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Creativity in Chaos

Photo: Shutterstock

It’s dark when I open my eyes. The shapes around me assert themselves—the dog asleep at my feet, my husband’s snoring form beside me. I like this brain, this self, the person I am when I just wake up. I rise, breathe, head upstairs for my first creative cycle of the day. Here in this dim, quiet space, I am most myself. Most able to access my creativity, connect with my story. It is the time before. Before obligations, before news, before social media, and all its traps and pitfalls. This is where my most creative self is wide awake and alive, when the world sleeps.

Ideally.

In creativity, chaos has always been a factor, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The world has been burning for a while now, though many of us are only just noticing. In a New York Times Book Review article about author Jenny Offill, she asks, “Can you still just tend to your own garden once you know about the fire outside its walls?” She was talking about climate change and this was back in February 2020, which seems impossibly distant. And even beyond the churning global issues, for most of us, there is a slew of obligations, responsibilities, worries, and anxieties, challenges—any one of which can derail the creative process for hours, days, weeks, years. The dog threw up at 4 a.m. The child has a fever. You’re fighting with your spouse. The dishes. The laundry. Your day job. You know.

But.

Creativity is not a distant and elusive island, somewhere so remote you might never visit. It’s an infinite resource and, truly, its right inside you. We tend to think that creativity is something that exists for other people, that it’s a luxury which we may or may not deserve. But I’m offering that it’s within reach and that you can connect with your most creative self. Whether you have an artistic goal—to paint, to write, to compose—or you just want to access the place where you do your best work, here are a few thoughts to help you get there:

The time before—or after

Write, compose, paint, or work early (or late). Write before your kids get up, or after they go to sleep, before you’re tempted to ingest the brain candy of social media, or drink from the well of toxic sludge that is the news, or after you’ve had so much that you can’t possibly consume any more. Find your quiet space and use it. I promise you it’s there. You might need to log off Twitter or stop bingeing Bridgerton on Netflix, but you probably have an hour somewhere.

Creativity is control

Remember that creativity is the place that you can go to escape chaos. You might have to run a whole new gauntlet—Zoom meetings, homeschooling, cooking for many people, many times a day—but once you’re there, on the page, you are in control. Maybe no place else in life will you ever have more control than you do when you’re creating something.

Breathe 

Nothing of quality ever came forth in a panic. Believe in your craft, in your gift, in the power of story, in your work, and why you’re doing it. If you show up and open up, the ideas will come.

Observe the madness, the world, yourself 

Everything you are feeling, experiencing, fearing, hating, loving, everything that hurts, that brings joy will at some point find its way into your work. When we live authentically, paying attention, and being present, all the texture and experiences of our lives make us more creative. This moment is like no other. Be present for it.

Count your wins

Anything you do creatively right now is a win. Anything. A sentence, an idea scribbled on a paper towel, a character sketch, a craft you do with your kids, a pie you bake. Count your wins. Cut your losses. Everyone gets a pass right now. Here’s a funny article about what Shakespeare REALLY did during the plague.

Schedule

This one is especially for parents who are now, suddenly, working from home—and parenting all day, and maybe homeschooling. Okay, that’s a blender without a lid. And I know, because I have been doing it for 14 years (not the homeschooling part, though helping with schoolwork is always a parenting responsibility.)

Of course, setting and managing a schedule is an ideal. Because with kids, things are always changing. So, first, be patient, with yourself, with the kids. If there are two parents at home, I suggest dividing the day. One person works in the morning, while the other works in the afternoon, switching off the primary parent role. This won’t always work, but it’s a start. More important than this is to set a schedule for the kids. Here’s how my husband and I have done it: Wake up, breakfast (all together), mom or dad goes off to work (hopefully in a separate space), morning activity (might be schoolwork, might be a walk around the block, or a dip in the pool), snack, screen time, or independent/assisted craft, (here maybe the on parent gets to check work email), lunch (all together maybe), parents switch — repeat morning schedule but with the other parent working. Then dinner, bath time, story, bed. After kids are in bed, couple time.

The important part about this is that both parents respect the other’s work, enjoy their time with the children, and honor the schedule. Kids do way better when they know what to expect, when parents are calm and in control, and set understandable, predictable boundaries. And if you manage to set and mostly honor a schedule that offers creative blocks — guess what? You’re teaching your kids to be creative adults, who can honor a schedule and get to work in times of crisis and chaos.

Fail! Take a break. Try again.

And when it all goes out the window? Kids have a meltdown? Siblings acting like rival gang members? YOU have a meltdown. Hey, you know what, there’s a global crisis right now and nothing was ever going to be perfect anyway and especially not right now. So, take a break, do something you all like, even if that’s just watching television for a while, and start again when everyone is a little calmer. The loving time, peaceful, happy time you share with your kids right now is so much more important than anything else, even if you’re worried about work. Because they’re struggling, too. And the world seems like a scary place to them—because it is. Make a safe place for them at home if you can. And, remember that the problem of finding space to be creative is a luxury. If you’re home, safe, healthy, and not worried about feeding your family and paying medical bills, you’re one of the lucky ones. Gratitude is in order. Kids can be taught that, too.

The truth is that life—normal life—will always conspire to rob you of your creativity. Chaos is frequently knocking on the door. There’s a normal day-to-day gauntlet that we must run to get into the zone. At my house, we call it the runway, and sometimes there are obstacles that impede flight. But the fact is that with tenacity, self-discipline, scheduling, and a deep breath you can get yourself there often enough to accomplish your creative goals or the work that is important to you while being present for your family, and staying sane. 

Most of the time.

Suggested reading: 

DEEP WORK by Cal Newport

Suggested podcast:

The Tim Ferriss Show/Elizabeth Gilbert’s Creative Path: Saying No, Trusting Your Intuition, Index Cards, Integrity Checks, Grief, Awe and Much More (#430)

About The Author
Lisa Unger

Lisa is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author. With books published in 26 languages and millions of copies sold worldwide, she is widely regarded as a master of suspense. Her new release is Confessions on the 7:45. Unger’s critically acclaimed books have been named on “Best Book” lists from the Today show, Good Morning AmericaEntertainment WeeklyPeopleAmazonGoodreads, and many others. She has been nominated for, or won, numerous awards including the Hammett Prize, Macavity, Thriller Award, and Goodreads Choice. In 2019, she received two Edgar Award nominations, an honor held by only a few authors, including Agatha Christie. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesWall Street JournalNPR, and Travel+Leisure. She lives on the west coast of Florida with her family. For more info, visit www.lisaunger.com.