“Hi. Golden Police. Get out.”
I sat on a park bench in Golden, Colorado as the sun set, gnats barrel-rolled above the grass, and a cop yelled at kids rafting in Clear Creek, just beyond the “Creek Closed” sign.
I was reading a book called How To Write Short. It was the perfect timing for the cop to yell. The book’s author said to jot down great examples of short writing. This wasn’t exactly writing, but it made my list.
As the cop lowered his voice and the teenagers dealt out their apologies, stories, and excuses like cards from a playing deck, I lowered my gaze back to the book.
It was my third time visiting the park, my backpack filled with books, writing paper, pens, and pencils. Like a housecat seeking patches of sunlight* for dozing, I amble to where the energy supports my writing. Usually, it’s my office.** Sometimes, it’s 1000 miles away, or a few miles in the air.
When I was 19 years old and a student at UMASS Amherst, I obsessed about where I should be. I shoveled smoldering piles of “shoulds” onto my shoulders. “I should be at parties. People don’t want me at parties. But I should still be at them and be wanted.” I piled on “shouldn’ts” just as generously.
I shouldn’t sit in my dorm alone. I definitely shouldn’t let anyone see me alone.
Above all else, the unspoken rule was that I shouldn’t respect and cultivate the unique way I thrive.
My shoulds had nothing to do with what was best for me – it was about what was best for my appearance and conformity.
But as much as I beat myself up over it, I wasn’t good at following through with my shoulds. I lifted weights at the gym, ate alone at the cafeteria, cried into my pillow (college sucked for me – I was sad as hell) and muffled my sobs if my roommate was in our dorm.
But sometimes I slipped out of my “should” noose and enjoyed my version of a Zen garden – the library.
Even though, with 30 floors, it’s the tallest brick library in the world, the silence that settled between the bookshelves made it feel like an underground tomb. Why weren’t other students there? Wasn’t this a college? Oh well. The place was so quiet, I could hear my ears ring. I liked it.
One day, I brought a notebook and rode the elevator to the 27th floor. I perched myself at a desk by the window and glanced at the landscape below. Pine trees, tiny from so far above, congregated on the hills. Buildings full of classrooms I’d never enter. I turned to my notebook, opened it, and began scribbling.
My pen charged across the page, roaring like a miniature tornado. Thuds of new sentences echoed off the notebook page and reverberated between the bookshelves. When I looked up, I’d written about twenty pages.
In the dorms across campus, students drank, smoked, gave each other head, but none were as high as me. I’d found my patch of sunlight for creative energy and I basked in it.
A month later, I took a Greyhound bus to Manhattan for a seminar on marketing. The event took place in the Crowne Plaza hotel ballroom. Whatever the hosts taught has been washed from my conscious memory. But while I was there, I did something far more valuable than take notes while sitting in the audience.
I wandered Manhattan, backpack filled with a notebook and pens, and found a table at Bryant Park.
I sat down, busted out some Crowne Plaza Hotel stationary, and began writing. The honks, rumbling engines, and the fall breeze enhanced by the wind tunnels between the skyscrapers drowned out the scribbles of my pen. I mapped out plans, writing ideas, and action steps. I channeled the energy around me, mixed it with my own, and jotted on my notebook page, my pen zipping up and down like a seismometer whipping back and forth as an earthquake erupts.
That was fifteen years ago.
Since then, I’ve written on planes, trains, sometimes even automobiles (not while driving), local coffee shops, and probably boosted Starbucks’s stock price with all coffee I’ve bought to write at their tables.
Sometimes, like when I’ve written in hotels while driving across the country, I worked in different places because I was traveling. Sometimes, I needed to seek the patch of sunlight for my creative energy. And sometimes, that patch of sunlight found me, in a loud, dirty place.
I don’t just do this with writing, either. I’ve done this with workouts, like driving to the public track to do bodyweight exercises. I could have done them in the hallway instead of walking out the front door but, on that day, the new location invigorated me.
But new places is only one part of the equation for creativity.
If you want to accomplish a creative project, you must commit yourself to a routine. Jocko Willink titled one of his books Discipline Equals Freedom. Discipline also equals creativity. Usually, you’ll do best by choosing a location and time for working on your project. When you sit – or stand – at the same place and time day after day, you build the backbone of your creative process.
For over a decade, I’ve studied Daoist meditation. It’s given me some unique insights into cultivating creativity. Daoists recommend students stand or sit in the same place and even face the same direction when they meditate. This is to build the habit – the backbone.
However, once you build your backbone, you’ll sometimes do better if you change location for your routine.
The cliché coffee shop often works – for writing or work on your computer, not meditating. Unless you’re an exhibitionist and you get off on people watching you sit perfectly still. Or maybe a bus station will work, too. I’ve written perhaps one hundred pages at airport gates – hundreds more on flights, my laptop on the tray table and shoved into my chest, my elbows pulled back like I’m about to dive into a pool. Creative energy doesn’t care about your comfort. (And neither do the airlines.)
For creative work, it’s good to build a backbone with a routine. After that, seek the patches of sunlight. Explore what lights you up and gets your creative energy flowing. Do what it takes to get there when you need it. If your creative output gets stagnant, shake it up.
*Thanks to the late Gary Halbert for that metaphor
**I took notes for this story at Parfet Park, wrote the first draft in my office, and edited it with a pen at Indulge Bistro & Wine Bar, and typed my edits back into the Word Document at our dining room table.