Please, box me in.

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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.

Happy week.

*****

Food | Week of January 19, 2015

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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).

Breakfast for Dinner: Easy Eggs Florentine (Martha Stewart)

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.

Beef Stew in Red Wine Sauce (Food & Wine)

Still on the beef stew quest, and here’s the latest contestant, from Jacques Pépin via Food & Wine.

Vegetable Lasagna (Emeril)

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.

Grilled Halibut with Chimichurri (Gourmet)

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.

 

11 Comments

  1. Meanwhile, around here musical miss says to never put me in a box. What does she know? She’s just a musician. 🙂 We both know structure won’t help. It never has… Writing stuff done in a planner will just make you feel guilty when you don’t do it. Trust me on this.

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  2. Barbara Viser

    Having been faced with deadline after deadline for the last 20 years, my best advice is actually that given to me by a well-known mystery writer – no it isn’t Castle. She said just start writing. Don’t worry about it being perfect. Just get it down. You can go back and revise and perfect later. So far, on my current project, the executive summary, which is a key piece of this particular job, is sucking pretty bad, but I do have some fort-of useable nuggets after 7 drafts. I have high hopes for the rest of the afternoon because it’s due at 4:30. I haven’t procrastinated, but as you say, the muse has been on vaca. She better show op soon is all I can say. Nothing I have so far is going to come close to helping make a sale.

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  3. Sigh. I just love your smartness. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I read your posts (your regular weekly posting BTW have inspired me to aim for a weekly posting as well, so thank you for that) and I want to cook the thing, or look up the thing, or check out the city, or whatever it is you’re up to. And yes, I always wait until the last minute for my art/writing. But here’s what I comfort myself with. In college, I trudged a paper over to my professor’s office for the 8 am deadline after staying up most of the night (and after a couple beers, if we’re being fully honest here) and he later told me it was my best writing yet. I couldn’t help but point out that I’d written it right before the deadline. And he replied, “No. You didn’t. You’ve been writing that story for weeks, maybe even years, certainly days. You just finally got around to putting it on paper.” So maybe while the naughty procrastinator is admiring your nails, the brilliant writer is making magic up there. Who can say?

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  4. Random, I know, but: (1) Oh, thank god, Levenger is still around. I’d forgotten all about it, though the best bag I’ve had for decades (see St. Tropez leather tote) came from there and I carried it until the color wore off and it embarrassed my friends who care deeply about such things. I think I better get out the credit card. (2) The cleanest any dwelling I’ve ever lived in was during law school finals. You’d think it would carry over to my office, given the amount of writing I have to do constantly. But it doesn’t. I blame the Internet. (3) I admire those folks like Mr. Henry for figuring out a way to make such a living. But I just can’t bear to read them. (4) Chop chop!

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  5. Not what I want to read (being a queen of procrastination, freedom and the muse), but what I NEED to read. I do believe my writing is rarely last minute, but is being written in my head, all the time… I fall back on that, but I think I’ll clean my office and start creating some real structure.

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