Bestselling author and researcher Brené Brown, Ph.D, LMSW, used a unique method to write her newest book Rising Strong. She spent 3 weeks in Galveston, Texas, with several people from her work team telling stories. Lots of stories. Every day, she told the group the stories she wanted to include in Rising Strong. Because, as Brown explained to Elizabeth Gilbert on her excellent podcast, “Magic Lessons,” she’s an oral storyteller first.
Brown works best by talking things through and getting feedback. As such, she’d tell her stories out loud to the group, while someone wrote down her words. Her team would let her know when a story didn’t work or a concept was unclear. And she’d try another story.
This became the basis of Rising Strong. In addition to this process being productive, Brown and her team had a blast. As she said in the podcast, there was a lot of laughter and team-building.
Brown’s method made me think two things: One is that we can get creative with our creative process. That is, we can try all sorts of techniques to help us with whatever projects we’re working on. To help us broaden our thinking. To help us brainstorm and capture our ideas. To invite inspiration. Our methods can be as unique or simple or even as silly as we need. In short, they can be anything.
For instance, in addition to telling stories, Brown filled the walls with Post-It notes. Cookbook author Heidi Swanson sketches out sample pages of her book and keeps a big binder during the writing process. Some authors keep process journals. Some authors create tables, timelines and diagrams to plan out their works.
For me doodling helps. So does writing out rough drafts in my notebook. Sometimes listening to music does, too. It helps to pry open the door to my imagination.
My second thought, as I was listening to Brown, was about the importance of doing what works for you. That is, it’s key, whatever you’re creating, to find the habits, behaviors and strategies that’ll fit you first (versus trying to fit yourself into habits, behaviors and strategies). It’s what I call going from the inside out.
This is when self-awareness comes in handy. It helps to know yourself, your natural tendencies and your preferences, so you can respect and honor them. Like Brown, does it help you to think out loud in front of a few close people? Maybe that’s how you create your next presentation or business plan or personal essay.
For me, while writing Make a Mess, talking to my husband was incredibly helpful. We’d bounce ideas back and forth. We’d talk about what I’d written, what he thought, his ideas for prompts. (We also spent a lot of time discussing my raging self-doubt.)
Maybe you feel a bit too vulnerable in front of others, at least for now. Instead you use your smartphone to record yourself discussing your ideas. Maybe you warm up by dancing to your favorite songs or coloring a page from your favorite coloring book. Maybe you draw diagrams on index cards and lay them out on your office floor.
Or maybe you need to be alone, somewhere outside your home, without any distractions. Maya Angelou worked best this way. In a 1983 interview, which is featured in Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, she said:
…I keep a hotel room in which I do my work – a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous. I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind. I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.
Explore how other people in your field and different fields create. But do so only for ideas, inspiration and options, not for “musts” or “shoulds” or “have-tos” — as in I should work this way, because that author uses such and such method. I have to stick to the conventional techniques, because that’s how everyone creates a business plan. (Nope! Not everyone.)
Whatever you’re working on, let the creative process work for you. Start from the inside out. Consider what works best for your natural tendencies and preferences. Think about what sounds like fun to you. Think about what seems fascinating and helpful. Embrace your own unique way of creating — whatever that looks like.
Let the process become just as enjoyable as seeing the product come to life. Because while the product is certainly exciting and important, the process is where you’ll find magic.
What projects are you currently working on? What project are you struggling to complete? How might you get creative about creating it? What other methods can you explore to connect to your boundless imagination?