Novel Thoughts blog

Creativity Is Work

January 9, 2015 3:54 pm | 6 Comments


I’m fortunate. Much of my day job includes creative work, including graphic design, illustration, and writing. So even when I don’t have time at the end of the day to work on personal projects, I usually still had some small bit of creative work to look back on. (The unfortunate part of this: it’s then easy for me to make excuses as to why I don’t really need to work on those personal projects!)

But having worked for quite a while in a creative field has taught me some of the hard, practical things about creativity. Trying to keep active with personal projects is also important, as doing things such as getting out there to sketch or paint often feeds my professional work, and ideas that percolate slowly when commuting or staring at a screen often flow more easily when holding a pad and pencil.

Here’s a list of rather obvious tips that I’ve picked up. Many of these are ones people told me about and I ignored at first because they seemed too obvious; I thought I needed more complex routines. But simple is almost always best.

Creativity is work. We’re sold a picture of creativity that is ecstatic and wondrous, where artists dance about slashing paint at a canvas with intensity and verve. And, truthfully, creativity can feel like that at times. But most of the time it’s work. You have to be willing to set aside the idea that seeking fun isn’t the same as seeking the creative kernel of an idea. You also have to discard the idea that creative sparks will fly if you just sit and wait for inspiration. Take the first step and start.

Starting work is the hardest. And with distractions all around it is so, so easy to find something else to do, like check social media or e-mail. Take the first step simply by opening a new document or image file or taking up pad and pencil. Then just start working on your project, even if all you are doing is doodling or writing sentences and deleting them. If you keep at it and get the ball rolling, eventually you will begin to produce something.

Set reminders and schedule ahead. If you plan on taking three nights a week to work on a project, set a reminder or alarm on your phone or computer. Mention it to your spouse. Make it so that you don’t have the excuse that you forgot.

Don’t talk about it. Wait until you have something to show. One of the easiest things to do is talk with your friends about a project you really want to do instead of actually doing it. I think talking about your potential project can trick your brain into thinking that you actually accomplished something. Instead, wait until you have something to show—even if it’s just a small something—before you talk much about it. That way you’ll also get more feedback on your idea without the project fizzling into a woulda, coulda, shoulda daydream.

Don’t overestimate your ability to commit. One of the best ways to end up not accomplishing anything is to set a wildly unrealistic goal. “I will spend three hours every evening working on this project.” If all you realistically have is an hour or even half an hour, make that your commitment. Otherwise you’ll fulfil your expectations once or twice and then abandon them.

Feed your creativity. When I’m feeling burnt out creatively, the best remedy for me is watching a great film or heading to an art museum. For others it’s a concert, or a walk in nature. Whatever feeds you creatively, make a commitment to encounter with it fairly regularly. It’s not an indulgence.

Find constructive critics. At work I have the art director I work under, and for my art projects at home I try to send images to friends who can give me honest feedback. Don’t just rely on people who give you unconditional praise. You won’t grow unless you get some correction. And for goodness sake, develop a thick skin. There’s nothing worse than a beginner who refuses to listen to a wise critic.

Learn from the best. I regularly read book design blogs and follow artists I like online, making special effort to find out what their work process is like. In whatever creative field your interests lie, find a number of people to watch. You might even try dropping them a line or talk with them if they have a blog or social media presence. A lot of creative people are pretty generous about answering honest questions from those really wanting to learn.

Any other people have good tips for creativity? Let me know!

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children.

Tags: creativity design work process writing


  1. January 9, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    I just want to sit up and scream, “AMEN!” So often, the creative aspects of my job spend my creative energy, the fuzzy, ill-defined leftovers being committed haphazardly to personal projects. I have found ways to incorporate personal creativity with professional creativity, but it isn’t enough. There are dinners to make, homework to check, laundry to fold. When the time isn’t readily available, we really must force ourselves to do SOMETHING. So, for you it was an art museum. For me, it is gardens. I feel creative when I am around green, growing things. Sometimes, it is just making what I AM doing creative- creative cooking, dressing the children in new outfits, singing with them. All that said (and again, a symphonic AMEN), I don’t believe creativity can last without stillness. Stillness is to creativity as oxygen is to fire. It needs it to find that depth, the connection to art done and art to-be. It is in the still and the quiet that creativity is birthed into creation.

  2. John Herreid

    January 9, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks, Kristi! I wrote a bit in an earlier post about the need to get some solitude from time to time so that creativity can come to the surface:

    I like your points about using everyday tasks as creative outlets. I try to do that as well!

  3. January 10, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Great post, John. Worthy bulletin board material! Numbers 2 and 4 are very hard for me, but I’ve, thankfully, been pretty good at a couple of the others.

  4. January 11, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    Well said all around! A stoical outlook is helpful. Acclaim and self-satisfaction are poisons of the sort where a bit is beneficial and very much is deadly, if not to the creative process, at least to the creator. As Seneca once urged, “Avoid whatever is approved by the crowd.” I am not sure this explains why so many artists are unable to equal their early efforts, but it may go far toward accounting for the wreckage of their personal lives. Birds of a feather … maybe works for birds, peacocks strutting their stuff and parrots repeating what they have heard excepted.

  5. January 11, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    Fantastic! Thank you.

  6. John Herreid

    January 12, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Thanks! G.K. Chesterton once said that “the artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs”. He was speaking of something slightly different that what I wrote about here, but it applies as well. Without some discipline, talent gets squandered.

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