Cultivating Creativity: Field Notes for Greater Productivity

Maria Fabrizio’s book Cultivating Creativity is an enjoyable read that compares gardening with design. This book is more of a field guide to creative self-discovery that helps you consider when your best ideas are flowing, when you produce the best work and what routine will help you accomplish your goals.

This guide is divided into three sections. The first, “Ritual,” explores the idea that a daily routine leads to efficiency and satisfaction. Part II, “Intentional Irrigation,” provides advice and experiments for mixing up your routine and keeping it engaging and fruitful. Finally, “Harvest” represents the fruits of your labor – cultivating creativity might be hard work, but in the end it can be both satisfying and enjoyable.

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Below is an excerpt from Cultivating Creativity about finding the right routine:

Chapter 1: Field Notes

My passion for watching the moon sink into the first light from the sun is born from somewhere deep in my childhood. My parents’ routine surely shaped my natural alarm clock. My father has been a morning person for as long as I can remember. He wakes up around 5:00 A.M., throws back a cup of tar-black coffee and descends the stairs to the basement where he lifts weights and listens to talk radio for an hour. My mother isn’t a morning person any- more, but when she was a mail carrier she was sorting thou- sands of letters at the post office before most people had the chance to linger in bed after their alarm went off.

It was difficult to be an instinctively early riser as a child. I was always wide-eyed and fidgety by 7:00 A.M. at a sleepover. Among the piles of blankets, sleeping bags and junk food, I’d wonder why I couldn’t just continue to dream like all the other girls sprawled about the living room floor. I used to feel self-conscious about my bird-like habit, but I’ve found a way to harness that restlessness and make use of the time when my mind is most active.

When I was a teenager, I started to wake early on Saturday mornings and wait for 6:00 A.M. so that I could legally escape the dormitory where I lived for the last two years 
of high school. I went to a public residential arts school a few hours away from my home. However, some weekends
I hung around campus instead of begging my parents to drive me back and forth. Saturday mornings were the best time to quietly crunch my way through a bowl of Cheerios and sneak up to the studios. My desire to be alone making art surely didn’t come from a place of discipline; it came from angsty teenage emotions. I didn’t make anything profound or beautiful on those mornings, but I’d leave the empty hallways feeling like I had a secret. I could enjoy the rest of my day because I had a sense that I had accomplished something. The act of creating—no matter what the out- come of the project—left me with a feeling of completeness and simple satisfaction.

fieldnotesAbout two years ago, I started to notice that my creativity plummeted around 3:00 P.M. It really didn’t matter if I was writing an email, grading a paper or trying to sketch—my brain was about as organized as the floor of my closet. I wasn’t making decisions as confidently as I would during the coffee-brewing hours. Every “afternoon idea” was garbage. I decided I should track when I felt most creative and keep a tiny creative process diary. After several weeks of taking field notes about the conditions under which I worked best, I saw that my peak happiness time was between 5:30 A.M. and noon. If I could accomplish something in that time, I felt like I was sliding down a rainbow into a bowl of cotton candy. So, I adjusted my schedule and allowed my day to be more morning and less afternoon.

First, I decided that I could go to bed earlier and get up earlier since I was naturally already an early riser, I felt that I could adjust to even earlier. I turn off my email from 5:00 A.M. to 9:00 A.M. When the world is sleeping and there are no ringing phones or email notifications, I find energy and peace.

I make a priority list the at the end of the previous work day so that I can figure out a way to balance the creative needs of a project—when it is due and when my mind will likely be most capable. I make mini-deadlines throughout the day so that I don’t get stuck on one thing.

Also, at some point I decided that lunch is my least favorite meal. Going out to lunch interrupts my groove, and if I eat a large meal in the middle of the day I end up just fighting off the urge to nap all afternoon—so no more fun lunches.

There are a number of things I can do with that wasted time throughout the day, and I’ve found that long lunches just aren’t helpful to my mind, body or work spirit.

I try to avoid browsing social media until after 3:00 P.M. I schedule the errands, giving myself a time limit and a put- ting it on the calendar so that I don’t just aimlessly spend forty-five minutes in Target.

diary

All of these little adjustments have allowed me to find room in my day. As I pushed the clock hands in my favor, I found that the sense of completion I’d been searching for was striking quite loudly, every day.

You may not be a be-bopping ray of sunshine at 4:45 A.M. every morning like I am. If you happen to find me awake at 11:00 P.M., you’ll find me in a toddler state of mind, drunk from the lateness. But there are plenty of brilliant, creative people who are night owls. They crank out their best ideas and feel most energized with the stars just coming out. If you haven’t yet found your best creative time and ideal working conditions, I suggest taking field notes. There will be some things you can’t change about your work routine, obviously, but there are small ways you can adjust that will help you make the best use of your natural reactions to the sundial.

Tips for Note-Taking

I use Aaron Draplin’s Field Notes notebooks to record my process. I reflect on my daily work when I feel particularly moved. I might be more tired than usual or particularly happy with an image, and those heightened emotions prompt me to consider the circumstances.

I try to look through my notes at the end of a big project to help me evaluate the level of success. It’s much easier to take measure of daily projects and see how the notes are helpful, since the daily routine of creating is so similar. With longer, client-based projects, there are outside factors that
I can’t control and the creative process usually extends weeks or months. I try to see the project in a timeline of feel- ings rather than a snapshot of a single morning’s routine or the bottlenecking of stress near a deadline.

These are the key things I like make note of and reflect on (in no particular order):

  • The temperature outside or in the room My level of enthusiasm
  • My level of enthusiasmMy level of tiredness
  • My level of tirednessPressure, from deadlines or internal
  • Pressure, from deadlines or internalAny distractions I may be facing • My level of hunger
  • Any distractions I may be facing • My level of hungerThe time of day
  • The time of dayThe duration of the work
  • The duration of the workMy assessment of the level of success when finished
  • My assessment of the level of success when finishedWhether the project was personal/
  • Whether the project was personal/for profit/nonprofit • Ambient sounds/noise/music, either planned or unplanned
  • Time spent researching
  • Reference imagery
  • If I recycled anything I’ve done previously (texture, shapes, forms, etc.)

My advice for keeping these field notes is to accrue them over time—give yourself the space to record several weeks and then study what you’ve noted. You’ll see patterns of habit that you can evaluate and make conscious adjustments to your process where needed.

Want to read more of Maria’s advice for creative productivity? You can purchase Cultivating Creativity here.

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