Helen McLaughlin

What I love about interviewing all sorts of individuals for the “How I Create” series is the burst of inspiration each person provides. They remind us of the magic and power of creativity. They inspire us to experiment, to play, to explore. Their responses also remind us that we are not alone: Everyone struggles with creative obstacles such as perfectionism, distractions, and self-doubt. But they keep going, anyway. Which for me is inspiration to keep going, too.

Today, I’m excited to share my interview with writer and coach Helen McLaughlin. I don’t remember how I first came across Helen’s work, but I do remember being instantly drawn to her refreshing perspective and powerful words. Her generous, illuminating insights below are no exception.

Q: How do you define creativity? What does creativity mean to you?

A: Creativity exists anytime we attempt to make meaning of something, or when we recognize what’s already meaningful about something. You’re creating when you notice how the clouds on a given morning look like egg crate foam stretched across the sky.

You’re creating when you locate a face in the knotty pine of an end table or when you collect a rock from every park you visit to line up like a miniature Stonehenge on your windowsill.

You’re creating when you listen for the ocean in a conch shell, when you choose a gift for your sweetheart, when you try to name everything you taste in a piece of dark chocolate, when you donate your old pots and pans to charity.

You’re creating when you decide a Seattle bus ticket is worth saving (the color! the feel of the newsprint between your fingers!) and tacking to the wall above your desk.

Creativity is a way of seeing and being; it’s not a character trait you either have or lack, but an ever-present quality of awareness that can be developed—like most anything—with practice.

Helen McLaughlin, sky

Q: Why is creating important to you?

A: Creating keeps me interested, available (to myself, to inspiration, to mystery and magic), tuned in, purposeful. It’s the always-answer to my existential questions (especially this one: But what’s the point of all this anyway?) because it prioritizes action over perseveration.

Creating is important to me because it’s the life force that connects me to every person who’s gone before and all who will come after. It’s both my inheritance and my legacy.

Q: What are your favorite ways to create?

A: My hands-down favorite way to create is with words. As an MFA-trained writer and a certified life coach, my days are spent playing with language and putting my curiosity to work. The act of conversation is inherently creative—co-creative, in fact—and is fertile ground for transformation if the conditions are right.

I love the energy of no-holds-barred dialogue; I love asking the questions that no one else would dare to ask; I love pushing my clients to go deeper than they’ve ever gone before.

And that’s not even the best part. The best part is what my clients go on and do with their lives as a result of the conversation we co-created and the alchemy that resulted.

Q: What inspires your work?

A: The very real prospect of someone achieving her wildest dreams is endlessly inspiring to me. Helping another person to unlock the one, often small distinction that will allow her to shift her perspective so that what once seemed impossible is now very much within her reach? That rocks my world.

The most exhilarating part of my work is located precisely in that moment when a client recognizes where and how she’s invested in a limited self-narrative (it usually reveals itself in the language she chooses when talking to and about herself)—and begins to shift her beliefs to serve her instead of limit her. Words are phenomenally powerful.

Helen McLaughlin, feather

Q: What does your creative process look like? For instance, maybe you have a certain ritual to kick-start your creating? Maybe you aim to write a certain number of words per day? Maybe you create best in the early morning or deep into the night?

A: My creative process looks like a bunch of experiments running simultaneously. I believe in free-roam curiosity and play as the antidote to perfection, and I make every effort to pursue everything that interests me without getting too attached to outcomes. I try always to focus on the process part of my creative process because it serves as a reminder that the best thing I can do for my creativity is to engage in the act of seeking, not striving.

I’ve forever wanted to be the kind of person who burns the midnight oil, totally consumed and tortured by a project, fueled by a vision, relentless beyond reason. It was certainly a fantasy of mine in college (though I’ve caught myself yearning for it at points in adulthood, too), but I’ve come to learn and accept that such an approach won’t ever benefit me or my creativity. I require rest and some semblance of a routine to stay healthy and tuned in and unstuck.

Speaking of which, I’ve found that wandering a bookstore is a foolproof way to limber up my creative awareness and curiosity on those days when I feel like the gears are grinding against each other. The same goes with walking a trail or giving myself an assignment to start a new collection (like feathers or orange buckets). The idea is to get out of my own way and moving. There’s something about removing myself from the scene of my stuck-ness that instantly lightens my energy and reminds me to take everything — especially myself — a whole lot less seriously.

Q: There are many culprits that can crush creativity, such as self-doubt and distractions (I’m looking at you, Instagram). What tends to stand in the way of your creativity?

A: Any kind of tunnel that causes me to consume more than I create is almost always trouble. So, yes, distractions (especially in the form of social media or aimless internetting) are a big one. Also, perfectionism will undoubtedly extinguish all embers of creativity before I’ve even built the fire!

Helen McLaughlin, shadow and leaf

Q: How do you overcome these obstacles?

A: I remind myself that I already have everything I need and that I don’t need to feel ready in order to be ready. In fact, ‘ready’ isn’t even a designated status that you or I will reach, no matter how long we wait or how much we prepare. The mindless scrolling and pinning doesn’t get me any closer to my goal because my goal is, and always has been, perfectly accessible to me. But fear will don all manner of disguises in order to protect me from failure; one of them is this fallacy about readiness.

As for overcoming perfectionism: I reframe the activity — regardless of what it is — as an experiment, a thing I’m playing with for a while for the sake of learning something, without expectations of achievement. Suddenly, my success lies in how open I am to learning from this practice, and it becomes much easier for me to dive in each day and merely add to my data by doing. Collecting data is such an unassuming activity that, without exception, it gives me the permission to try a new thing whether or not I’m any good at it.

Q: What are your go-to resources on creativity (e.g., books, websites, social media)?

A: I love to find doers, those women who create recklessly and prolifically and with visible joy. My list is always growing, but includes: Mandy StewardDonna HopkinsElise Blaha CripeAnn WoodElizabeth Rhondeau MorganEmily Gaines Demsky, and Katrina Rodabaugh.

I like to read their blog archives to see where our struggles might be, or have been, similar; who they were when they began their creative journeys; and how much they’ve grown by the simple act of showing up every day. I keep up with each of them on Instagram, too, for quick shots of daily inspiration.

Q: How do you suggest readers cultivate their creativity?

A: Try giving yourself a title that sets you free—say, life-explorer or imperfectionist—but that also requires you to plumb the depths of your curiosity through action. Your curiosity will always be an excellent indicator of where your creative opportunities live.

Keep a messy notebook and log everything you notice, whatever delights, all the bits and bobs you want to keep on your radar. Stay light in your heart and committed to activity over any specific result. Something will emerge. You’ll see.

Q: What’s one thing you really wish people knew about creativity?

A: Creativity is bigger than skills and abilities, infinitely more approachable than talent or prodigy, and a hell of a lot more fun when you allow yourself to access it by way of PLAY.

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Helen McLaughlin is a writer and coach, living the nomadic life. She helps smart, motivated life-explorers to leverage their curiosity, discover what exists for them beyond their default future, and achieve their Big Thing. When she’s not listening or asking questions, she’s writing about her travel, drinking cup after cup of milky tea, and exploring parts of the country she never thought she’d visit. For tips on becoming and staying curious, being an everyday adventurer, and navigating the world with more discovery and delight, subscribe to her weekly newsletter at weeklyfindings.com/subscribe.

Photos by Helen McLaughlin.