Creativity is labor. Do it every day.

There is a familiar pattern in my writing habit. Several days or at longest weeks of inspirations are followed up by a long period of creative draught that goes on for weeks or months. The dry spell turns into an unbearable self-hatred, which is then cured by the next brief spell of bursting energy, and I bring myself back into the endless karmic circle of euphoria and desperation. Does it sound familiar? We call it addiction. But I did not know any other way, so I decided that would be my life.

But just like infatuation is different from real love, addictive impulses cannot be real creativity. After I started to allow myself for a large amount of time by leaving the employed life, I decided to challenge my addictive framework by simply keep writing no matter what. Each morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is write a certain number of words. I can write anything, but I cannot end the day without reaching the target word count. (This is called morning write, and is the fundamental advice in the guidebook for recovering creators, The Artist’s Way—I appreciate Mia Hsieh of A Moving Sound deeply for introducing me to this book.)

In the beginning, reaching the target word count was a whole day’s work, sometimes dragging me until bedtime. At times I just kept writing “What should I write?” in rows, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson endlessly typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in a lonely haunted hotel, slowly turning himself into a possessed monster. But I kept on writing no matter what.

A few weeks passed, and at some point I started to think maybe I could write not just for myself but for others to share. So I decided to give myself a crazy little challenge: Write an article every day for a week and post it on my Facebook/blog account. It did not matter how good my writing was or how many errors were there: I had to churn out something each day, and the idea had to come out after I woke up. I was going to pat on my shoulder if I lasted for 3 days, my previous record. I ended up posting for 14 consecutive days.

In the end I took a couple of days off, but as of now the quasi-daily posting is still ongoing and I have no desire to stop it. The only difference between this time and my previous trials is this: Quantity > Quality. I must scoop up whatever exists inside me and it does not matter if it is a rusty beer can or a golden treasure box. To meet the challenge, I have to tune out everything outside my inner hunch. I have become a fisherman who goes out every day with his net. If I miss the first fragile small crowd of idea, I might not see another again for the day: That pressure allows me to (almost) stop judging my writing.

Interestingly, as I learn to focus on my current task, my previously forgotten passion and motivation came afloat, probably encouraged by the absence of inner judges with scoreboards. My small ritual has became an exciting moment during the first half of the day, which was surreal: a routine work is supposed to be dull and is the opposite of creative affair. (I left my previous job for that very reason.)

Yet as I reflect on my recent path, I can see why I couldn’t keep the flow of motivation in the past. I used to take off my overall as soon as I finished writing in my inner workshop. I would wear a suit and join the row of inner elites to ponder over my scribbles with a glass wine. This time, the looming objective of hitting the daily quota did not give me the time to switch my inner position. Or maybe I am pulling the snobbish critic me into the workshop to work together. I might have become metaphorically very smelly and untidy and unsophisticated, but surely I have learned how to shut things off and do my work. I tolerate my imperfectness for the sake of just doing the same thing, every day.

And as I dig through the sand and roll over the rock to take out what is in there, be it a worm or a starfish, I go back into my 5-year old self, just happy and proud showing my newest discovery around. I am starting to realize that what we call creativity isn’t a beautiful and tidy result of a sparkling inspiration but a messy dirty act of work. My job is to dig. And dig.

Creativity is labor. Do it every day.