The Life Cycle
of Creative Projects
There’s a certain look that people get when they’re lost in the middle of a writing project. It’s a mix of daze and frustration and awe. We get to see it a lot at the studio. It’s like — they know they’re making something, but they have no idea what it is, where to go next, or what they need in order to get there.
I love this look. Partly because I get it, and partly because I know how to help.
The most frustrating part of creating is the lack of language we have for it. There is no map. We wander in, we wander around, if we’re lucky we learn and grow and change a bit, and then we wander out hoping we have something the world wants.
I actually think there is a map. I’m going to roll it out for you here, so that you can figure out where you are, and what you might be needing next.
Ready? Let’s go…
The First Province: HIBERNATION
Let me say this slowly: Watching Netflix in bed while eating crinkle chips is part of the creative process. I swear. Downtime, however it looks, can be very productive. Just like the earth, when your creative mind has been working for a while, it needs fallow time before it will flower. But here’s the thing — hibernation needs to be a choice. When we mindlessly drift away from creating, maybe label it as “procrastination” or fill up with doubt that we’re actually creative, we don’t receive the resplendence that’s due to us. Make the choice cleanly and give yourself the space you need to fill back up.
If you want to hibernate, we highly recommend:
Permission, permission, permission. Write this down and post it all over your home.
Anything that buys you time — a meal delivery service, a break from social media, a friend to swap parenting duties with… These are investments in your beautiful creative life.
Abolish the word procrastination from your vocabulary, along with any guilt it carries. Nothing blooms all year, and rest lets everything sprout newly.
The Second Province: POLLINATION
You know those days when the world just feels alive? You’re getting ideas, you’re excited about making things, you’re seeing beauty in little details? You don’t need to wait around for that, you can cultivate it by going out and finding the beauty and inspiration that feeds you. The trick is in the “going out and finding” part — the good shit doesn’t always just text you and show up with take out and a nice rosé. Like those smart little bees, it takes energy to fly around looking for tulips, but we need that nectar to survive. So — what is your creative nectar right now? It’s different for everyone. No judgment, just listen. Is it a lunch break in a park, just listening to birds and children? Is it a matinee all alone with a huge bag of popcorn? Is it walking slowly through a bookstore? Let your hungers lead you somewhere you want to go.
If you want to pollinate, we highly recommend:
A subscription to something that will delight you. I just subscribed to Papirmass, a monthly art mail-out run and I can’t wait to start getting pretty prints in the mail. And of course there’s our subscription service for writers, which is open for registration all month.
Beautiful pens and paper. You’ll be more inspired to write if you love your instruments. (We especially adore Wonderpens, but beautiful pens and paper are everywhere.)
Any workshop or group where you’ll feel safe and supported to play, experiment and dream. Keep Your Pen Moving is a stellar one, or if you’ve already done that one, Keep Your Pen Moving Part 2 will focus on helping you land on a project idea. If you know your material is personal, our Life Stories Workshop is also a great choice. And of course it doesn’t need to be a Firefly class! See where Google takes you.
The Third Province: COMMITMENT
When we’ve been pollinating long enough, ideas start to come. This can be a tricky moment, because committing to one idea means letting all those other little sprouts go. How do we know which idea to follow through with? How do we say goodbye to all the things we won’t make? How do we trade in the sweetness of nectar for one path that will carry us inward? Hard though it may be, the courage to commit is the doorway to the whole rest of the map. A little support at this province can go a long way.
If it’s time to step firmly into commitment, we highly recommend:
A contest or call for submissions that fits your project perfectly. Deadlines have magical properties. Here’s a big list that we made up. Also, this magazine (produced by a Firefly!) has loads of options.
Go away. Find a place to sink into your new project that’s as far from the distractions of everyday life as possible. You can spend a lot of money on this, but you don’t need to. Even just a long subway ride can give you the distance your brain needs to detach from commitments and start new. If you’re looking for a getaway in Southern Ontario, we have some great options here.
The Fourth Province: CHAOS
As soon as we settle into an idea, it turns to chaos. It’s inevitable, and if you’re anything like me, it can be uncomfortable. The idea just keeps expanding. “Wait, it’s not a memoir, it’s a screenplay!” “Wait, I want to write this in 3rd person!” etc, etc. This is good, it’s where the true, deep, creative, individual work happens. It is your soul in all it’s uniqueness struggling to get past the conventions and assumptions you’ve accumulated. The trick is to stay there, even if it feels messy, even if you don’t understand it.
If you want to hang out in beautiful chaos, we highly recommend:
Anything that will give you deadlines and accountability so that you keep moving forward. Again, I’m biased towards The Big One and Deeper Waters, but even a friend to swap deadlines with on a regular basis can be HUGE.
A life coach or therapist who can help you make sense of what’s coming up so that you can calm the chaos and keep producing. (If you’re looking for someone in Toronto, there’s a new low-cost therapy center here).
Anything that will help you stave off physical overwhelm and keep your nervous system thriving. I’m terrible at meditating, but I hear it can be very helpful. Other options include long walks, long baths, being near trees, and getting a little more sleep at night.
The Fifth Province: PRODUCTION
Truth — writing is a lot of physical work. In this phase we need to get our hands on the keyboard over and over. We’ll circle back into chaos, we’ll lose the point, we’ll get bored of the project, our spines will get sore. This is the work of it. It’s real, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s totally worth it.
If you want to produce like a Motherf—–, we highly recommend:
A distraction-free place to write. If you like coffee shops, try three new ones. If you love to be at home, de-clutter a corner and declare it your sacred writing space. If you want to be around other writers, get on the wait-list for quiet writing time at the studio or get a membership to the Toronto Writers Centre.
Join others in an absurd goal. The Three-Day Novel Contest is a particularly silly one, I did it several years ago and amazingly DID write a novel in 3 days. A more leisurely (but still intense) approach comes in November with NaNoWriMo. Both include meetups, online support and incentives to finish.
Find some deeper quiet. We have a line up of retreats that we run through the year. A while back I treated myself to a delicious five-day silent retreat at Loretto Maryholme Spirituality Center and I wrote TONS. The world is full of quiet corners, we just need to organize our lives around them.
The Sixth Province: REFINEMENT
When we sit in that chair for long enough, the chaos shrinks and the work grows and then we have a thing. We may not know what the thing is, but it’s undeniably there, a messy first draft. Now it’s time to edit. Like all the rest, this can be a slippery patch — it’s easy to feel like you’ve done your work, you should get to put it away. And you might want to for a while (a dip into hibernation can be really useful right here) but to reach the full heights of the creative reward, there’s still more work to do. How will you commit to doing it?
If you want to work your way our of mess, we highly recommend:
A system of deadlines to work through your work in manageable chunks. This could be a friend you commit to sharing work with on a regular basis, a class that keeps you honest, a coach to say “Where are my 2,000 words for the week?”
Our editing services seriously rock. I can say that ego-free because I don’t personally provide them. Ailsa and Britt bring vast bounties of intelligence and sensitivity to this delicate process. Check them out if you think this might be the next phase for you.
Do you know about Beta Readers? When you need a new set of eyes on your work but you don’t want to invest in a thorough manuscript review, Beta Readers will take in your work as “average” readers and give you feedback from that place. I haven’t used her, but I love Cat Skinner.
The Final Province: RELEASE
Here’s a hard truth: It’s not really finished if no one has seen it. Yes, this province can be intimidating but damn it feels good. The trick is in finding the RIGHT way to let your project go. That might mean having one friend over for an intimate evening and reading it to them. It might mean self-publishing six copies for your inner circle. It might mean seeking a conventional publisher. Take some time in here to authentically reflect on what’s right for you and for this particular piece of work, and let your heart speak louder than your ego. It’ll take you to a more rewarding place.
If it’s time to release something into the world, we recommend:
Be among writers and publishers. Place yourself there. Feel how it feels, with your own work close to your heart. If you’re in Southern Ontario, Word on the Street and the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival are great places to start.
Look over your full spectrum of options. Here are a few we’ve written up. Writing isn’t the preamble to publishing. There are thousands more ways to be seen.
If you’re working on building your “author presence”, this resource gets a lot of great press. Truthfully, I downloaded it last year and still haven’t cracked it open so I can’t really say, but I trust these people to deliver the goods.
Okay. So. Why does this matter?
The Persian poet Hafiz says, “The place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you.”
So it is with your stories, with everything you want to make.
Moving all the way through this cycle feels astounding. It deepens our humanity, it claims a place in the world for our voices, it brings us wholeness. It’s what drives me, and it’s what I want for you most.
So wander around in these provinces. Print up our PDF version of this and keep it close. Pay attention to what’s hard and what’s easy for you right now, and how that has changed. Think about what you need to keep moving, even just one or two steps.
If what you need is us, we’re here for you. If what you need isn’t us, we’re cheering for you.
You’re not nowhere. You’re right here. This is your creative life, mysterious and magnificent and all yours.