The Most Important Part of the Creative Life

There are countless books, products, and resources geared towards aiding the creative process. There’s so much to learn and consume. What’s an artist to do?

Creative Space
Photo credit: Gary Radler

If you make art, your skills have never been in higher demand. There have never been more people willing to help you do your work and vying for your attention. There’s just one problem:

You will still be misunderstood.

Your work will be misrepresented. You still won’t be appreciated, in spite of your popularity. And at times like these, when the spotlight is on you, you must remember the most important part of a creative life:


Without it, you flounder and get frustrated. You burn out and blow up. But what does this mean — space? The very absence of something is hard to explain, but essential, nonetheless, especially when it comes to creative work.

If God created from chaos, if he spoke earth into existence amidst nothingness, then we have good reason to believe that having a little space in order create is a good thing.

But space is multifaceted. There are, in fact, three different types for an artist to consider.

Physical space

There is a relationship between the place you work and the work you do. If your space is cluttered, you will feel anxious. At times, a little nervous energy can be a good thing.

But if all you ever do is work in a mess, don’t be surprised if you feel unprepared for the Muse when she shows up. And don’t be surprised if she doesn’t come at all. She’s waiting for you to get your act together.

When I find my creativity flustered, here’s what I often do:

  • Do the dishes (because this actually relaxes me).
  • De-clutter (throw away old magazines, pay bills, etc.)
  • Clean off my desk.
  • Put papers into neat piles.
  • Move junk out of sight.
  • Find a clean space to create (or make one).

Whatever I need to focus on the work, that’s what I do. And if you want to create compelling work, you must do the same.

Mental space

If your mind is consumed with worries and concerns, pending deadlines and to-do items, you won’t be thinking clearly. And this will affect how you write, paint, or design.

So what’s the best way to overcome this? Finish your chores. Whatever is upsetting or distracting you, just get it over with. Walk through the discomfort and get back to work.

Here are a few things that hold me back, mentally:

  • A confrontation with a coworker that I’m procrastinating.
  • A lot of email piling up in my inbox.
  • A long list of household chores.
  • A bank statement I haven’t reconciled.
  • A bunch of windows open on my computer.
  • A cluttered desktop.

Whatever it is, my mind will not rest and won’t be able to focus until I get it done. So I make the mental space to be able to create.

Spiritual space

Creativity, I believe, is a spiritual act, a work of the heart. So if my internal life is messy, can you imagine what that means for what I create?

You guessed it. The messier my internal life is, the messier my external one will be.

The pain and plight of the artistic life is too romanticized. Creativity and suffering are closely connected, but not dependent on each other. Art exists in spite of pain, not because of it.

As an artist, you will always be rebelling against injustice, always pushing back darkness. So you can create with a grudge or with gratitude. The difference is how you face the pain.

  • Is there brokenness in your life? Acknowledge it.
  • Unresolved conflict? Deal with it.
  • Hurt from your childhood or issues with your parents? Voice them.

Whatever you fill yourself with, it will come out in what you do. If you want to share joy and beauty with the world, you must fill your life with these things.

At times, this is hard, because as artists we’re often resisted. But as Anne Lamott reminds us, this feeling of being “blocked” is often emptiness. And here’s the rub: Emptiness and space are not the same.

Space is something you make in life, amidst the busyness, so that you can fill it. Emptiness is a void that cannot be filled, no matter how much you create. If you find yourself empty, it means your life is lacking space.

  • Space to dream.
  • Space to think.
  • Space to believe.

Before you can create, you have to make sure your soul is filled. This may require facing some demons or slaying a few dragons. But once you do, you’ll be ready to make your contribution to the world, and all the better for doing so.

What space do you need to create? Share in the comments.

This post was inspired by the Luminous Project. Luminous is an event for spiritual creatives in Nashville, happening May 6-8, 2014. To find out more, visit Use the promo code “BLOGtour14” to get 15% off the registration (only 50 spots left!).

253 thoughts on “The Most Important Part of the Creative Life

  1. Ah, you spoke to my heart! Creating my sacred space is a ritual for me and a very satisfying one. I’ve been contracted to write a book so I immediately made sure I created a special space to do that work. I took over our son’s old bedroom in the basement, decorated the walls with inspiring artwork (icons of Madonna and Child, Jesus as Teacher and Rublev’s Trinity, plus posters of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations of Little Women as Louisa May Alcott is my muse). As I have a bad back that makes me fidget constantly, getting the right chair was critical. Did that. I go into that room now and immediately get into the zone to write. Love it!

    I’ve found my blocks usually come when I start over-thinking what I am writing and making writing and reading into work. A few days off reading for pleasure really helps me.

  2. Yup, time alone with the Creator reminds us how much we need filled to create and renews our passion to create! I like the spiritual exchange that happens when we make time for the small things that will make a big difference. And if nothing else happens except the “creation of words” then we done our best to enjoy the life our Creator has given us in the in-betweens.

  3. This comes as such a coincidence. I finally made the decision to specialize in content writing for my freelance business, which has helped me gain clarity in my work. De-cluttering to create space is something that is so liberating, I realize that I have to use that in all aspects of my life, as hard as it can be sometimes.

  4. I really enjoyed this post! I create space by managing my spiritual space. I begin each day by thanking God and declaring His promises. When I do this, I feel free, happy and open to receive what God has for me that day. For me, a day without prayer and thanksgiving is a day without creativity =)

  5. Jeff, you touched my heartstrings with speaking of a spiritual space with the Creator! Starting the day with my husband in prayer and devotional is a must for us, and then I go to my “writing cave,” a corner carved out in my quilting/sewing room. Before starting up on writing, I read Jesus Calling for the day, and then I’m ready to tackle almost anything. But last week, for a variety of reasons, my emails and reading really got ahead of me. So, one night this week I just dove into the emails and cleaned out the inbox. And I plan to spend a part of Saturday catching up on reading blogs, etc. Part of this plan has been an outgrowth of My 500 Words. Now that I know I can write productively every day on something, I want that writing time! But as you so creatively said, I have to have all these spaces taken care of in order to do that. Genius! (Note: I did not mention my cluttered desk!)

    1. Sherrey Hi! long time no see I agree spending time with my Creator is vital and important to start the day. Any day really. I’ve just begun creating my “writing cave” and will be finishing it today. I’ve always been fascinated by how others design their writing space, its time I create my own. Time to finish another book to put up for sale. .

      1. Hi Debra! It feels good to be back under Jeff’s gracious and gentle mentoring here. Happy creating your writing space and finishing another book. Both of those are special to my days!

        1. If you still have my email, contact me and I will give you the link to the books, if your interested. Man is it cold here, and were do for more snow,,, brrrrr

  6. Jeff, great stuff. I love what you said about a cluttered work space. That’s so true! I also loved your description of other types of space. It’s hard but you have to create space. I’m in a very demanding season of life – raising three young kids with my wife, church planting and working another part-time job. LIfe doesn’t get less complicated, so we must create space, even when it’s difficult. A couple of things I find helpful…Find your peak creative time and use it wisely. Mine is from about 5-6am and 8:30-11:00am. I use this time to pray, read, write and work on my sermons as I am a pastor. I try very hard not to clutter that time with unimportant tasks unless they are urgent. Things like email. One other practical tip – keep a notepad beside you and jot down the things that try to distract you from your creative time. This way, you know you are not forgetting them and you can come back to them later.

  7. “Art exists in spite of pain, not because of it.” So much truth, something writers need to remember, especially me.

    I’m so thankful for some “space” we created this past month with a home office to get off the couch and have some focus space. Enormous help.

    Thanks so much for this post, Jeff.

  8. This past Tuesday night my acting teacher gave us a zen proverb to remember as we work-

    We make a pot out of clay but it is the space that holds the water.

  9. Excellent post – as always. But this one spoke right into my heart and had my nod the whole time I was reading. Thanks Jeff, Ilka

  10. Jeff as always you remind us of the common; yet elevate it to a new level of understanding and importance. Maybe unlike Star Trek Space is not the final frontier; but should be the primary one that we need to explore and cultivate; first with ourselves and in the place we reside.

  11. Thanks Jeff. As an older writer 73 I have the time between the house, dog, garden archery to make time to write everyday and I do. In my hand yesterday is the first printed copy of my first book. All thanks to your points over time and the desire to write, five more being worked on. Thanks mate.

  12. Deep breath over here. Thanks for encouraging us to deal with our ‘stuff’ before we muddy up the work we’ve been called to.

  13. this speaks to me right now as I’m in the throws of finally putting self doubts, fear, and “staying in my comfort zone” out the window! I’m a creator, photographer, artist, an inventor in my head, idea generator and I’ve finally just let it happen. It’ll lead somewhere…and I needed to hear this today! I get bogged down with bills to pay, calls to make, household chores…if I do put them off, it does cause unwanted anxiety and I cannot give my full attention to my creations, or ideas, or whatever is “popping up” in my head! I battled the 9 to 5 job…moved somewhere lovely on the NC coast..looked for 9 to 5 work..10+ interviews…no takers… I need to pay attention to these secret messages whispering to me…”just do it…follow your heart… you can’t lose because there’s no one you-er than you…”! So, I’m taking a Small Business Basics course at the community college where I teach a little of this and a little of that in continued education. I rambled…sorry. I’m just excited about things lately!! Thanks for all your wonderful advice.. I love getting your stuff in my email!!

  14. You hit the proverbial nail on the head with this post! I have been dealing with so much clutter lately. Both in my physical and mental space. My home office looks like i am in the middle of a move with books and papers stacked everywhere. My mind is cluttered with looming writing and ministry deadlines…arrggh! Just one bite at a time, I know. It is no irony to me that God has given me the word, FOCUS for 2014! He just keeps confirming it over and over. Thanks for such a reminder of the importance of my ‘spaces’ and what is blocking my ability to ‘focus’.
    Gay Idle/CaptiveHeart

  15. Awesome post! My physical space is such a disaster that I can’t create. My mental space is trying to recover from a recent crisis that made me never want to create again. So, to get out of this mess I’ve been forcing myself to make digital art (for a season, while I clean up) and I’m only creating art to go along with my bible study which is bringing healing to the spiritual space!

  16. I can totally relate to this. And I noticed when I had done a few things today which were taking up valuable mental space I felt so much freer. I hate loose threads and yet, I know we all have them. I think I need to create space to believe. Somewhere along the way some of my belief started slipping away.

  17. Thanks for this post. I think this idea of making space even goes beyond what we normally think of as our creative endeavors (painting, writing, designing, etc.) into life as a whole. I’m a youth minister and lately I’ve drifted into a cluttered pattern of living. I’m still getting the work done that I need to do, but the art of my work is not quite as it should be. I’m exploring this a little more here: trying to get my students and others to think about how we can live creative lives even outside of what we normally think of as art.

  18. I can relate to having to clear my space before I begin to create. it’s so important for me to feel that I have that freedom to just be and allow the creativity to flow. Thanks Jeff!

  19. My physical space, my inbox, and my schedule are as you so well put, “a mess.” Working this week to better tame these beasts, and your article is (as always) timely and motivating. Thank you for what you do, Jeff!

  20. “Emptiness and space are not the same thing.” Wow. Thanks Jeff, this is a post to print and refer back to.

  21. What a timely article Jeff! In my writing group this past week, we picked out a word or two for 2014 related to our writing goals. Mine were ‘space’ and ‘focus’. Thanks for the Great examples. I’ll be bookmarking this for future reference.

  22. This is an article that when I read it, I wish I had written it. Well done! Such a inspiration with spiritual, yet with very hands on application to unleashing creativity and effective order to the creative process. Great job!

  23. I love space. I’m a minimalist at heart. I’d prefer to live in the middle of Kansas than in the mountains. I prefer music and songwriters that understand the value of “less is more,” My first book, “A Train Called Forgiveness” is written in a unique style that allows the reader much space to imagine. I like less furniture than more. I constantly give things away. And I am learning how to allow for space in this whole writing, blogging thing that can keep one entirely too busy.

    Great article, Jeff. Just one suggestion: Get rid of the popup. It invades the reader’s space.

  24. Jeff, I think you just copy/pasted my “to do” list onto your post…or I did to yours! Yup, that’s what I need to complete…and “clear” on my way to “space”! Thank you for your thoughts and inspirations (on so many of your posts that I don’t comment on). 🙂 Blessings.

  25. Good thoughts.. I find that it is easier for me to find the words when my living room is picked up. I am not looking at a mess. Let the words flow. Other things that will take up space in my mind will definitly crowd out the flow or creativity. It may not be impossible but my brain is only so big. It can only handle so much room. I would rather have the room for the excited flow of creativiy than the stagnent perching of problems or a messy house. On to my story and 500 words.

  26. Great post, Jeff. I agree with all of these. And sometimes I need technological space. No phone, no laptop, just a pen and paper. And thank you for the Bird by Bird reference. That book changed my life as a writer, along with Stephen King’s On Writing.

    God bless and keep it up.

  27. Jeff this is fabulous. Anytime I have something emotional to work through I tend to start by rearranging furniture- a tangible control in an oft wild work. Creation comes in fits and spurts for me and I am quick to embrace them. Thank you for the reminder to consciously clear out my space. P.S. looking forward to watching you on creativeLIVE- one of my other addictions.

  28. I need some space managing the time that I divide towards getting things done. Does that even make sense?

    I’m cluttered with all things that I plan to do, messed up in such a constricted space of time, that I need to sit down, organise myself, figure out which one has a higher priority.

    I also need to clear up some physical space to allow some mental space figure out what to do.

    Thank you for the post! You have my brain juice flowing. Time to clean up some mess.

  29. This is one of the best posts I’ve read about writing! I had already been working on clearing out my office. You inspired me to finish that. I also set up a makeshift divider (my office is in the corner of our dining room which is in the middle of our apartment). I also looked up the Luminous Project. I can’t afford to go, but I plan on taking my own personal retreat at the same time, something I’ve been meaning to do but never got around to.

  30. In our journalism class magazine we students adore white space between the articles. Space can be so aesthetic. As for me, in my 11 square metres room I have not so many things, but lots of space. Just the right atmosphere to keep creativity flowing.

  31. Thanks Jeff. Once again you have put into words what we are all thinking. I think I need all these spaces. In our tiny house with big teenagers, physical space is a dream. Looking after a special needs child puts my mental space at a premium. My spiritual space is dealt with early in the day with personal QT. Oh, and I am claustrophobic so all sorts of big spaces are very important!

  32. I was watching Creative Live today. Thanks for the lesson on email marketing. I was so impressed with your character (Christ through you, I am sure) that I thought I would check out your site. Needless to say I signed up for your newsletter because I want to be encouraged more as a fine artist/freelance creative person.

  33. Your blog, specifically this article, has really helped as I’m starting out on a rigorous, yet rewarding, path of pursuing a career as a writer. Since I work at a restaurant to (monetarily) support myself, safe and inspiring space is something I struggle with finding as I’m often exhausted and feel there’s often no energy left to be drawn from me. Only recently has my new site ( become a place where I can safely share my thoughts and dreams. Thanks so much for being a voice for creative writers!

  34. Thanks for sharing abundant truth. Thanks for creating space to share what is on your heart. Amazing truth!

  35. Nifty concept, Jeff. I’d add EMOTIONAL SPACE. Music works well here. Sometimes going for a walk before putting the hand to the plow to clear the mind. Or talking to a close friend to unload the heart. If there’s emotional turbulence at work, this can be a major hindrance to productivity and creativity.


    1. Thank you Frank. I realize I need this more than anything else.
      I wrote an article on creative space a couple of weeks ago, but I got stuck finishing it out. I need to create some emotional space to breathe. Thanks!

  36. Excellent points Jeff.

    I love the reference of to many windows open on the computer.
    A tip I picked up on my own that seems to work wonders for me is to limit the number of windows I have open to three.
    When I have to open the fourth, which happens all the time… I force myself to close one first.

  37. Jeff, I like your thinking and your writing. I have always needed psychological, spiritual and physical space. As a kid, my uncle gave me a horse, those many long hours giving care, training and trail riding SOLO opened my understanding of myself.

    As a young adult I trained as a modern dancer and, literally, sculpted and painted space. I still need time alone in the garden, writing or thinking to balance my professional writing ideals and goals. Sometimes, my main project must wait, while I explore a new fictional setting or character.

  38. Jeff, I am a new fan!! I was introduced to you today and I can’t help but feel that I was meant to find you. Your writing is talking to me in more ways than I can imagine and I Thank you!

  39. I require lots of space. I go through a ritual each night before leaving my home office for bed. I straighten my desk, wipe away the dust if there is any (black desk so dust stands out) and wipde down my whiteboard. My physical space has to be neat and organized before I work.

  40. Hello Jeff,

    I stumbled upon this blog while trying to find inspiration for my own writing blog. I find many of your post extremely helpful and motivating. The point you made on space and emptiness could not have been made any clearer. I will definitely use these tips while writing from now on.

    Thank you,

  41. Okay Jeff, I’ve been following your art and your creativity, so say a little prayer for me. Our will go live tomorrow, so please let me hear your thoughts….I think? Tiny House America is our life and our passion, so I have a lot to say. I’m a first time blog person, so go easy, pretty please? I’d love to hear your feedback on any aspect of the site. I think you’re super awesome and I respect your creative brain. My blog spot is small so look for me in the, about us. {One more brown nose} You are my new hero and saved me from a panic attack!

    Thank you, you Rock!!!!

  42. Hi Jeff; thanks for such a complete discussion of a writer’s or creator’s needs. I am blind so i don’t worry to much about the physical space. If th clutter doesn’t take up my physical space, then it really doesn’t exist. as for distractions I have ben working on videos so much lately that I haven’t written th equipment description posts I should have been. now that I understand how to record th videos and manage the video chats I can focus mor on promoting sales. and I am a very positive person. rarely does my mental or emotional side get in the way of my work. I find some of my best ideas come after exrcise a hot shower or petting my dog. thanks again for the post and take care, Max

  43. As always, love your thoughts and opinions. Do you ever utilize exercise as a spiritual cleanser? I feel I’ve had some of my best ideas on projects during runs, bike rides, or a workout at the gym.

  44. Hi Jeff, lovely article, you have a gentle, nurturing tone and I always feel good after reading your newsletters. The space I need to create is a space for healing and then…reinventing. Your newsletter gives me food for thought. Thank you

  45. Thank you for this post. I am an art student and I have been feeling stuck in a rut and have not been creating through creativity. Only through my given assignments. I miss the risks that I used to take in my pieces. This article has helped me tremendously. Thank you.

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