What’s Your Creative Process?

This question comes up at nearly every Q&A, and I always find it interesting because the funny thing about a “process” for artists and creatives is that its’ different for everyone. The truth about creative process is that every productive, prolific creator has one, even if they’re not aware of it. And every non-productive, frustrated creative, does not have one. There are very few exceptions to this rule.

The frustrated creative always asks, “What’s your process?” but what they’re really asking without knowing it is, “How do I make my creativity work for me, rather than the other way around?”

If you swap the word “process” for the phrase “key to productivity” it’s a completely different answer, an answer that yields much more in the way of helpful direction to a frustrated artist.

I’m a huge fan of process, but with this stipulation; use what works, discard the rest. The moment your process breaks down, needs reconfigured, or can be improved – refine your process, or dump it and get a new one. A creative cannot afford to have a faulty or non-productive creative pipeline.

Process is a tool. That’s all it is. When new writers ask me about my process, they’re really asking about my tool box.

What’s in my toolbox?

  • The Warehouse: a storage space for experiences, interests, thought trains, image files (“artists well”), skills, practiced craft, curiosities, and failures. Yes, failures, your most valuable tool in the warehouse.
  • The Method: choice of medium(s), collection of craft, and technique to apply to your channel
  • The Channel: the opening from your warehouse through your method, into your medium. This is where you sit down and work, build, create.
  • The Sacred Boundary: the time and space you set aside to do your work. This time and space is protected, from intrusion and judgement.

Different schools of thought and ways of practicing craft will inform new tools and processes. They are not limited, nor should they be. Having access to lots of methods and practices allows you to build what will ultimately work best for you individually.

Important Notes:

Process should never own your productivity. Productivity is supported by process, not caged by it. I think this is where people/creatives tend to break out in hives at the thought of process, order or structure. They think of it like a dungeon, a place where new ideas go to die.

When in fact process is the means by which your idea comes to fruition. It’s the network of strengths, methods, and practices put into place to allow your idea to emerge into reality.

It’s counter-productive to imagine process as the bad guy, that’s like shooting the messenger because you’re afraid they’ll deliver news, any news.

“But, Athena, process kills creativity! It limits ideas!” Alas. Not true. Process only weeds out, the ideas that won’t survive the birthing pains. If your process killed an idea, think of it as culling the garden so other more valuable ideas have more opportunity for sunlight, water, and cultivation. Without this failsafe, you could fall into a perpetual creative energy expenditure and never see the end goal realized. Bitter frustration ensues.

The misconception that process kills ideas comes from a crossover of terms:

Creativity, and productive creativity.

Creativity is the space where anything is possible. It’s cart blanche. It’s the amniotic fluid wherein all outcomes are imaginable, all resolutions achievable, and all interests matter. It’s the think tank, the brainstorm, the ether of imagination. Creativity is the idea buffet table.

Productive creativity (process) us the space where the ether of imagination meets the physics of planet Earth, and let’s be honest, also the pocketbook.

Productive creativity is logistics. HOW, do you get your creativity into a reality-based format? How do you make it pay off? What do you have to invest in time, energy, and money?

Having a process allows productive creativity to flourish, to nip the false starts, prune the runaway branches, streamline your output, and ensure the idea you’ve been nurturing has a real chance to bloom.

So, in the event the process culls out an idea, it’s not killing creativity, it’s trimming off a dead branch. The idea is still there, but that route to fruition is no longer viable. You can trash the whole idea and blame the process to boot, OR you can understand the breaking point of that idea, and reconfigure.

For example:

My main character isn’t connecting well with my reader base. They think he’s difficult, and non-dimensional. Robotic, even.

I can trash the whole novel. Throw out months of imaginative work, OR I can realize the beta feedback has a valid point and adjust course.

Solutions brainstorm:

Reconfigure main character to be an actual robot? Opens up world of sci-fi, or alternate reality steampunk?

Add dimensionality to current character actions: show empathic resonance (ie: “Save the Cat”), add in character historical wound, backstory explaining current state, tweak idiosyncrasies, add a phobia or weakness, etc.

Another way to think about the creativity vs. productive creativity is to remember the Edison quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Each time his lightbulb efforts failed to result in a productive outcome, he didn’t throw up his hands and say, “Damn you, process! You killed my creative dream of electric light!”

He simply said, “Well, this isn’t the one. Next?”

The idea remained vibrant and possible. It stayed present in his efforts. The process weeded out the ways the idea wouldn’t succeed, eventually leaving only one viable option.

Conversely, there are ideas that might not re-configure. There are ideas that have no map to fruition, or pathway to completion. Those routes have not been created yet, either by you, or others. There are ideas that hit a limitation of energetic resources, bandwidth, time, or money.

Does the process that reveals those limitations deserve slander? No. Reconfigure if possible, or store the idea for later if it’s a limitation that can be resolved, or bury the idea completely if it hits a wall and cannot be revived. Save energy for the ideas that light your fire, and keep you passionate – those are the ideas that bear fruit. Those are the ideas that will keep feeding your creative hunger and vigor long into your productive career.

To recap:

  1. Process is just a tool.
  2. Creativity and productive creativity are two different states of creation.
  3. As a creative, fill your toolbox with what works for you individually.


For articles on what’s in my personal creative toolbox, please see:

The Warehouse

The Channel (pipeline)

The Method

The Sacred Boundary

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