Picasso Quote

Disciplined creativity

It sounds like an oxymoron, right? “Disciplined creativity”. When you think of “discipline” you imagine other words like “effort,” “sweat,” “rules,” “constraint”; but “creativity” brings up ideas of “freedom,” “flow,” “art,” and “expression”. But believe it or not, consistent creativity requires some measure of discipline.

Now, I’m no artist. My biggest form of creative expression is writing, and apart from this blog, that writing is heady academic stuff. But still it is an act of creation. And as I discipline myself to do it I often remember something a friend who was an actual artist said about how she had to discipline herself to sit down at the easel like a regular job if she wanted the creativity to flow.

I think we can trust that Picasso knew something about this process, and he said:

“When inspiration arrives I want it to find me working”

Pablo Picasso

This month I’m working hard at writing a paper for a conference – the time scale is a bit tighter than I would have liked, and I really want to nail it, so I’m being very careful to use my time as best as I can. But it isn’t easy.

When you sit down to write, and the writing is hard, and perfectionism is loud, it can be so tempting to distract yourself with other tasks. The other night I found myself beginning to reorganise a folder and make cute tabs out of washi tape, when really I was supposed to be brainstorming a section on the theology of limitation within the context of eschatology. The washi tape tabs might have helped a little… who am I kidding, they wouldn’t have made a difference at all.

If only good writing was easier, if only I could just make it happen. But sometimes it’s like an elusive bird that just won’t stay put, ever slipping just beyond my grasp (I clipped the chickens’ wings this week, that’s where that bad metaphor springs from). But that’s how creativity works.

And while I can’t force inspiration, while I can’t conjure it up automatically, there are things that I can do that encourage it. I love John Ortberg’s definition of discipline:

Discipline: Any activity I can do by direct effort that will help me do what I cannot now do by direct effort.

John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted

I can’t force out good ideas by just trying hard, but I can make myself sit at my desk, open Scrivener and start typing something, all the while resisting the washi tape’s siren song.

So, full of self-knowledge at my tendency to procrastinate, I sat down at my desk the next morning to try out a fantastic tip from Neil Gaiman that I read on James Hayton’s PhD blog. His rule is this,

You don’t have to write. You have permission to not write, but you don’t have permission to do anything else.

Eventually, you find yourself writing. Because the thing with writing, as with many creative tasks, is that it takes a whole lot of nudges before you get the ball rolling. You start, you write something crap, you feel bad, you want to stop. And there’s the choice, I either stop, or I go again. If you go again, a few times over, eventually things start rolling, the ideas work, the writing becomes less stilted, and it’s not crap.

And then you find yourself in the magic place of FLOW. That’s a term from psychology that describes the incredibly enjoyable state where you’re absorbed in a task – it’s not easy but you’re equal to it – and your whole focus is on it as your gifting, skills, and passions align.

As I’ve been giving writing a nudge again and again, every time I’m tempted to quit, I remind myself

Few things feel better than flow

Getting into flow though, that can be tortuous! But, it’s worth the discomfort of discipline and it’s worth the battle with perfectionism, because when you’re doing it, it feels SO GOOD. Plus you achieve the goal you’re aiming at!

Writing mightn’t be your thing, but I bet there’s something – some goal, some creative endeavour – where discipline and creativity could meet. Love to hear about it!


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