Rebuilding a creative mindset after a major disruption

One of my favorite places to hike is just a short trip down the road from where I live. The dusty gravel road opens into a little parking area that takes hiker up an old Forest Service road and through a towering stand of red pines. It’s quiet there, near silent, with only the sound of the wind rushing through millions of pine needles.

It was the perfect quiet, off-the-beaten-track place to hike.

Until this summer.

I set out on the trail one evening only to find obnoxious beeping, bright lights, and the round of trucks rumbling.

To my horror, huge sections of the beautiful pines were gone.

As sad as I felt about it, there was truth in that the cutting down of the forest just the nature of things. Trees grow and they’re cut, or they burn in wildfires. Clearcutting happened to another nearby section of forest I used to love, and will happen again and again and again.

But even if you half expect it, it still feels strange and empty to walk across scarred land, passing over tire tracks and the broken branches of what used to be a silent piece of woods.

When your creative habits have been clearcut

I don’t know about you, but all of my grand creative plans did not come to be in 2020.

Looking back now at planning notes I had jotted down a year ago, I snigger at the schedules and plans I had created, all presupposing a sense of normalcy that would make all of that planning possible.

Normalcy. Sure.

As I wrote earlier on this blog, the world falling into a state of disarray is not usually the optimal time or place to complete your best creative work. (Though if you did accomplish something big in 2020, all the more power to you!)

And so I put away blog post plans that just seemed irrelevant when people were hurting and dying, and as my life went topsy-turvy I hardly showed up here at all. And amidst all the changes, my fantasy novel just seemed to stagnate to the point where I was hardly thinking about it, and working on it even less.

Like the forest, my creative habits seemed to have been cut right down.

Fireweed

Despite the pain of the loss, anyone who’s studied forestry knows that forests have life cycles: they are not meant to grow forever. In fact, there are certain critical processes that can only happen after a mass devastation.

One of my favorite of these is fireweed.

A tall plant with purple flowers, fireweed is a pioneer species, meaning it is among the first to start growing on burned or otherwise disturbed land. Areas that used to be dense forest may suddenly erupt in fireweed after a disturbance. Fireweed is thought to prevent erosion, and it brings pollinators and splashed of color to otherwise wrecked swaths of land.

I found lots of fireweed this summer in places that had been cut years before. And even now, in the dead of winter, I traversed the newly cleared land and could see for miles, noticing rocky outcrops and contours in the land that I had never noticed before.

I could walk for miles over this cleared landscape if I wanted to, whereas before I would have only been relegated to the well-worn trail.

Paths are great, until you travel them too often and they turn into ruts.

The beauty of disturbance in your creativity

After months of change, uncertainty, and disruption of all my plans, I’m finding the strangest thing is happening: my creativity is invigorated like never before. Recently my mind has been flooding with masses of ideas, including new ideas for my book that make it so much stronger.

Nobody wishes for major disruptions in life, and I certainly would never wish for another 2020 again. Likewise, I’m not really one to believe that things are meant to be, or to embrace the toxic positivity culture that tries to justify terrible situations for the good things that later come out of it.

Rather, while we can’t change the past, I think it is important to make the best of what we have and to realize that new beginnings can come from the ashes.

And for me, the creative disruptions of 2020 have led to new vision and getting back on track in healthier ways than ever before.

How to get back on track after a major disruption:

  1. Look for the fireweed. As I mentioned above, the disruptions in my life that happened over the last year or so ended up being solid ground for new ideas to take root. There were also certain events that happened in my life over the past year that are showing up as themes in my work, deepening and darkening my writing to make it better than it was before. After a hiatus, you may find new ideas, observations, or skills that were not so prominent for you before, but are now waiting to be explored. Take the time to look for those and to cultivate them when you find them.
  2. Work on something else entirely. In the writing group I was a part of pre-pandemic, we began each meeting with prompts and then had time to write based on the prompts. As someone who has spent years on a single creative project, I was always so surprised at the ideas that seemed to spring up out of nowhere during freewriting. If you’re just easing back into your creative life, try jumping back in at a part of the creative process you know you enjoy, rather than where you feel you “should” be. If you’re in the throes of copyediting and it’s feeling super dry, take some time to freewrite or brainstorm new ideas to get your energies flowing. If you’re drafting and you hate writing first drafts, go back and edit something you’ve already written rather than trying to force new ideas. Creativity is hard work, but it should bring joy. Focus initially on the parts that bring you joy.
  3. Take inventory of why you started writing or creating in the first place. Was it a beloved book series? An encouraging teacher? A dream since you were a child? Even if you’re not ready to dive into the work yet, take the time to think back and jot down what it is you love about the creative side of yourself, and how your journey thus far has brought you joy. I’m a firm believer in the power of visualization, and reclaiming your vision for what you want out of your creative life is one of the best ways to build clarity and momentum as you get started again.
  4. Take it slow. Finally, I just wanted to share the reminder that it’s okay to take it slow as you’re overcoming a major disruption. You don’t have to rush to make ambitious New Year’s goals just because everyone else is. Instead, focus on dreaming and planning. What do you hope to accomplish in your writing life some day? What are some actionable steps that can get you there? Nurture your inspiration and let that be your guide rather than comparisons or hustling to burnout. And if you want to set goals, set minimal, realistic goals that you are likely to achieve. While overly ambitious goals can leave you feeling like a failure, achievable goals will build a sense of confidence as you meet them. Creativity isn’t a competition, and you don’t have to go all-in just because everyone else is.

That’s all for today, creative people! What are some of your upcoming projects for 2020? And how do you get back into a routine after disruptions? Let me know in the comments, and until next time, stay creative. โค

Love,

Rae

4 thoughts on “Rebuilding a creative mindset after a major disruption

  1. Thank you Rae for the beautiful description of your journey. I am currently living in Colorado but am thinking of returning to Minnesota- it was a treat to run across your blog,

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