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.

Workshop

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! Read on …

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