A good friend of mine, Jim, is preparing a seminar on Peaks and Valleys, about how we get out of the valleys in our lives, our work and our relationships. Here is what I wrote him.
One of the stories I tell is about William Stafford, a twentieth century U.S. poet who taught for many years at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. He was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the forerunner to the U.S. Poet Laureate program. Stafford had a practice of writing a poem each and every morning as the first thing he did for the day. A reporter once asked him what he did on days he wasn’t so good. Stafford’s reply was classic: “I just lower my standards.” (See the Robert Bly interview in Bill Moyers book The Language of Life.) This was a liberating comment in that Stafford was saying that the important thing for a writer was to write.
When I apply Stafford’s experience to my own, the first thing I tell people is that writing first thing in the morning does not work for me. First, I am not a morning person. Second, I can’t schedule being creative; I have to be “in the zone” to write. However, I’ve noticed that there are times when I am most creative, when I most come alive and am animated with a radical sense of paying-attention. One of these times is while I’m hiking in the woods. I started bringing paper with me and jotting down poems and fragments of poems as thoughts and scenes presented themselves on the trail. Much of my poetry has literally come from the trail. I found that what works for me is choosing to put myself in situation where I know I’ve been creative, where I expect the muse to come.
I’ve also noticed in my work that my conversations with certain people also generate creativity. I’ve found that putting myself in a situation where I'm talking with really bright, creative thinkers—forward thinkers—stimulates my thinking and I come up with all sorts of incredible new ideas that can bear fruit. (It occurs to me that this is what Jim was doing by asking me these questions about peaks and valley stories.) The key thing is that I can choose to put myself in situations where “peaks” can happen, where I'm debating and dialoging with bright people expecting that brighter answers and possibilities will come out of that interaction. It's very Socratic, putting myself into the dialog, making the dialog happen. On the trail the dialog is happening with myself; in the office it’s happening with interesting people. Those are the people I need to spend more time with, and frankly less time with the others that are a drain on creative energy.
So to come out of a valley and onto a peak, I need to put myself on the trail and into the bright conversation. That's where the new peaks will come from, and the new ideas and innovations. Ultimately its where the potential programs and products will come from.
How do creative moments happen for you?
 See Spencer Johnson's book of this title, here.
For a link to my Tuck/Dartmouth Fellowship Blog, click here.