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It’s just after noon on a blazing, early autumn Saturday afternoon. I’ve been in a dark office, sitting in my PJs and a t-shirt, winding up some jobs from the week. For the last hour I’ve been catching up on my book-keeping, interspersed by the occasional interruption about this new amazing LP that was reissued, or to sing a random song about dicks, or whatever. Escaping the dark, cool room to go and make a cup of coffee for my husband, which sounds like a really housewifey thing to do, but is actually a great excuse to get away from work, I grabbed my personal phone. I figured I could look at my personal emails while I wait for the kettle to boil.
I found in it an email from a good friend in Germany, waxing lyrical about a road trip she’s planning to make with a mutual friend in another country. It’s not the first of such trips they’ve made together. They know each other because of Metal as Fuck. From memory, she was covering a European metal festival for MaF and our mutual friend was in Germany at the time, and I engineered it so that they could meet. My idea was this: We were a 100% remote team. I never had the opportunity to have two people in the same place at the same time, from different parts of the world. I figured that I was responsible for helping the community to bond.
They’ve been friends ever since.
In her letter, she wrote to me about all of the amazing things that she and our mutual friend have done since MaF threw them together. About the crazy adventures they’ve had, the roadtrips they’ve taken, the things they’ve seen and done.
She wrote to me about all of the crazy fun things they’ve done, that she would never have imagined when they first met online.
As I read this letter, in my PJs, having been focused so much on my Daily Grind, I realised that my little dream is responsible for so much more than where I am today. It’s responsible for launching the careers of people. It’s responsible for friendships of all kinds, in person and far away. It’s responsible for other people’s self-esteem, resilience, and career pathways. It’s responsible for so many things that are so much fucking bigger than me. And it’s still responsible for my ongoing success, because I still work with some of them, just in new ways.
None of them are in the startup community here. None of them are in my local community. Only a couple of them have ever met any of my friends. Most of them I’ve never met in person. But so many of us are still friends, still in contact, still sharing stories.
My friend wrote to me,
These are all amazing experiences that I would not change for the world. Metal as Fuck is responsible for all that. You did an amazing thing.
Standing in the kitchen, barefoot, unshowered, breathing in the amazing scent of coffee and sunburnt country, I was blown away.
Lost for words.
Moved to tears, almost.
This letter yanked me out of my micro, head-down, did-I-look-after-the-money-right thinking, and showed me the long view. We forget how impactful the tiniest decisions can be.
I really did do an amazing thing. And none of us back then, least of all me, would have ever thought that one decision that I made could have such an incredible, resonating effect across, space, time and experience, and that it would continue long after we worked together.
Creative professionals have creativity at the centre of their work. But so many of us never protect our creative time. This post takes you through a bit of a story about my battle with doing exactly this, and then gives you some of the theory, actions and tips you can use to protect your own.
This morning I rose late. It was 0645; my husband had already eaten and jumped in the shower. After realising this, I lurched towards the kitchen and got through the morning routine stuff, and then sat down to eat.
I was contemplating not taking today out to work on my creative projects. As I chewed my Freedom Foods Rice Puffs (super unhealthy but fun to eat!) I considered what it might mean to spend the day on work instead.
This is the first time all year that I’ve considered such a thing. I’ve been true to my goal of taking out one day every week to write on my creative projects, ever since the first day of the year. As I chewed, I thought about why the sudden instinct to spend the entire day on the business instead of on the screenplay? The answer: I was really enthusiastic about getting the business done. I am super excited about it.
Ok, I said. Self, tell me what is so urgent that it can’t wait? And then I waited. Everything could wait. The financial reports I wanted to look at. The structures I wanted to fix. The website stuff that just needs to be done. The client work that is pressing, despite the nature of that “pressing” being additional work that I agreed to on the basis that I’d do it if I had the capacity. If I protect my day, that’s not capacity that can be drawn from.
I had also set the expectation that I would not be at work on Wednesdays this year. Could I break that expectation? More importantly, could I do it to myself? And could I live with it if I didn’t grapple with the difficulties of the screenplay for another whole week?
As I picked up the bowl to drink the last bit of milk out of it, my mind was made up. The day stands. The creative work is where it’s at. Everything else can wait.
Why do we need to protect our creative time, as professional writers?
A quick search around the internet yields loads of articles on this precise topic, of protecting your creative time. Jessie Kwak argues that setting aside time to be creative is practising your craft, and that this is the foundation of everything that you do. Clint Watson, who describes himself as an ‘art fanatic’ and a ‘software craftsman’ (awesome title, by the way) puts it similarly:
Both mastery and production require long stretches of uninterrupted creative time in your studio, so you must set limits to protect your creative time.
Regardless as to whether you own and run a business, or whether you just freelance on the side, if you’re someone like me, mastery is where you want to get to. It makes me wonder how much further down the track I’d be if I had spent the last 15 years dedicating creative time rather than working time.
Of course, you could argue that writing for clients is also practise, but it’s a fine line. Work isn’t the open exploration of creativity; so often in writing and creative arts, it’s the exploration of form and substance that allows you to refine your work in other ways. Writing creatively allows you to explore shape, voice, character, outcome, and vocabulary in ways that commercial writing simply does not.
Continuing on this train of thought, Christine Leiser suggests that you need to take the time to ‘fill your own well’. And as Megan suggests at Page Flutter, when you’re a writer for a job you also need to protect the place that creativity has in your life. Many of us want to be master artists as well as tradies in our relevant fields. But to do it, then you simply have to set aside the time and do the work. The Time Management Ninja gives you a bunch of tips for doing it.
Why is it so hard to keep it as a priority?
In my case, I get excited about things and want to do them all. Right now! All of them! Last night I went to a fabulous finance seminar and have been on fire about how brilliant it’ll be to actually pull all the financials properly into line and use them effectively for making decisions. So, that’s why I wanted to do that today.
One reason posited by the Harvard Business Review is that we can sometimes have a mistaken belief that great things happen when we’re pushed for time. It’s a mistaken view because it’s not actually the case when it comes to creativity. In our capital-driven society, which is very much process-focused and outcomes focused, creativity takes a back-seat. You can’t always see the outcomes of your creative work.
The scheduling that we all try to adhere to may be the biggest culprit for keeping creativity as a priority. Creativity is ‘purposeful, expansive, contemplative and playful’, as the I Done This team points out. This fun is not commensurate in most of our minds with work! (By the way, you guys should totally use I Done This. That’s not a paid or sponsored promotion by the way; just a recommendation. I love it – much better than a to-do list!)
That wonderful British comedian John Cleese agrees. He said:
the mode we are in most of the time when we’re at work. We have inside us a feeling that there’s lots to be done, and we have to get on with it if we have to get through it all… It’s a mode in which we’re very purposeful and it’s a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic — but not creative.
What I’ve learned from setting aside creative time
1. It makes you happier.
Since I’ve been setting aside this one day per week and have dedicated it to creative projects that are for me and NOT for business or clients or any other purpose, my happiness levels have gone through the roof. I find that I can unblock all this creative juice and let it run, and wherever it goes doesn’t matter. I have learned loads about my own art in just two months. And all of it – even the difficult stuff – has been simply wonderful
2. It keeps you focused when you’re at work.
It turns out that all the time I used to spend procrastinating was a result of not letting my Inner Creative Woman out to play. Instead, I bottled her up and kept her tied down. The result is that I would faff about, procrastinate, or just feel frustrated all the time! No more. I’m more focused, more dedicated, and love my work even more (if that were possible).
3. It forces you to improve your time management.
This is not insignificant when you own the company you work for. When you’re a creative or you start out, you’re not shit-hot on project management or time management, unless you’ve come from that area. If you decide to set aside creative time, it forces you to become that incredible project manager you always wanted to be. To enable yourself to have creative time, you absolutely must know your capacity to within an inch of its life. For the first time in my life, I’ve managed to get a handle on this stuff, and it’s improved my life AND my business.
4. It forces you to say no to things.
This is such a strong benefit, I can’t even begin to talk about it. I have three days in the week in which to do client work. I have one day per week in which to do sales, marketing, business development. I have one day per week in which to write creatively. That’s not a lot of time in which to do other things like long lunches, catch up with friends, volunteer, sit on committees, hang out with husband, and all of that stuff. So, you get better at saying ‘no’! In my case, I have gotten way better at protecting my time, and evaluating where I go, who I spend time with and all the other good things.
5. Things just work themselves out.
A surprising outcome, perhaps? I find myself enjoying everything just that little bit more. I have fun more often. And the universe just kinda worked things out for me so that I can do things. If I’m pressed for time, someone will cancel and give me more to spend where I really need to. And sometimes I find other things open up or don’t work in other ways, but it always works out in the end. Perhaps being more creative and spending more time engaging with my creativity has made me more resilient.
What you can do to protect your creative time
The first thing is to recognise that you need it. Be serious about it. If you’re a creative professional, your creativity is the lifeblood of your work, so make sure you indulge it, explore it, develop it, master it.
The second thing is to make the time not-negotiable. Decide what the time will be, and block it out. Don’t wait til tomorrow. Do it now. The world won’t break, it will open up and allow you to make it work.
The third thing is to find a way to be accountable. I have been very public about my Wednesdays off, and that’s partly been for accountability purposes. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t share. Similarly, I have a Patreon and committed to weekly updates to people who pay me cash on a monthly basis. It makes their $1 per month stretch a super long way (literally $0.23 per post is what I earn), but it has a bigger flipside. If I take their money and don’t deliver, then that’s fraud. For me, it’s the best kind of accountability in the world. Because it makes the creativity have a rightful place alongside my work.
The fourth thing to do is just to get on with it. Once you decide, get serious, find the time, and are accountable, just start. Don’t wait until tomorrow or next week. If the day falls on a date you’d hoped to use for something else, get over it and just start.
Do you dedicate creative time in your week?
Leave a comment and tell me what you have learned, and how you manage your creativity! I’d love to hear how you guys do this, because there are so many ways to make it work. 🙂
Today I had the opportunity to chat to a lovely young copywriter about her maybe joining my team. She had a fabulous phone manner and presented really well.
I explained to her what I’m after. I told her that on my team I expect people who write for me to be at the top of their game. That I expect them to be able to receive a brief, do the research, create high-quality work, and turn it around, and spend three hours doing it.
She faltered. It turned out that she was self-taught, from the internet, and had only been working for two years. It takes her a day to do a piece of work.
Then I explained to her that my existing team members have been working as writers for 15+ years, many of which were in a tough, fast-paced industry with an unforgiving editor (me); and that some of us have also had about five years of professional training.
Then it was like a weight lifted off her shoulders. Suddenly she bubbled over with an excited relief at the fact that she wouldn’t be expected to demonstrate the same chops as those guys. We could have an open conversation about how her view of ‘intermediate’ is my view of ‘junior’.
You need to be able to get into an honest conversation no matter who you work for.
When you’re new to an industry, you can talk yourself up all you like, and it can work! There really is something in the experience you only get over time. It’s the experience of honing your craft to the point where you know exactly how to do the research you require to nail a brief. It’s knowing exactly how to create the tone, style, voice, and cadence of a work instinctively. With the right person to work with, they’ll explain their perspective so you can see what’s expected.
Instinct in creative industries like commercial writing comes to the rare few blessed with angelic talent. It comes sooner to some of us by virtue of focused study and experience, and by being edited by the right
tough bastards people. For the rest, it’s years and years of work, and a whole lot of luck.
So if you are a young copywriter, take heart. See the time as the space in which to flex your wings and find out where you really shine.
Time in the industry really does count; and so does working with tough editors. With both experience and tough editing, you can become a strong writer in a much shorter period of time.