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Creativity is a Finite (and Renewable) Resource

January 31, 2011

My recent posts on the challenges of being a writer who cannot find the time to write got me thinking.  Particularly, as I contemplated my writer’s journal, a certain reality hit me.

Which is this: I have the notebook as a tool to allow me to write about my ideas during those free moments – those little five or ten or fifteen minute moments – that pop  up even during a busy day.  And I do have those moments – maybe not every day, but several times a week.  And yet, I don’t spend those moments the way I’d like… I don’t write in my notebook.

Is it because I have no ideas I want to write about?  Certainly not!  I have several story ideas that I want to flesh out and prepare for when I have more substantial writing time.  I have novel projects to work on, and short story ideas to contemplate.  And yet, more often than not, I write nothing about these?  Why is that?

I believe I know the answer.

The simple fact is, creativity is a limited, finite resource.

Consider the real, physical resources we use every day.  Say, oil, for instance.  Oil, if you aren’t already aware, is essentially the decayed plant and animal matter of creatures that died millions of years ago transformed by geologic processes of extreme heat and pressure into this carbon-rich goo that’s full of potential energy.  There’s a finite amount of it in the ground.  Once we suck it all up and burn it in our cars, it’s gone, finito, no more.

Then again, any resource is renewable, if you take the right time horizon.  Stuff still dies today, and when it dies it still ends up in the ground.  If we’re willing to wait on a geological time scale – millions of years – we’ll have more oil again.  But there’s a lot that has to happen during that time for the oil to be recreated – tectonic plates need to shift, new rock and stone needs to bury the old, and shape of the world will need to change.

Or take wood.  At a given point in time, there are a finite, countable number of trees in a forest.  If you cut them all down for wood, you have no more forest.  Of course, trees are always dropping seeds, and seeds become seedlings, then saplings, then small trees.  Give those thirty years, fifty years, maybe a hundred years, depending on the type of tree, and you’ve got another full-grown tree.  Enough of those seedlings and someday you’ll have a forest again, if you’re willing to wait.  But something has to happen over that time: the seedlings need water, nutrients, and sunlight to thrive.

So it is with creativity.  You’ve got only so much creative, mental energy available to you in a day – some of us have more than others, and vice versa.  You can spend that creative energy however you want.  You can write, for instance, which is a fine way to use your creative energy, if I do say so.  Or, you know, you can spend eight to ten hours each day in a mentally demanding job.   But even if you have a mentally demanding job, like I do, you’ll probably have some creative resources left over at the end of the day to give some of it to your writing. 

Of course, you could also jump head-first into an evening master’s degree program.  So, after spending all day in a mentally demanding job, you spend several evenings a week in a mentally demanding class, and most of the other evenings reading papers for class, working problems, doing projects for class, and so on.  Man, that’s a lot of mental energy you’ve just chosen to expend.  We’re talking deforestation, here.  I don’t know where you’re going to find the creative energy to write something…

The point is, of course, that writing takes time – but more than that, thinking takes time and energy.   And writing doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, whole-cloth.  You have to think about it first.  When I say I have novel ideas or short story ideas I want to work on, what I mean is, I’ve already got a general frame-work for these ideas, and I’ve probably written out those frameworks.  Now I want to start exploring the details, fleshing out their worlds, understanding their characters – all the things that make up the story but which aren’t the story.  But those things don’t invent themselves.  I have to do it.  And to do it, I need to think long and hard about each of them.

But, these days, I don’t have many opportunities to think about the things I want to write about.   I have those few five or ten minute breaks, occasionally.  Which is often just enough time to mentally review the frameworks of the stories I want to write and orient myself on the story problems I want to work on when it’s suddenly time to do something else important, like go to class or analyze a spreadsheet.  I never actually get to the part of the story problem I want to work on.  And my creative energy?  Spent.  So, more often than not, after I finish doing those other important but mentally exhausting things like my job and my school-work, I don’t have any creative energy left to even begin to think about plot and character and story structure and world building. 

All is not lost, of course.  It just means that when I’m able to start writing again, I’ll have to spend some time first doing something that doesn’t look very much like writing but which is, in fact, part of the process: and that’s thinking about what I’m going to write.  And that will be okay, because when that day comes (and it will come, I must remind myself) I’ll have time to think as well as to write.

But even when that day comes, I will still have days when I feel that I have just exhausted my mental reserves, and I don’t have any creative energy to write.  I’ve chosen a mentally demanding profession for my day job, after all, and I believe in giving my employer my best effort.  Luckily, that’s where the second half of today’s post title comes in, because luckily this resource is renewable, given the right time horizon and the right conditions.

Thankfully, the time horizon for renewing this resource isn’t geologic, or even as long as waiting for a forest to grow.  Given the right conditions, you can renew this resource hours, days, or maybe months if you’re really exhausted.  And what are those conditions?

Well, I’ll share the single, number-one most effective tool for renewing your creative energy.  It’s one of those things that professional, published writers often tell you to do:  Read.

What should you read, you ask?  Well, that all depends.  Well, not really, because almost any kind of deep reading will do.  But first and foremost, reading published works within your genre will be especially helpful in getting your creative juices flowing.  But you shouldn’t stick just to that.  I love to read the news, for instance, or articles about subjects which randomly interest me.  My story which received an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest recently, for instance, was inspired by random bit of news I read about a biological discovery.  Reading other published works outside your chosen genre can also be helpful to provide you with new perspectives on the craft of story-telling (although I admittedly do this very rarely).  Next, books about the art and craft of writing can be helpful – both as inspiration as well as for what can be learned and gleaned from those who have gone before.  Finally, I also like to read my own story notes, writing journal, and other written works.  I don’t read these for enjoyment, per se, but because doing so forces me to do two things: examine my own writing (and in the process, often identifying flaws) and think about my story and the things I want to be writing about. 

Reading is a great way to recharge because whereas writing takes mental effort and energy, reading is a relaxed, entertaining experience.  I was going to say “reading is passive”, but when good writing really engages you as a reader it’s not passive at all – but it usually doesn’t require “work” on your part to get into it.

There are other ways to recharge your resource as well.  Time away from work (be it your day job or even your writing) can help.  The space gives you breathing room and gives your brain room to stretch.  Getting away from the routine of your daily life, or away from your normal daily environment can also be a big way to boost your brain’s energy.  For both of these: that’s what vacation was made for!  Sometimes, even just the weekend away can do the job.  Dear Wife and I, for instance, often like to get away to the mountains to feel relaxed.  Getting a full night’s sleep is another great way to recharge.  I always feel more energized and more creative when I’m getting the right amount of sleep – but don’t overdo it!  Too much sleep can have the opposite effect, making me feel lethargic both physically and mentally.

And I’m sure there are other ways to recharge.  Feel free to chime in.  What ways do you have of recharging your creative batteries when the juice runs dry?  Share in the comments.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2011 12:34 pm

    I find that being around other people who are excited about writing, always gets my creative juices flowing too. I have this one friend, who even though we’re on opposite ends of the continent, I call up, and babble about all the new ideas. It’s like getting a ball of creativity rolling, and before you know it, ideas beget ideas, and we’re both rolling down the hill at top speed on our respective, very different, projects.

    • January 31, 2011 12:58 pm

      That’s a very good point. In general, having anyone to bounce ideas off of is an excellent booster to creativity. I have, for instance, in the past been stuck about some plot and character points. I’ve discussed my thoughts on the problems with one of my sisters (one who is an occassional writer of poetry, I believe, but mostly is not a writer), and in the course of those conversations come to some positively “Eureka!”-like moments… Come to think of it, that’s precisely what I need on some of the writing projects I’m working on currently (for values of “working on” that include not actually spending any time or labor on, excepting occassionally thinking about it). I’ve been trying to interest my Dear Wife in a conversation about some of my writing projects but, alas, she is not a writer and hasn’t taken the bait. (If you read this, Dear Wife… that’s the explanation for why I keep trying to talk to you about my book ideas, even though I’ve been picking awful times to bring the subject up, like right before bedtime.)

      • BT's mama permalink
        February 4, 2011 8:51 am

        Doh, way call me out on your blog for not adequately listening to your creative juice! Though you did point out that you often pick inconvenient times — after we turn out the light and I am trying to fall asleep to get as much zzzzs as possible before my alarm (be it BT’s screams or the one beside my bad) goes off or when we are rushing around in the morning to try and get out the door. Still, I doubt I have much to add beyond supportive adjectives.

      • February 4, 2011 8:57 am

        Oops. I wasn’t trying to call you out… sorry. As I said, I realized I picked some pretty awful times. Besides, we’ve had a couple conversations since then 🙂 And I’m still struggling through some of the plot issues… but even if you don’t have any specific ideas to offer, just talking it out with you gets my mind turning and helps me come up with better ideas, myself.

  2. February 5, 2011 12:51 pm

    Another good example of a renewable resource is time. You can spend all of your hours today on a mentally demanding job, school, and family. Tomorrow, you’ll have more time.

    However, when you start to look at time as a renewable resource it starts to add interesting variations to the viewpoint. Spending time is effectively investments. These investments can pay off well. The MBA will make you a more valuable employee and although it is mental energy and time invested now, it will potentially reduce the time and effort necessary later. The same thing can happen with work. I know several people who have excelled at their careers and this has opened opportunities for them that often translate into spare time. Those who excel at mentally demanding professions can be invaluable and as a result can provide significant value even without working “full” time.

    • February 5, 2011 3:34 pm

      Certainly, that’s the general idea behind getting the MBA. The time, money, and energy invested now, at least in theory, will result in better life conditions and more time for family and writing in the future.

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