By Matthew Perry [Originally published in deliberateLIFE's Magazine, Issue No. 4]
My creativity crisis struck me one night when I was reading a book to my son, a story I remembered almost by heart. Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World is the tale of a barely educated single father, a pheasant poacher in his spare time, who nonetheless rates as “the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.”
Why? For one, he’s a handy dad on steroids, fashioning toys, building tree houses, and conjuring bedtime stories on a whim. I’ve known similar men and women, who create all day and yet never claim to be artists. Almost all are people you’d be grateful to have in your life. I can only hope my son grows up to be like them.
As I read about this effortlessly innovative dad, I began to feel about as creative as a wet blanket, my life a patchwork of routines meant to maintain the status quo: make money, feed everyone, get to bed on time. I wasn’t working on the novel I set aside when my son was born. I wasn’t learning a language or picking up a new instrument. I was simply getting things done: admirable, perhaps, but the antithesis of creative. That isn’t how I want to be, at least not all of the time, for my own sake and the sake of my kid.
Yet I believed this was how I had to be. Parenting and providing is serious business. My own dad once said he never really learned how to play, and maybe on some level, I felt I had to be the dad I remembered, all business, bringing home the bacon. It didn’t matter that, in reality, my dad is a funny and good-hearted guy. My life, like many of my memories, had become monochromatic.
A neuroscientist might conclude that my brain, locked in the tired patterns of day-to-day life, had become indolent, focused only on the familiar and predictable. To break out of my rut, I had to surprise myself. But first, I got some help from Eric Maisel, PhD, author of The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression and many other titles that explore the tricky business of creation. Most blocks, he says, can be traced to performance anxiety, brought on either by fear of what others will think or a sense of meaningless (“What’s the point?”). Both, he says, are often a veil for “What if the thing I create is lousy?”
“Human beings look for reasons not to create because it’s hard,” Maisel says. “It’s hard because it invites anxiety in, and we’re conditioned to avoid anxiety.”
In other words, getting my creative mojo back wasn’t about experiencing a sudden burst of genius—fortunately. Living a creative life is more about overcoming the cold feet that come before a commitment.
“I’m not much on inspiration,” Maisel says. “I’m more about showing up.”
I was ready to start showing up myself, using a few of his key strategies:
Welcome the anxiety.
It won’t kill you after all. You will still be alive at the end of the day, even if your creation is lousy. In fact, whatever the outcome, you’ll feel more alive for having attempted it.
Create by morning light.
I realized that my free time usually didn’t come until after 9 p.m., when I was tired and hopelessly unproductive. So now I try to write for an hour in the morning, before my son gets up.
What I’ve discovered: That’s when my mind is as uncluttered and as stress-free as it’s ever going to be. “The problem with trying to do creative work at the end of the day,” says Maisel, “is that it’s hard to make the transition. We spend most of our waking hours trying to get things right. But creativity requires a willingness to experiment and get things wrong. That’s hard to do when you’re exhausted.”
Another benefit of starting early: “You make the day feel meaningful right off,” says Maisel. Suddenly, being creative isn’t simply an addendum to your real life; it’s an enhancement.
Take advantage of discarded time.
Every day, I have a few unclaimed gaps of 15 to 20 minutes, most of which end up dissolving in the glare of my computer screen as I check my email or Facebook again and again.
Now, I close the computer and pick up a notebook. Yes, a notebook. Twenty minutes is more than enough time to scribble out dialogue or a dense page of notes. Even a snippet of work feels like a little victory, and the little ones count, too.
Revise your internal dialogue.
“Often it’s really unfriendly,” Maisel politely understates. “When you convince yourself that you’re useless or a failure, you don’t create anything, and you certainly won’t feel satisfied.”
Forget about accolades.
This is a tall order in a society as competitive as ours. But focusing on getting a book deal or what your spouse or friends might think can create barriers to getting on with it, even for established artists.
Instead, find an inner motivation that isn’t pegged to an audience. I’ve found inspiration by hoping that one day my son will think the stories I write are cool. Damn right, I also want to publish them. But giving him a little window into his family is enough, too.