Capturing Creativity when You’re Really, Really Busy

There are many things to love about AMC’s Mad Men (hello, Don Draper!), which chronicles the drama of the advertising industry in the 60s, but one of my favorite aspects is its portrayal of the creative process — particularly in Don and Peggy. While there’s no lack of hard work on their parts, they are often struck by their inspiration in an organic and spontaneous way. They will sit for hours with pen and paper at the ready… but it’s later, out of the office, that a passing moment inspires the winning idea, scribbled onto a cocktail napkin. Despite the pressure to produce under a deadline, the whole game ultimately hinges on this one elusive spark.

Photograph: BBC/AMC/Lionsgate

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) Photograph: BBC/AMC/Lionsgate

While there’s a lot of romance in this notion of a creative process punctuated by moments of spontaneous genius, I do think there’s something to it.

As I’ve mulled over my own struggle with procrastination, I now see that what I have often thought of as procrastination is actually percolation (at least for school work and writing). When I finally sit down to write, the clock ticking down to the deadline, the words come easily because I’m basically transcribing something I’ve already composed in my head. That single creative spark is often just the moment that coagulates the thoughts generated after days of mulling.

It works, but it’s a difficult process to work with. Your time is limited. You need to produce NOW, yet your productivity is reliant upon this squishy, evasive thing we call creativity — a thing that does not respond well to pressure.

I'd love to sit and daydream. But it's not me right now! Sculpture by Ivan Mestrovic, at the Mestrovic Gallery in Split, Croatia.

Creativity sometimes needs space and solitude. Sculpture by Ivan Mestrovic, at the Mestrovic Gallery in Split, Croatia.

While I’m taken with the thought of a writer’s retreat or the Amtrak Residency for Writers, leaving my current responsibilities for weeks at a time is not a reality right now. One day, perhaps. But in the meantime, I need to figure out how to fit my creative side into a life that is full with chasing, feeding, cleaning, and coaxing into sleep my adorable little toddler.

The Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, NM. Photo by Marissa Bracke on Flickr.

I’d love to visit somewhere like the Mabel Dodge Luhan House writer’s retreat in Taos, NM. One day… {Photo by Marissa Bracke on Flickr}

Here’s what I’m finding helpful to spark my creativity and turn it into productivity:

  • Reading and listening to good radio.
    Ideas for my writing often come from other things I’ve read or heard. Even in my busy mom life, I can flip through a few quick blogs before bed or listen to the radio while making dinner. I recently started using Feedly to keep track of some of my favorite blogs (like this one by Jaime Lee Wallace for the New Hampshire Writer’s Network blog, which helped inspire my post and provides some great links on creativity). It might not be blogs or radio programming for you — figure out what inspires you.
The clock radio I picked up for $3 at a garage sale so we could listen to CBC

The clock radio I picked up for $3 at a garage sale so we could listen to CBC

  • Writing down ideas.
    Working on this one. I’m no good at “scribbling” notes onto my phone, but if I have a pen and a notebook with me, it’s bound to get confiscated by the child. Nevertheless, I need to be ready to catch the good potatoes when they appear. I now have a notebook sitting up high where it’s safe from the little paws!
  • Scheduling my time.
    It sounds contrary to creativity, but when I know that at a certain time, I will sit down and get going, I give myself the space to spend the rest of my time thinking. It has taken me nearly a year and a half to finally schedule time for writing. It’s a chunk of about 3 hours once/week in which to squeeze out my “creative genius.” It doesn’t always work (and those will be the posts that aren’t really all that genius). But if I’ve been chewing on a good idea for the better part of a week, my three hours are a smooth write, edit, post.

Unlike Don Draper, my current job does not rely on my creativity (as a writer, anyhow — entertaining and troubleshooting a kid requires other forms of creativity). The writing is sidelined for now. But I do believe that this challenge of being productively creative while taking care of a wee one full-time is a valuable one. I am learning my own creative process and honing my skills so that one day I will be able to make the most of some dreamy writer’s retreat.

How do you fit a creative life into the pressures of your every day life? What sparks your creativity?

11 responses to “Capturing Creativity when You’re Really, Really Busy

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  6. I think creativity emerges when your mind (and heart) are open. So, if I am super stressed, anxious, worried, angry,etc. I block my own creative possibilities. But if I am really and fully present in the moment, whether it is chasing the toddler, doing laundry or watching a sunset, often the analogies of deeper thought related to the activity of the moment emerges. For me, it is in those moments that I think I am most inspired and creative. Everything we do holds the potential of a metaphor, we just need to be open enough to see it!

    • I definitely agree that you need an open mind to get in the zone, and it can happen at any time! I think this letting go of the procrastination guilt for me is recognizing that inspiration can strike anywhere, and I just have to be ready to grab it when it hits!

  7. Thanks so much for sharing my Weekend Edition, Jean. Love your ramble here and your adventure in Ontario and with the jewelry store sounds very exciting! Best of luck with all of that AND your creative writing (and living!). 🙂

    • Happy to share great work! I follow the NHWN and love what you guys put out! Ha, you reminded me to update my little bio. We actually closed our store last year, but it has been an adventure indeed! Thanks for the kind words!

      • So glad you enjoy NHWN.
        Sorry to hear about your store, but hope you’re on to a new adventure!

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