Productive Rituals That Lead To Creativity:
A Daily Discipline for Writers and Artists
by Sarah Rehfeldt
A lot of artistic people have rituals, habits, or routines that help them become more creative. Currently I am reading a book about creativity by Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. Her morning routine begins with getting up at 5:30 a.m. and heading off to the gym for a workout.
There are specific spiritual disciplines that I follow in order to remain as artistically and creatively “fit” as possible. For me, creativity is at its peak when I follow a set routine. I am a writer, photographer, and artist; however, you do not have to be any of these things in order to enjoy a more creative life. My daily discipline goes something like this:
1. Spending time with the Creator
For me, becoming a creative person comes from spending quality time with the Creator. My alarm clock goes off at 4:56 a.m. I head downstairs for a cup of coffee (Mr. Coffee is automatic in my house) and retreat to my computer room which also serves as a study or office space and sometimes an art studio when I am working on a mosaic or another art project. You may think that 4:56 a.m. is a very ungodly hour to be awake, but there’s a reason for this.
4:56 a.m. is early enough in the day that I can be awake enough without being fully awake. Something mysterious and spiritual happens in the dreamlike world of 4:56 a.m. I can really hear myself think, and I can carry on better conversations with that inner, intuitive voice—the one we call Spirit, or God—the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). At 4:56 a.m., there are no distractions for me yet. My children and husband are still sound asleep in bed, and, mentally, I have not yet begun to pile up all of the tasks I need to accomplish once the day really kicks into gear. It is quiet outside. Occasionally an airplane passes overhead, or one of the neighbors drives out of the cul-de-sac and heads to work, but for the most part there are no traffic noises outside.
The other reason I choose to set my alarm clock for 4:56 a.m. is that I am superstitious about these numbers. In my mind, the sequential arrangement stands for spiritual alignment, which is, after all, the reason I am getting up so early. I figure that by waking up at 4:56 a.m., I am making a direct statement to God about how I wish to live my life. I’m saying, “I wish to follow, I want to be here, and I seek to align myself with your will during this time.” I think another word for this is seeking “harmony.” Also, numerically speaking, 4-5-6 is the most appealing number combination to me because it affords me the greatest amount of sleep. Getting up 3:45 a.m., for instance, would be far too early, as would 2:34 a.m., and I couldn’t really see myself getting up at 1:23 a.m. Spiritual disciplines are supposed to be enjoyable, not torture.
This is the environment in which I like to write.
2. Lighting candles
Candles are one of my favorite things. The subtle shades and silhouetted lines of wax melting into each other are visually pleasing and suggest an element of the ethereal to me. They also lend a sense of “worship” to my morning meditation. In my office/study, there are a couple of scented candles set aside specifically for this purpose.
3. Sitting to write
I spend time in prayer. I recite the Lord’s Prayer. I thank God for my creative gifts and ask him for guidance. I let him know that I desire to create something meaningful, with purpose. Lately, I have been reciting this simple prayer: “Lord, help me to create something through which only you can lead me.” That prayer came to me one morning while I was meditating. It releases the pressure of me aspiring or striving to be creative and allows me to be the instrument through which God’s creativity flows.
During this time, I also try to let go of my insecurities about writing. A lot of times I am afraid of being judged, of not having a “real” career or making any money. Sometimes I have so many projects lined up (poetry, photography, and mosaic-making) that I feel cluttered. I need to let go of these things in order to be free to write. These I release before the cross; doing so allows me to be free of the burdens that prevent me from accepting God’s grace.
After prayer, it’s time to write in my journal. My journal happens to be a 9 x 12 inch sketchbook. I got this idea after reading Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. She suggests filling the sketchbook with collage items such as fabric swatches or magazine cut outs—anything you find that lifts your spirit. I use it for journaling and doodling. I keep a shallow wooden box filled with a rainbow assortment of thin, felt-tipped markers in my study, and every morning I select a different colored pen from the box, depending on my mood. I tend to use purples, greens, and blues quite a bit. On a rare morning, I might choose something bright and cheerful like orange, but that is not usually my standard mood at 4:56 a.m., so normally I go for the more subdued tones.
My morning journal-writing routine is loosely-based on Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” technique (see suggested readings). I write anything and everything that comes into my mind, regardless of grammar or syntax, as quickly as I can, until I have filled up three or four pages in my sketchbook. I am simply writing stream-of-consciousness to “free the clutter” from my mind before I meditate.
Later—sometimes that same day, but usually a week or two later—I go back over these pages to see what I wrote, and to see what the Spirit may have revealed to me through this writing exercise. I also harvest any spiritual insights or “poetry seeds” that came out of the stream. Then I transfer the gems into another journal where I do my actual poetry writing. It can be very surprising to take a look back at these morning pages and see what the subconscious flow of mind fished out for me during those dreamy, early morning hours. I am always amazed to find little tidbits of wisdom, supernatural guidance, direction, or “help along the path” revealed in those pages.
5. The doodle of the day
Believe it or not, doodling can be an incredibly creative discipline. The same sacred pool of creativity that is available to be tapped for writing is also available for doodling (and drawing and painting and photography—or any creative endeavor, for that matter). Why doodle? Well, when I doodle in those early morning hours, I am not paying attention much to what I am actually drawing. I simply draw whatever comes to mind. This whole activity doesn’t last more than three to five minutes, but later in the day—usually in the evening before I go to bed—I take a second glance at my doodles. In them there is almost always something intriguing or significant to discover. Often the shape, its lines or patterns tell a story or offer insight about a poem I am writing. Much of the time the doodle illuminates my life in a different, deeper, more spiritual way.
Before I sit in quiet meditation, I read a short passage from the Bible. It usually amounts to one chapter or one parable from the New Testament. My favorite stories are the ones that contain the most poetic language, rich metaphors, and lyrical lines. Among my favorites are the first creation story; the book of Isaiah; and the gospel of John.
How does one meditate? I think this is an exercise based on an individual’s own personal preference. You end up doing what works best for you. In my case, I blow out the candles, turn out the lights, and sit in my comfy red leather chair from IKEA. It comes with a matching leather footstool and rocks ever so slightly. It’s the perfect fit for my back. When I meditate, even though it is dark outside, I still cover my head with a blanket just to be sure it will stay dark (I told you I was superstitious). Then I bow my head and ask God to help quiet my mind so that I can listen. I start by breathing in very deeply and very slowly, then by exhaling, also very slowly. While I inhale, I imagine myself breathing in Jesus’ healing spirit; as I exhale, I picture all of the tensions and anxieties being released from my soul.
During the meditation I try not to think of anything at all. This takes both discipline and practice! When I first started meditating, I could only keep it up for about two minutes at a time. Gradually I worked up to twenty minutes. Now I can easily sit for up to an hour. As a spiritual discipline that enhances my creativity, this is probably the number one thing I can do to help me remain intuitive and open to Spirit. Meditation, however, is like any other discipline—it needs to be repeated and practiced on a daily basis in order to improve and enjoy the results.
By 7:00 a.m., my household is on the verge of becoming a hopping madhouse. I have cats meowing at the door waiting to be fed, and the children are awake upstairs and needing help getting ready for school. The usual sound of the morning commute has resumed near our side streets. Despite the impending chaos, I rarely feel jolted out of a meditation; I always feel very peaceful, refreshed, and relaxed. The clarity it brings to my day, the creative insights, and the personal well-being make it worth it to get up so early to perform this ritual.
9. Take little “sips” of nature
I am a photographer, so finding the time to contemplate nature is never very difficult. After the kids are off to school, I return to the house and sip my last cup of coffee. I usually end up taking a short stroll outdoors to check on the garden. Invariably I find something interesting out there and take some photos. Nature is filled with so much beauty and intricate detail; it is the perfect place to find inspiration and renewal. Taking time out every day for these refreshing little “sips” of nature helps me enter into that intimate sphere where the holy can be encountered, where creativity can freely flow.
10. Take the time to write every day
Yes, I know that you are a busy mother with two children and errands and appointments … or a self-employed contractor with a 16 hour day. Nevertheless, it is important to carve out precious moments each and every day where you can sit to write. As with any sport or musical instrument, in order to hone your skills you must practice. At some point during the day (best when the kids are at school), I set aside a block of time to do some actual writing. This is not the same as the “morning pages” stream-of-consciousness activity done earlier in the day. I put in “real work” on my manuscript (I am writing a book of spiritual Christian poetry and photography), or I gather together the “poetry seeds” from my journal entries and shape them into an emerging poem. Here, I make sure to invite the Holy Spirit’s presence into my work, to mold my writing as I work.
If I have been consistent in my daily spiritual routine, I find that the writing process is very fluid and fast, and it is easy to find “the melody.” Words seem to flow as a spiritual gift, and the writing comes naturally. I try not to, but on occasion when I do sleep in or forget to do my daily routine, writing becomes an arduous, tedious, awkward and undesirable task. So, if spiritual creativity is what you seek, it becomes important that you adhere to your ritual once you have established a routine that works for you.
11. Make time for prayer every day
I have noticed a strong connection between intercession and creativity. When I pray for others, not only does my spiritual life grow deeper, but my own creativity is enhanced as well.
Work out to music; dance; and move your body.
13. Keep a gratitude journal
Once the day is over; errands run; chores completed; homework done; kids in bed, I try to end my day in the same peaceful manner in which it began. Before I go to bed, I take out my journal sketchbook and jot down my “gratitudes of the day.” What am I thankful for? What pleasant surprises awaited me today? In what ways was I spiritually moved or blessed? How did God show his faithfulness? I write these down in a sort of “Top Ten List.”
I go to bed early, so my lights are out by 10:00 p.m. The single most important detail of my morning routine takes place the night before—and that would be reaching over to make sure my alarm clock is set to go off tomorrow morning at 4:56 a.m.
14. Craft your own productive rituals
What works for me may not be exactly right for you. You can combine a time of quietness, prayer and writing with spiritual and sensory triggers that work for you. The key is to be faithful to your personal ritual; that's why it's called a "ritual," after all. As you bring the discipline of a ritual to your creativity, you might be amazed at what the Creator will bring to you in return.
These are some books containing valuable insights about nurturing creativity and/or the creative process.
1. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (Anchor, 1995).
2. Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach (Grand Central Publishing, 1995).
3. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp (Simon and Shuster, 2005).
4. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle (Shaw Books, 2001).
5. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (Tarcher, 2002).
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Copyright ©2009 by Sarah Rehfeldt
Sarah Rehfeldt is a mother, artist, and writer from Washington State. You can view her photography web pages.