Aki Schilz

Managing Creativity, Re-defining ‘Creative Success’ by Aki Schilz

We’ve all heard of boosting creativity, but when I talk about managing it, writers often react with suspicion; something like creativity can’t (oughtn’t!) be managed, surely?

To some extent this is true. The muse can be a fickle mistress, arriving and vanishing at will – and often not arriving at all. But I also think that writers are particularly vulnerable to a combination of attacks on their creativity, particularly in an age where distractions pop up even in remote places, and the humdrum of daily life can feel like a drain on energy, motivation, and time.

It’s hard (perhaps impossible) to be creative all the time, yet many artists live with the myth that to gain validation as an artist they need to display their creativity outwardly, or that this display runs parallel with particular – conditional – expectations: I can call myself a writer if I get a short story published. I can call myself a writer if I get a publishing deal. I can call myself a writer if my book sells; if it gets favourable reviews; if I can produce another and it exceeds the performance of the first.

The goalposts are constantly moving, so how on earth are you even supposed to get into the game to begin with? That pressure can kill creativity.

So what I mean by managing creativity, I think, is creating a space for it to come into being more fully. So that you can be a more productive writer, open to the wonders of possibility. You have to guard this space, as a writer. Sometimes fiercely. And that requires a degree (sorry) of discipline. 

The first  and most important thing is to try to shift your mental attitude about your writing. It isn’t a dirty secret, or a failed enterprise unless you have a Big Five publisher throwing cash at you. It’s part of who you are, as a creative human being. You don’t have to be earnest all the time – no one likes a po-faced artist - but you should take your writing seriously.

How to kick-start creativity if your creative energy is low:

Try free writing. Sometimes this is called Morning Pages, but actually, you can do it any time of day. If this is the only writing you do, it will have been a productive exercise, but the power of free or automatic writing is that it puts the brain in a zone where it has emptied the jumble of thoughts and is more attentive, ready to engage with the world around it. Just 5-10 minutes of writing whatever comes to mind – paying no attention to anything other than allowing the words to run freely, disregarding grammar, syntax, spelling, writing quickly and by hand. Every time I do this, there are a few gems that I can poach for a writing project, but I also feel much calmer and more focussed. No writing is wasted.

Try an affirmation. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I have only recently started to feel more open-minded about it as someone who has been historically suspicious of anything too close to happy-clappy, but recently in a period of writer’s block I wrote on a single Post-it note the following sentence: I feel that as a writer, I have something to say. I kept that Post-it on my desk right next to the laptop keyboard whilst working on a project, as a talisman, and if I needed a boost, I would say it aloud. It helped. The most powerful thing about affirmations is not in the least bit mystical: they give permission, a permission perhaps we have been denied, to be creative, to be imaginative. This is a powerful way of unlocking creativity, and of repairing damage done by guilt and doubt.

OK, but this is a blog for a writing prize, what about managing creativity and submitting work to prizes?...

By all means, submit your work to prizes and competitions (and publications to build your writing credits), but do so strategically and always always keep an eye on how you feel. Energy isn’t finite, but it can certainly feel it. Check in with yourself. Do you feel resilient today? (Write bravely) Confident in this moment? (Submit something) Inspired? (Go for a creative walk) Contemplative? (Write a lightning sketch portrait of something you see).

Some more practical tips:

Consider what the prize(s) is/are being offered. What is it you most need in your practice at this moment? Cash? A writing development opportunity? A meeting with an agent? With the Bridport First Novel Award you get the best of these worlds, with a cash prize, the chance for a meeting with top literary agents at AM Heath, and a year-long mentoring programme through my company, The Literary Consultancy.

Entering prizes can be a great way to keep the creative engine going, especially if you’re writing original work (this is especially the case with short fiction, or poetry) to match competition themes. To stop the process being overwhelming (because it can be) try keeping a submissions calendar. When I was submitting, I made a simple calendar in Excel, and could see when I had submitted which pieces of work. Based on guidelines given about response times and announcements of long- and shortlists, I could then work out when a piece could be ‘released’ for re-submission elsewhere. Again: no writing is ever wasted.

I also kept a budget, which I would set, and stick to. Most competitions with big prizes charge entry fees to help them administrate the prize, pay their judges fairly, etc. An incredible amount of work and (wo)manpower goes into running a prize, I can tell you. But it’s also expensive as a writer to submit to several at a time, as well as psychologically difficult at the best times and traumatic at the worst to face non-listings (note I do not use the word ‘rejections’). A budget might seem boring, but if you aren’t worrying about money, you will have more creative energy ‘in the bank’ for writing.

In an attempt to play clever, I used to pick one or two Big Prizes where I knew competition would be high but the reputation of the prize was absolutely worth a punt (take a risk!) and use the rest of my budget on smaller comps. One year I submitted 10 pieces and got one longlisting, one shortlisting, and a magazine acceptance. It’s a numbers game. I suspect if I’d submitted only one piece that year, with all my hopes flying off in the envelope, not getting anywhere would have impacted me; it might even have stopped me writing.

Submitting regularly builds mettle, which we all know is vitally important as a writer trying to make it in an environment that is full of as much risk as opportunity. I also looked out for smaller competitions with themes that interested me, or inaugural prizes where I had a greater chance of being listed. I ended up winning two; both were inaugural prizes. I still worked hard, and I was proud of those pieces, but I was boxing clever with my strategy.  

And finally.

When you do settle down to write, try to make that time and space you give to it one in which you respect the process. You are in Do Not Disturb mode, even if it is just for 30 minutes. You are taking it seriously. You are arriving at the page with intention, not to ‘deliver’ but to be creative. Remember that. If you treat the process with respect, that space will in time be less ‘precious’, and more sacred. And that can only be a good thing for you, and your writing.

Good luck, and happy writing. 

PS if you are writing, you are already doing it. You are already A Writer. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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