Over the last two years, a project has been quietly rising up in me. At first I was unaware of it, then I was open to it, and eventually it was straight up maddening that I couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be.

I hinted at it here on the blog in various ways not because I was trying to be coy, but because hints were all I had. It was beyond frustrating and uncomfortable to have ideas with little to no form. It was only about two months ago that I realized, Oh. This idea I have had that I thought might be a book is actually, quite clearly a podcast. 

And so I set out treating it that way and it smiled and grew and responded to my attention and surprise of all surprises, I can’t believe I didn’t see it all along.

emily p freeman

That’s how art works sometimes. It swirls and teases, sparkles and flirts and just when you get excited about it, it gets moody and squirmy and accuses you of not understanding.

What once felt like a playful dance morphs fast into drama.

If only the work of art would come in outline form, predictable and linear, then the creative process would be much less grueling. But that would be less satisfying and require zero transformation or faith.

So here is a post about how that idea I thought might be a book is actually quite happy as a podcast.

Really, though, it’s a post about how creative ideas work and how we must move forward with them even when we don’t know what we’re doing.

I will tell you the story for the sake of your project and not my own. Wherever you are in the midst of your own creation, perhaps these heartfelt tips will be of some encouragement to you if you are waiting for a stubborn project to take shape.

***

Two years ago this very week, my book Simply Tuesday released into the world. It was a book I am proud of and still love to this day (authors can’t always say this and so for now, I am grateful).Simply Tuesday

image credit: barrier photography

That book was part of my second book contract, both of which were two book deals. So by the time I finished Simply Tuesday, I had written and released a total of four books, fulfilling my contractual obligations for book-writing up to that point.

It also marked the end of six full years of the book proposal pitching, writing, editing, revising, launching, and promoting cycle that I had worked through four times over.

I obviously knew that end time was coming and I welcomed it with imaginary flowers and dancing and confetti and the joy of the light of a thousand suns. My soul was desperate for a break from long-form writing and I couldn’t wait to work on whatever I wanted. Or nothing at all.

While I did a lot of promotional work for the book during the fall of 2015, I was grateful I was not also working on a fifth book. As many authors do, every other time I had launched a book, I always had one eye on the next one, despite the difficulty of creating a new book while promoting an old one.

Needless to say, that fall season I was grateful for the singular focus on Simply Tuesday, the lighter writing schedule that satisfying a contract brought, and for the opportunity to practice what I had just spent two years writing about – to celebrate my smallness.

 

1. Your vocation demands you remain open even if the timing is off. (And the timing is almost always off.)

The first step toward starting a project even when you don’t know what you’re doing is this: understand the nature of the work you do means  that you can’t control when ideas might come. You can save them, steward them, and even tell them no, but you cannot keep them from showing up at your doorstep just because you’re taking a break.

Clearly I wasn’t looking for a new idea, not yet anyway.

project creation

Four months after Simply Tuesday released, my friend and worship director at our church Michael VanPatter asked me to read a Wendell Berry poem for a Christmas service at church. I have an idea for our service, he said, and I hope you might be willing to help.

He wanted to compose a piece of music as a soundtrack to a poetry reading and asked if I would read the poem. For it to work, it needs to be read thoughtfully and, well…poetically. Which is why I thought of you.

Of course I said yes and was glad to do it. (As an aside, let me just point out the obvious – he composed a piece of music to be played behind the poem so, let’s be real: the true beauty of that offering was the music, not my reading.)

The format was meaningful to me personally and later, people told me they had the same experience.

By this time, I also served on the scripture reading team at church and was already becoming smitten with the spoken word.

I signed up for an Audible account and began listening to audio books. I subscribed to more podcasts and listened on the go.

Podcasting was obviously not a new idea. I’d been listening to them for years and even participated in one for hope*writers with my co-founders. But that podcast was specifically for writers and the writing life and I didn’t do any of the technical work for it. I literally showed up, talked into a microphone, and left all the actual work to my Dad, our podcast producer.

I paid attention to how much I enjoyed reading that poem at Christmas. And I thought how wonderful it would be if someone would read to me everyday while music played in the background. Kind of a crazy idea, but there you go.

2. Don’t expect your ideas to explain themselves. That’s not their job.

I don’t know any other way to say this (but I think if you are a maker, you get it). New ideas start out like tiny gremlins. That’s the word I use in my head, though when I look up “gremlin” it’s defined as imaginary mischievous sprite regarded as responsible for an unexplained problem or fault, especially a mechanical or electronic one.

Now that I think of it, that’s exactly the right word.

Idea gremlins show up and disrupt the soul without explanation. If you try to figure them out before it’s time, it will only end in frustration. Instead, let them come. Let them dance. Let them turn over some tables. See what they have to say without demanding they have a reason.

Try not to get too fussy about it.

The idea gremlins aren’t the problem. Our expectation that the gremlins come with clarity is the real problem. Instead of forcing an explanation, receive them for what they are and turn to your Father to sort them out with you.

 

3. Understand that clarity cannot be rushed.

It’s a direct quote from Marie Forleo and ever since she said it, I write those four words everywhere: Clarity cannot be rushed. I am guilty of clarity worship and I don’t think I’m alone.

Sometimes when the right words won’t come, or the idea remains unexplored, I experience temporary amnesia, forgetting how an inability to express an idea or experience does not render it meaningless. It simply means I need more time. I go through seasons of forgetting this, but I always come back around to believe it again.

“As a people, we are not comfortable with waiting. We see it as wasted time and try to avoid it, or at least film it with trivial busyness. We value action for its own sake. It is hard to trust in the slow work of God.”

-Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening

In this particular story I’m telling, at the time these audio ideas started to form, I was happy to wait. Remember, I knew this season of slowness and rest was coming. I was glad for it, welcomed it, and hoped for it to be a year of listening and discerning what was next.

But when Christmas came and went and we moved into late spring and I still wasn’t working on anything and I still had this growing love of the audio format but didn’t know what to do with it, my patient listening slowly began to morph into a frustrated tapping.

I had this unequivocal sense that I needed to wait on it, like a hand is stretched out in front of me.

In the past, I described this wait like a mom who hit the brakes too hard at the stoplight and her arm instinctively stretches across the passenger seat.

Like that, but less frantic. More gentle.

It was clear I needed to wait longer. It wasn’t clear why.

As I paid attention to what was resonating with me, audio came up again and again. But I didn’t know what to do with it.

Obviously I thought of doing a podcast. It wasn’t like that didn’t come up in my mind. But you can’t just start a podcast for no reason with nothing to say. I mean, you can (and lots of people do, I suppose) but I needed to figure out what the gift was first and then decide what would be the best wrapping.

 

4. Create a small version.

If you want to write a book, write one scene and see how it sits. If you want to write a curriculum, gather a group for one night at your house to talk about the subject you want to teach.

Do it small and do it soon.

Some may call this validating your idea. That’s formal, though. Instead, I just call it Try Something While The Risk Is Low To See If You Like It And If The People Get It.

And so with my growing crush on audio formats combined with my forever mantra to help create space for the soul to breathe, I realized I just needed to move already.

emily p freeman

And this is where it might seem like I’m contradicting myself. Because while it’s true that clarity cannot be rushed, it is also true that it doesn’t mean we have to wait for clarity before we move.

In fact, any meaning full work I’ve ever created has almost always started out in fog. The clarity can’t be rushed, so sometimes means we have to move without it.

Let it come when it comes. Meanwhile, get to work.

Here is where self-awareness is key. Here is where we need to develop our creative instinct and spiritual intuition, which is why paying attention to our inner life is so important.

If we’re going to bring forth creative work into the world, we have to be able to discern the difference between sacred waiting and scared waiting.

For months, in prayer and listening, I wanted to move but it wasn’t time. I believe that waiting period was a sacred time of letting the seed take root in the dark.

And then by late spring, it was time to move even though I didn’t know where I was going. It was just time. My instinct kicked in, and I couldn’t just wait for the thing to present itself anymore. I had to chase it down.

What this looked like was a short audio devotional series called 7 Days of Still Moments. It was low risk in many ways because it had a beginning and an ending, only my readers would see it, and I could create it once and share it forever. Or never.

I thought maybe this 7-day offering would quiet the idea gremlins. It did not. If anything, it made them louder.

Soon after that, I created and launched my first online course (twice, actually) and I loved every single minute of it. But my favorite part was a bonus audio offering I made to accompany the course called The Quiet Collection, a 20-day prayer and reflection series for to help set your mind before starting your work.

Once again, I thought this would get audio out of my system. And once again, I was wrong.

 

5. Talk it out and take good notes.

This is essential.

If you want to finish (or start) a project that has no name, no structure, no package, and is basically invisible except inside your head, it’s imperative to get talking and listen to feedback.

(And all the verbal processors say duh!) But for those of us who tend to process internally, talking it out doesn’t always occur to us.

emily p freeman

Up to this point, I had made two audio collections, but the audio gremlins were still on my back (have I freaked you out by talking about gremlins so much? I’m so sorry.)

From the summer 2016 to the beginning of this very summer of 2017, I talked myself sick about this audio idea. I talked with my husband John, with my boss lady bestie Kendra, with my sister, my radio professional Dad, and my business partner and marketing guru friend Brian Dixon.

I also did a lot of listening, to what they said of course and also to what many of you said. Thousands of you signed up for that 7 day audio series and I received many emails requesting more. Of the several hundred students who took my online course, many told me The Quiet Collection bonus content was rich and transformational for their work.

If you have a project and you don’t know where to start, one thing to do is start talking. Pick someone who knows you well and also understands your work and tell them what you’re thinking even if it doesn’t make sense.

If you work online or have access to your readers or customers, talk to them too. And then take good notes when they talk back.

 

6. Let your life lead.

Meanwhile, over the past year, my family had an unusual amount of decisions we needed to make.

They seemed endless, rolling into our lives like the waves at high tide. Just one of those decisions wouldn’t have been so overwhelming, but opportunity and circumstance kept demanding we hold two things in our hands and choose one.

And another one.

And another one.

And another one.

It started to wear me out, to seep into other parts of life, to distract me from work and sleep. During those months of indecision, more than anything I wanted clarity, wisdom, and direction. Some days I leaned hard into Jesus, other days I made pro/con lists like a crazy person. Lots of them.

One thing became clear above the rest, though: I am more open to hearing God when I am in the uncomfortable space of an unmade decision.

Realizing this about six months ago, combined with the fact that I am a writer, I wanted to explore how indecision can actually be a doorway to union with Christ, a key element in our spiritual formation. For months, I thought that would be my next book. Not necessarily soon, but when the time came to write long-form again.

I started to take notes with that lens, that this decision idea would eventually become a book.

The Next Right Thing

But my words only came in fits and starts. It didn’t feel the same as the book ideas I’ve had in the past. It felt just as alive within me as the others did, but instead of coming to me in written words, the ideas kept wanting to be spoken.

And then one day in June (this June!), after holding this stubborn audio idea for nearly two years and after six months of taking notes on what I thought would be a book, it sort of came to me.

Oh. I think these two different ideas are actually one idea. I think this book is a podcast.

 

7. Creativity before technology.

If your project involves some sort of learning – for me a podcast involved a ton of technology, resist the urge to learn the tech first.

Instead, you have to fall in love with your idea. B.J. Novak calls this the blue sky period and so that’s what I’ve started calling it, too.

Now that I realized this idea wanted to be a podcast, I brainstormed episode ideas, played around with segments, imagined how I wanted a listener to feel during and after listening, and spent hours looking for the right music. I did all that before I knew how to technically create a podcast.

When the technology became overwhelming, I had already done too much ground work to quit. In short, I was far too committed to the creative part of this idea to abandoned it simply because the technical steps were difficult.

Know the beauty of what you want to offer first – it will carry you through the dark alley of learning the technology.

how to start a project

8. Do the next right thing.

Well you know I love this one.

This was my mantra for the past few years. Simply do the next right thing that makes sense. Do it with Jesus. Do it in love. Sometimes that will look like nothing, like waiting and listening and tapping your foot.

Eventually, it will look like a deadline and doing the tiniest next right thing you know to do that will move you one step forward to that deadline. It’s both gentle and brutal, patient and relentless.

When it’s time to move, move. Don’t wait for permission. Quiet the critic, celebrate your baby steps, and be okay with what you don’t yet know. Trust it will come in time.

P.S. I’m happy to report an update: those idea gremlins I mentioned? They are now quiet and smiling.

***

There’s more to this story, of course. More that has happened, other ideas that have rooted, budded, and bloomed that aren’t ready to be shared yet. I’ve said what I hope will be enough to help you take your own next right step toward that project you want to work on even if you don’t know what you’re doing.

If you have an idea for something but you don’t know how to move on it, this post is my way-too-long plea to you not to give up on it.

If you need encouragement or direction to discern what your next right thing might be, well I’ve got a podcast for that. Hehe.

We released a 4 minute introduction last week that you can listen to now and this week we’ll release the first two episodes, where I’ll offer a short reflection and one simple action that might help you to discern your own next right step.

Listen and subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud –  basically wherever you can listen to podcasts.