Cathy Pickens, author of the Southern Fried Mysteries, is one impressive woman. She practiced law, put herself through school working as a church organist, and was a competitive ballroom dancer. For 30 years, she taught graduate students at Queens University’s McColl School of Business, where she was a tenured professor with an endowed chair. (There, students knew her not by her pen name but her real name, Cathy Anderson.)
Pickens recognized that many of her pupils had creative interests, “but as business students, they hadn’t been encouraged to develop or use their creative side.” Since Pickens is a “doer” – a get-it-done type of person – she decided to develop an elective class on creativity. It was an enormous hit from the beginning.
Pickens went on to conduct creativity workshops with Fortune 500 CEOs, dancers, painters, and more. And, of course, she’s taught many writers. Since leaving Queens University last year, Pickens has been concentrating on her creative consulting and working on a book about how to develop the creative process. Here, she provides some tips for increasing a writer’s creativity and productivity.
1. The notebook
Writing something, anything, in a notebook daily is something Pickens found to be a simple-yet-effective tool for her students. “I found out that all creative people use this, not just writers,” she says. The mindful commitment to writing something each day encourages more observation and better communication. “It’s something useful for anyone who wants to capture and use ideas.”
Pickens says that nobody else should read your notebook. “It gives you a way to express yourself that allows you to tell your story in whatever way it comes out. It could be a business plan, a poem, a letter, anything you want.”
2. The multi-tasking myth
Cathy Pickens doesn’t believe in multi-tasking when it comes to pursuing your craft. Dedicated focus is imperative and non-negotiable, and she encourages scheduling time for deep, creative thought. It could be daily or once a week – the important thing is that you don’t allow for interruptions. No phone or email. “Great ideas don’t come in 15-minute increments, and when your concentration is interrupted, you can’t get into deep creative thinking,” she says.
3. Train your brain
“I have a beautiful study, but that’s not what makes me a writer. Writing makes me a writer,” says Pickens. She advises to find where and when you do your best work. For some, a coffee shop provides just enough background noise to work effectively. Other writers work better in a quiet environment. Get in the habit of writing daily as a general rule. Pickens acknowledges that at times, “life intrudes” and gets us off track. But even if you only have a few minutes and a pen and paper, you can be surprised what productivity can occur.
And while the deep, thoughtful creative exploration can’t always be done in short bursts, productivity can be jump-started. “You can hand-write 250 words on a legal page in 15 minutes,” says Pickens. “Just doing that, you’ll have a book in a year.” And, if nothing else, you at least spent 15 minutes on your project that day. Keeping your brain engaged on your writing is integral to developing and enhancing your skills.
Writing sporadically inhibits the honing of your craft. “You need to keep limber. It’s like exercise – if you do it only once a week, it puts to much pressure on yourself. You can’t do a whole week’s worth of exercise in one day,” she says.
Whether you work better under a time allotment or a mandatory word count, make the commitment to it. If you miss your word count, Pickens advises against adding it to the next day. It only adds more pressure and becomes counterproductive. “Each day is a new day,” she says.
It won’t always be easy, and Pickens encourages writers to accept that. She recalls some of her own writing done over a three-month period. Some days she struggled and some days it came more naturally, but when she looked back over the entirety of her work, “I couldn’t tell the difference between days when I felt it was good or when I didn’t.” Accept all the words as they come, and save the second-guessing for the revision process.
Trying new things is invaluable when it comes to developing a writer’s creativity. Pickens calls this “rambling.” She stresses that writers must be deliberate about this. Rambling can look like goofing off, but if you’re serious about creativity, “you have to give yourself permission,” she says.
Exploring environments and activities outside of writing serves to spark ideas at a later time. The experiences, observations, and knowledge and connections gained along the way go toward what Pickens calls “filling the well.” As a writer, you never know when you will dip into the well, but when you do, there will be a multitude of things to choose from.
One activity she tried with her students was participating in a woodworking shop, where she learned how to make her own pen. The idea is not to become an expert at whatever you try. “It’s about learning how to take risks and learning that it’s OK not to be good at something. I’m not going to be a master at everything I try, but I am going to be serious about mastering my craft as a writer.”
5. Critique leads to better craft
You’ve done your creative thinking, you’ve generated ideas, and you’ve narrowed it down and settled on a project on which to work. Now you must get serious about getting the work done, and a large part of that is polishing your work. This part of the creative journey is where “a lot of writers don’t spend enough time, and others get stuck,” she says. Although there are writers who think they don’t need a critique group or readers, Pickens disagrees. “You need that feedback, because what works for you may not translate,” she says. Getting feedback is an important part of improving your craft. “I like a critique group because I’m involved in someone else’s process and I learn from that as much as [from] their responses to my work.” But Pickens warns, “You can’t go into a critique only wanting to hear, ‘It’s great.’” Only pursue the critiquing process when you’re ready to accept constructive criticism.
When you commit yourself to consistently thinking creatively, focusing on ideas, and writing frequently, you will eventually get to a place of “flow,” says Pickens. As a writer, you know that glorious state when you get there. You lose sense of time and place. You’re in the zone. But achieving flow is not simply a matter of chance or luck. According to Cathy Pickens, flow is something we can help activate with a deliberate and sustained commitment to prioritizing our craft.
So write daily. Ramble about. Take note of where and when the words flow easily – and take heart that with due diligence, you’ll find it much easier to tap into your creativity.
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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