Fostering creativity in a time of uncertainty
The thing that can open the portal to creativity again is ritual.”Mark McGuinness, on The Creative Penn Podcast
Into the Unknown
When talking about the discovery part of the writing process, especially for something lengthy like a novel, many writers turn to fairy tales and the idea of wandering through a dense forest to explain writing into the unknown, into the dark.
You’ve followed your muse to somewhere foreign, scary, somewhere that might even feel dangerous. But you’re not truly lost. And you’ll find your way out again. You just need to discover whatever it was that was hidden in the trees in the first place.
In the podcast quoted above (which is wonderful, and you should listen to it!), Mark McGuinness says that, in many ways, creatives are uniquely positioned to do well during the Covid-19 pandemic because we have a higher tolerance for uncertainty.
I thought about that for a while. I loved the idea of it, but it felt really separate from my experience of the pandemic to that point.
Uncertainty vs Lack of Safety/Security
It’s been really difficult to create at this time. I know many people are feeling this.
For so long, writing has been my refuge. I needed to understand why I felt that was faltering, why I was having so much trouble going to the page to work out whatever was roiling deep inside.
Why couldn’t I do that now?
While drafting an email to my editor, I finally figured out what was going on beneath the surface. During this pandemic, I’ve been feeling a lack of security rather than a lack of certainty.
There’s a sense of danger for the people I care about, for myself. I read about young, healthy men in their 30s dying from coronavirus and worry about my husband. Both of my parents are over 60. My incredible grandparents are in their 80s. Both of my sisters have asthma. These lists, for each of us, go on and on. I know for many of you reading this that your loved ones, your friends and family, are in even more precarious positions than mine.
This lurking threat feels very different than the uncertainty of the creation process. It’s a lack of a foundation, a lack of security.
I’m trying to avoid using “insecure” as, for me at least, that term has too many resonances with self-consciousness, anxiety, and body image. And I don’t want to use unsafe because it is too extreme for my situation, and there are so many people who have been placed in greater peril because of the shelter in place orders and other shifts during this pandemic.
What I’ve truly been feeling is a lack of security. The low-level threat to myself and my loved ones, a grim reaper-type shadowy monster lurking, waiting, not fully understood. A foggy path stretching in front of me where landmarks I was counting on, my fellowship for the fall, for instance, may not weather the storm pulling at their roots.
When I sit down to create, these undercurrents of unsecurity tug at me. This unsteadiness upends the already unmoored surrender needed for writing, or whatever form of creation you prefer.
I’ve heard so many authors remarking that they can’t access the deeper creativity they need for writing their fiction. They can write an essay, but they can’t move forward with their novel. I think this is another aspect of that same feeling, that we can’t access the subconscious places we used to be able to reliably plumb.
Power in a Name
My husband and I are preparing to start a new Dungeons and Dragons campaign, Descent into Avernus, one that takes place in part in hell, where one gains greater power over a fiend by knowing their true name, like a society of Rumpelstiltskins.
For me, recognizing and naming what’s going on internally gives me greater control over that emotion. Like Brené Brown says about shame, it loses its might when we name it, when we speak it and acknowledge it. It can’t exist in the light.
My creative week after recognizing the contrast between unsecurity and uncertainty has been so much healthier. It’s not perfect. The words still come more slowly than they perhaps used to. But they arrive.
Leaning into Ritual
Part of this success, for me, has been following Mark’s advice to lean into ritual.
One of the things he says in the interview is that you may need to give yourself longer, but that’s alright. If you really want to create that day, lower your expectations from “before,” and give yourself time to get into a creative headspace through ritual.
Maybe you light a special candle, or there’s a soundtrack that gets your brain in creation mode. Perhaps there’s a special place in your home that you can carve out just for creating.
If you had a ritual for creating before the pandemic, it may need to be tweaked, or you may need an entirely new at-home ritual. But for those without a ritual practice, or those looking for a new one, I wanted to share my new ritual process below in hopes that it will help to inspire you as you develop one of your own.
On good days, my morning starts with journaling and coffee. These two things eventually happen regardless, but my most productive, happiest days begin in this way.
But fast-forward to after breakfast, a few months ago, I would have just gone upstairs, sat in front of my computer, and started writing. And that was the part of my process I’ve had to revise.
I designated one of my journals as a special writing process journal and stationed it beside my desk. Then, I lit my Library Scriptorium candle from Cantrip Candles. I journaled about some of my concerns for the writing session, what I wanted to be able to write about.
The ideas started to move, so I jotted them down until I was ready to put words to virtual page. I kept the notebook nearby for if I got stuck mid-session or needed to save a future story idea for my future self.
That probably sounds pretty simple, but mixing up my process and adding in extra analog steps helped me so much. I didn’t feel the temptation to click away from my manuscript when I ran into difficulty. And I kept the distinction between uncertainty and un-security in mind so I could identify when I was slipping into this darker mental space.
Some creators have a prayer to the muse that they recite to help them get into a creative headspace. Maybe there’s a poem you find really inspiring that you can keep near your workspace to help you.
It seems strange to suggest adopting a ritual and not being afraid of adapting a ritual in the same breath, but leaning into ritual, from wherever you were standing before, can help you sustain your creative soul during this time of increased uncertainty, and, at times, un-security.
Share with me!
I’d love to know, in the comments below, what strategies you’ve employed during this time to help maintain your creative output!
I wish you all the best, and stay safe!
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