Choose Your Creative Habitat

creative habitatI borrowed some material from Melting Chocolate Kettles to end this post, so for those of you who haven’t read the book, here’s the thesis of the chapter on Place: Set up a creative habitat where actual, raw production can happen on a consistent basis.

Choose a place to make a mess then clean it up.

Those coffee rings and ugly first drafts needs to live somewhere, and you need a safe place to practice. When I still believed that I could become a standout basketball player, I was glad to have a basketball goal at home where I could brick layups and shoot airballs without being self-conscious.

Making art, which usually entails making art badly, is a vulnerable, awkward, disappointing, exhilarating act akin to making love. Some privacy is in order.

Creative habitats, like bedrooms, take on the personality of their inhabitants, and different artists have different tastes. Some people seek out coffeeshops for their noise and people watching. Others prefer silence and seclusion.

I remember telling my parents that having the television on helped me do my homework. I liked the background noise. This excuse was a sack of hot garbage. I just wanted to watch television.

Though I know better than to embarrass myself by offering a catchall prescription, I can say with confidence that what we want, whether noise or silence, people watching or solitude, isn’t always what we need. My taste buds might want a rib-eye steak encrusted with salt and basted with garlic butter or hot wings with blue cheese dressing, but my body needs the amino acids and fiber found in wild-caught salmon and fresh vegetables.

What we need, as artists, is to finish, and becoming a prolific artist requires paying attention to the factors that boost one’s productivity. You have to create and protect an environment that minimizes distractions, nurtures your creativity, and increases your output.

“Output” is a dirty, too-mechanical word without any of the romantic overtones that we give creativity and art.

Isn’t making art romantic, more like making love than manufacturing hotdogs? Isn’t that what I just said? Making art may be a vulnerable and exhilarating exercise, but like lovemaking, doing it well takes practice and humility and dogged persistence. You have to learn the mechanics, the “scales,” before you can compose a masterwork.

To qualify the lovemaking analogy, making art requires learning the difference between intimacy and sex. One takes a lifetime, and the other, thirty seconds.

Let me try to bring all this together. A house offers shelter, but a home offers intimate relationships. You can sleep or create just about anywhere, but you can sleep or create better at home. Your creative habitat is where you practice your art better, in privacy, with humility and persistence, and is, in a sense, where you gain intimacy and form a relationship with your craft.

For example, when I am alone at home, I like to write in complete silence and I prefer to work near a window. Music distracts and slows me down.

If I go to a coffee shop, however, I put in headphones and listen to either classical music or indie rock. Last year, my two favorite albums to listen to while writing were “Sigh No More” by Mumford & Sons or “Plague Park” by Handsome Furs. Those two rock albums set a certain mood and offer a reminder: “Austin, you know what you’ve come here to do, and it’s time to do it.”

Music helps me shut out the noises of the espresso grinder and conversations, and earphones also serve the double function of an informal “Do Not Disturb” sign. Fewer acquaintances start conversations with me. I can smile and wave without interrupting the flow.

Regardless of what helps you focus while away, you’ve got to figure out what constitutes your ideal creative habitat, whether that is a room where you live or a studio nearby.

My habitat building tips

·    Always work in the same room or nook at home, and keep your shop “set up,” if you can.
·    Shut the door.
·    Put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door to alert friends, family, and oblivious roommates.
·    Tell the people you live with about your Sparring Session and ask them to respect your privacy. I’ve been told this is especially difficult when you have children, but you will never have a shortage of excuses. Respect for your writing starts with you. If you don’t take it seriously, no one else will. Hire a babysitter if you must.

    ·    Dress up, not down, even if you’re at home. I heard about a respected portrait painter in Nashville, Michael Shane Neal, who started wearing three-piece suits after he discovered that dressing up affected his painting. Wearing baggy sweat pants might mean nothing, or it might produce sloppy work. I think you should give yourself every advantage.
·    Fix a cup of coffee or tea. Avoid getting up in the middle of your dedicated time. You’ll see dirty dishes or clean clothes that need putting away, and you’ll be off like a dog chasing a squirrel.
·    Pay attention to your posture. Don’t hunch over the keyboard and don’t slouch. Your back will ache. Remember, your creative rhythm and habitat should be sustainable.
·    Turn off the ringer on your cell phone.
·    Don’t get on the internet.
·    Don’t check your email.
·    Always carry a small notebook to jot down memories, words, phrases, ideas, questions, and thoughts. I like small Moleskine journals because the paper is acid-free, the pages are sown in, and a small pocket at the bag is good for storing receipts and business cards. I keep them in a sturdy leather journal from Colonel Littleton so they don’t fall apart in my back pocket before I’ve used up the pages.

More writer-specific suggestions

·    If you’re writing, pick a favorite font. (Depending on my mood, I like Garamond, Goudy Old Style, and Helvetica.)
·    Turn off “Spell Check” in the settings on your word processor. Green and red squiggly lines never helped anyone finish a draft.
·    Turn off any other distracting editing functions. Your goal here is production, not polish.
·    Avoid stopping to look up words or check facts. This forces you into editing and accuracy mode, which is a separate stage, and during the drafting phase, your internal editor can be a dam-building beaver.
·    Save your work every day in at least two places. During my first semester of graduate school, the hard drive on my Mac burned up. I was never able to recover some of my creative work. Poof… all those words and hours vanished. Back up your hard drive.

Now, choose your creative habitat and get going, unless, of course, that you have some habitat building tips of your own. Share them in the comments section.

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