Why We Need To Understand What Really Goes Into The Creative Process


Sunday, 9.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There’s no one way to be creative. Any old way will work. – Ray Bradbury

Is anyone else finding that being at home with the kids all the time makes it hard to work the way you always do?

I think that’s because kids always want to check out what you’re doing and if it’s more interesting than what they’re doing.

If you’re using a screen – a phone, a computer – they want some of that action.

So, because we want them to spend time playing and reading and all that kind of stuff, we turn the screens off.

And that makes it difficult to do things that involve screens – especially if you like drawing or writing and tend to use the computer a lot for that kind of thing.

But, if you use paper and pencil, that’s much less interesting.

They might join you at the table doing something that looks like schoolwork they’ll either start doing the same with you or they’ll get on and play – either way you get them doing something that kids should be doing.

And what I do at times like these is instead of getting on with working I start looking around for how other people do their work.

You will remember, for example, that Roald Dahl wrote all his books with Dixon Ticonderoga pencils on yellow legal pads.

I bought a box of HBs and was quite disappointed with the quality of the modern Ticonderoga.

Japanese alternatives like the Tombow Mono 100 or the Mistubishi Hi-Uni are silky smooth and beautiful to write with.

Pencils are great because you can lie on the sofa and write upside down but they lack the impact of ink.

And that’s just the mark making tools.

What about paper – do you go with the legal pad or standard A4?

If you read Robert M. Pirsig’s Lila, you learn about how he collected information on 4×6 slips of paper, thousands of them, from which structure of his book emerged.

Or you could read about Ryan Holiday’s notecard system which is based on what he learned from Robert Greene.

Then you have John McPhee and his approach which involves first taking notes and coding them, then cutting them up, moving the pieces around, in a highly customised editor – the equivalent of a pair of scissors.

This has echoes of a Zettelkasten – another note taking method that was an early version of hyperlinked pages implemented using index cards.

Now, you will realise that I have already gone quite deep into things that probably don’t matter – unless you’re one of those people for whom it matters very much.

The point I’m trying to make is what you see is not what there is.

For any person who takes on the task of creating something – an article, a book, a business – there is lots you don’t see.

But there are three crucial things you have to get right if you are one of those people.

The first is to realise that the product is what comes out at the end of the process.

If you start trying to get your product perfect the very first time, you will probably paralyse yourself into inaction.

Take writing, for example, the chances are that the first thing you write is going to be rubbish.

But, if you don’t get that rubbish down, you’ll never get to the next stage – the rewriting and editing which results in better, tighter, cleaner text.

So, you need a method to create your product – a method that helps you work through the broad idea of what you are trying to create and break it down into smaller, doable parts.

The third essential thing you have to do is create a way to join up the parts you create – you need a kind of glue to keep them together.

All the elements I described above are parts of people’s methods.

Interestingly, when I searched for images of McPhee and Kedit, the editor he uses, the image from one of my articles about writing came up.

I use a method that is a combination of McPhee’s, Pirsig’s, the Zettelkasten, and the tools that make up a Unix based programming environment.

It’s not a method I would recommend that anyone else uses because it’s customised to fit the way I work – and I’m trying to combine analogue and digital tools in a way that helps me create the kind of work I want to do.

I like literate programming, a way of creating stuff that separates out the thinking and doing.

For example, you might have thoughts about what to put in a chapter – ideas, musings and so on.

Then there is the actual stuff you write, the text you want to go into the printed document which is based on the thoughts you had.

I like having both these in the same file and extracting the bits that are going to make their way into the final document.

Angst and output kept together, but able to be separated when needed.

And, of course, with text processing tools, it’s a doddle to glue everything together – I’m not sure there is much use in using index cards for that purpose, unless you really like the analogue approach there.

So, here’s the thing about being creative.

If someone likes what you’ve made at the end of your process – that’s a huge bonus.

But everything that matters is in your process – however that works for you.


Karthik Suresh

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