Naomi’s Playlist: Airtable

My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.


Object: Sorting ideas and options into now, queue and later categories.

What Didn’t Work: Keeping a loose mental list of all the books I wanted to read and ending up feeling forever behind, taking the next action on all the projects on my mind, and all the ones that anyone talked about on the most recent podcast that I realized I “really should do,” hoping that I’d recall a blog post or lesson plan when the opportunity to repurpose material arose.

My Aha! Moment: When I learned my primary creative style is Inventor, I dug deeper into what this style meant about my thinking. First, I learned I’m a visual thinker. No wonder databases and spreadsheets made my head hurt. I examined how the Inventor style expresses itself in my personal creative process, and realized that my strengths are in ideation and implementation. So, I have an idea and then I act. This loop repeats at speed. Projects layer on top of projects until I’m buried. My own deadlines are forced to defer to the “hard” deadlines provided by others, and I end up frustrated. The projects I care about most move along at a snail’s pace because I’m doing forty of them simultaneously.

I imagined how I’d like my process to work. I pictured a colorful machine with various chutes and conveyer belts all sending material to an “action zone,” where projects could be completed, wrapped in shiny paper, and sent on their way. What I needed was a tool that could queue up my ideas, allowing me to easily sort and resort them. Rather than immediately acting on new ideas, I needed to put them into the “machine” where I could see them lined up against all the queued ideas.

Enter Airtable. It’s a database, yes, but the data can be viewed visually. Many relationships can be built to categorize ideas and sort them based on the criteria of the moment. Re-ordering is as simple as drag and drop. My imagined idea machine might not exist, but with Airtable, I could build a close enough replica to manage and streamline my work-flow.

How I Play:

  • I created bases for books, for ideas, and for my blog posts to start.
  •  I set up fields for images (such as cover images or blog post images) so when I viewed my bases as cards, they’d be visually appealing.
  • I created categories so that I could sort the entries in the various ways I would want to see them. For example, in the book base I used “creativity,” “mystery,” and “literary fiction,” as a few of my categories.
  • I also created a field called status. Here, I can sort ideas or books into “now,” “queue,” “consider,” and “finished.”

Player’s Notes:

  • Airtable allows the user to create links between records. So, for instance, in the book base, I have a table for books and another for authors. Books and their authors can be linked, to make for additional sorting options.
  • The sample bases in Airtable are entertaining and offer a fantastic introduction for new users. Try them out, have some fun, and let yourself play. Especially if databases aren’t your thing, approaching the process from a playful vantage point will help you blast past the difficult parts of getting your ideal system set up.

Take it to the Next Level:

  • Zapier and IFTTT are two automation tools that work in collaboration with Airtable. This means, for instance, you can set up an email link so that whenever an idea pops into your mind or someone recommends a book, you can send the info to your base on the spot.

Sometimes tools that offer many options and functionalities can cause overwhelm. Rather than allow myself to lose focus by considering every possible function for Airtable, I started with a few that felt most immediate and important. If you try out the tool for yourself, I encourage you to start wherever you are. Let your system evolve. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the perfect.

We hire professional organizers to help us conquer our closets because sometimes we simply need outside perspective. We often need similar help with our creative process. If you could use a strategy mentorship to help you tackle a thinking or work-flow mess, I’d love to help! Check out the opportunity here.

How to Make Sure Creativity Strikes


If I asked you to pick up a pencil and free-write about an experience that caught your interest in the past day or so, chances are, it would take you a while to come up with an idea.

How many of our daily experiences do we remember?

Already this morning, I’ve taken my dog for a walk around the park. I popped out to Trader Joe’s on a quick errand and then went for a run around our local rose garden. If you asked me before I pushed myself to remember, I’d say, “Nothing much happened this morning.”

However, in point of fact, I had a mildly embarrassing moment when my dog snapped at a neighbor’s dog who was running around off leash. The Trader Joe’s clerk asked me my cat’s breed (I was buying litter), and when I told him she is black with a white patch, he said, “Oh, a tuxedo cat.” He insisted this was an official breed, which left me wanting to consult Google. On my run, a kind crosswalk guard helped me across a street. Also, I observed a man training his puppy. The puppy tugged, bounded, and every once in a while, sat, while they walked around the rose garden. 

Many of the people I met could inspire character ideas. The sounds, smells, or colors might provide visual inspiration for a room remodel. Some of the interactions might provide metaphors to aid my problem solving. For instance: How could picturing my role as a helpful crossing guard provide new perspective on this situation? The truth is, life brims with material that lays the foundation for creativity to strike.

Unfortunately, we often miss the rich material our lives offer.

The first task of the Attic is to collect ideas and information from your world. If you’re wondering what the Attic is, here’s the short description. The Attic is one mental room we enter during the creative process. In the Attic, we gather ideas, sort them, and identify a creative question or challenge statement that points our creative problem solving in the right direction. If you’d like the longer description of the Attic, or want to know more about the full set of mental rooms, read more here.

Like much in the creative thinking process, collecting happens whether you try to or not. However, if we don’t have an intentional collection practice, there are a number of drawbacks.

What happens when we don’t intentionally collect moments from our lives?

1. We end up with a collection of the wrong things.

Science tells us that negative thoughts and experiences are like velcro. They stick easily. Positive experiences are more like teflon. They are strong, but slippery. Neurologists tell us that in order to impress a positive memory into our memory, we must focus on it for at least 15 seconds. We need proactive ideas and a positive outlook to fuel our creativity, and thus, we need to be intentional about what we mentally collect.

2. We end up with mental clutter.

If we rely on memory to serve as our mental collection bin, we’re forced to sort through everything in order to find the moments that might be useful. Like any unappealing junk drawer, we tend to shut the clutter out of sight rather than utilize it in any meaningful way.

3. We lose ideas or memories that could be highly useful to our projects.

Our brains aren’t computers, and they don’t have a reliable search function. Worse, if we ignore the ideas that pop into our heads at odd moments, our subconscious is likely to determine that we don’t care about those ideas. Then, those thoughts become harder to access a second time.

So, how can we be intentional about our collection practice?

1. Start where you are.

The harder you make collection, the less likely you’ll regularly do it. So, go with the first strategy that comes to mind–it’s likely be an approach that comes naturally to you. Maybe you’ll take photos, or write in a journal, or set a timer for a certain time each day when you’ll list some thoughts in Evernote that you don’t want to forget.

2. Make collecting convenient.

Choose an app that automatically collects your photos into an album. Find a sketchbook that’s small enough to fit in a bag you regularly carry. Come up with three standard questions to answer in your journal so you don’t have to start with a blank page every day.

3. Give yourself a boost.

Starting a new habit can be difficult. Consider your style. (And if you haven’t taken the creativity styles quiz, there’s no time like the present!) Given your strengths, what will give your collecting habit a boost? A reminder alarm on your phone? A periodic check-in with a friend? A block of fifteen minutes on your daily calendar? A colorful post-it tracking system for your office wall?

Do you want to make sure that when you need it, creativity will strike? If so, you need a collection action plan. Choose a next action right now, and if you’d like, share it in the comments below. Where might you start? If you need some extra inspiration, you might enjoy reading about my Thoughtbox, the simple system I’ve created for my own collection process.

Naomi’s Playlist: Thoughtbox

 Naomi’s Playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.


Object: Collecting the ideas and thoughts that pop into my mind all day.

What Didn’t Work: Remember to always have a certain notebook in hand, having ideas while driving and trying to remember them until I parked, wanting to reference links on the web or use photos or audio files to help myself remember why I had the thought in the first place.

My Aha! Moment: While on my sabbatical, I was in a rich landscape of thoughts all the time. However, I also wanted to be as physically and mentally free as possible. I didn’t want to drag a notebook around with me all the time. Evernote was another challenge, because opening it up meant looking at work and bills and real life. As a storage tool Evernote is fabulous, but as a collection tool it hindered me.

That’s when I came up with the concept of the Thoughtbox. Imagine you could carry an invisible box, or a magical, expandable bag like the one Hermione Granger carried, where you could store ideas, images, audio files, documents, and research. Even handwritten notes and drawings could be collected in this box. In order for it to work, the box would have to be flexible and ever-present.

I asked myself: What do I always have? The answer? My Apple Watch and my phone. Now, even if you don’t have a smart watch, you likely have a phone, so you can adapt this tool to fit your style and toolkit. The point is to choose a collection entry point—or, as in my case a couple entry points—with an air-tight container to catch everything you toss into your Thoughtbox.

How I Play:

  • Because I collect thoughts in so many different mediums, I use Evernote as the holding zone for my Thoughtbox. I use the tag #Thoughtbox, so all thoughts of this type end up together.
  • I’ve chosen a few appealing apps that live on my watch, phone, and iPad. These apps make collecting ideas easy and integrate well with Evernote.
  • I use Day One on my watch and phone and Noteshelf on my iPad, but there are many other apps that will work. The point is to choose apps that appeal to you, which you already use or are easy to add to your system, and which will seamlessly send material to Evernote.
  • Once a week or so, I review my Thoughtbox and pull out any ideas that need further attention right away. In general, the collection becomes an expanding record of my thinking. I access it during brainstorming sessions or when I enter my Attic looking for raw material to take into the creative process. (The Attic is one of the Writerly Play rooms, more on that here.)

Player’s Notes:

  • One reason my Thoughtbox works so well is because Day One has a recording function from the Apple Watch app. Any time I have a thought, I can tap a button, speak a thought, and the words are instantly transcribed.
  • I can also take a photo with Day One, or easily add any photo that I’ve taken on my phone to the app. When I’m out on a hike or in a museum, this allows me to take a picture and make a few quick notes.
  • I use Noteshelf on my iPad because handwritten notes and drawings are an important part of my thinking process. However, it is nearly as easy to draw or write on paper, snap a photo, and add the thought that way. Scannable is a great app for taking clean pictures with your phone for Evernote.
  • I use Evernote’s simple web clipper and app extensions to send other material into my Thoughtbox. Since Evernote is such a well-connected tool, it allows my system to grow as technology changes.

Take it to the Next Level:

  • Since I collect most of my thoughts in Day One, I can review my thoughts periodically in the app’s well-built interface. Looking over my words and images will often spark additional ideas, which I then add to the feed.
  • Day One doesn’t instantly export material to Evernote, so I do this once a week or so. The exporting session provides another chance to review my collected ideas and think them over. I take the opportunity to also look at my complete Thoughtbox in Evernote to see what I’ve collected recently from the web and from Noteshelf.
  • Since Evernote can be overwhelming to my visual-thinker’s mind, I use the presentation mode to scroll through the Thoughtbox. This way, the noise is cut out and I can see the ideas in a more compelling format.

What’s Your Creative Style?


Creativity is like a fingerprint, unique to each person. And yet, there are also recognizable creative styles. Understanding our general thinking patterns can be very powerful. For one thing, when we notice our preferences, we’re more likely to also see our blind spots.

Recently, I took a course on creativity from the Great Courses Plus called The Creative Thinkers Toolkit. One highlight was the Creative Problem Solving Model, which identifies four steps to creative thinking. They are:

  1. Clarify: We sharpen our understanding of the problem so that our idea-generation energy is focused and effective.
  2. Ideate: We think widely to come up with many options (divergent thinking), and then choose the most helpful option to take forward (convergent thinking).
  3. Develop: We shape and refine our idea, adding layers and removing anything extraneous.
  4. Implement: We take action and bring our solution to life.

Most people are drawn to certain steps in this model and have blind spots in others. For instance, I’m an Ideator and an Implementor. My mind brims over with ideas and I often leap straight from enthusiasm into implementation. Were I to slow down and clarify first before brainstorming, or to develop my idea before implementation, I might improve the speed and effectiveness of my creative process.

People of varying creative styles approach the model differently. A structured thinker is likely to be methodical through each step. An intuitive thinker may not even realize there are steps through which she is moving.

If you’re familiar with the Writerly Play rooms, you’ll likely notice that the Problem Solving Model can be carried out in each room. For instance, if you’re in the Attic, collecting, organizing and choosing material, you might clarify what you’re looking for, generate ideas around the material available, add to and refine your idea to make it more solid, and then take action by putting your idea into words and/or images. Then, you’ll take the idea into one of the other rooms such as the Studio, where your Creative Problem Solving might focus on creating a first draft.

After learning about the Creative Problem Solving Model as well as encountering some fabulous material on Productivity Styles by Carson Tate, I decided to revise my Creativity Styles Quiz. I don’t have a lab coat or a two-way mirror, but I’ve spent a lot of time observing people of all ages engaging in creative tasks. Clear patterns for creativity styles have emerged from those experiences and my continued research. What I see most often are people who switch between a couple of these styles depending on the situation. Understanding which styles fit you best will help you better understand any sticky parts of your creative process. Like me, you may discover a few blind spots. By playing to our creative styles, we can choose strategies and tools that fit us and that also help us through any part of the creative process that doesn’t come naturally.

I’m excited to share this resource with you! Here’s the link to the creative styles quiz.

Writerly Play: Exploring the Cafe

A note to new readers: This post is part seven of a seven-part series. I’d highly recommend starting at the beginning as each post builds on the last.

The Room Out Back

In most cases, the Writerly Play rooms are quiet, and often solitary spaces. Sometimes I find it useful to invite collaborators into the Studio or the Workshop. However, the Cafe is unique in that it is always a social place. For that reason, I like to picture it as a little separate from the other rooms. It’s out back, and work doesn’t end up in the Cafe until I’m ready to physically move it there.


The culmination of a creative process is usually the sharing of what has been created. We can gauge our success by the effect of our work on the people who experience it. Does it create the experience or communicate in the way we hoped? When it comes to living a creative life, we might find ourselves in the Cafe when we are ready to tell the story of an important experience. By shaping our experience into a story, we make it tangible for ourselves. When we share the story, we provide helpful perspective for others, too.

It’s important to seek feedback not only at the very end of the creative process—when it’s often too late to change much about the work—but also along the way at healthy intervals. While the feedback comes from others, there are still skills we must build to make the most of the Cafe. We must learn to listen, to translate the feedback into possibilities, to clarify our focus, and to plan next actions. Ultimately, no one knows the heart of the work the way you do—it’s yours, after all—and so it’s up to you to come up with what to do about any problems that others identify.

Let’s do a quick self-assessment of the state of your Cafe.

  1. Do you have a community of people from whom you can seek feedback?
  2. Do you have strategies for framing your feedback requests so that the insight you receive is fitting for your current stage of the creative process?
  3. Do you have tools for collecting and sorting through feedback?
  4. Do you have strategies for reflecting on feedback and generating practical steps forward?
  5. Do you have a safe person or two with whom to work through any blocks that might arise from surprising feedback?

Everyone has blind spots. Whenever you open yourself up for feedback, there is always the potential of being knocked off track. Yet, being knocked off track when you can still revise and recover is better than launching a creative work into the world only to learn that it doesn’t connect. Or worse, to learn that it communicates something you never meant to say. The Cafe plays a key role in the creative process—in your development as a creative person, in the development of your work, and in the ultimate value of what is produced.

A First Step

If you tell everyone—including yourself—that you are not creative, you will live up to your reputation. However, we’ve already established that you ARE creative. Creativity is a skill to be developed. You may not be ready to take your creative work into the Cafe right now. However, you surely have someone in your life who could be a strong support to you (and whom you could support in turn!) as you begin to intentionally develop your creativity. Take a few minutes to call that person or to write them a note. If you have a specific project you’d like to dive into, put your vision into words. If not, simply share your commitment to develop your creativity overall. Ask for the opportunity to connect in a month or so to report on how things are going. In this way, you’ll give yourself some accountability.

What’s next?

As we wrap up our Writerly Play tour, let’s return to the definition of creativity we explored in part one of The Nuts and Bolts of Writerly Play. (Thank you, Sir. Robinson!) Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. By working our way through the five Writerly Play rooms, we are able to dream up something new, craft it into something valuable, and launch it into the world.

While there is much more to explore when it comes to the creative process, we learn best by rolling up our sleeves, trying things out, and learning along the way. I’ll be posting resources, strategies, stories and tools here on the blog relating to each of the five Writerly Play rooms. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with you, and learning together as we tackle the creative challenges that come our way. Here’s to you and your creativity!

Writerly Play: Exploring the Library

A note to new readers: This post is part six of a seven-part series. I’d highly recommend starting at the beginning as each post builds on the last.

Let’s picture that secret passageway connecting the Workshop with the Library. What does the doorway look like for you? Personally, I’ve always wanted a rotating bookshelf, so that’s what I’m imagining.

How do we learn new artistic skills?

Some artists—I’d even claim that most artists—are addicted to learning. Learning about our medium can become a procrastination trap. Have you ever said, “I’ll (write/draw/paint/redecorate) once I’ve (gathered more research/finished this class/listened to a few more podcasts.)” Even in the early stages of our creative development, it’s important to dive into the deep waters right away. When we apply our learning immediately, we can clearly see what we’ve absorbed and what we have yet to learn.

All of that said, we’re missing a major opportunity if we insist on going it alone. Learning the history of your medium isn’t cheating. Learning from those who are a few steps ahead of you isn’t copying. Throughout the history of art, there is a pattern of artists tracing master works. Even if we are not visual artists, tracing is a fundamental creative skill. Writers might trace by typing out a passage by a master author. Interior designers might trace by creating a small model of a favorite room design. Entrepreneurs might trace by trying out a problem solving approach in the step-by-step strategy outlined by a successful CEO. As we absorb the work of masters, we learn the fundamentals. We also gain the skills and confidence to then carve out our own space. Through tracing and then leaping beyond into our own territory, we find our unique voices.


Sometimes, while we’re in the Workshop, we identify a problem that we know needs solving, but which we do not yet have the skills to solve. This is where the Library comes in, and the reason we might find ourselves in need of that secret passageway. Books are only the beginning of the resources in the Library. The Library holds all the resources at our disposal, not the least of which are creative mentors. Every artifact—be it a play, a movie, a painting, a comic, or an amusement park—is a wealth of knowledge waiting to be soaked up and built upon. The main work of the Library is learning through apprenticeship, which involves observing the skill of others, trying those skills out ourselves, and then making them our own.

Let’s do a quick self-assessment of the state of your Library.

  1. Do you have a regular practice of studying work that is similar to the work you’d like to create?
  2. Do you have a regular practice of studying work in various mediums that might inform the work you’d like to create?
  3. Do you have strategies for focusing on specific aspects of a mentor’s work and “tracing” those in a way that helps you better understand the nuts and bolts of how the work was created?
  4. Do you have a tool for tracking and reflecting on your learning process?
  5. Do you have tools to make collecting resources from creators you admire simple and convenient?

Make the Most of Mentorship

You have a creative goal, which means you’re tuned in to a specific question. You may be pondering how to write a novel or how to design that guest bedroom. Naturally, you’ll start picking up resources, simply because you’re tuned into this particular creative channel. If you have strategies, tools and practices for best utilizing those resources, you’ll make immediate progress. Rather than swimming in the sea of “good ideas,” you’ll start to master specific skills. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, particularly given the amount of access we have to inspiration and resources. Don’t be afraid to be methodical and focused. Imagine you are your own instructor, crafting a program of study for yourself. You wouldn’t ask a student to hop from one concept to another and back again without having time to absorb any of the information, would you? So, don’t do that to yourself, either.

A First Step

The Library is a powerful place to train and grow, and depending on your goals and skill level, you may find yourself spending a lot of time here. For now, start small. Take a few minutes and list ten creators who you admire and from whom you’d like to learn. Then, considering your learning habits, create a space for gathering ideas from them. Some possibilities include:

  • a blank bookshelf on which you can collect books and materials by and about these creators
  • a binder where you collect physical materials—articles, images, etc.
  • a private Twitter list where you follow these ten creators
  • A private or public Pinterest Board on which you collect quotes, images and other materials focused on these creators.
  • An Evernote tag or notebook where you collect materials from these creators
  • A podcast playlist dedicated to these ten creators

The point isn’t the tool you choose to use, rather that you make an intentional plan about learning from mentors you admire.

Tomorrow is the final post in the Nuts and Bolts of Writerly Play series. In it, we’ll take a look at the Cafe. We’ll also discuss some practical next steps for what to do with the creative thinking tools we’ve discussed this week. See you soon!

Writerly Play: Exploring the Workshop

A note to new readers: This post is part five of a seven-part series. I’d highly recommend starting at the beginning as each post builds on the last.

Where is the majority of the work of creativity done?

We like to think of creativity as a lightning strike. Certainly, the spontaneous connections that spring up in the Studio can feel that way. Everything we discover in the Studio has value, but those discoveries become tangible, real-world creations by way of the Workshop.

Like the Studio, the Workshop is filled with tools. However, the Workshop’s tools are more practical in tone. Where in the Studio you might find paintbrushes and oil pastels, the Workshop is more likely to hold a saw, hammer and nails.


Where the Studio requires plug-your-nose-and-jump-in courage, the Workshop requires turn-on-the-light-and-look-in-the-spiderwebby-corners courage. In most endeavors worth undertaking, there’s a gap between our vision and our first pass. When we allow ourselves to look closely, we see the gap and often, we panic. This moment is when all those creative gremlins mob us, shouting, “Who do you think you are?” and “Look at all your mistakes!” and “That junky mess isn’t worth a minute more of your time.”

Most people claim to hate revision. My theory is that the gremlins are actually the problem. If you can turn down the gremlin volume, you can take your Studio-generated material into the Workshop, clarify your ideas with convergent thinking, and bring your vision to life. Creative confidence comes from knowing that you can play hard in the Studio because the Workshop is there waiting for you. You can make as big of a mess as you like, because you also have the tools to shape the mess into something beautiful.

Let’s do a quick self-assessment of the state of your Workshop.

  1. Do you have strategies for tuning down the gremlins in order to do the work of revision?

  2. Do you have strategies and tools to help you break down complex problems into smaller, manageable parts?
  3. Do you have experience with narrowing in and focusing on one problem at a time?
  4. How experienced are you at moving a project from mid-process to complete?

Why Creativity Begets Creativity

Aside from the above big-picture skills, you also need medium-specific skills in your Workshop. Depending on your project, you might need strategies and tools that focus on character development, rhythm, value, shape, chemistry, fine-motor skills or problem-solving, to name a few. For this reason, the Workshop is an ever-evolving space that grows along with you as you learn and develop. However, some of the basic skills in your Workshop skill set—those that have to do with breaking down problems, focusing on one piece, and building the final piece layer by layer—transcend projects. In the same way that a successful entrepreneur can start a second business much more easily than she started the first, the successful creative can build upon previous experience, even if he is working in a new medium.

Working the Workshop

You’ll have years to play in your Workshop and build skills specific to your interests. For now, let’s focus on the foundational skill of breaking problems down. Have you taken the walk I suggested yesterday, and made your expert list? If so, let’s practice the skill of transitioning between free-flow material generated in the Studio and the practical work of the Workshop. In the spirit of the Workshop, here’s a step-by-step activity.

  1. Read through your list, starring all the items that you feel are legitimately important to the project.
  2. Write one starred item per post-it. Once you’ve captured all the starred items, write any additional steps for the project that have come to mind.
  3. Spread out your post-it notes on a wall, table or even on the floor, if you don’t have another large surface.
  4. Sort the items into general steps. (For instance, if you’re writing a novel, you might have “research,” “character development,” “world-building,” and ”plotting.” If you’re planning a party, you might have “brainstorming,” “venue,” “food,” “decor,” and ”invites.”)
  5. Take a look at the plan and identify any big pieces that are still missing. Keep in mind that creative plans are most effective when they outline the big picture, while leaving out the minutia.
  6. Step back, consider the project, and list any other people you may need in order to complete this range of tasks.
  7. Choose a first step. Perhaps you will do a task yourself, or reach out to a team, or design a schedule so that you can work through the steps efficiently.

You’ve done it! You’ve broken a complex problem into steps. The more you practice this kind of thinking, the more natural it will become.

We have two more rooms to tour in this Writerly Play series. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the Library. I find myself popping between the Library and the Workshop so often that I think a secret passageway should exist between the two. We’ll see what you think about that tomorrow. Until then, happy creating!

Writerly Play: Exploring the Studio

A note to new readers: This post is part four of a seven-part series. I’d highly recommend starting at the beginning as each post builds on the last.

Take a moment to picture your personal Writerly Play hideout. We ended our tour yesterday in the Attic. Put yourself back into that room with its boxes and memories and ideas. Imagine the sensory details—the smells, sounds, sights and feel of the room. Once you have your footing, let’s mozy over to the Studio. Filled with more art supplies than any one project could require, the Studio offers a possibility-filled space. The floors, tables and stools are often made out of rugged, easy to clean material, inviting you to go ahead and make a mess.


I started my personal creativity quest because of the Studio. When I thought, “I want to be an artist,” I meant I wanted to be someone who had no trouble rolling up her sleeves and experimenting. However, most of the time, I found myself watching from the sidelines. As I watched, I realized I had two choices. I could either figure out how to open myself to spontaneity or I could stay on those sidelines. Fortunately, my stubbornness won the day. I decided to believe that letting go was a skill that could be learned.

That determination was the seed of Writerly Play. Along the way, I learned creativity was a skill with many parts, all of which could be strengthened. Whether you’re strong in the Studio, or like me, you have a tendency to hold back, there’s something in the Studio for you. Play takes place throughout the creative process, but it happens intensively at the beginning of any project, and involves brainstorming, drafting, and improvising. Play is what moves us past the blank page and into the work of creating.

Let’s do a quick self-assessment of the state of your Studio.

  1. Do you have a comfortable process for drafting, sketching, improvising or brainstorming from a blank slate?
  2. How natural is it for you to say yes when someone offers an unexpected suggestion or idea?
  3. How often do you engage so deeply in an activity that you lose track of time?
  4. How often do you laugh or do something just for the fun of it?
  5. Do you have strategies or tools to help you generate more ideas than you need?

Learning to Play

Whether play is relatively natural for us, or a stretch, it’s one of those muscles that can easily atrophy. To be creative, we must be able to play. In general, play is the bridge between our Attic and the Workshop. We sort raw material in the Attic until we come up with a compelling question. Then, we take that question into the Studio where we play with it until we have a draft, sketch or plan. Afterward, we take the draft material into the Workshop to shape and revise.

Improvisational actors work for years to achieve the apparent ease that shows up when they hop on the stage and create before our eyes. What kinds of things do they do to build their “play” muscles?

On Your Feet

There’s a reason that acting classes start with a call to stand up and enter the “space.” Moving our bodies in a space designated for play helps us push past initial resistance. Once in motion, actors transition into various games that require them to say yes to unexpected ideas and build upon them. Your project may not require performance skills, but the approach actors take is one that you can adapt to your own purposes.

A First Step

Go for a walk in a setting that appeals to your senses. As you walk, choose a project you’d like to explore further. Define “project” in the widest possible terms. You can choose a novel, a song, a room remodel, a gift … anything that’s on your mind that could use a creative kickstart.

As your heart rate rises, imagine that you are an absolute expert with regards to your project. There’s an improv game called “Expert Circle.” In this game, the actors become experts on a topic such as cheese or Mars or dragons. Even though they’re not experts on this topic, they speak as though they are. After each “expert” speaks, the other actors nod seriously and say, “yes, that is very true.”

Similarly, even if you’re not an expert on your project right now, imagine that you are. Find a safe place to perch, take out your favorite idea-capturing device, and brainstorm ideas for three-five minutes. List everything that should be done with regard to this project. Support your ideas by thinking, “Yes, that’s very true,” as you write each one down. Now is not the time to worry about specifics. That said, take yourself seriously. You probably know more about your project than you realize.

Once your time’s up, put the list away and finish your walk. This is an exercise in divergent thinking. The goal of the activity is to suspend judgement and generate a plethora of ideas. Later—in the Workshop—you can apply convergent thinking, paring down your list to the most valuable ideas. Separating generative, divergent thinking from analytical, convergent thinking will supercharge your creative productivity. Rather than coming up with ideas and immediately blocking them, you allow ideas to flow freely, while also giving focused attention to the critical thinking phase of the process. In the end, you end up with more novel ideas and make better decisions about which ones to carry forward.

What’s next?

Tomorrow, we’re on to The Workshop, to discuss the tasks involved in taking the rich clay that comes from activities like the one above and shaping it into what you envision. Onward!

Writerly Play: Exploring the Attic

It’s time to make things practical.

Over the past two days, we’ve explored the big-picture value of crafting a story as a way to think about and track our creative growth. Specifically, we’ve considered the collection of Writerly Play rooms as a helpful setting in which that story plays out. If you haven’t read the previous posts in this series, you may want to read those before you dive into this one. Here, we’ll turn our attention specifically to one room: The Attic.

To start, put yourself back into that hideout you imagined yesterday. Most of the time, mine is a rambling treehouse with rope ladders and swinging bridges. What does yours look like? Picture it in detail, taking time to notice the specifics that make it your own. Once you’re ready, let’s make our way up to the Attic. Climb the circular stairs two at a time, scale the climbing wall or take the path of your choosing.

The Primary Work of the attic is collecting.

Our ideas grow from the raw material we collect in our minds, through experiences—our own and those told to us—and what we watch, read and hear. Collecting happens whether or not we think about it, but some people are more naturally gifted in this space than others. When you enter your Attic, you might find a well-ordered, easy-to-access set of material. Or, it’s possible you’ll find towering piles of assorted mess that are anything but inviting to your creative mind.

Let’s do a quick self-assessment of the state of your Attic.

  1. Do you have a regular way to capture impressions of your day-to-day life? (i.e. a regular journaling practice, a sketchbook, a daily photography habit, a physical or digital place to collect ideas as they pop into your mind)
  2. Do you have a simple strategy for collecting and reviewing source material that may be useful for your current and future creative projects? (i.e. images, articles, audio material, videos, quotes, anecdotes)
  3. Do you have tools to help you regularly remove information clutter from your physical, digital, and mental world?
  4. When facing creative challenges, is it easy for you to frame questions in a way that move you toward step-by-step solutions?
  5. Do you have a regular practice that allows you to reflect on your experiences and explore your unique perspective on the world around you?

Developing Invisible Muscles

I’m guessing your answers are a mixed bag. If you said a hearty “yes” to every question, your Attic may not be in need of additional attention. However, for most people, the Attic is an ongoing project. Many creative blocks result from Attics that are under-developed or disorganized. Still, it’s all too easy to dismiss everything that goes on in the Attic as nice, but not necessary. Asking better questions, reflecting, and noticing the details of daily life aren’t tasks that fit neatly into a to-do list. They’re habits that weave into the fabric of day-to-day life. These habits build invisible muscles that make an enormous difference in our creative output and potential. The bottom line is, whether you’re creative for a living or looking to live more creatively, the state of your Attic matters.

So, how do we work on muscles that are largely invisible? Take a look at those questions again. Notice the words “way, strategy, tools, and practice.” Those are practical words that point us toward proactive solutions.

A First Step

Studies show that the best way to create lasting change is to set a goal, write it down, and break it into manageable steps. (If you’d like to hear Science Mike on the topic, check out this podcast). However, if you’re like me, you might try to overhaul your Attic in one wave of the magic wand only to end up exhausted and discouraged. So, as we wrap up, I’d like to suggest a practical first step.

Ask yourself: which portable item are you most likely to carry and use? Is it a journal? A sketchbook? Your phone? Choose one and on a blank page or note in the app of your choice, write a one-week goal. What would you like to intentionally collect? For instance, you might collect one picture per day of the places you go, or snippets of overheard dialogue, or physical items such as leaves or fabric swatches. What you collect is not nearly as important as the collecting itself. You’re training your mind to hone in on items of focus while discarding what is not as important. You’re building the habit of compiling your collection in one place, and increasing the value of that place as a trusted source of creative inspiration. If you’re looking for a new app or tool to aid your collection process, below are a couple I suggest. That said, I encourage you to keep this first step as simple as possible. Use the tool that is most accessible and appealing to you. Give yourself a quick win.

What’s next?

Tomorrow, we’ll move on to the next room, The Studio. But keep in mind the science of starting small. For some people, having the 100,000-foot view of the entire landscape helps. If that’s you, by all means let’s keep up our momentum. However, if you’re likely to be distracted by a peek into another room, you may want to pause here to follow through with setting and keeping your one-week goal. Then, come on back. The entire Nuts and Bolts of Writerly Play series will be ready and waiting for you.

How Can We Develop Our Creativity?

Yesterday, we explored WHY we need a plan to develop our creativity. Today, we’re picking up where we left off, so if you haven’t already, you might want to read yesterday’s post.

Writerly Play draws upon the research to create a doorway into a choose-your-own-adventure approach to creative development.

Creativity_ A choose Your Own Adventurestory

Why a choose-your-own-adventure story rather than a step-by-step process?

Well, creativity may be a process, but most creative projects aren’t linear. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, has participated in his fair share of creative projects. In his book, Creativity, Inc, he writes, “I’m a firm believer in the chaotic nature of the creative process needing to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it. So there’s a fine balance between providing some structure and safety—financial and emotional—but also letting it get messy and stay messy for a while.”

Catmull suggests using a mental model to provide structure while maintaining room for the mess. “Just as George Lucas liked to imagine his company as a wagon train headed west … the coping mechanisms used by Pixar and Disney Animation’s directors, producers, and writers draw heavily on visualization. By imagining their problems as familiar pictures, they are able to keep their wits about them when the pressures of not knowing shake their confidence.”

So, let’s visualize together for a moment.

Picture yourself standing in front of a gate—an intriguing gate—one that whispers of mysteries beyond. What does your gate look like? Take in as much detail as you can. Where are you? In a busy city? In a thick forest?

Beyond the gate is a building. When you were a kid, did you ever stumble across a place that you immediately claimed as your own? Maybe it was a hidden space carved into a hedge or a room that no one used. The point is, every once in a while, a space invites us in—it feels safe. It invites us to play. This building is that kind of space. It’s your hideout. You’re allowed to build forts here and slide across the floor in your socks.

Open the door and go inside.

Take in the look and feel of the place. This building—your Writerly Play hideout—is a setting for your creative exploration and growth. While your space will have its individual quirks and surprises, there are also a few rooms you’re sure to find.

  • An Attic, where you collect experiences and inspiration, and where you sort raw material into ideas that eventually turns into your creative projects.
  • A Studio, where you play with those ideas, where you follow your curiosity and begin to draft or sketch or improvise.
  • A Workshop, where you do the hammer-and-nails work of shaping and revising your work.
  • A Library, where you are mentored by those creatives who went before you, be they authors or painters or violinists.
  • A Cafe, where you connect with your peers and your audience, where you receive feedback and use it to fuel your growth.

Why are the rooms important?

Many books have been written about creativity. Most of them are stuffed with activities and exercises to stretch your thinking. If you’re anything like me, you love these books. You impulsively pick them up, seeking out the just-right suggestion. As you flip through the pages, your to-do list starts to grow. By the time you close the book, your creative time and energy is spent. Your head rattles with idea-clutter and a buzzing anxiety about all the things you have yet to do.

It’s not that creative exercises in and of themselves are a problem. It’s just that we haven’t given enough thought to dealing with them. Writerly Play offers a solution. While you will find exercises here, they won’t be collected like a bunch of spaghetti thrown against a wall. Imagine if your kindergarten classroom hadn’t had centers. If art supplies and books and puppets and blocks were all tossed in one messy pile, you wouldn’t have known where to start or what to do. Ideas don’t work well in piles, either.

Writerly Play invites us to envision the creative process as a ramble through a series of rooms.

These rooms are devoted to different kinds of thinking, and like centers, they help us organize the various activities available to us. There is a helpful (and well researched) model of the creative process called the Problem-Solving model. In this model, we:

  1. Clarify the challenge
  2. Generate ideas
  3. Develop a solution
  4. Implement the solution

While this is a helpful model, most creative projects require us to run through this process multiple times, and sometimes, to circle back—out of order—to previous stages. Fortunately, the activities involved in the Problem-Solving model fit neatly into the Writerly Play rooms. We can use the general plot provided by the Problem-Solving model while also leaving ourselves creative freedom. Each project has its own story—a playful one that follows a loose structure—while often surprising us along the way.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, in part three of The Nuts and Bolts of Writerly Play, we’ll climb up into the Attic and take a look around. See you soon!