Cycle 1.3 Working from Source in Your Creative Practice

Goddess with gifts weblog

Goddess with Gift Basket, photo by Janet Riehl

Column by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow

Oh, those romantic notions about creativity. The best writers hang out in coffee houses, smoking foreign cigarettes, and wearing a hat, right?

Hardly! In practical creativity, externals don’t matter. Pretension doesn’t work. What matters is this: What’s inside you, and are you willing to work to pull it out? So cut the shuffle and ditch the beret; there’s no place to hide.

Last month (1.2) we discussed how to create a sustainable practice, dedicating scheduled time and space to your writing. The next step is to tap into your creative source How do you go about it?

Inspire yourself.

As Thomas Alva Edison did, I believe that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. The good news is that we can build inspiration into our practice. Inspiration is something we can and must generate for ourselves. Without it, your writing will be a very occasional happening.

Interview yourself.

To set yourself up for inspiration requires that you do the same thing you did in setting up your writing schedule. Take a look at your personal preferences, your likes and dislikes. You’ll stir up your creative juices by generating satisfying, stimulating activities.

Ask yourself about yourself and think of potential activities. Are you…

  • Visual? Make a collage or do mind-mapping.
  • Movement-oriented? Walking, yoga, or bicycling may be creative openers.
  • Reflective? Try contemplation and meditation.
  • Musical? Play the piano. Or wash the dishes listening to your iPod.
  • Moved by ritual and ceremony? Light candles and say a little prayer.
  • Responsive to the outdoors? Go to the park; bring bits of the outdoors inside.

You can brainstorm other ideas. It’s not any particular activity that’s important. Choose one that takes you to that place where you’re inspired to dig deeper—that 1 percent of inspiration that makes the 99 percent of perspiration worth it.

There’ll be days when you don’t feel inspired at all. It’s not cheating to use a commercial prompt, many of which are available for under $20. For example, for the card deck and kit lovers among us, check out:

  • Observation Deck:A Toolkit for Writers by Naomi Epel.
  • Freaking Magic Playing Cards David Robertson made from his photos and text.
  • Magical Muse Cards by Hal Zina Bennett.

Try adapting cards designed for another purpose like the Mexican lotería cards. A friend wrote an entire poem cycle by drawing a card every morning.

Even better, make your own cards using photos, sayings, phrases, and images. It’s a popular activity I’ve done with writing students. Even though they make the cards themselves, they’re always surprised that the cards take them places they hadn’t anticipated.

Thinking inside the box isn’t always a bad idea. Make containers that act as brainstorming friends.

  • Cut ideas into strips in advance, then draw them from a basket when you’re feeling stuck; or,
  • Pack a suitcase or lunch box with anything that strikes your fancy: old calendars, postcards, or “go-to” books. (One of my favorites is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.). Add inanimate objects to your inspiration box. They’re silent but you’ll bring your own words to the objects. It’s a dialogue; you’re speaking back to silent writing friends.

Remember not to use these ideas as a way to avoid writing. And don’t feel obligated to use any of them. If you’re hot, you’re hot. Sizzle on, girlfriend!

Don’t overlook the creative collaboration of a writing buddy. The relationship is more intimate and flexible than a critique group. It focuses on one person’s needs at a time and can take your writing deeper. Ultimately you have to do it alone, but you don’t have to do it without support.

So what’s the unromantic truth about writing? It’s our job to stimulate thought and then complete it. A mature writer ultimately finds companionship within the work itself.

I’ll be fielding questions about practical creativity—ones that emerge as you get deeper into your writing practice. Pose your questions via comments on this post or directly to me. You’ll find my contact email at




6 responses to “Cycle 1.3 Working from Source in Your Creative Practice

  1. A lovely post. Thanks for this. It is true, as a writing woman (all day long!) it is up to me to keep myself inspired. I often use books of poems, prayers, and blessings to bring me to a soft and centered place. Always, always, something special jumps out at me from the page and I can feel the Muse building. My recent favorite is To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue. It has a powerful creative effect. You may want to give it a try!
    Blessings to you.

  2. Thanks,Jan, for your soulful comment.Thanks for your confirmation of my premise: we must awaken our muse actively…and your book recommendation.
    I just read your recent post on your blog about a metaphor for gardening the mind. Excellent stuff you’ve inspired yourself to do.
    I like your description of your intention as: living in an “awakened manner—with clear, open minds and wise, compassionate hearts.” That pretty much sums it up, heh?
    Janet Riehl

  3. Janet
    I just wanted to thank you for this inspiring post and to tell you that I eagerly look forward to each of your posts and your gentle guidance toward a life of practical creativity.
    Lee Ambrose

  4. Dear Lee,
    Thanks for your appreciative comment. Every writer cherishes these as fuel to move forward. You may find the creative process to create these posts of interest. I work with a longtime friend who has in the past two years also become my editor-collaborator. She lives in New Mexico, one of the places of my heart. Here’s how we do it.
    First, you will notice that we are building a sequence. These posts are in no way random. After some period of time, these posts will be gathered into both a print pamphlet and an e-book. So, first the keynote post: “What is creativity, anyway?” and then the follow-up posts on the building blocks mentioned in that first post.
    Second, here is our process. Stephanie Farrow is my sister collaborator. We set up a phone date, adjusting time between New Mexico and Missouri. We meet over the telephone. I assume what we laughingly refer to as “the position of repose” in a dimly lit bedroom, stretched out, fully relaxed, gazing at the wall and ceiling. In other words, low external stimulation, fully concentrated on the brainstorming task before us.
    Stephanie, on the other end of the line, in contrast, is my witness with pen and pad or computer at the ready. I tell her my initial thoughts on where we will go next, or perhaps she consults the notes before her to help us focus and track our projectory so we do remain in an arc, rather than zigging and zagging.
    Often in between our work sessions, I will shoot her a carefully labeled email to indicate some brainstorm or desire regarding the column…she saves it as the subject line requests and puts in it a specially marked file for this purpose. Stephanie acts as my left, logical brain in this collaboration and I feel it as an enormous boon, an incredible luxurious blessing that makes the process for me stress-free.
    There I am, then, in “the position of repose,” ready to work. We engage in a jazz conversation. I empty my brains and heart on the subject before us. She takes notes. She carefully and deftly asks clarifying questions, as good friends do in all situations. In some cases, she also adds her own views on the matter before us and her own experience which complements and augments my own.
    Once we have “the download,” then, she writes up the notes she has jotted down and sends them back to me in good order and some logical form.
    This forms the outline for my draft. Thus prepared, I wail away on my saxophone and write a white hot draft which I bolt back to Stephanie. She then engages in the delicate task of tidying it up. We are preparing two versions of each of these topics.
    One is short, concise, and crisp which makes the material quick and easy to consume for web readers. The other is a more fulsome expression which we’ll save for the ebook-print version.
    Setphanie and I have known each other since 1973 in Ghana, on ward through the seven years we both lived in New Mexico, and all the years since then during the 22 years I lived throughout Northern California and then back to the Midwest in 2007, the region where I was born and raised.
    It’s a strong friendship that has weathered many storms in both our lives. She knows the ins and outs of my mind. She knows my voice. She knows my heart. She’s skilled as an editor and is a delicate at rewriting.
    Sometimes the rewriting is subtle. Sometimes it is more extensive…working with transitional bridges, for instance. When I was in a whirl getting ready for my recent month’s journey back to Ghana, her contribution fell into the latter category. I am grateful beyond measure and the small fee I pay for this contribution is, I feel, more of a token.
    If we have time–on this or any other project–she then shoots her reworked draft back to me. I may twiddle further or respond to probing, expanding, clarifying requests and questions from my clear minded editor. I shoot my response back to her.
    We go through as many or as few of these rounds as needed under both of us are satisfied this is our best work. We do our best to keep the column (this is how I think of this Creative Catalyst category, my contribution the the SCN blog) sounding easy and conversational rather than worked over.
    Even though, as I’ve indicated, quite a bit of thought and work has been creamed into this short post…just as we cream butter, eggs, and sugar together into our best cakes from scratch. I’ve always wanted to be a columnist, and this, for me, is that.
    We rest and celebrate. I post the final result with an image from my photo gallery. Fini!
    So, there you have it, Lee. Feel free, always to send me (us) your questions on creativity…especially how to put this practical creativity into your context if that’s something of use to you. In fact, you no doubt already know many things we’re pointing out and articulating.
    Janet Riehl
    Creative Catalyst

  5. Janet, What a blessing to have this incredibly close, collaborative relationship. So rare, very precious. I’m looking forward to your e-book!

  6. Jane, you are so right. I can count on one hand the stellar collaborators I’ve had in my life, but always it’s led to better work and great happiness.
    In her brilliant book “Creating a Life Worth Living” Carol Lloyd lays out several aspects of the working creative life which I’ve never seen anywhere else.
    Carol identifies different types of creators and also which of us thrive on collaboration rather than purely working solo. She goes on to identify which types of creatives work best together, complimenting and augmenting each other styles and work. How good is this!
    For instance, I have cross-over capabilities, but my real place of comfort is generating ideas and possibilities and then the strategies and tactics to start down that road. Therefore, my main style is as a GENERATOR.
    What I crave for in a collaborator who is a really good REALIZER. Someone who can hear my dream and vision…and then birth this into the world.
    Stephanie Farrow is one such for my writing work now, as I said in a recent comment to this post. Scott Kidd, my sound engineer in Nashville, for my audio book “Sightlines: A family love story in poetry and music” is impeccable as a realizer.
    Ria Sharon, my webmistress (and upstairs neighbor with two adorable children) is the third blessing collaborator in my life now.
    In Albuquerque in the 1980s a consulting collaborator of mine gave me an opaque, but best compliment: “Janet, he said, you have simultaneous loose-tight properties.” Meaning that I could think loose and wide and wild when we were at the stage…and then, corral all that into learning points and structure these into effective and fun lessons. We must have both. And, if we are weak in one area, we must find someone else who is stronger in that area. This is what I’ve done, and, believe me, it has taken the burden off my shoulders. Knowing that a caring, skilled, impeccably accurate and professional person is on the job with me, lightens my work considerably.
    No be so?
    Janet Riehl

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s