That it takes a lot of practice and time to get to a level to be able to something beautiful instead of finger paint, makes it valuable.

Something that solves someone's problem that is easy to make, is here already. Only wanting to create when it's fun is easy. It's staying in your comfort zone. It might be valuable to someone, but it's also there in abundance. It's the hard things that we're still waiting for (Seth Godin - The Dip).

Having new things emerge, creating something that someone needs and that wasn't here yet, can only happen if you allow yourself to get outside the zone that you can control for fun.

And even the great ones still suffer from writer's block. In another video, Sorkin says: "I'm in a constant state of writer's block. That's my default position." Even Aaron Sorkin has writer's block? No everyone has. He just dealt with it! He didn't fix it. He worked through it.

Staying with the project long enough. Sitting with the uncomfortableness of not being able to create. Sharing your work. Showing up to the world. They're hard. They're embarrassing. You might not like these uncomfortable things, but they are the type of uncomfortableness that makes you grow.

That it's hard is not something to run away from. It should be part of your motivation to do it, to begin with. Every artist that has become good (let alone great) has gone through it and not a lot of others will be able to follow you there.

Developing Creative Stamina

So art is about practicing the creative process (besides the practice of the craft). And it's about doing the uncomfortable. Creating is much more about the stamina to sit with it than about the genius or inspiration.

How to train this Creative Stamina?

Reprogramming your groove Just start. Just start! I know it sounds too easy. But more often than not, the problem you've made it out to be is harder than how it turns out to be. Just getting starting is the remedy 90% of the time. And after the initial discomfort, it goes quite well.

Even starting with writing nonsense gets you into a writing mode. This might have something to do with the fact that your body recognizes the activity and takes over from your problem-generating-mind.

Some writers end their day with a few unfinished sentences so they have something to get started on the next day. You can keep an idea journal (like a separate notebook in Evernote) to have some topic to write about when you want to start. And you can limit the hurdle by making sure you have everything set up for creation before the moment you want to start (with the exception that unpacking all your equipment could be your ritual to get into your groove).

The hurdle to creating can be practiced and gets slightly easier over time. You gain confidence that after starting it won't be so hard. Doing so makes you more familiar with the process and reprograms your groove.

Reclaiming the grey It might seem like your state for creation is either on or off. Very black or white. By saying you can only create when you feel it, you're throwing away the majority of the time.

And while there might be times that are clearly doomed, what if this majority is actually not all bad and will most of the time even be quite good? These are pristine opportunities for practice and creation that you can reclaim.

And by also sitting down during the grey times, you're increasing the chances that you are able to be ready when inspiration strikes. If not, half of it will pass you by.

Curiosity over Judgment Choosing to look at the struggle with curiosity over judgment allows you to use the struggle for growth instead of letting it stifle you.

Celebrate Progress over Results Practice isn’t pretty. It’s hard, will often result in nothing and is embarrassing. But accepting this struggle as necessary practice and is viewing it as progress.

All 9 bad pages were needed for me to get to 1 good one. When the good stuff is behind the bad, all 10 are equally valuable from the progress perspective.

And even if all the words suck, you will have extra hours of practice under your belt.

It's about progress. Keep making progress. Forgive yourself on the output. Everything might be bad and it's ok. Be soft on yourself on what you produce. Be honest and call it what it is. But allow yourself every level of quality. But be strict and hard on yourself on the input. On whether or not you've gotten to work.

Creating inspiration Every time you start, you'll first dabble around a bit with the easy things. With the low hanging fruit. Turning them around and looking at them from a few sides. It takes a little time to get into the groove. To clear out the distractions in your mind. To see things from a purer or new perspective. To combine seemingly unrelated things. When you do, you get to the good stuff.

It's not about your surroundings magically aligning with you thought patterns to spark something. It's about having the capacity to shape and play with your thoughts to generate the inspiration.

By developing this, you develop the ability to create inspiration.

Go towards where it's hard and uncomfortable That's where the learning is. Lean into what's uncomfortable for you. It's how you grow. And what's uncomfortable to share is often where a societal nerve is you can hit.

Hope this helps you look at your creative practice differently. I'm very curious to see what you'll create when you do!

If you liked it, I'd love it if you could press "recommend" or share it with a friend who needs to hear it (too). Thanks!

PS: Few notes

  • I've ignored a few other vital parts of creativity: Absorbing, percolating and living. This is part of the work. It's also easy hiding ground when you need an excuse not to get to work.
  • Don't get me wrong. I think finger painting is great. Just realize that it will stay a hobby then. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is to turn your hobby into work. Because then it's work. But just don't expect to become a master or great at it. But do it for the fun.
  • People with deadlines (like in the news industry) don’t seem to suffer from writer’s block. They don’t have the luxury (Gladwell on Ferriss)).
  • There are different types of creativity. Sure. There are different types of personalities and different things work for different people. Sure. But in general, I think that building creative stamina works.