Every few years, I like to challenge myself with an extended creative project. My most recent one has been my recording project in 2011. Each month in 2011, I recorded one song of mine in my home studio. By setting up the artificial deadline of one song per month, I was able to get recording done that would have otherwise fallen by the wayside. I also was forced to write a few new songs (I didn’t have 12 songs ready to go). While it was stressful, and there were several times across the process I thought I’d have to give it up, the impetus I gave myself and the constraints I provided helped me to finish. It was overwhelmingly satisfying to see the number of songs tick upward each month. When I got to twelve, I was blown away that I was able to accomplish so much. I’m currently in the process of turning them into a cd, though you can hear the rough results of the project here.
In 2007, after just having taken a job that allowed me to commute via train, I decided that doing the crossword puzzles, while entertaining, was not ultimately fulfilling. So on my birthday, I began bringing a sheet of paper with me on the train, and each workday for a full year I wrote a poem. I gave myself two constraints for the project:
Constraint #1 was that I had to write every day I rode the train. Giving myself leeway here meant allowing myself to just give up the project; it’s too easy to just start taking days off. Here it was important to give myself realistic timelines to accomplish what I wanted to do. It wasn’t like I was doing anything else super important while I was riding the train.
Constraint #2 was that the poem should be started no earlier than when I arrived at the Wissahickon train station, and finished no later than when I arrived at work. That’s three stops on the [Septa Regional Rail line formerly known as] R6, generally lasting between 12 and 15 minutes. Sometimes I put the finishing touches on a poem while walking to my office or when I sat down at my desk, but most times it was done by the time I left the train.
Within the first week or two of the project, I noticed that 15 minutes was not always enough time to create something of value. I was starting to write some seriously bad poetry. Rather than being demoralizing, though, this became liberating. If I wasn’t obligated to come up with something poignant, charming, or groundbreaking, I had freedom to create without judgment. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, there is a fictional religion called Bokononism filled with its own customs and rituals. When a follower of Bokononism meets someone shy (not neon…), their customary greeting is “it is not possible to make a mistake.” In addition to being a delightful way to put someone at ease, this phrase works very well as an approach to forced writing. I was allowed to experiment, and while some ideas did not come to fruition, many did. I found that the constraint was helpful in lifting my judgment; by forcing myself to be done within 15 minutes, finishing became a priority over quality.
The result was about 225 poems compiled in a notebook, many of which are so bad that they will never see the light of day. However, I found many of the remaining ones moving and inspiring. At the end of the year, I learned the basics of bookbinding and compiled about 25 of my favorites into a homemade book. I made about 12 and gave them out as Christmas presents. Several of the poems have gone on to be made into songs, some of which ended up on my 2011 song project.
My friend Samantha has taken a similar idea to create one illustration each month this year, which you can check out at her blog. Samantha is an accomplished artist and designer as well as a talented “createur,” and still she finds new ways to challenge herself and her abilities.
So if you’re looking to inspire yourself, I can’t recommend enough assigning yourself a project, even if it’s just arbitrary. Set up a clear goal (I want to create X thingies), apply constraints (each one has to be begun and finished within Y periods of time), and shed your judgment (if I make a bad thingie, that’s not only acceptable, but an expected part of the process). You’ll be surprised how much you can create and how much hidden talent you possess.