My Creative “Genius” (… and Her Persistent Mid-night Visits)

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A few months ago, my friend Macy shared a fascinating TED Talk with me about creativity. In the talk, writer Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the bestselling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love) shares her personal struggle around the fact that her “greatest creative success” may already be behind her, and give creatives the scape-goat idea that their “creative genius” may not always be available. You can watch her full 18-minute talk here, but in case you don’t have time, I’ll summarize the gist of it:

  1. Being a writer, or having any kind of demanding creative profession, can be challenging — sometimes creating lots of pressure or causing fear, anxiety or anguish. Elizabeth Gilbert wants to redefine the stereotype that creative people are somehow doomed for this stressed, anguish-ridden existence and to “encourage our great creative minds to live… [and] keep doing this work that [they] love.”
  2. In a search for a “protective psychological construct…to help creative people sort of manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity”, Gilbert learned that in ancient Rome, “people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then… People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.” The Romans called this spirit the “genius.”
  3. Gilbert poses the question “Why not think about it this way?” Why not be grateful to yourself and feel pride for just showing up for the job of being creative (and trying), and cut yourself a little extra slack if your creative “genius” maybe didn’t show up that day?

Personally, I love this idea. I have a creatively demanding job designing marketing materials and kid’s books for a children’s publisher, so I know from experience that sometimes it can be challenging to need to generate creative ideas under a deadline. When you’re just not quite in the right zone, or you can’t really manage to find your creative “flow”, sometimes the good ideas you need just get stuck somewhere that you can’t quite access. Wouldn’t it be so great if the ancient Romans were right and you could just blame your occasional creative-ineptness on some “genius” or muse that randomly decides to come for a visit? Or not come for a visit? I think I’m just gonna roll with that.

FullSizeRenderI feel very fortunate to have had more visits than usual from my “genius” since starting this blog, which has genuinely been awesome and really creatively fulfilling. The problem is… she’s recently come to enjoy visiting me in the middle of the night. Like… at 3 or 4 or 5am. Which is TOTALLY the best time to be awake and generating productive ideas! THANKS, Genius! I feel soooo grateful to you and your BRILLIANT ideas and your even MORE BRILLIANT timing! (<— Still trying to figure out how to easily convey sarcasm via the written word… how’d I do?)

So, yeah. This disrupted sleep problem has been an on-and-off thing for a few months now. Here are some of the things I have tried to combat it:

  • Meditating. This only works sometimes. I tend to have more success when I listen to a calming guided meditation with soothing background music.
  • A white noise machine. Along similar lines — my parents bought me this sleep-aid noise machine that generates soothing white noise or meditation music on a sleep timer. It’s nice to fall asleep to when I go to bed, but doesn’t really help me as much in the middle of the night.
  • Tylenol PM. Eh? Maybe it helps a little?
  • Downloading the f.lux app on my computer. It’s a pretty awesome app that adjusts the colors and brightness on your computer screen depending on what time of day it is (to help regulate your circadian rhythms). You just tell it what time zone you are in and when you tend to go to bed and wake up and it does its thing. I do realize, though, that the more effective solution here would be to shut down my computer earlier in the evening. Despite the warm, night-timey lighting, it’s still probably too over-stimulating to do right before I fall asleep. I gotta work harder at that one!
  • Trying to regulate my sleep schedule. I’ve been trying to get to bed by 11:30pm (not always succeeding…) and wake up around 7:30am. I can stay pretty close to this on the weekdays, but it tends to get a little messed up on the weekends.
  • Exercising more. Actually, I lied. I’ve been so bad at this lately and that is probably a major factor why I am not sleeping as well. Gotta work harder at this one, too!
  • Writing down any anxious thoughts in the Evernote app on my phone. This strategy of “collecting” your thoughts is part of the famous GTD (Getting Things Done) productivity method, suggesting that we need to close any “open loops” we have going on in our brain in order to really focus (on sleeping, in this case, rather than on being productive. Although I guess sleep IS productive). Anyway, the idea here is to just propel the thoughts from my head into the note so they don’t have to bounce around in my brain anymore, keeping me awake. I realize that there are two problems with this idea: 1: the light of my phone probably stimulates (maybe I need to download f.lux on my phone??) and 2: sometimes focusing on the thoughts turns into a major “in-the-flow” creative brainstorm, which keeps me awake. Worth noting that the latter just happened to me and now, at 6:40am, I am approaching the end of a nearly-complete blog post. Maybe my genius is just a ridiculously-early-morning person?

Earlier this morning I also tried drinking this drink called neuro SLEEP, which was recommended to me by a friend. Although it’s not FDA-approved yet, it’s basically just a melatonin and magnesium-infused supplement drink that supposedly will help you have a restful night’s sleep. I haven’t had any luck with this (so far at least), although it did make me feel super drowsy in my limbs. I think it was starting to work but my genius is feeling particularly combative and inspired this morning and doesn’t feel like leaving me alone yet. Yes — I conceptualized and wrote this entire blog post between 4:30 and 7am. THANKS, Genius, for your WELL-TIMED help — as always! ;-P

So… this blog post doesn’t really have a particularly conclusive or perfect ending, but it needs to be over now so I can go try to meditate or something to get a few more ZZZs before starting my day. Wish me luck — and please let me know if you have any suggestions about how to train my creative “genius” to have better timing!

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