Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Valerie Wernet
I’m an aesthete. I am in love with what’s beautiful to me, and sensitive to its absence. So many things bother or distract me: fluorescent lights, clutter (unless it is gorgeous, meticulously arranged clutter), weird smells, music with lyrics (because I can’t stop hanging on every word)… Most of these things can, and do, keep me from getting work done.
Of course, being meticulous about beauty isn’t a bad thing. I am a poet, which requires me to be absolutely obsessed with the beauty of language – its music, its origins, and the ways that words can meld or interact. I also have a natural sense for design, especially design of interior spaces. In fact, surrounding myself with beautiful objects and colors was probably the first manifestation of my creative practice. It feels like I spent the majority of my childhood scouring garage sales for the small toys, costume jewelry and rusty machine parts that always lined my bedroom walls.
As a poet, I don’t have a lot of deadlines. My writing life is irregular, and nobody will force me to write poems, submit them for publication, print them on a letterpress, bind them in a chapbook, or get them to their next or final form somehow.
Many of us don’t often need to work on our creative projects, technically. Of course, in order to grow (whether that means rising to an opportunity, deepening our skills in a certain discipline, or discovering how our current endeavors might carve a path to whatever is next) we do need to work.
When I decide to sit down and work, I tend to fight it. I feel immediately unsettled, the pulse of anxiety beating in my neck. Everything feels wrong. I get a burning desire to complete things that aren’t the nose-to-the-grindstone creativity I need (nay, want!) to be engaging in. It isn’t that I suddenly decide it’s imperative that I clean the bathroom tile or take out the recycling, though. Most of my work-time compulsions center around getting into a space of productivity — setting up my work area to feel calm and inspiring, so my brain feels clear and creative.
The common assessment of this response to pressure is that the doing of other things is a manifestation of our insecurities and expectations, boiling over and trying to keep us from the only important task: showing up to do the work.
I have anxiety in spades, and won’t deny that. I worry that my poetry is stupid, derivative, sappy, obvious, et cetera. However, when I prepare to write, I call out my highest, smartest, most luminous self. She is fearless. She trusts herself completely, and she is, unsurprisingly, especially discerning. If I work with her, and give her the beautiful space she needs, we make great work together. I know my arc – how my attentions wax and wane. I know that if I can get onto a plane of concentration, I’ll be able to stay there. And, I know I can reliably get there by indulging in the ritual of making my workspace beautiful and comfortable.
I have never been interested in the kind of ritual that means doing-the-same-thing-at-the-same-time-on-the-same-day-each-week. Of course, my life has rhythms, but it feels contrived and suffocating to spell them out and be bound by them. (I have my coffee every morning, and I brush my teeth every night – what else do the structure and consistency police want from me?) Instead of arriving at productivity via a schedule, I have arrived at the ability to create the physical and mental space to get into my work, when I need to, by knowing myself.
I know that I’m kind of a maximalist. Just as I was when I was a child, I am obsessed with beautiful objects, and I feel like I need them in my space. (Check out the image of my desk, above, if you have any doubts.) To figure out what rituals will or won’t work for you, of course, you’ll need to know yourself. Here are the rituals I go through to create a space where I can focus for hours:
- Clear a sufficient work area – Although I need my lovely objects around for inspiration, it is equally important that I be able to shuffle around papers, create mind maps, and have a space to set my coffee.
- Institute some great lighting – I like to have a few candles, because I love the warmth and motion of fire, as well as enough electric light to keep my eyes from getting tired.
- Eliminate aural distractions – Unfortunately, hearing spoken or sung words renders me unable to concentrate on the words I am writing. If I am in a noisy environment, wearing earplugs can work very well for me. If it’s relatively quiet, I blur out any potential distractions by listening to the Relaxing Rain station on Songza. Turning off my cell phone also fits under this category.
- Put out the Do Not Disturb sign – Letting people know I’ll be working removes the possibility of anyone breaking my concentration or offering to take me out to ice cream. Some things, I can’t say no to!
- Kick off the creativity – If I still want a little something extra, I sit down at my desk and burn some sage or incense. Then, I take a deep breath, and start.
The key to these rituals is not letting them take over or distract from your work. This might be challenging at first, but I never have a problem with it anymore. By the time everything is ready, I can’t wait to begin.
Do you use workspace rituals to get started? What do you do to call out your best self?
Valerie Wernet is a poet, editor, writing teacher, chef and interior designer with a knack for turning harebrained schemes into glorious realities. She holds an MFA in Writing from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, and an interdisciplinary BA from The Evergreen State College. She will be leading the PuttyRetreat with Emilie this September.