Cycle 1.2: Building a Creative Practice–Not for Wimps

Capricorn heart weblog

Capricorn Heart: The Goat = perseverence, photo by Janet Riehl

Column by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow

Last month we discussed what creativity is and isn’t. [1.1 “What Is Creativity, Anyway?“] It isn’t flirting with whimsical ideas or attending a weekend workshop. It is doing the hard work of tapping into and harvesting our own raw life source. It requires establishing a sustained creative practice. I sometimes write it as an equation: Connection to Source + Sustained Work = Creative Practice.

What does a creative practice look like? How do we go about establishing one? In other words, what are good work habits, and how can we develop them?

A writing practice goes beyond journaling. Julie Cameron made writing morning pages popular, and they’re a creative vehicle for many writers. A sustained creative practice, however, takes it farther. As a Buddhist might put it, morning pages are the finger pointing at the moon, rather than the moon itself. In a regular creative practice, you’re designing, building, and working toward a goal—the moon. You are writing with a purpose, not writing randomly and hoping for the best.

You and your muse. Don’t wait for inspiration to come to you. What if the Muse shows up and you’re not there? She can’t meet up with you
if she doesn’t know where you are. Setting a regular time and place is your

Time and Timing. Decide how much time it’s reasonable for you to write each day. What time of day is best? Factor in your biorhythms and your personal schedule. Maybe you’ll write your “morning” pages at midnight after the kids are in bed. When my father worked as a manual laborer, he wrote in the company locker room on days when they couldn’t work outside. Make choices you’re reasonably sure you can maintain.

A cheap date. Decide on a place to write. Some folks prefer public places with lots happening, like Natalie Goldberg who famously writes in cafes. Others work better in quiet surroundings without much outside stimulation. Don’t feel like you have to take the Muse out anywhere special—inviting her for a cup of tea in the living room is enough. When you’re starting out, keep the place you choose as constant as possible.

Ink it in. Make an appointment. Write the time and place on your calendar—in pen, not pencil. You wouldn’t stand up friend, so don’t stand up your muse. If you can’t make the appointment, don’t beat yourself up; simply reschedule.

Pumping iron. Start slow and work up to longer practice periods. You’ll be able to write longer and more productively the longer you work at it. Focus on developing consistency and perseverance—the power lifting of a creative practice. Relying on inspiration alone is for weaklings.

There’s an apocryphal story of a man who could lift a horse unaided. Asked how he did it, he said that as a boy he picked up a newly born foal every day and continued the exercise as he and the horse grew up. Finally, as a young man, he had the strength to pick up the horse without breaking a sweat. You can do the same in your creative practice.

Our January Creative Catalyst blog (1.3) will be about tapping into our creative source, using an exercise to get started. In the meantime, work on establishing a solid creative practice: Set a time; set a place; and P-U-M-P that creative iron.

I’ll be fielding questions about practical creativity—the one that emerges over time through practice. You can pose your questions via comments on this post, or directly to me, via email. You’ll find my contact email at



8 responses to “Cycle 1.2: Building a Creative Practice–Not for Wimps

  1. I believe that having regular session to do creative work is essential, but it may not be practical to have this occur every day, especially with a full time job, family, etc. I used to feel I was “failing” because I couldn´t write daily. I find it´s important to also honor the fallow periods because something usually is waiting like a seed in the ground during winter. Do the hard work of sitting down with your muse, but don´t dispair if you can´t. Know that you´ll find her again when time is right.

  2. Alethea,
    I also agree with your point of view. Sometimes we just need to cut ourselves some slack. What I’ve learned is this:
    –When I was working on my poetry book “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” I was taking care of my mother, who was quite frail. I took notes during the day and then in the morning wrote from the time I woke up until the time my father and mother woke and needed my help. Amazingly, a book grew out of these short spurts of effort.
    I also know:
    –For a long while after that I had no on-going longterm project. I stopped even journaling. Yet–I did write everyday in the form of regular posting on and copious email correspondence. Now that I am back to work on a book-length memoir project “Finding My African Heart: A Village of Stories” (working title) that all that informal writing then benefits my writing now.
    In whatever form it takes, writing practice counts. That was certainly a fallow period, and as we know, the incubation period is an important part of the creative cycle.
    I also know from writing with you and reading your book “Hungry” that when you need it, you have discipline and the skills of your craft to draw upon.
    This post is meant as a counter weight to those who have bought the position that creativity is all about play, fun, and inspiration. I’m wanting to present the view that practice, work on a regular basis, is serious fun…and one that we can put in the bank of building our craft.
    For instance, I’m taking my computer with me to Ghana and I expect I’ll write a bit or somedays a lot on my memoir while I’m there.
    But, as you suggest, I also know that on days when I have a full schedule of visiting and exploration planned, and cannot write in the morning, my best time, that I’ll give myself a pass until the next day comes, and I’ll try again.
    I truly believe that if we are pregnant with a project and serious about carrying it to term that this will happen if we allow it continual development in small increments…and realize that inspiration and native talent will get us part of the way, but is in no way the whole story.
    In part this view is shaped by my time as a musician throughout my childhood, with regular practice times and chores built in to our life in the country…and my parents’ example of integrating their creative lives, quite naturally, into practical lives filled with work of survival for their own and the extended family.
    What I most want to promote is the feeling that although our creative gifts and lives are to be cherished and thankful for, they are not be be set apart as “precious” in the sense of the third meaning in the Mirriam-Webster dictionary:
    “excessively refined :affected, precious manners”
    set aside as something only a few have and the rest of the folks (out there, of course) are just out of luck, and that we, creatively gifted are special, set apart, and have to suffer for our art.
    We have to work for our art, but as the saying goes, “suffering is optional.” Which in turn fits with your comment that it’s good to be kind to ourselves as we walk our path of the business of being alive, being a good human being, AND bringing our work out into the world bit by bit.
    Having all these parts of our lives in approximate balance, enriches our lives, the lives of those around us, and ultimately, our work.
    Let’s take the attitude of the Medivial crafts people who labored in workshops anonymously and belonged to Crafts Guilds. Let us take the attitude of modern day craftsmen who are building furniture and throwing pots. Let us revive the code of practical creativity.
    Janet Riehl

  3. One shouldn´t “despair” either. As a teacher, getting many kids to take creative risks is one of the hardest things to do. There is definitely the myth that creativity belongs only to the lucky, gift and possibly mad few. I believe if we could learn to tap into this, with the understanding that you have to do the work, imagine the healing that would occur on both an individual and social level.

  4. Agreed that despair needed be in the mix, at least not on a permanent basis.Otherwise, we’d be in a real fix.
    Yes, children are especially effected…and damaged, by both cultural views that are conficting and at the same time both flawed:
    1) everyone is creative (without effort)and every stroke they make and word they write is instantly precious;
    2) only special people are creative, and you are born that way, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
    When they encounter teachers such as yourself who are patient and skilled in their approach…and have their own creative practice and products, then, yes, I do believe this is healing for both the individual and society.
    Europe has long held a more balanced view of artistry and the life that supports it. When I travel in Europe and say I’m an writer, artist, musician, performer…I am asked interesting and curious questions that allow us to have an intelligent conversation about my work.
    In the U.S., the tendency in social conversation after this announcement is one of three stock responses:
    1) Would I have read anything you wrote? (Are you known? Have you been on Oprah? Are you famous?)
    2) Can you support yourself doing that? (How much money do you make? is the implied subtext here…and, if you aren’t making money, then you are merely a dilettant).
    3) What are you working on now? (whatever you’ve done in the past doesn’t matter.)
    …and similar items designed to probe into the results and rewards of my work. Europeans want to know about the purpose and thought behind my work and honor me for the work and effort I make, regardless of the commercial response.
    The American emphasis throughout our society on what you can see and what you can get results in a coarsening of our culture and there is a great loss.
    Janet Riehl

  5. Janet, I love the way you break this down in easy to understand examples. Lately, my muse and I have not been connecting, but I haven’t practiced the diligence, devotion, discipline, and deliberate planning you talk about. Personal problems are crowding out the creative impulses. I have a feeling if I could get past the gloomies and the daily-ness of the crisis and actually write, I would feel better and be more productive in all areas of my life.

  6. Susan, Good to hear from you. I’m glad this is helpful to you. Thinking about this further, on a more philosophical level, perhaps the diligence, discipline, and devotion are the “Yang” (action) side of creativity and the muse and inspiration are the “Yin” side. We must have both for it to work. The two sides partner each other.
    Just as many of us have learned over the years through longer relationships, sometimes when you are not recognizably in the mood for love, you can coax this along by regular attention to it. With one Sweetheart, I used to have “sex dates” with him. This was in no way a cold experience. We both looked forward to our lazy Sunday afternoon time together when we planned to “make romance happen” with music and other things that gave us pleasure. We determined this time and space after chatting about what we most enjoyed and when we each were most receptive.
    Similarly, I’m urging the idea that inspiration and the muse’s visit don’t “just happen.” We can create the pre-conditions for their visit through dipping into our more structured side. Often creative people tend to be less structured and more free-flowing…the old right brain thing, don’t we know. But again, there’s a dance, a partnership between right and left brain activities to get our work out in the work from conception to product.
    In terms of working with trying times in our lives and moods,I agree with you. That, if somehow, we can take ourselves in hand and write for even 10 minutes a day…whenever our best time is…we’ll feel more purposeful and fulfilled.
    My poetry book was written during the most trying time in my life after the sudden death of my sister, fracturing in the family, care-taking my mother during a serious illness, commuting across country from my home base. The focus on sustained writing kept me from going completely batty!
    A good source for understanding the blues and the creative force is Eric Maisel’s “The Van Gough Blues.”
    Take care, and I wish you creative speed with your work, supported by pulling up your socks…but, gently and lovingly.
    Janet Riehl

  7. Pingback: Taking the Creative Pledge: “I’ll show up to do the work.” | Telling HerStories: The Broad View

  8. You can count on Janet to present her thoughts in a clear, logical manner, based on realtime experience.

    Years ago, I realized that I was being called, not by a ruthless muse, but by my intuition, which is infinitely more reliable and powerful. After a decade as the apprentice a great Zen master artist, I learned there is distinction that goes from imagination to creativity, and then to creation, things I cover in my book, An Artist Empowered, which Janet kindly reviewed.

    Also, as in it’s not the space, but what you do with it, so too it is for writing and painting (or any art); it’s not the time that matters most; its the quality of your work during the time invested.

    The true artist will always find a way.

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