What’s My Creative Process? This. And It Works.

Image: A pair of hands covered in paint. Amauri Mejía at Unsplash.

My entire career is creative. I write marketing copy for a living. I write novels for amusement and the occasional spare dollar. I write colorguard and winterguard choreography and consult on marching band show design.

Consequently, I’m often asked: What is your creative process?

And How do you generate ideas?

And How do you discipline yourself to write?

And How do you turn an idea into an entire article/novel/show?

For many years, I struggled to answer this question. A process? Process is for plebians! My work descends from the gods themselves, riding upon glowing clouds to the dulcet tunes of angelic lyres!

It doesn’t, of course. I have a process. All creatives do.

I can’t guarantee my process will work for anybody else. I can only guarantee that it works for me.

Here are the ten steps by which I produce all my creative work — from marching band show choreography to science fiction novels to articles on cloud infrastructure to the piece you’re reading right now.

These ten steps break down into three phases: Idea generation, idea refinement, and idea execution.

Phase the First: Ideas

“Where do you get your ideas?” is far and away the most common question I get asked about my work as a creative. Second most common is the closely-related question “How can I have more ideas?”

Ideas are the seed of every project, the spark of inspiration, the vision around which all the tedious details coalesce. Here’s how I get mine.

Step 1: 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.

It’s not just me, either. Several studies demonstrate that cultivating the right type and degree of boredom helps the human brain be more creative.

In a 2014 article in the Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann & Rebekah Cadman describe a study of boredom and creativity with two components. In the first part of the study, participants in two groups were asked to find as many uses for a set of plastic cups as possible. One group had been prepared (read: bored) for the task by being assigned to copy numbers from the phone book first; the other had not. The phone book group generated more ideas for cup use than the control group.

Next, Mann and Cadman sought to examine how degrees of boredom affected creativity. They divided their study group into three. One group served as a control. One group was asked to copy numbers from the phone book. The third group got the most boring task of all: simply reading the phone book.

When asked to engage in a creativity-testing task, the phone book number-copiers once again outperformed the control group. But the phone book readers outperformed both, indicating that a fallow period of boredom might be just the thing our brains need for a fruitful summer of idea growth.

Step 2: MACBETH HATH MURDERED JUDGMENT.

Another question I often hear is How do you have good ideas? I’m always convinced my ideas are utter crap.

Easy: I am also convinced all my ideas are utter crap. At least at first.

Because I’ve decided in advance that all my ideas are equally crap, that means I’ve also decided all my ideas are equally good. 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 — and often lead to the most interesting results.

In summer 2019, 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 Second: Not-Terrible Ideas

After decades of doing creative work, I can’t remember the last time I had no ideas. I no longer ask How can I have ideas? but Where do all the ideas come from?

As someone who works in the pageantry arts year-round, I’m always thinking about the next season’s show in the middle of the current season. At this time last year, we were halfway through the competitive winterguard season, which meant I was spending my rehearsal lunch breaks generating ideas for fall marching band shows.

Having 20 to 30 ideas in a single 45-minute lunch period wasn’t unusual for me. Deciding what do so with them is the trickier part.

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.

But wait, says the occasional person who has looked closely enough at my process to have questions. You also have two whiteboard calendars, a day planner, and approximately 700 to-do lists. You write things down to remember them, not to forget them!

And this is true! For tasks! For ideas, however, the opposite seems to work: If they’re badgering me and I write them down, I no longer have to think about them. I have mental space for other things.

The most persistent ideas, however, are too smart to fall for my trick of writing them down so they’ll go away. They keep coming back even after I’ve written them down.

If I can’t stop thinking about an idea even after I’ve jotted it down somewhere, it gets a free ticket 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. I take the idea out and play with it. I start asking questions, like:

  • What would the end result look like?
  • What are the practical steps required for me to make it work? What tools, time, and help would I need?
  • What are the major challenges to turning out the envisioned end result?
  • 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 go 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 writing novels or teaching children to throw swords.

Rather than doing the Moby-Dick wall art, then, I commissioned artwork from my nieces and nephews to fill the bathroom walls. I love the result, and it didn’t require me to divert attention from my own highest-priority projects.

Other ideas, however, turn out to be eminently doable. Like this article, which required only the time to write it and a bit of Internet research.

Phase the Third: Making Art

If an idea survives steps 3 and 4, it‘s probably becoming a finished product. Phase the Third is where, having curated a workable idea, I get it out of my head and onto paper (or pixels, field, or floor).

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.

Step 5 deals with questions like:

  • Is there a realistic marketable version of this idea, and if so, what does it look like?
  • Can I get the support from other people that I need to execute this idea?
  • Is this idea the best iteration of the idea? Or is there some related idea out there that would be even cooler, and hasn’t been done to death?
  • Are there 500 other artworks on this idea (hint: Yes! Always!), and what do they look/sound/feel like?

Perhaps the most important part of Step 5 is cramming related works. This is where I go searching for everything I can find that is related to or is a version of the idea I’ve had.

For article writing, Step 5 often involves a visit to Google Scholar, or at least a few keyword searches. For colorguard and winterguard, my first stop is YouTube, looking for keywords related to the show concept and “marching band” or “winterguard.” For the novels, I’m constantly reading at least one science fiction novel, anthology, or magazine in addition to writing.

Buy-in and marketability matter here, too. I’m not just looking for sci-fi that deals with the same concepts my novels do, for instance; I’m also weighing what sells and what doesn’t in terms of plot, settings, and characterization. Marching band show themes always go through the filter of “Can I get the rest of the staff to embrace this idea?” and “Can I get the performers to embrace this idea?”

If an idea fails either the research or buy-in tests, it’s not getting made, no matter how much I love it. My current favorite marching band show idea for fall 2021, for example, is “Band Camp,” a selection of the campiest works from the 1970s for which I have found arrangements. Think “Sweet Caroline” and “September.”

“Band Camp” is currently at Step 5. Yet I’d give it about a 1 in 3 chance of actually being produced. No matter how much I love it, if the performers or the staff hate it, it’s not getting made.

Step 6: OUTLINING/SKETCHING/NOODLING AROUND.

One of the hardest things to explain about writing, for me, is the moment at which writing turns from The Goal into An Imperative.

This moment occurs when the amount of information about an idea crammed into my head reaches critical mass. At this point, I have to start remixing, drafting, and so on.

A lot of writers get stuck on this part of the process, because they believe that whatever they write has to be good right away. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for student writers to get stuck on the notion that their first sentence has to be perfect. Without a really cracking intro sentence, they believe, they can’t possibly move on to the rest of the piece.

One of the best things I ever did for myself as a creative was to grant myself two permissions:

  • Start anywhere. Literally anywhere.
  • Make the first draft terrible.

Step 6 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? Heck yeah, you can never have too many of those.

To reduce the screaming of my inner impostor syndrome brain-monkey, I do most of Step 6 by hand, in one-subject notebooks I buy in bulk at back to school sales. I have a pact with myself: No one ever sees the notebook.

If I want someone to see something that’s in the notebook, I have to copy it out first. Copying it out allows me to put it through Step 7 before showing it to anyone.

Step 7: REFINEMENT.

I hate Step 7 the most.

Until this point, I’ve had permission from myself to make the worst art in the entire world. I was free to do anything, as long as I did something.

Not anymore. At Step 7, I now have to take everything I’ve generated and make it that marketable, polished project worthy of being shown to the rest of the world.

Step 7 is where the rubber meets the road. It’s where my impostor syndrome is at full volume. Step 7 is do or die time: Can I really pull off this concept I’ve been playing around with since Step 1? Or is it going to come out looking like a half-melted snowperson in an April rain?

Step 7 is usually where I start to question every one of my life choices. Catch me at Step 7, and I’ll tell you to take up a more socially acceptable and less self-destructive career, like skydiving or knitting socks for hamsters.

Step 8. TENTATIVE PRESENTATION.

After the blood, sweat, and tears of Step 7, a draft is born!

And like someone who has just given birth, I’d be more excited if I wasn’t utterly exhausted.

Step 8 is another place many young creatives get stuck. They’ve finally created something, but now they have to show it to other people. And oh no, what will other people think? What if it’s really terrible? Maybe I should just shove it under the bed and pretend I never even tried to do art!

Here’s a secret: Decades into a career as a creative, I still have the same thoughts.

I don’t have them as often, and I certainly don’t let them keep me from my work. But even I will reach the end of a draft, squint at it, and think THIS is really the best you can do? Why does anyone let you make things?

This voice never vanishes entirely. I don’t think it should. One of the things it does is to keep us honest. If you’re convinced everything you make is spectacular, you’re no longer growing as an artist.

But showing the draft around is still scary, so I start small. I show the draft to people who love me and who love the art, like my spouse, my best friend (also a published author) and my editor.

These are also the people who have zero fear about telling me exactly how much the work sucks.

And they do. They tell me how much the work sucks. They tell me exactly in what ways the work sucks. I can’t believe I’m friends with these people.

Of course, I express my appreciation in the best way I know how: I tell them how much their drafts suck when they ask for my opinion. (I often describe my job as a show designer as “Band directors tell me what they want, and I tell them why they can’t have it.”)

By the end of Step 8, I’m running on pure spite. 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.

After however many rounds of revision are necessary, I send the piece to its final destination: a publisher, a marching band director, and so on.

This step seems to trip up a lot of young creatives, as well. Sharing your work with people who care about your feelings is one thing. Submitting it to some invisible frowny-faced editor Out There is another.

After duking it out with my impostor syndrome and The Atlantic, I’ll say this: The process of submitting work is always the same.

It goes like this:

  • I submit the work.
  • The editor sends me some notes.
  • I do whatever the notes say to do.
  • I submit the work.

This process repeats until the editor has no more notes. Then the editor sends the piece to someone who isn’t me, and I’m free to promptly forget I ever submitted it — which I usually do, because by this point, I’m a half-dozen new terrible ideas deep into the next project.

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.

Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal once described creativity like breathing. To sustain life as a creative, we must both breathe out (i.e. make creative work) and breathe in (i.e. rest and reboot). Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People calls this phase “sharpening the saw.”

Breathing in, saw-sharpening, rebooting…. Whatever you call it, it’s the essential tenth step of my creative process. For me, it often involves a mindless activity like playing a video game I know by heart or going for a long run.

Some people worry that if they reboot for too long, they’ll never do any productive work ever again. I’ve found the opposite is true: If my output is declining in quality or quantity, it’s because I’m not resting enough.

But if I spend long enough rebooting, I start to get bored. And I loop back to Step 1: Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from….

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Dani Alexis Ryskamp

Dani Alexis Ryskamp

As seen in The Atlantic that one time. Freelance writer, pageantry arts nerd, widow. Tweets @danialexis. See also http://danialexis.net