I used to think it was just me. (I know, poor grammar. Blah, blah.) Anyway, I used to think I was the only one, the sole outlier who, even when given ample time to write a speech, etc., would do absolutely anything to avoid getting started. Surely I was the only one stupid enough to say, “hey, I’ll write that!” and then actively avoid keystrokes, paper and pen until everyone, especially the client, got huffy and demanded output. What idiot would do that, over and over and over again?
Because my mother was both a writer and a writing teacher, growing up I had more than my fair share of instruction in the craft of writing, its structure, content, style. Oh, and a vast arsenal of words that would come to my rescue when I needed them, 30 minutes before deadline. But I never learned, or cared, much about the process of writing. I’ve always been the jump-in sort: Want to cook? Start cooking. Want to write? Start writing.
If you want to get all Myers-Briggsy about it, I’m an ENTJ, and we are big idea people, not instruction-reading, process thinkers. Also, I need the Muse to appear. I am forever waiting for that flake, the queen of last minute arrivals.
But I can be adaptable when I choose to be, and in the last year I have begun studying process, not just about writing but in general. I’ve been trying to get a better understanding of the how that must accompany my what so when I have my big ideas I’ll be aware of the work involved. Also, I thought, maybe hidden in the small print I’d find a summoning spell for that fair-weather friend the Muse.
Concurrent to my study of process, in one of my greatest-ever procrastination moves, I’ve reading about the process of writing. Reading about the process of writing has bought me HOURS away from actual writing. [Note that while reading about the process of writing, I also learned that I am far, far from alone in this sort of procrastination, that it is, in fact, quite the cliché. Silly me.]
Then I stumbled upon Todd Henry, self-appointed “arms dealer for the creative revolution.” I found Henry through a Levenger sample pack (I am not making this up) that included their version of his Personal Idea Pad (PIP), a paper tool for brainstorming and harvesting wildly creative ideas. I found the sample page because I was procrastinating while stuck on a project that had hit a block.
Since I hit a block, I decided to organize my planner – my paper planner, because I’m the pen and paper sort. The paper planner I’m currently dating (I trade for something new every couple of years) is the Levenger smartPlanner, which arrives with not only the actual calendar pages but also some neat and pretty samples of things that can improve your work. That’s what they say, those Levenger people, and I believe them. And, besides, there is LOTS of procrastination potential in a sample pack of anything.
Anyway, I opened the sample pack, pulled out this funny looking grid sheet, tried to figure out how to use it, got frustrated and actually looked up the instructions. And that’s how I stumbled into Todd Henry’s website and found his book The Accidental Creative.
In a nutshell, to use a word from the PIP exercise, Henry argues that the structure creative people fight (I need to be free! Boundaries smother my artistic spirit!) is precisely what creative people need in order to produce their most brilliant work. He’s not alone in suggesting that structure provides leverage for creative output, but the way Henry presents his argument is, to me, more compelling and less confining-feeling than some others I’ve read.
So let’s go back to the beginning, back to the part where I have to produce a brilliant speech for a client, where I’ve amassed a wheelbarrow full of research, have taken at least two long walks, have organized my desk, have painted my nails and let them dry, and have baked a cake, successfully delaying actual writing until I have only 30 minutes to pray that damn Muse arrives and helps me produce 2500 brilliant words.
The deadline was (is) the structure, the hard stop that created leverage to shape a finished product from disorganized concepts. It was worked even here, on this blog, even if you didn’t know it. One Saturday afternoon, a few weeks into my weekly menu postings, I ran into a friend at the tennis center. “Chop Chop,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Where was my menu this morning? I needed to go grocery shopping.”
The idea that someone, even one person, was waiting for me to deliver on a promise has been enough to keep me at at least 90% on track for a Saturday morning deadline. Ridiculous, I know, but true.
Maybe Todd Henry is right. Maybe adding structure beyond a mere deadline can corral creativity in a way that enhances both the process and the output. Instead of hampering or smothering the brilliance, the structure of a process could actually enhance it.
On the grand scale of native creativity (and I do believe there is one), I’d put myself north of the middle and south of the top – better than average, short of genius. In an effort to inch my way up I’ve read all sorts of books on unleashing creativity. Henry’s is the first book I’ve found that describes process, tools and discipline in ways that make sense and don’t sound restrictive.
Maybe a bit of structure and discipline could help me get the tangled hairball of ideas out of my head and onto paper, on a more regular basis. Maybe, with a bit of added willpower from me, these tricks of Todd Henry’s could get me out of procrastinating and into producing.
So, for now, I say this: please, box me in. Let’s see what a little structure might do.
Food | Week of January 19, 2015
My greatest fear about weekly menu planning was that it would kill my nightly kitchen performance art. Nope, not the case at all. In fact, having a plan has, if anything, expanded my abilities and output, giving me some new tips, tools and techniques in the process. As I’ve written before, I use the plan as a framework, the leverage for getting dinner on the table and making everyone – especially me – happy.
Tacos al Pastor (Bon Appétit)
This recipe is a great and easy recipe from Bon Appétit, though it does take a little time to prepare. If we’re in a time pinch, then we’ll get chopped pork shoulder from the Bar-B-Q Shop (featured in the NYT 36 Hours in Memphis video – check it out).
No, my children probably won’t eat the Florentine part, but I’ll try anyway. The eggs and toast are sure things, easy and popular on weeknights at our house.
Still on the beef stew quest, and here’s the latest contestant, from Jacques Pépin via Food & Wine.
Bernard wants lasagna, and I want less meat. We’ll see if this recipe works on both counts, because the America’s Test Kitchen vegetable lasagna (really good) isn’t available unless you subscribe to ATK.
We’re big chimichurri fans, but I usually make it to serve with steak. Here’s a new recipe (new to me) for grilled fish with our favorite garlicky green sauce. I’ll make a simple salad to go with, probably one with spinach, mandarin oranges and red onion.
All words and pictures belong to me, Jennifer Balink. If you’d like to borrow, please ask.