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“When you can’t CREATE you can WORK” — Some Thoughts on My New Favorite Quote

September 17, 2018

“When you can’t CREATE you can WORK” — Some Thoughts on My New Favorite Quote

You know when you come across a quote that just SPEAKS to you / almost screams at you? When I happened to be in a writer’s block-filled slump, I stumbled on this Henry Miller one in a list of ‘rules for writing’ that was posted over on Brainpickings and I can’t get it out of my brain: “When you can’t create you can work.” 


I’ve written about writer’s block and what I do as a creative when I get ‘stuck,‘ but this simple sentence really boils it down to one basic principle. In any given week, I have articles I want to write for this site, for Shred Girls, and for the different other sites and magazines that I write for. We have podcast interviews and intros to record, I have book projects that are always in motion. I don’t really have time to be stuck. But I don’t always feel particularly inclined to write, either.

The same is true for training—it’s a rare person who’s motivated to do perfect, super-hard workouts or races every day (I’ll call that the athletic version of creating). In fact, that would be A Bad Thing.

My methodology for writing has actually shifted to embracing the idea that work is always a possibility, while creativity isn’t. For every article I get assigned, the first thing I do is block it out: on my calendar app, the due date gets written in, with the article info, and a note in my Evernote gets started. Then, I backtrack. Do I need to start emailing people for interviews? Doing the interviews? Looking at current research? The research piece gets keyed in: And that’s work, not creation. Then, outlining after the research, making sense of what I found. Again, it’s not creating, it’s working.

The last thing that falls into place is the writing itself, the creating part. (Side note: I also will, during research and outlining, jot little notes to myself when I think of a great sentence or phrase I want to use.) And I leave at least an extra day or two between the writing and the due date to a) re-read and draft, or b) get stuck and take an extra day to turn back on. This doesn’t work every time—sometimes, the turnaround on a piece is super quick because it’s news, and in that case, the first two steps get crammed into the third. But because of those types of articles, that means I need to steadily be working on everything else, so that when I do need to push the ‘create now’ button, I’m not bogged down with a to-do list that might kill me.

That was a longwinded way of saying that even in the most creative of jobs, there’s a ton of work involved! My training is the same: If I’m feeling the writer’s block equivalent around a day’s workout, I’ll try to slog through, but I’ll also give myself the option of just doing ‘work,’ i.e a yoga class, strength training, a long walk, or something like that instead of the run or ride I had wanted to do.

Basically, Henry Miller has the right idea when it comes to productivity: We can’t always be doing the fun creation stuff, but there’s nearly always a piece of work that can further that creative endeavor. I’m realizing that for me, the best way to guarantee that I don’t fall into a slump because the day is crawling creatively is to always have a work list with both creative and more procedural options on there, so I don’t end up wasting moments of downtime in a slump, or—on the flip side—wasting creative energy output doing more mundane tasks.

OK, what do you guys think—does this apply to work/training/life for you?



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