Courtney M. McSwain, Writer

Anatomy of a Freelance Writer’s Life: Keeping Creativity on a Low Boil

Gas Stove Burner Image

“Gas Stove Burner” by Steven Depolo (Creative Commons)

Creative people can be deceiving. It can appear as though they have a constant stream of ideas flowing beautifully like a fountain of water. In my experience, creativity is more like a pot of water sitting on a stove waiting to boil.

Visions of the suffering writer being tortured by a lack of inspiration seem, in a weird way, romantic. However, as a freelance writer who has to manage multiple jobs, multiple deadlines and multiples bosses, I’ve quickly realized there is no time for suffering. In the freelance writer’s life, there is rarely time to wait for creative temperatures to rise, which is why it’s important we keep creativity on a low boil. By this, I mean staying mentally engaged so that we’re always ready to dive into writing when that coveted assignment comes.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m any good at this, mind you. In fact, let’s file this post under the category, “Things Courtney Needs to Work On.” Still, I thought it would be useful to share the things I should do more of in order to keep creativity close by. Things like…

Writing more

I recently attended a workshop entitled “How to Write a Lot.” My subconscious translated the words “a lot” to mean “more quickly,” and I eagerly anticipated spending my Saturday learning some new speed writing technique. However, the instructor never addressed ways to write faster, she just encouraged us to write more. Why? Because writing always starts off badly; it is only after several hundred words of nonsense and a few dozen half-baked metaphors are purged from the body that logical, coherent sentences can emerge. Writing more keeps us in a constant state of cycling bad stuff out so that good stuff becomes available. Moreover, writing more teaches us patience so that we don’t panic every time we get it wrong on the first try. We will always get it wrong on the first try, and writing more allows us to come to terms with that.

Reading more

One of my very bad habits is falling asleep to the television—or more specifically, the television shows in my iTunes library. I have seen every episode of “The New Adventures of Old Christine” at least a dozen times. I turn it on and let the familiar dialogue lull me to sleep. The only problem is, I always wake up with the show’s dialogue running through my head. Not the best way to foster concentration. I love TV because it’s comforting and uncomplicated. Unfortunately, settling into comfortable and uncomplicated spaces is no good for the writer, because writing is uncomfortable and very complicated. Writing requires endurance, tenacity, stubbornness and fortitude—qualities also necessary in reading. Readers, like writers, must fight every instinct to give up on a difficult story, learn how to quickly bounce back from interruptions in focus, or even take their task to the nearby coffee shop in order to avoid falling asleep on the couch. Just as every famous writer quoted on Twitter says, reading is a writer’s training ground.

Getting out of the house more

About a month ago, I went through my newspaper’s summer arts guide and circled a dozen or so book readings, theater festivals, concerts and other art events I was going to attend throughout the summer.  A month into the season, I haven’t attended any of them. It’s not as though I don’t have legitimate reasons. I always have more research to do, interview notes to type or pitch letters to draft. Yet, I don’t prioritize inspiration time—time to get away and refill the creative waters, even though doing so is a legitimate and necessary use of time.  Freelance writers are creative people, and spending time in creative spaces with others can help us refresh our thinking.

Every day I’m learning more and more about being a creative professional, and I’ve so far concluded that creativity isn’t magic; it takes practice. And keeping creativity  on a low boil can help freelance writers decrease the time we spend suffering and increase the time we spend enjoying.


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