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Check out the Work In Colour blog for practical tips, ideas and musings on ways to stop working in black + white and start working in colour everyday.

What Are Your Dumbo Feathers?



I'm always interested in the habits or rituals we weave around ourselves, the talismans that we develop to feel confident, safe, in charge or successful, especially in creative work. (And creative work includes doing anything that's outside your comfort zone, not just 'artistic' stuff...) I avoid extremes in this area, but when I have writing to do, I find being at my desk, with a cup of tea and Bach's cello suites playing very conducive to my work flow.

Some creatives wear a favourite jumper, or can only write with an HB pencil, or need to listen to particular music, or must start before 6am, or need a special space, or...

These practices sometimes sound a bit mad, but they do serve at least three useful functions:

  • The creative process can seem very chaotic, with few inherent limits and no safety nets between the writer and complete bedlam. A familiar habit can be a way of putting in a boundary, of restoring control - or at least resting in the illusion of control.
  • When people used to pump their water from a well, they had to 'prime the pump' by pouring a jug of water to get the water flowing. Familiar habits are a way of priming the pump, of getting the creative juices flowing and keeping it moving. They can also help fend off writer's block.
  • Perhaps the most powerful benefit is to damp down some of the inevitable anxiety that goes with any creative endeavour. By definition, the creative act involves unknown territory, risk and the possibility of failure, so if playing Back or fingering a rock you found outside Markus Zusak's house helps you find the courage to keep on going, this is likely to be A GOOD THING.

However, don't confuse the talisman with the talent. The tale of Dumbo the elephant serves as a caution to those of us who get caught up in lucky charms and rituals to ward off the mysteries of life and risk forgetting that is us who are driving force in our life, not a special mantra or a piece of red string or a magic feather. [Dumbo believed he could fly only because he had a magic feather, which of course he promptly lost...]

You can produce great work under less than perfect circumstances. Jane Austen wrote for years in her family's living room, quickly hiding her pages as soon as she heard the telltale sound of the door opening. Stephen King wrote his first best seller in a laundry - and PD James started writing on the train to and from work.

Are there any limitations you have placed on yourself that may not need to be there? Do you say, 'I can't start my own business until the spare room is converted to an office' or 'I must write in longhand' or 'it won't work unless I am wearing my stripy jumper'? Even workplace challenges can be relevant here, like 'I can't do a presentation without Powerpoint slides' or 'I need to have a coffee before I can think properly' (actually, though, that last example is probably the truth for many of us...).

While it is helpful to have comforting rituals that support your work, it might be time to look at them and check whether you have become overly dependant on some of your routines - you may find that your work even improves when you step outside your comfortable patterns.

As you will remember from the movie, Dumbo discovers that he doesn't need his feather in order to fly.

What about you - what are your Dumbo feathers?
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