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neurodivergence, the creative process

A Ten-Step Creative Process That Absolutely Works

Today in my Quora inbox:

What sort of approach or strategy do you most often use in your creative work as a writer, from the very early beginning stages and onwards?

I found this question baffling at first. Asking about “process” seems antithetical to creation itself. I don’t have a process! I channel the inspiration of the gods themselves!

Except I do, of course, have a process. All creatives do.

I can’t guarantee my process will work for anybody else. (Notice that the headline doesn’t say who “a ten-step creative process that absolutely works” works for.) I frequently disappoint aspiring creatives by regaling them with a discussion of my methods, only for them to list 5,000 ways those methods won’t work for them.

So your mileage may vary. Please consult the manual before driving. Do not feed this advice to babies or small children.

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Phase the Early: Ideas

Perhaps the most queried-after item in the whole “creativity” topic. Where do you get your ideas? How can I have more ideas? 

Step One: GET BORED.

Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from.

I took up running on the elliptical in order to get bored. I put a stationary bike in my basement so I can get bored. I’ll put my phone out in my car in 0F weather to force myself to get bored. I show up to dentist appointments an hour early to get bored.

It only takes a few minutes of boredom for my brain to start making up the most bizarre nonsense in order to alleviate its own boredom.

Step Two: MACBETH HATH MURDERED JUDGMENT.

All ideas at this stage are worth entertaining. No matter how truly terrible they are. In fact, the worst ideas are the most worth entertaining.

Last summer, I took several dance classes at the Music for All Summer Symposium with Vincent Thomas, who teaches at Towson University. We started every session with four agreements, the first of which was “To be full of my own value and free of judgment.”

Step Two is my “full of my own value and free of judgment” stage. If an idea comes up, I’ll play with it. The kookier the better.

Phase the Middle: Not-Terrible Ideas

The transition from the early to middle stage occurs when a single idea recurs enough times that I realize I’ve been thinking about it more than once. It doesn’t want to let go.

And since it won’t let go, it gets to move on to Step 3.

Step 3: JOT IT DOWN.

If an idea won’t go away, I write it down.

Writing it down tricks the idea into thinking I’m actually going to do something with it. The vast majority of ideas fall for this scam. They then get shoved into a closet, where I look at them once every 20 years.

The most persistent ideas, however, are too smart to fall for it. They keep coming back even after I’ve written them down. These ideas get to move on to Step 4.

Step 4: A LITTLE JUDGMENT IS OKAY.

I say “judgment,” but I mean “discernment.” This is where I start thinking about how the idea would work in practice.

What would the end result look like? What are the practical steps required for me to make it work? Is it worth the time and effort required?

Some ideas aren’t worth what I’d invest to do them. For instance, I have a long-pestering idea for some bathroom wall art made from repurposed pages of Moby-Dick (to do with my kraken shower curtain). But learning the skill to execute what’s in my head will take time and effort I’d rather spend on other things, like getting these novels out of my head.

Phase the Late: Making Art

If an idea survives steps 3 and 4, it gets one free ticket into the late stage.

Step 5: RESEARCH.

Step 4 is about whether the idea is feasible for me, personally and individually, to execute. Step 5 is about whether the idea is feasible within a broader social and economic context.

Is there a realistic marketable version of this idea, and if so, what does it look like? Is there some related topic or idea out there that is way cooler and more interesting? Are there 500 other artworks on this idea (hint: Yes! Always!), and what do they look/sound/feel like?

Step 5 is Wikipedia rabbit hole o’clock. I cram related creative works until I just can’t hold any more.

Step 6: OUTLINING/SKETCHING/NOODLING AROUND.

Now that I know WAY TOO MUCH ABOUT EVERYTHING related to this idea, what will my iteration look like for reals?

This is where I generate a bunch of really terrible proto-versions of the idea. Once again, judgment is locked out of the room. Quantity, not quality, is the goal here. 15 different marching band show ideas on the theme of “Angels”? 20 sketches of the same sleeping cat? Hell yeah, you can never have too many of those.

Step 7: REFINEMENT.

Write, draw, dance, polish, edit, repeat, repeat, repeat, whatever.

Blood is sweated, sweat is cried, tears are bled.

I become convinced that creating art in the first place was the worst idea I have ever had. Seriously, why can’t I just be a nice, boring insurance adjuster? O Muse, why dost Thou torment me so??!?!

This is the phase in which I start to question why I haven’t taken up a less self-destructive habit. Like skydiving. Or smoking opium.

Step 8. TENTATIVE PRESENTATION.

After blood, sweat, tears, and not nearly enough day drinking, a draft is born! And like someone who has just given birth, I’d be more excited if I wasn’t utterly exhausted.

I show the draft to people who love me, who love the art, and who have zero fear about telling me exactly how much the work sucks. They tell me exactly how much and in what ways the work sucks. I can’t believe I’m friends with these people.

I get spiteful: Oh yeah, well, I’ll show YOU whose book needs to explore its themes in more depth! I tear into revision with a vengeance, and I question why I ever thought I’d ever do anything else with my life except creating art.

Step 9: ABANDONMENT.

As they say: A creative work is never finished, only abandoned.

Eventually, I kick the piece out to its final destination – my publisher, a marching band director, my bathroom wall, whatever. I promptly forget it exists. Months later, when I get an email informing me that my short story was accepted or that some band director wants to give me cash moneys for making their 150-piece ensemble imitate starfish, I wonder how the heck it got addressed to me.

I’m not into short stories or starfish dancing anymore, see. I’m onto something new.

Step 10: REBOOT.

I find the most mindless activity I can (Sims, anyone?) and do it until I start to get bored. Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from….


Feed the beast: buy me a coffee or share this post on social media.

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commentary and current events, the creative process

Let’s Talk KonMari #5: ‘My Battery Is Low and It’s Getting Dark’

(Part 5 of a series on KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: ClothingBooksPapers, Komono, Storage & Cleaning.)

The recent death of the Mars rover Opportunity seems like a particularly fortuitous time to talk about our attachment to material objects.

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How and Why We Love Things

Humans develop emotional attachments to material objects. We start young; according to Christian Jarrett, humans as young as two understand the concept of “mine.” Three to six year olds already connect with “my” stuffed animal in a way that they do not with an exact copy of that stuffed animal – and they even express horror at the thought that they might receive the copy rather than the original.

I’ll Love You Forever

This early attachment to things travels with us throughout our lives, as well. For instance, as a young child, my high school boyfriend had a doll called Marvin. He loved Marvin. Marvin was his constant companion, and after a few years, Marvin started showing the wear and tear you’d expect a soft toy to suffer from accompanying a young boy on his every adventure.

So my boyfriend’s mom sent Marvin to the doctor, promising “he’ll be home for Christmas.” On Christmas morning, Marvin reappeared under the tree, shiny and clean.

It wasn’t until my boyfriend was seventeen that his mother revealed the twist: the Marvin who reappeared on Christmas day wasn’t the original Marvin. He was a new Marvin, gifted from a family friend whose own toddler had been terrified of the toy.

My boyfriend’s mother was proud of having pulled this switcharoo, but my boyfriend was crushed. For days. And he hadn’t played with Marvin for about fifteen years at that point. In fact, I’m not sure Marvin was even in the house anymore.

Why My Marvin?

Some of this is the result of the “endowment effect,” in which we place more value on things we perceive as “ours.” But that value is multifaceted, and it doesn’t merely have to do with financial value. It’s also value created by the perception that the object is an extension of the self.

The fact that we tend to anthropomorphize our things adds to our sense of value, relationship and identity. The manufacturers of the Roomba, for instance, report that when their Roomba breaks down, many owners request that the company fix the device and send it back. They don’t want a new Roomba – they want their Roomba.

Seeing objects as a type of person means that we can extend our emotional bubble to include them even when they aren’t perceived as “ours.” As Dan Broadbent notes, one of the things that made it so easy to cry for Opportunity was that NASA anthropomorphizes spacecraft for us. We can follow craft like Curiosity on Twitter like they’re real people – and many of us have since the moment these spacecraft started tweeting.

“Why didn’t NASA try to revive Opportunity?” was a refrain I saw online several times after the news that the rover had gone dark. The answer, of course, is that they did. They tried for eight months and 1,000 unanswered wake-up messages. And when they accepted that Opportunity wasn’t ever going to answer again, they said goodbye by playing her a love song.

And thousands of us cried, because even though she’s a 400-pound hunk of steel and tech on another planet, we think of Opportunity as a being, not a tool.

If a Mars rover provokes emotions that intense, imagine trying to discard long-held personal items in your own home.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

Marie Kondo recommends leaving the “sentimental items” category for last, on the theory that once we start sorting these items, we’ll be sufficiently sensitive to joy to make it easier to go through them.

Specifically, I think, we get more sensitive to the difference between an object that sparks joy here and now, in the present, as a thing that exists in our lives, and an object that evokes memories that spark joy but that doesn’t itself, in the present, spark joy.

Discerning the difference is essential to discarding objects, and it reaches its peak in dealing with sentimental objects.

I, for instance, have always found myself particularly susceptible to the endowment effect. For me, every object becomes sentimental if I’ve owned it long enough. Objects I don’t even own become sentimental if I see them as part of my daily life long enough. “Long enough” has a life of its own; it can be anywhere from several years to a matter of minutes, depending on how intensely the objects sparked joy when I first encountered it. (I’ve developed an endowment-effect attachment to items I found in stores before I even reached the register.)

On top of that, I’ve also spent large parts of my life using objects not only to mediate my identity, but to reshape it – and, by doing so, to reshape my personal history.

When the Past Sucks

Some people deal with shitty pasts by getting rid of everything that reminds them of those times. I dealt with mine by constantly trying to rearrange its artifacts.

I’ve been obsessed with photo albums and scrapbooking since I was a child. I regularly kept boxes upon boxes of photos, ticket stubs, report cards, newspaper clippings, stickers, candy wrappers, flyers, greeting cards, luggage tags, you name it. And I have spent hundreds of hours of my life arranging and rearranging these things in scrapbooks, pulling them out, starting over, never satisfied with what I had created and never able to keep up with the pile of things intended to go into those books.

Until I KonMari’ed that pile, however, I didn’t understand why I scrapbooked so intensely. I’ve never been interested in “scrapbooking” the popular hobby: I don’t ever volunteer to do scrapbooks for groups or teams I’m part of, I’m not interested in seeing other people’s scrapbooks, and and scrapbooking supply stores just make me feel tired.

My relationship to my scrapbooks was a deeply private obsession. It was a way to reorganize my past, to give myself the non-abusive childhood I have always so desperately wanted to have. If I could rearrange all these old little bits of paper just right, I would retroactively become the person that my survival had depended on my pretending to be.

This obsession got particularly bad when it came to photographs. I hoarded old photographs like a dragon hoards gold. I spent hours looking at them, trying to rewrite my own memories, trying to convince myself that I saw happiness in those photos and that that Kodak moment was what had really taken place.

…This kind of constant mental editing is exhausting, not to mention an Olympian feat of self-gaslighting.

When I threw those photos out, however, I cried. I cried because I had had to give up one of the most enduring projects of my life: my attempt to rewrite history, and thus to re-form myself, based on nothing more than sheer will.

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(Pictured: Two once-full photo albums and a box of photos.)

For the Record….

…I can’t tell you whether going through your sentimental objects will provoke a similar reaction. Mine comes from a nightmarish childhood; it’s the unearthing of a lot of outdated ways of attempting to salvage some part of myself in the face of a world that did its level best to turn me into someone else.

Mine is also another step on a years-long journey through therapy. These aren’t realizations I could have had a year ago, and I’ve been working on my closet full of demons a lot longer than that. We have the realizations about ourselves that we’re ready to have.

Post-tidying, my sentimental stuff is under much better control. I still have a scrapbook of sorts:

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It’s organized chronologically, and it’s a combination of various awards, childhood artwork, letters from loved ones that were particularly meaningful, and so on. It also contains the photos that aren’t going on our walls.

I also sorted through my box of non-flat childhood keepsake items:

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This one was particularly interesting because I had managed to stuff that box with items that I kept not because they sparked joy, but because the anxiety associated with getting rid of them was so high I couldn’t mediate it. And the anxiety items – all of them – were things family members had given me as a way of keeping me attached to our shared heritage of generational toxicity.

In Spark Joy, Kondo says that if you’re having trouble saying goodbye to an object even though you know it doesn’t spark joy, try tossing a few handfuls of salt into the bag to settle the spirits.

I’m not a practitioner of Shinto by any means, and I’m not even particularly religious, but whipping a few handfuls of kosher salt into the trash bags in this photo worked. I was able to carry them to the bin with a sense of peace I haven’t experienced…well, ever.

I don’t know if it settles any other kind of spirit, but it sure settled mine.

I also added a feature to my writing space of which I am particularly proud:

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Stuffed animals are perhaps the biggest victory of my childhood. My mother was constantly deciding by fiat when I had “outgrown” them and trying to dispose of them accordingly, and I was constantly rescuing them and buying new ones. That Popple is the result of the only fight of my childhood that I won.

For years, as an adult, I stored my stuffed animals in a plastic bin in the basement, believing that the person I was supposed to be wasn’t supposed to have them but too in love with them to simply throw them out.

On Kondo’s advice, they now live on this shelf, which is right next to my desk. I can look up and see them there, cheering me on, whenever I’m writing.

(The mother who fought me about owning stuffed animals, by the way, is the same woman who rescued her beloved stuffed animal Tigger from the trash on a half-dozen occasions when her own mother tried to unilaterally dispose of him. I think this is what they mean when they say you can either learn from the mistakes of the past or repeat them.)

Next time: Storage and Cleaning.

 

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commentary and current events, the creative process

Let’s Talk KonMari #4: Small Potatoes

(Part 4 of a series on KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: ClothingBooks, Papers, Sentimental Objects, Storage and Cleaning.)

After clothing, books and papers, Marie Kondo recommends tackling the “komono” (小物).

The name means “little things” and repeatedly gets translated as “miscellany” for KonMari purposes, but the category itself is huge. It’s pretty much every item in your house that isn’t clothing, books or paperwork and that exists there for practical (as opposed to sentimental) reasons.

For this reason, komono is often the category people get stuck on the most, as in this Reddit thread. That’s if they don’t throw out the KonMari method altogether on the theory that “everything else” shouldn’t be a damn tidying category in the first place.

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A Big Pile of Small Potatoes

I’ve never had the honor of being invited into a Japanese home, so I can’t begin to speak for how they’re organized or what they contain. In the US, however, komono is by far the largest category in the house.

It’s even larger when the house’s residents aren’t fashionistas or bookworms. A Scholastic study estimated that 61 percent of low-income US families have zero books in the house. Zero.

Scholastic, of course, is concerned about the effect of a bookless home on children’s early language and literacy development. In the KonMari context, it’s more likely to inflate the amount of komono to be sorted through. Books take up space, and they occupy our time. A house with no books is likely to have something else in that space that takes up its occupants’ time.

Does Your Spatula Spark Joy?

Komono is overwhelmingly stuff we keep for practical purposes. It’s not personally chosen as an expression of identity (clothes), as a means to shape our identity (books), because we have adult obligations to others (papers), or because we have feelings (sentimental objects). It’s there to do the heavy lifting of keeping us alive.

As such, it poses two challenges that most of the other KonMari categories do not. First, it’s hard to imagine a lot of these things sparking joy. Second, because we view them as workhorses, we don’t see the ways in which these objects mediate our identities, particularly our class identities.

“Praise it to the Hilt”

Some of the earliest KonMari-related jokes I saw on social media had to do with tossing out our washing machines or vacuum cleaners because they don’t “spark joy.” It’s tough to see a roll of paper towels warming our hearts, especially when we think about it in the abstract.

In Spark Joy, Kondo writes, “If you come across komono that don’t particularly spark joy, try praising them to the hilt.”

Praising our material possessions, like thanking them, is a huge sticking point for Westerners who criticize Kondo’s methods – and it’s also why many commenters, like Jessica Roy in the LA Times, have pointed out the racial element of this criticism.

Kondo recommends thanks and praise because the KonMari method embraces animism as a given. The Shinto concept of everything, even individual grains of rice, having a god/soul/divine essence (I really have no idea which, whether or how to translate “kami” here) is a natural underpinning of Kondo’s approach.

It’s also, to most of us in the US, very, very weird.

Shinto isn’t the only world religion to embrace the concept of material objects sharing in the divine essence. A Muslim teaching explains that every inanimate “thing” in the world, down to individual blades of grass or grains of sand, is constantly engaged in praising its Creator. Psalm 150:6 says “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” with the definition of “breath” capacious enough to encompass ideas like spirit, soul, or the imprint of Divine creation as well as literal respiration.

For US material culture, however, the idea that individual objects might have personalities, spirits, or some other “being”ness we might recognize or respect is an affront to the ways we perform class success.

Who Is the Master Here?

Class status is frequently measured through performances of commanding and controlling others, and in the middle class, performances of status are most often performed through material objects. This is the driver behind our parents’ “keeping up with the Joneses” and our participation in both acquiring objects and divesting ourselves from them as a form of virtue signaling.

One of the ways to define class status in the US is by examining a person’s relationship to and use of stuff. The middle class embraces stuff both as a way to exercise the command and control that are usually exercised upon them by the capitalist class and as a way to signal their relative “middleness.”

I’ve certainly played this game in the past. In college I owned a knockoff Gucci clutch that I damn well knew was a knockoff, but I still preened when other people didn’t. Personal possessions I don’t even like, such as the bottle of Chanel no. 5 I inherited from my grandmother, have nevertheless held places of reverence among my personal things for years. They’re symbols of Status, of the better (and richer) me I longed to be.

The middle class even uses material things to moralize themselves into a position “above” the poor, kvetching about “poor people” who own iPhones or who drive dependable cars. Using material goods to signify status is a luxury the middle class believes should be reserved for the middle class.

“If I were poor, I would eat lentils,” say middle-classers, conveniently dodging the question “Okay, but if lentils would make you richer, why don’t you eat them now?”

The upper classes don’t need to play this game, and when they do, it is a dead giveaway of a failure to shed middle-class sensibilities despite an increase in material wealth. Donald Trump is the classic example: the poor (or middle-class) person’s conception of how a rich person should live, with gilded apartments, ketchupy steak and excessive golfing.

In fact, there’s only a certain amount of money one can spend on material comforts before all of one’s needs are luxuriously met. When money is invested in material displays beyond this point, it ends up being spent on things that are superfluous by any standard, like a tenth yacht.

This is why minimalism has become a method of signaling higher class status, rather than lower. “Minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice, and its telling that its fan base is clusetered in the well-off middle class,” says Stephanie Land in a 2016 NYT Opinion piece. “For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.”

Thanking the Help

Because the middle class allays its class anxiety (and the middles have more than everyone else combined) via material things, and because that allaying has much to do with exercising the command and control that are otherwise exercised against the middles, the class that constitutes the vast majority of KonMari consumers is also the class least interested in hearing that we are interdependent with our things.

Being middle class is about having “earned” the luxury of commanding our things: of buying things “just because,” of discarding things without a thought, of spending a premium for “designer” or “gourmet” options. Interdependence with things – the state of needing practical objects for practical purposes – is seen as lower-class. You need lentils; you earn steak.

So when Marie Kondo rolls in and suggests that our things might have feelings about how we treat them, we respond with all the indignation of Ebenezer Scrooge recommending that the poor die “and decrease the surplus population.” How dare you suggest that my purse or shoes deserve some consideration for their hard work? They’re here to serve me! That’s what I pay (for) them for!

This is, of course, exactly the attitude of the shareholder class toward the laboring class, and nobody in the latter group likes it when this attitude is directed at them – so we, in turn, take it out on our material possessions.

Kondo’s animism suggests an alternative path, in which we learn to cooperate with the material objects that share our living space rather than to command or control them. It’s a much kinder approach, and it’s also one that smacks of collectivism. Suspicious stuff for the country that claimed materialism won the Cold War.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

One of the weirdest upper-middle virtue-signaling experiences I’ve had in social media groups about KonMari is meeting the subculture of people who are using the method to one-up Sharon from down the block.

It’s the subculture that’s on full display if you search for “KonMari” on Pinterest. In between the infographics about how to go through all your crap are endless photos of perfectly-appointed drawers, kitchens and children’s rooms.

I’ve even encountered people who seem to think “spark joy” is synonymous with “shop like you’re as rich as you think you are.” One story, which I heard secondhand, involved an acquaintance and a friend of hers who stopped by one day while my acquaintance was canning fruit. My acquaintance mentioned proudly that she’d inherited all her canning jars from her mother and grandmother.

The friend’s response to this was scorn: “I threw all mine away and bought new, since I discovered Marie Kondo.”

I’m less interested in the decision to buy new than I am in the scorn itself. Having sorted 90 percent of what we own, I now know that my reaction to someone telling me they’d kept their heirloom canning jars would have been to assume that the heirloom jars made them happy, possibly in a way that new jars never would.

Their happiness isn’t my happiness, but that doesn’t make their happiness any less valid than mine. I suspect that anyone who missed this message also missed the point of the KonMari method.

I also don’t expect that anything that spark joy for me will automatically spark joy for anyone else. For example:

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Most of these are vintage ornaments from the 1940s or thereabouts. I got them from my stepmother, who got rid of them because all they sparked for her was annoyance.

I love them. My only regret is that they’re showing 80 years’ worth of wear, because if I had my way, I’d keep them in their original state forever. I am thrilled to have these in our Christmas decorations, even though I know there are untold numbers of people who look at them and see nothing but junk.

The ornaments aren’t the only thing in the house that would get me a raised eyebrow from anyone for whom household decor is a means of one-upping the neighbors. But the beauty of having done this process is that I don’t care.

People who walk into my house are going to see me. They’re going to see a space full of stuff that brings me joy. If they love me, it’ll spark joy for them too; if not, they are cordially invited to keep on steppin’.

Next time: Sentimental Objects.

 

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