Processing Creative Space Afterthoughts

from Erin

When I’m in the midst of a writing project, books pile up on the floor around my desk. It’s a berm that I must cross—or practically leap over, depending on how deep into the project I’ve gotten—with regular life happening on one side and my creative work on the other. My physical creative space is hemmed in by these books that have also hemmed my writing ideas.

The physical space we choose to do our work has great influence over us. How we feel is affected by our environment, and if the environment is hostile to our creativity, our work will suffer. We know this, which is why we’ve become so aware of the vibes we get from our workspace. Some of us have very little control over our physical workspace, especially if our work is done in a larger organization or corporation. But if we can change our environment so that it’s more conducive to producing better work, we do it: we add a splash of color or rearrange the furniture or add inspiring images to the walls.

Once our physical environment is in order, however, we are left to actually do the work. And that’s when the challenge of making space for creative work comes at us in full. Just because we have a room of our own or a cheery corner or a quiet zone does not mean we can freely create. Even in the best physical space imaginable, our minds and hearts can still be a space that’s crowded and clamoring with all manner of distractions and influences. We become hemmed in—Jedi mind trick style—by the way others want us to create.

Creating space—physical, mental, emotional—for creative work is this week’s Persuasion conversation with artist and Leaf Institute cofounder Michelle Radford. Michelle has much to say about the subject—you’ll want to catch that episode in full—and I left the conversation pondering the ways that outside voices have invaded my creative space in ways that keep me from my best work. My book berm doesn’t do a good job of keeping voices and opinions out of my creative space. They follow me over because I carry them within, and they sway my ideas to the status quo. They stunt my work because they keep me hemmed in, just like the books I’ve read.

Of course, we are all a product of the ideas we’ve heard and the sights we’ve seen. We are creators in the sense that we take the inputs and rearrange them, give them our personal spin. So the aim is not to arrive to the creative process with a blank slate, for that is impossible. But we must consider the ways that our creative space contains a variety of influences—and we must consider ways to clear out the clutter that is negatively influencing our work.

One influence that Michelle identified as especially toxic is the pull to create what the market demands. Anyone who creates—and that’s everyone, really—is called to think beyond what’s wanted to what’s needed. We need to see the need beyond the want, the deeper longing hidden in the wrapper of the surface desire. And then, we create. We write words that both cut and heal. We paint pictures that unlock long-hidden emotions and memories. We solve unseen business problems 10-steps down the process with our coding magic. We write music that heals broken hearts. We bake bread that breaks down barriers.

But none of that powerful sort of creative work is possible when our creative space is influenced by the marketplace. The marketplace silences the call to create in a way that is uncomfortable for us and for our recipients. Our best creative work happens when we refuse to settle for what the market will gladly take, and instead we press into dark corners that are a bit scary. But it’s in these new, unknown places that we grow and create in ways that benefit us all.

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