Musings + Essays

On Creative Habits.

By: Jen Shoop

I referenced earlier this week an interview with Toni Morrison in which she talked about some of the difficulties of writing. The entirety of the interview is well worth a read, and there are many wisdoms to pocket and turn over. Among them are details of her creative process. She says: “I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process.”

I am always drawn to learning about the rituals of writers, artists, and creatives, perhaps because I feel I have very little in the way of pre-writing observances. Candidly, I can’t tell whether this means I have not yet hit my creative stride, I need to spend more time reflecting on the optimal conditions for ascending to a personal Mount Helicon, or I have, for better or worse, learned with age to be pragmatic – I nearly want to say “unfussy” – about the circumstances in which I put pen to paper.

In graduate school, I was particular about my work habits, especially when I was staring down an essay prompt. I had to wake before seven — before the light fully saturated the basement apartment I lived in on R Street in Georgetown — and work on an empty stomach. I would begin with a gridded notepad or plain white computer paper and write by hand waif-like filaments of thought. I would draft in loopy, sloppy cursive even though I have tidy, minuscule, highly-recognizable penmanship that I take some pride in when writing in literally any other forum. It felt to me that writing in my usual hand would impinge on the speed of my thought. These threads would gradually coagulate into full sentences, connected by circle and arrow and caret, and I would build in momentum until either hunger pangs or a complete first paragraph materialized, at which point I would begin to write on my laptop or break for lunch. Often, these two happenings occurred in curious synchrony with one another, and my work for the day would be done. I could then move through my afternoon coursework and errands with something like accomplishment.

The shape of my writing nowadays could not be further from that disciplined liturgy. I write in the car, while running, over the head of the small child nestled in my lap, on napkins, in margins of receipts, during my nightly stroll with Tilly. I write around and between appointments and errands, just before I squeeze in a run or just after being interrupted for the twentieth time by my dog barking at the mailman, my daughter barging in asking me to unwrap her granola bar, or an impromptu stand-up with Mr. Magpie on the logistics for the week. I publish with virtually no revision. I am sure the writing has suffered, but the inspiration has not. I feel I am now more permanently dispositioned to absorb and connect with the phenomena that for me must precede writing. I find myself consciously cultivating my own susceptibility to these curiosities: a well-turned phrase, a candid glimpse into someone else’s life, a happenstance run-in with nature, the way my son’s matriculation to pre-school stirred something primal in me. Perhaps, being generous to myself, the “place where I expect to make the contact” (as Morrison put it) has become less about the physical and ritualistic conditions in which I write, but the degree to which I remain prone to the sensations around me as I move through my life. But I sit here and wonder today whether I should spend more time in the revision rooms in which I dwelt during graduate school? In some ways, I feel I’ve become a disciplined observer but a lax writer. Perhaps some day I will learn to bring the two roles in parity with one another: sharp eye, sharp prose. For now, my writing moves across experience like a procumbent branch. And that will have to do.


+Do you consider yourself creative?

+Thoughts on pursuing an advanced degree in literature.

+Writing about my grad school habits brought me right back to thinking about the kind old French woman who lived upstairs.

+Building a literary life raft.

+Who would be in your personal canon?

+On dedicating myself to writing.

Shopping Break.

+If you’re interested in this topic, you might enjoy this little book on the creative habits of many celebrated artists and authors. I used to give it as a gift to members of my team. My point was that it’s helpful to reflect on when you’re at your creative best.

+I love overalls — this is a cute and flattering slim-cut pair. I like to layer over tops like this or this.

+Another fabulous swimsuit. So many great ones out right now — more here. My Maygel Coronel arrived and it is GORGEOUS IRL.

+Just came across this reasonably-priced, chic sunhat!

+Such a fabulous, bold top for spring.

+Just the softest pajamas.

+This timeless LBD would be a workhorse in any closet. Great for work, funerals, general Jackie O. vibes.

+Satin mary janes for the lowkey bride.

+Great to have a set of these coloring pages on hand for lazy weekends at home with little ones!

+J’adore J’ADORE these platforms.

+I continue to marvel at this absolutely one-of-a-kind foundation.

+Hoping to take some tennis lessons this summer — love the pieces from Hedge and Marysia Sport!

+And speaking of Marysia’s scallops, I had to order this $16 scallop trim sweater!

+OMG these invitations!

+Brooke and Lou is running a fabulous home sale — consider these darling children’s chairs, these melamine plates, or the exact bathroom accessory set I have in our powder room!

+This cute nap-dress-inspired mini is on sale for under $60! Everyone’s favorite Ulla-esque top is also on sale ATM!

+Low key sophisticated tote bag for summer.

+Pretty neutral mini.

+These trousers are just fabulous.

+A great base layer.

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8 thoughts on “On Creative Habits.

  1. So interesting – I will have to check out the Toni Morrison interview. I, too, take great interest in the process of various creatives – writers, painters, designers. I’ve also dug a little bit into the physical spaces in which creatives work – their offices, studios, gardens, etc. Fascinating stuff! I love that you’ve identified your skill of disciplined observation. I wonder if it’s your creative psyche adjusting to the realities of the season of life you’re in and the priorities you’ve established? Good food for thought – thanks for sharing! And Happy weekend. 🙂 xo H

    1. Oh, me too! I love seeing into the studios/gardens/workspaces/ateliers of creatives. So fascinating. What’s interesting about that book I referenced that shares the creative habits of tons of celebrated artists is that there isn’t a true pattern to it. To each his/her own.

      I think you’re on to something about the season of life I’m in right now impacting my creative process. I wonder what it will look like down the road.


  2. Your mention of sloppy cursive — decidedly different from your real handwriting — reminded me that in undergrad I used to type first drafts in a different font, not changing to Times New Roman until I felt the essay was more or less finished. Something about that signaled “DRAFTING PHASE” and allowed me not to obsess at the sentence level. I wonder if there was a similar visual cue for you?

    I’m also remembering that, in graduate school, I thought of writing as my *job* — I was being paid for it, after all! And that sometimes forced a rigorous routine to unfold. “Here I am, sitting down for work. This is not a 9-5, but I must have discipline.” It’s interesting that, even as writing is still now your job, the freedom of … this setting? growing up a bit? self-confidence? (I’m projecting here) and all of the other circumstances of life as you describe them have freed you a bit from that more serious version of capital-W Writing.

    1. Hi Susie! Oh I so relate to the font shift. You’re exactly right — the script signaled “draft” and just felt loose and easy. It felt like I could make mistakes, ruminate, doodle while in that hand. A low-stakes, low-pressure way to begin! So interesting you achieved the same thing using a different font. Clever!

      I think you are right, too, that writing for grad school had a totally different orientation (grades, footnotes, intellectual output) that perhaps necessitated different creative conditions. It’s interesting, though — your prompt made me realize that writing now has different stakes but they are not necessarily lower. For example, the emotional (and moral/ethical) stakes are much higher. Some of my posts have really tied me up or loosened things up or even ruffled feathers with family/friends! Will need to think on that. Thanks for the prompt!


    2. Goodness, you are right – “serious” as I wrote it meant one thing, but your stakes are also quite serious. It makes me think of audience. A very fair critique of literary criticism is that the audience is tiny, limited (protected?) behind a paywall. (“Peer-reviewed journals” and whatnot.) Your writing is freely accessible, and thus your audience is very, very wide — is that more or less “serious” than the writing we used to do in academia? Hmm…

      1. So interesting; you’ve made me reflect on what I consider “serious” writing — is it a highbrow/lowbrow conversation? is it the degree to which the author has expertise in a given area? is it the mode of publication (i.e., edited book from a big publishing house vs academic journal vs self-publication)? is it the quality of the writing itself (much more difficult to assess or agree upon with any other reader)? is it the strength or intensity of my reaction to a piece? is it the length of time I carry it with me? is it whether or not it has taught me to think differently about a subject? is it the degree to which something resonates with me, or feels “true”?

        Probably all of the above, or a mix. Thanks for this provocation on a Friday afternoon!


  3. Just ordered the scalloped sweater in bubblegum pink! The color is way out of my comfort zone but it was the only one left in my size and I was feeling inspired by your many recent pink posts/mentions. Always love your recs! Happy Friday!

    1. Yay!!! Love! So good to get out of your comfort zone every now and then. I have worn a hot pink mockneck from J. Crew like every third day of the week this past month! I think you will love. Fun new wardrobe addition!


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