Embracing the chaos of creativity
In which I expose the inner workings of my organisational obsessions
For the last five years, I’ve been trying to streamline my writing process. It started with a Trello board to keep track of my assignments. I don’t like to admit that the kind of journalism I do is paint-by-numbers, but there’s definitely a formula you follow when writing a 1,200-word magazine feature. So I thought it would be efficient to break that process down and create a checklist to help me keep on top of my work. I made a tickbox for every step, from scheduling interviews and drafting an outline, to filing the copy and adding the published story to my archive.
My checklist “worked” insofar as I got my stories done by the deadline and then bothered to archive them once they were published. But I also spent an inordinate amount of time ticking boxes and formatting Trello cards rather than actually getting on with the assignment. Soon, the checklist became yet another stick with which to beat myself. And I was left with this lingering feeling that I can only describe as when you get in trouble at school for colouring outside of the lines.
I’ll be honest, my primary motive for this organisation project was to get those stories written faster. I’m a freelancer; the quicker I can turn around copy, the more copy I can file. There are two main skills I need to be good at this job: writing and organisation. But as my misguided organisational obsessions show, sometimes these traits are at odds with each other. Trying to write faster was a fool’s errand: the goal should have been to write better. Or as the author Melissa Febos put it, do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?
Wholeheartedly embracing the chaos of creativity has been transformative for my writing. As I type that, I’m embarrassed about how obvious it sounds. Creating stuff is messy – duh!! There are enough pop-culture depictions of the chaotic artist to realise that. I’ve even written an essay about how I don’t believe creativity can be hacked. And yet intellectually grasping a concept and it seeping into your consciousness are two very different things.
Chaos looks different to different creatives. It’s the countless drafts labelled with very similar file names; the empty mugs scattered across the writer’s desk; the 11 PM burst of energy; the illegible scribbles in the margins; the half-full notebooks you cart between house moves; the inability to focus on the task at hand for all the ideas of new projects flooding in; it’s the pull of your attention down a YouTube rabbit hole or towards the folding of laundry, where the answer comes to you out of nowhere.
My chaos is writing half of this newsletter by hand, in pencil, on the back of scraps of paper I found at the bottom of my desk drawer. Then typing up the notes in one word-processing programme, only to get stuck halfway through and then paste the in-complete draft directly into the newsletter’s text editor, leaving a trail of opened tabs in my wake. Is that a “process”? I went from A to B and have something to show for it, so yes. But it’s not something I want to make a blueprint out of it. It’s just a chaotic mess that happens to work.
When it comes to creativity, colouring outside of the lines is kind of the whole point. There wasn’t actually an issue with my haphazard approach to my assignments – whatever I was doing before was working for me. It was only when I tried to impose a rigid structure that I created a problem. I’d failed to see the invisible order already making the process work as if by magic – if I’d just put my faith in believing that it was there all along.