Working Creatively Under Pressure

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Today is all about being creative under pressure. In the workplace, whether you are a person doing creative work in a non-creative industry, or a person doing creative work in a creative industry, we all work to various deadlines, and you need to know how to harness your creative process in a hurry!

The best example of successfully doing creative work under pressure is fairly ancient. The story of ‘One thousand and one nights’, also known as ‘Arabian nights’, is the story of Scheherezade in Arabia.

Princess Dunyazade

A portrait of Princess Dunyazade (‘The Coffee Bearer’) by John Frederick Lewis

When a Persian king, Shahryar, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him, he has her executed. He keeps on marrying a bunch of women, but each time, he executes her the morning after their wedding, before she has a chance to be unfaithful to him. It is the vizier’s job to provide these virgins to marry the king, but one day he finds they’ve run out! So his daughter, Scheherezade, convinces her father to let her be the next bride.

On the night of Scheherezade’s marriage to the king, she begins telling the king a tale, but she doesn’t give him the ending. He’s so curious to know how the story ends that he doesn’t execute her the next morning. He figures he’ll just wait until he’s heard the ending, then execute her the next morning. But that night, Scheherezade finishes that story and starts right into a new one. But she doesn’t finish it! So the king is forced to keep her alive for one thousand and one nights.

The conclusion is that, after one thousand and one nights, the king declares that he has realised he can trust Scheherezade not to cheat on him, and she can live forever as his queen.

(If you’re not big on history or geography, Persia = Iran.)

The stories Scheherezade tells are some of our favourite fairytales from Middle Eastern / European literature. Famous characters that show up in her tales include Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali Baba, prince of thieves. The stories have been remade into movies and TV shows (Disney’s Aladdin is one of the stories that Scheherezade tells, Sinbad), music (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade Op. 35 (1888)), inspired books (Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Proust, James Joyce), and even been the setting for video games (Nadirim).

The stories range from tragedy to comedy, from poems to historical accounts, from love stories to erotica. Often real people and places are mixed in with made-up characters and fantasy elements like Jinns, ghouls, sorcerers, and legendary places.

Manuscript Abbasid

An early 13th Century Arabic manuscript of The One Thousand And One Nights

Scheherezade’s definition of a cliffhanger is a bit broader than we would expect. Sometimes at the end of the night, the hero is in deep trouble or in danger of losing his life; but sometimes, Scheherezade just stops the story during a boring explanation of some philosophical principle, or while describing a certain piece of human anatomy… (I’m not making this up!) But every time, the king just has to know how it ends.

My point is that Scheherezade has one full day, each time, to think up a new story to tell the king that night, so that he won’t kill her. The stakes are pretty high!

Most of us don’t have a gun to our heads when we write. But maybe we should.

We talked last week about procrastination, and how some of us procrastinate so that we end up working under the pressure of a deadline. Because we work best under pressure.

It all depends on how you are motivated. The question is, are you motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic rewards?

Intrinsic rewards are that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you finish writing a scene and you know it’s good (or at least, you know it does what it needs to do to drive the plot forward). Extrinsic rewards are money and people’s admiration.

Remember one of my first posts, “Why do I write?” It answered this question of whether you write because you have to work to live, or because you have to create to live.

Often in the working world, people tend to classify you as either “creative” (translation: head in the clouds, cannot work to a deadline) or “driven” (translation: type A personality, can be relied upon to work constantly to meet a deadline). This is such an unhelpful classification! I know a lot of creative people who are very driven; and I know a lot of people working in non-creative fields who are not driven unless you light a fire under them.

So for yourself, you have to know whether you’re going to need to light a fire under yourself (like me), or whether you can trust your creative drive to be the fire that keeps you creating and working.

In my own experience, I’ve found that nothing big happens in my writing unless I find an impetus to force myself to do it. If I have no need to write, I only write little things. Letters. Encourage cards. Love notes to that special someone. Lists of party planning ideas…

But if I give myself a deadline (I’m signed up for a writing masterclass in two weeks, so I’d better have something to show them, and NaNoWriMo is coming up), or a goal (I just want to edit the scenes that I’ve already written before I continue writing the story), then I actually do the creative work. I put in the time.

At the other end of the spectrum, what if you have pressure on your creative work that is too much? If you’re so stressed out that you can’t work creatively, obviously that’s the opposite of what I’m trying to get at in this post. It becomes your roadblock to creativity that Isaken talked about (see my previous posts on incubation).

Do you work best under pressure or left to your own devices? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2013. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

4 thoughts on “Working Creatively Under Pressure

  1. I think it depends on what I’m doing as to whether I need to ‘light a fire’ (love that imagery) or whether I’ll do something as inspiration strikes. Party planning as prime example, if I knew how I wanted to do something I started making things early, but there were many things I left to the last week or didn’t end up making.

    Thinking back to uni, I definitely needed a fire… I needed a bushfire to motivate me for some assignments!

    As always, I love reading your posts! Keep it up!


  2. Pingback: Phew! Made it. | TJ Withers-Ryan

  3. Pingback: Why we should get to play jigsaw puzzles at work | TJ Withers-Ryan

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