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On the Table: Jumpstarting the Process

After last week’s ridiculously fun introduction to the On the Table feature, I’m a little worried that the real deal will never measure up. I have confidence in our illustrious contributors though and am sure it’ll be a piece of–wait for it–cake. Golf clap please. Thank you, thank you.

What do you do to jumpstart the creative process when the juices aren’t flowing?

Ron Block – “Awhile back I was struggling to write a gospel song for the last Alison Krauss and Union Station recording. Throughout the months-long process of recording I continued to try to write a song, to no avail; I wrote one that was a good song but not right for Alison (I put it on my last solo record). Other than that it was a total creative blockage.I finally went downstairs one day, not long before the last session in which we were to record my as yet unwritten song and another one, I sat there trying to write and finally said out loud, “Lord, if You want a gospel song on the record that inspires believers to rely on You more deeply and draws unbelievers to seek You out, that’s Your problem. I quit!” I put down the guitar and read the Bible for awhile, prayed, and pushed songwriting out of my mind.

A half hour later I picked up my guitar, started humming a melody, got it down on tape, and then wrote the words to A Living Prayer, which is the last song on Lonely Runs Both Ways. The entire song came out in one shot, probably the easiest time I’ve had writing any song (30-40 minutes). It’s a childlike prayer-ish song, simple in construction, not a cathedral of a song, yet I get more email about it than any song I’ve written.

Too much effort, strain, produces blockage. We think its the other way around – that when things are blocked we have to try harder. But really, in songwriting as in improvising or playing a sport, what is required is a relaxed awareness. A runner doesn’t start a race by tensing up his whole body; a musician can’t improvise if he is trying too hard; and a Christian can’t be Christ to his world if he is striving like a constipated duck to “be like Jesus.”


Matt Conner – “For me it’s about the God-given idea of Sabbath. Six days a week, I live under the world’s economy and then the seventh day, I live by another one. So whatever my tools are to work for those six days, I must refrain on the seventh and use other tools. If I seek to work on certain endeavors for those six days, then I must develop other outlets (creatively or whatnot) for that seventh.

This week I’m painting on my Sabbath – anything away from my laptop. I suck at painting, so it’s certainly not a hobby or even something I enjoy. But I’m trying something different.Whatever it is, it’s important to understand that knit into the very creation of man was man’s limit or inability to keep going. As hard as we try, we can’t avoid the natural rhythms for which we were created without “crashing,” “burning out” or “hitting the wall.” The Sabbath was meant for man. it was a gift. We forget these things – that we were made to stop, enjoy, and just be.Therein lies the success, in my opinion, for the ability to continually create. We talk about the need to find inspiration when we have writer’s block, which certainly comes, but I think the first thing to analyze is simply our manmade rhythms in light of the Creation rhythm.”


Curt McLey – “I have idea files for those days when I get stuck. A good portion of my blood is packrat blood. That means I have files of nearly everything I’ve ever written, without regard to quality, published or not. That includes my first and only attempt at a novel from fifth grade, every song or poem I’ve ever written, nearly every paper I wrote in school, and every record review. You get the idea. Often, I find something that was poorly executed. By reworking it, I might end up with something better. Sometimes reading the material is only an idea starter, the new path of which takes me in a completely different direction. In web surfing, if find a particularly moving or insightful article, blog post, or webzine article, written by somebody else I save it. I also thumb through my bookshelves. This can be dangerous, because if I don’t exercise caution, I end up reading instead of writing.I carry a notebook and journal wherever I go.

Quite often I have the seed of idea planted while I’m driving down the road. If it requires detailed writing, I pull over and hammer it out for a few minutes. If a word or two is enough to help me recall, I’ll drive and write at the same time. These aren’t recommendations; I’m just telling you what I do. No project is worth plowing into the rear end of the car in front of you.I keep a file of words. New words, old words, funny sounding words. Melange, mellifluous, sesquipedalian, and contradistinction are all words I’ve never used in anything I’ve written, but would like to. Oops. I just did. I knew that file would come in handy someday.

Ideas rarely present a problem for me. My greatest writing challenge comes in focusing and refining ideas. That, and knowing when and how to quit. That’s it.”


Jason Gray – “I always turn first to alcohol and then, if needs be, to illicit drugs. Just kiddin’.

I just try to put myself in the path of things that will move me – certain kinds of movies, life experiences, books, music, etc.I know Frederick Buechner’s name gets mentioned here a lot, and his work and way of seeing the world consistently stirs my deeper waters and turns me on creatively. Movies have traditionally done it for me, too. I remember I wrote about three songs the week after I first saw “The Shawshank Redemption.” Good conversation with friends yields about as much fruit as anything else. Prayerful reflection and listening to my life are crucial as well.

The main thing is that I never know when or where lightning will strike, so I try to always have my creative antenae up and be prepared to receive whatever comes. I have an iTalk for my iPod that you plug in the bottom for taking voice notes. This is an invaluable tool for me. In a pinch I’ve been known to call home and leave an idea on my own voicemail for me to retrieve later, warning my wife not to listen to that particular message. These tools are useful, but honestly the best ideas are always the ones that won’t leave you alone, and so they are less a thing you try to capture than something that captures you. I don’t know how to find these ideas, or how to be found by them, but I suspect they have something to do with being alert and quiet and creating space in your life for them to live, move, and have their being.

Discipline is key, too. Ideally it’s good for me to spend a little time each day being creative. I rarely do… I’m too easily distracted by email, deadlines, my record label’s expectations for myspace activity, or reading celebrity news :-). I try to be disciplined with my input, too. I alternate reading novels and non-fiction, reading scripture in the morning and “extra-curricular” books before bed, movies that afflict me followed by those that entertain me, etc. Learning other creative disciplines (like painting if you’re a musician) I hear helps, too, though I don’t have a lot of experience with that myself.If none of these work, there is always the alcohol and illicit drugs as a last resort.


Russ Ramsey – “As a pastor I basically write a 6 page paper a week and I don’t really work ahead all that much. So every Monday I start with little more than my text and some small sense of direction. I’ve got a few old stand-bys I go to for the creative process.

1. If I’m stuck at the beginning trying to figure out those first few words, I will sometimes write the words “Dear Travis” or another friend’s name at the top so I’m no longer writing an essay, but a letter. You’d be surprised how little editing you need to go back and do when you’re finished, going at it this way.

2. If I’m stuck in the middle, I’ll write and then read out loud what I wrote, and tweak things verbally—especially if I’m tangling with a structural problem. Sometimes reading aloud untangles awkward phrasing and redundancy and things of that nature.

3. If I’m stuck with the finishing, I’ll usually employ the anti-kick start. I’ll put the thing away for a day or two (if I have the luxury of time). I call this the “marbles in a box” stage of writing. I’ve got a lot of ideas all written down, but they don’t hold together. Instead, they’re all just kind of rolling around together like marbles in a box. A few days away from focusing on those ideas helps me figure out why I want to say them, giving me points into which the marbles eventually (hopefully) roll.

4. I suppose I should add that necessity is the mother of invention. There’s nothing like a deadline to kick start the creative process. And there’s nothing like a deadline to put an end to a previous creative endeavor. I’m a big fan of the discipline of having to take a work as far as you can, but then having to put it aside because it’s time to move on to the next thing. It keeps me from being too perfectionistic and obsessive. I guess the jump-starter here is that having more than one project going at a time can a bring creative burst to the one you need to finish and keep you from getting wrapped around the axle of the thing you should really be moving on from.”


Andrew Peterson – “I realized something about myself last week. Jamie and the kids went to Florida to visit family, and because of a few meetings and an impending book deadline I opted to stay home. At first I thought this was a brilliant idea. Surely I’d hole up in my office and write for days, leaving the house only to buy the necessary food and toiletry items needed to maintain my monk-like existence.

It didn’t happen. I missed my wife. I missed my kids. I missed the rhythm of piano lessons, home school, visits from friends, walks through the woods with my family, unloading the dishwasher, folding the clothes. And I found that sitting in this quiet house with nothing on the calendar but “WRITE THE NEXT CHAPTER” made doing that very thing nigh unto impossible.

What I learned was that I’m only really productive when I’m supposed to be doing something else. Knowing that Jamie’s here at home holding down the fort gives songwriting/book writing a sense of urgency, which is part of it, but there’s another not-so-noble part of it too, which has more to do with procrastination and avoiding chores. When I was in Bible college, that I was supposed to be taking notes on the life of Jeremiah made writing another verse to “The Chasing Song” seem wildly appealing. If I know I’m supposed to be mowing the yard, I’m suddenly moved to pick up my guitar and lock myself in the bathroom.

We’ve been going to the monthly Cane Ridge (the name for our little corner of Nashville) Community meetings, and after the potluck dinner a city councilman or local historian or high school principal will speak for an hour or so. After I wipe the pecan pie from the corners of my mouth and push back from the table to listen to the latest on the rezoning of some intersection or other, I’m seized with the need to break out my journal and write, say, the synopsis of book two of the Wingfeather Saga. I’m sad to say that I’ve also gotten a fair number of song ideas during sermons, and not because I was listening. It’s always good idea to have a pen and church bulletin handy, just in case. My wife knows that I don’t take notes so when she sees me scribbling during church she knows what’s up. But the people sitting near us must think I’m quite holy.”


Jonathan Rogers – “Because creativity is such a mystery, I find it important to be as workmanlike as possible in my approach to writing. I try to think like a plumber: a plumber gets up in the morning, goes to work, and starts plumbing. He has a list of tasks—really, a list of problems to solve—and he sets about checking things off the list. I realize the analogy breaks down pretty quickly; there are many, many ways in which writing isn’t like plumbing. But it helps me a lot to focus on those aspects of my work that are just like anybody else’s work. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block; lawyers don’t get lawyer’s block. They come to work in the morning, and they do their work. I know writer’s block is real, but I also know that in my case, a failure to write usually has more to do with sloth and/or self-indulgence than legitimate writer’s block.

When I’m writing a book, I constantly remind myself, “I don’t have to write a book today. Today I’ve only got to solve a few smallish writing problems (e.g., how to get a character from here to there in a credible manner, or how to convince the reader of the two following things).” Taking that matter-of-fact approach gives me a framework in which the more mysterious aspects of the creative process can assert themselves. And the amazing thing is that they always do. I’ve been at it long enough that I have learned to trust the process. I’ve learned not to panic when the right words and ideas don’t come. Beneath the level of conscious thought, there are things happening that we’ll never understand. What looks and feels like writer’s block is often just a part of the process; it’s as if your mind (or heart) is saying, “Don’t rush me…”


Evie Coates – “I love lists. The items on my lists usually turn into paragraphs, however, which could then stand to lose the numbering systems/bullet points that normally come with lists, but this mode offers a sort of autonomy when I write, so that’s how I’ll tackle this one. (You probably thought that I was giving my actual answer to the question at hand like “I make lists when I can’t get it going creatively” but what I’m really doing is explaining how I will categorize my answers to this tough, although recently quite relevant query.) Bear in mind that I am the only one here talking about inspiration needed for visual art rather than the written sort of art…although I do that too.

1. Music: Lyrics create mini-movies that run through my mind and inspire colors and imagery. The very words sometimes even become part of my work (copyright infringement?). Melodies put me in certain moods, so if I’m aiming to paint an eerie, lonely moonlit sky (which is one of my favorite things to paint), I’ll go with Ry Cooder or Stevie Ray Vaughan (the instrumental stuff — the gravelly voices of these two greats are not conducive to pensive night scenes). I could name some of my other studio favorites but that would just result in yet another, interminably long list. (Maybe I’ll do that at some point, but not here, not now, for the love of…wait for it…Pete.)

2. Organizing: I must have order. Artists are not the messy-pants goof-offs that you may so often hear that we are. We are a strange breed, a breed who need spatial harmony. Nail bin squared up to the box of old silver forks, drill bits arranged in their little box from shortest to tallest, paints and brushes laid out neatly, clean water and paper towel for my colors, the compartmentalized tray of tack nails ordered smallest to largest and separated into black, silver or copper, wood selection lined up and ordered according to size and color, detached typewriter keys and postage stamps in their old metal film canister containers, oh, and tools! My power drill battery must be on the charger, my hammers lined up like heavy-headed soldiers, and my tin snips and needlenose pliers on their respective hangers on the wall.

3. Refreshment: I have to admit that a tasty beverage does help the process, or at least makes it more celebratory. Sometimes it’s a good strong cup (or five) of French press coffee, sometimes my favorite Swedish tea with cream. Other times it’s a cold microbrew (or five) or a pretty tumbler of red wine. They all have their seasons and their own appropriate times of day.

4. Draw a bird, a moon, or a tree: These are simply my favorites. I have pages upon pages of them in sketchbooks. They are my go-to, I know how to draw them, and nothing makes a creatively clogged soul feel better than being able to create something lovely and to do it effortlessly. It passes the time and provides more opportunity for asking myself, as I squeeze the tube of ultramarine blue, “So Evie,what are you going to do this time that is different than all of the other times?”

5. Take a walk: Clouds turning from peach to violet, budding trees, brightly colored houses with funky yard art, friendly cats, unfriendly dogs, the smell of just-cut grass with that distinctive onion-y tang, neighbors who wave at me; I don’t know if it’s just the mechanical motion of my feet moving or if it’s the general sense of well-being walking gives me that almost always yanks open the floodgates of ideas….I don’t care. All I care about is that it works (and gets my heart rate up). When I arrive back at my little blue door, I leave it open so that the good vibes/presence of the Good Lord/fresh air don’t get left outside. I like to give them plenty of opportunity to follow me in.

6. Tinker: When it comes down to it and I’m at my end, when I’m close to ripping my hairs out of my head one by one, I begin to pick up little bits and pieces of the junk that fills my studio. Remembering where and when I picked up each piece or recalling the story behind a certain ginger canister (the candied kind) or bright green bolt (thank you, John Deere) is often fun enough for me to get lost in. And getting lost is often the best thing for me to do when in this state of near-insanity. This step is especially helpful when there’s a deadline. “Deadline” should probably have it’s own point on this list because it sure does whip me in the rear to get moving. However, I hate that this has to be the case with me more often than not, so I will not afford it its own place on the official list. So there, Deadline. Take that.

7. Pray: Okay, now I look like an impious mess of a girl because I put this last rather than first, but the whole truth is that I am in a constant state of “Lord, I’m open, hit me” while I’m in the creative swing. It’s just dangerous not to be. Stupid, obviously uninspired things happen when I’m not. If I did not have any other assurance that God is real in my life, the moments where art works have come together on my workshop table flawlessly and seemingly without anything I have done — these moments would be the telling of his goodness, and his being my Creator Father.


Pete Peterson – “I’ve found lately that a change of location does wonders. One of the hardest things on earth for me to do is to sit down at my computer at home, surrounded by my books, movies, television, video games, internet access, and a soft, nap-ready couch and try to force myself to write. These days I tend to throw my laptop in my backpack, jump on my bike and head to the nearest coffee shop or quiet restaurant to try to get some real work done.

It works for me and the only reason I can come up with is that I’m the sort of person that likes to look like I know what I’m doing. I know that sounds ridiculous, but if I’m left to my own devices with no one else around I’m far more likely to sit and stare at Conan O’Brien reruns than I am to actually create anything of my own. But if you put me in an environment with other people around, watching me, suddenly I don’t want to look like a bum. I try to look busy. I use that lunacy to trick myself into being actually busy. So I’m afraid that oftentimes what gets me started is something as shallow as appearance. Once I get rolling though, I can usually pump out a good chunk of work.

Another thing that really helps me is having a deadline. I’m one heck of a procrastinator and someone giving me a solid deadline is great motivation. I think it probably goes right back to the whole ‘looking busy’ bit of not wanting people to think I’m a bum.

One more thing. There is a lot to be said for pure, boring, discipline. When I wrote my first book for instance I gave myself a goal of a thousand words a day, and for the most part I held myself to it. Now a thousand words a day isn’t a lot but there are times when even getting to a hundred is excruciating. What I found, and what really surprised me then and surprises me still, is that the writing I do when I least want to, the writing that is the hardest to churn out, somehow, is often the best. When I go back and edit something that was very easy for me to write, I tend to find that most of it gets cut. It’s bad. But the stuff that I really have to struggle with will many times be tight, succinct, and very well put together. That makes perfect sense when you think about it, but it sure sucks in practice.

So there you have it. Do I look busy?”


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