I work Hollywood hours. Up at 5am or 6am to write (depending on the project I’m working on), out the door by 8am, at my agency by 8:30am, and back home by 8pm if I’m lucky (if I have networking drinks, make that 10pm.)
When I drag myself out of bed, sloshing coffee into a mug as I fall into my desk chair and stare, bleary-eyed at my computer — well, inspiration doesn’t always visit that early. Sometimes I spend time writing blog posts, short stories, essays — just trying to jog my creativity. One particular horrible morning after I had slept for less than five hours, I just wrote “fuck” over and over and over on my screen until, five minutes before I had to be out the door, a scene hit me and I started writing something real.
So how can us writers who work in the industry find ways to stay inspired on a schedule?
Step one is showing up — or is it?
In all my writing books, the first step is always “sit down and write” or some variation of “show up.”
And that’s true. You have to not hit snooze a dozen times and miss the early morning writing window (guilty.) You can’t edit a blank page and all that jazz.
But if you’d prefer to fill up your computer with strings of profanities, there’s a little more to the psychology of creativity to be understood.
At USC, I took a phenomenal class called THE SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS. It explored the psychology and science behind happiness and contentment. On the first day, our professor said that it would be the most important class we’d ever taken, and on the last day he would tell us the meaning of life.
He was right — it was one of the most impactful classes I’d taken, and one lecture in particular I found particularly important for artists.
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who created a hierarchy of needs. It looks like this:
The idea of this hierarchy is that in order to reach the top rung of self-actualization, you need to fulfill each step below. According to Maslow, you can’t reach a personal enlightenment and satisfaction if you’re starving for food or emotional connection.
Maslow was part of the positive psychology movement: he believed humans were good, and we are all capable of reaching a kind of satisfaction and level of awe with the life we live. The top of the pyramid means that we see the world accurately, have a kinship with the rest of the human race, and are independent thinkers who are deeply grateful and truly happy.
Writing and the “Creativity Primer”
I’ve written before about the curious burdens of mental problems on creative types, and there is a stereotype that writers and artists have to suffer for their art. While being in the throes of emotional turmoil can stir strong emotions and elicit “blue periods” — it’s not sustainable.
As a working writer, I need to turn pages in on a deadline — and they have good pages. I’m not being paid to turn in something of variable quality, and I have to be as primed for creativity during my writing times as possible.
So how should us writers prime ourselves for creativity? What’s the best way to stay inspired, even with frenetic industry jobs?
It’s all about preparation, and that goes beyond scheduling time to write. It’s about making sure your hierarchy is in order: that you’re surrounding yourself with inspiring people, working out and eating healthy, living within your means financially, and feeding your brain with things that inspire you, and constantly reading and listening to good stories.
If you’re too stressed to think because you’re sick or underwater with debt, that’s not going to yield good work. If you’re not constantly seeking out good stories or sources of inspiration, your well is going to be dry when you sit down to write.
Building Your Inspiration Hierarchy
In order to elevate your writing, there’s a separate hierarchy you need to achieve: a set of things you need to do on a regular basis to reach that top notch of satisfaction with your ideas and your work. You have to schedule into your routine things and experiences that inspire you.
For example, I’m spending this weekend cooking and cleaning my apartment while listening to storytelling podcasts (THE MOTH and THIS AMERICAN LIFE), going to see a play one of my friends is in that was adapted from the novel MOCKINGBIRD by Katherine Erskine, and reading scripts. During the week, I also aim to research subjects that I’m interested in, such as the inner workings of the Witness Protection program, or the corrupt wrongdoings of the Sheriff who runs the county I grew up in. I also make time to meet and hang out with interesting people.
Writing and creativity is part mental game, part scavenger hunt. What you write is a culmination of your thoughts and experiences, and if you’re not feeding your brain, it’s going to impact the quality of the words you put on the page.
So what’s your inspiration hierarchy? What are the things that you need to build into your life to feel more inspired and to elevate your writing?