The Creative Process: On Discipline, and Dreaming

January 25, 2018

January. It’s a mostly disciplined month—I’ve been focusing on the, shall we say, less artistic components of my business. Creating systems, organizing all things financial, and fostering creative habits. I’m trying, also, to minimize distractions, and be pretty merciless about cutting out anything that deters me from producing my best work. I love the energy of creating an intelligent, structured day—I believe that success is a string of such days. I have to believe that discipline is the way to freedom, to a beautiful business, to a rich and full life. Routine isn’t just a resolution or a January thing; for me, it’s the thing of life. But even as I give myself to discipline and structure, I know that enhanced creativity is the end. More room, more space, and a clear mind to create. I know that, when I do anything financial or practical, I am really serving my creativity– taking my mind off of any source of stress or structural problem, giving myself more resources and better ways to be creative. I am fascinated by the endless ways in which discipline and structure serves my creative process and artistic path.

My whole life, I’ve been training for something, and I still love to keep that quality of intensity to my daily life. I attach almost religious importance to my morning routine, to a workout that’s equal parts vigor and grace. I have to sweat profusely each and every day, to remind myself that I am alive and vibrant. Also, to create momentum. Beginning each day with movement, I remind myself that this is the way through creative paralysis. If I want to write, or create a new styled project, I must move through it. I must carve out the time for it and treat it like a skill. And mostly, I love the process– I love being in the the midst of a creative problem or flow. I would rather struggle with my creativity than anything.

I try to make it very clear and simple: if I want writing in my life, I must sit down and write. If I want to grow in my floral design work, I must dedicate time to design, research new floral varieties, and internalize new concepts. If I want to fill my mind with beautiful ideas, I must set aside concentrated time to read and consume art. Being creative, I fervently believe, is a job, a skill set, a muscle I need to exercise every day. Is creativity at times intangible, sublime, artistic, otherworldly? Yes. But the intangible spark of inspiration meets the artist who has shown up to do her work. As a favorite quote of mine goes, “grace arrives to inhabit the floors we keep swept and clear.” (I never know who to assign the quote to, but if memory serves, it was excerpted from a Kinfolk essay. How’s that for a throwback.)

I’m sensitive, a dreamer, an empath. But I am, in the way I work, becoming more and more of a realist. I don’t romanticize the artistic process—I pursue it. I train for it. I like that, the older I get, the more I really attack things. I try not to let new projects– beginnings and blank canvases—immobilize me. I remind myself of how many times I have stared at blank white nothingness: a blank page, for instance, or an ice rink every morning. And I know how much better I felt after I simply began. Soon the ice rink would be filled with markings and signs of my work: my muscles would be warm and I would be ready to dance, to express. Likewise, if I only sat down to write, soon the page would have words and my essay or story would be set in motion, even if it was still rough. The only thing that assuages my restlessness is the act of creating and working. Only action can break the seal of hesitation and self-doubt. The only thing that eases the burden of creativity, is giving into the creative process. The laws of momentum are really real.

The thing about showing up to do the work, however, is that inspiration begins to come a lot more frequently, even urgently. You have to be at the ready: to accept inspiration and do something with it. You’ve been entrusted with it; you are inspiration’s steward. I find that there is a profound connection between increased effort & intensified dreaming. When I just begin the effort of creative work, when my mind or muscles are firing, that’s when I’m able to innovate.

So, this January, I am working hard—for what? Artistic growth, a thriving business, a quality of life. But as I do, dreams rise up in me, unbidden. I dream of new places, and the native flowers and branches I could forage and glean. I dream of designing something new, electrifying. I am seized by creative concepts and ideas for styled shoots that I don’t know what to do with. Who could I work with, and how could I make these ideas a reality? I dream of performing again, in some capacity. But how? I don’t see options in front of me. I want to love and be loved. I want more unshakeable faith. I wonder how far I will have to travel, how much I will have to risk, to fulfill what needs fulfilling, in me. Even as I discipline myself, I cannot keep my dreaming at bay.

Sometimes I wonder if the dreams are really even the point, or if the daily work and willingness is. Maybe it’s not so much how we succeed, but that we are, first and foremost, dutiful and willing. Maybe it isn’t about opportunities and self-fulfillment. I remind myself that all faith, everything of God, is about dying to self, and giving, loving, and living for others. I know that faith changes everything; that we are to go where His Spirit and our prayers lead and convict us. Where others may have need of us. Still, what are dreams for? Are we even given a dream that we don’t have the power—even the need—to fulfill?

Maybe daily work is enough, and is itself a form of daily devotion. We were made, after all, to be used. This is why we have bodies, and minds, talents, opportunities, and resources. To be of use and to give something back to the hand of life. Back to others, who need our service, our products, our voices, our messages, our stories. Back to God, who deserves to be glorified: for He has given us the very time and ability to work: it is all a gift, and our work is our way of giving thanks.

This concept—that our work belongs to something bigger— gives us greater purpose, something that transcends self-fulfillment. Ann Voskamp, whose work I love, writes something to the effect that, if our times, talents, and resources are only tied to ourselves, we will end up alone. If, on the other hand, we tie our time, talents, resources, and personalities to others, our life becomes part of a greater tapestry. Our work becomes a form of service, ministry, and practical help. Our lives become full. This gives me pause. I think of how many hours a day I spend in relentless self-improvement. Am I missing the point entirely?

I do know this: I get pleasure from work, because I was made for work. When you’re giving God and life what is asked of you, it feels good. I get particular pleasure from artistic work, physical movement, beauty, and nature, because I was given an inherent love for these things—the receptors for them exist in me. To deny this would leave me miserable, and unproductive. If I did not actually practice and pursue these art forms, I would not really be myself.

But I think that sacrificing time, being generous, and serving others is perhaps less inherent. It’s soul work. It’s what we’re called for, but I struggle with it. I struggle to find the balance between the intensity of building something, and the necessity of sharing time with others. I know that we were called to this earth to do more than make a name for ourselves. We were called instead to make a difference, and I think we have to be open to that in the mundane, thankless, unseen hours of our ordinary days. Making a difference isn’t necessarily grand and important. It very frequently means thankless service, small acts of kindness, and daily, unseen sacrifice. It, also, is a daily practice. The irony is that the more I really focus, the harder I work, the more I realize that work is not enough. It has to be tied to something else.

And what, then, of dreaming? Is dreaming inherently selfish? Is it self-indulgent? Dreaming is a definite hallmark of freedom (As in Ps. 126– “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream.”). Only those with remarkable freedoms, privileges, and health could have the incredible luxury of having a dream. But it’s more than that—dreaming is what free souls do.  I do feel that we are given dreams when are set free from things—entanglements, distractions. When we aren’t in bondage to anything, when we are living honestly and well, our original dreams return to us. It’s when we’re cluttered by anxiety, distractions, addictions, and yes, sin, that we lose the ability to dream. When we’re wed to the things that were never meant for us, how can we fulfill the work that was meant for us? How can we fulfill our innermost longings when we are living far from God, and far from our purpose?

I speak from experience– I have given my life to things that, had I thought about it, I never would have given it to. And at no point in any of this was I dreaming. At no point was I chasing a better, purer life; a godly plan; the original dreams of my youth.

So I have to believe that dreams are the byproduct of both work and faith. When we can be entrusted with a little, we can then be entrusted with more. When we prove ourselves diligent, we can begin to dream. I really do think there’s a connection—between offering oneself up in all work and diligence—and being given the dream of something more. We see the light as we work and inch ourselves closer to it.

I want to know what it means to offer myself up as a vessel, to allow God to accomplish His plan and His purpose through my willing life.  I want to know what it means to love God with my whole life, so that every effort flows from loving Him. I know I won’t ever get to the point where I arrive. But I want to be closer than I have been.

Discipline is pretty innate, for me, and I don’t like to read books or listen to talks that proselytize about discipline. Discipline and structure gives days and lives a satisfying shape. But I believe that discipline exists in large part to get us nearer to the dream. Discipline without dreaming is not only joyless and ascetic, but ultimately unproductive. So I thank God that the vision, the longing, the dreams are magnified through work and willingness.

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
-Marge Piercy, “To be of use”












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