Want to be a better writer? Stop putting out fires.

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

My wife and I live in Southern California, so the #1 topic of conversation right now is the wildfires that are devastating our state. It’s national news: hundred of homes destroyed, thousands evacuated, millions of dollars in damage.

Walk outside and there are tangible reminders everywhere: the smoke is thick and acrid — it burns your eyes and nose within seconds. Wake up in the morning and the sky is literally raining ash. The smoke is so thick you can stare at the sun as it casts eerie orange pall on everything around.

Schools have been cancelled, people are staying home from work, everyone is wearing masks. Friends of ours are being evacuated, countless people have lost their homes…it’s a mess.

Thousands of firefighters from California, Arizona, Oregon, and Nevada are working around the clock to contain the fire, rescue homes, and save lives (these guys are absolute heroes). Blanketed under thick black smoke, hundreds of fire trucks line the streets, ready for action.

It’s a weird sight to behold. Normally-sunny, beautiful Southern California now looks like something out of a bad war movie.

But as foreign as this catastrophic event may seem, the analogy of firefighting is actually quite applicable to our creative lives. Why, you ask?

We spend the majority of our time putting out fires in our own lives.

Like it or not, as a writer, society labels us as “creatives.” We engage our brains for a living.

And the #1 mistake that creatives make? Being in “react mode.”

The fact is, the vast majority of us spend too much of our lives living in a perpetual state of reactivity, merely responding to the emergencies and everyday matters that pop up in our lives.

Deep down, we know we should be proactive, thinking about what lies ahead…but then another email comes in, and we feel the need to respond.

We so desperately desire to get into our creative flow, putting words to paper that engage, inspire, connect…but wait, we have to get to those bills, those emails in our inbox, the desperate needs of that client who won’t stop calling.

And so we react.

The result? It hampers our ability to produce creative work.

There’s no denying it: being in “react mode” absolutely destroys our creative capacity.

If we’re not intentional about making time and space in our lives to create…the work will never get done.

If we don’t plan for the unexpected things (the “fires”) that crop up in our lives…we’ll only find ourselves fighting more fires.

If we don’t set aside time to ruthlessly block out all distractions…we’ll become even more distracted.

If we fail to establish our priorities…we’ll fall victim to the priorities that others establish for us.

If we fail to implement structure into our lives…that structure will be set for us.

If we want to operate at our full creative capacity, to produce the very best work that we’re capable of producing, we must stop putting out fires.

These guys are absolute heroes…but if you want to be a better creative, you can’t be like them. Photo by Andrew Gaines on Unsplash

We desperately need structure.

Most people hate structure. We complain about our 9–5, feeling like we’re living in a never-ending hamster wheel, running on forever and ever. The train never stops. But this type of thinking is limiting.

The truth is, structure actually brings freedom.

When we have structure in our lives, we can do focused work…not only because we know what we’re working on, but what we’re not working on. Structure gives me the freedom to say to myself, “Sorry, self. I can’t respond to that email because right now I’m focused on the important creative work I’m doing.”

By knowing what our priorities are (and perhaps more importantly, what we won’t waste our time on), we’re able to produce more creative work. We become better writers and more healthy people.

Todd Henry outlines an important formula for creative work in his book The Accidental Creative:

Prolific + Healthy + Brilliant = producing great work consistently and in a sustainable way.

If I were to make any adjustments to that formula, I’d put healthy first.

If we want to produce brilliant, creative work at a prolific level, we have to start with ourselves — we must be creatively healthy.

Because, like it or not, if you don’t take the time and effort to develop structure as a writer (or any other type of creative, for that matter), you will end up reverting to the structure and the paycheck that someone else sets for you.

But how?

Maybe you feel like you went off the rails recently, like you haven’t been producing at your full creative capacity. You had big goals for this year, but other worries took over. You started out with high hopes and ambitions, but you’re looking back at the year wondering, “What did I produce?”

That’s ok — I suspect this is where most people will find themselves. I was there, too.

Let me encourage you: it is possible to get back on track. You can move from reactive mode to a proactive mindset; from putting out fires to deciding with purpose what you will create next.

December is a great time of the year to do this — to put aside some time to taming your schedule, to getting healthy so that you can produce your best creative work in 2018.

It just requires changing the rules. It requires actively deciding — with conviction — that you won’t fall victim to other people’s priorities for you, but that you will purposefully decide what to focus on. It requires strategic thinking about your goals and opportunities: what do you want to accomplish? What do you want to create?

So if you want to become a better writer, you have to start by shifting your mindset. You have to get healthy first.

Helping each other write better.
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