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Baking Up A Story: Creativity Tips From A Novelist

When team leaders ask me about how to boost team creativity, my constant mantra is to step away from ideas to make them better. Sometimes that stepping away takes the form of a day job.

Writers have long been known to have day jobs that enhanced how they structure their work. Author Scott Turow wrote legal thrillers on the train while commuting to and from his job as an attorney in Chicago. William Faulkner worked as a postmaster.

Novelist Louise Miller bakes. The author of bestsellers “The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living” and “The Late Bloomers’ Club,” Miller writes character-driven fiction when she’s not at her day job as a pastry chef. Regardless of whether you aspire to write the great American novel, we can take a page from the novel writing playbook of Louise Miller to be more creative at work.

It turns out that baking lends itself perfectly to generating ideas.

“Food TV cracks me up because people think of the glamorous life of being a chef because it’s a lot of mundane work,” said Miller. “People don’t think that it takes a half hour to peel those annoying stickers off a case of pears. So I have a lot of time to think about questions for my writing.”

I caught up with Miller to find out more about her creative process and how her approach might benefit team leaders trying to inspire creative thinking at work. Here are some of her thoughts.

1.   Get into a rhythm

Miler bakes at a private club from 6 am until 2 pm. When working on a novel (her third will be out soon), she goes to the Boston Athenaeum, a private library – one of the oldest in the United States – which happens to be around the block from work. In this celebrated setting she writes until 6 pm. When she is finishing up her writing session, she makes a list of what she wants to percolate on. The following day she keeps that idea list next to her baking prep list, letting her ruminate on ideas so that she’s ready to write when she gets back to the library.

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“I do the hard work of writing while I’m baking,” she said. “I don’t spend time sitting in front of my laptop thinking about what’s happening. I find in writing and in life that nothing gets resolved by trying to resolve it.”

2.   Orchestrate boredom

At the time she was writing her first novel, Miller had an older, three-legged dog who was in failing health.

“Our walks were long and slow,” she said. “We’d walk past couple houses, then a rest on someone’s lawn for 20 minutes. Then another couple houses.”

This built-in boredom gave Miller plenty of time to think about plot points and character development. This touches on a frequent theme about creativity, and good thinking overall, in that white space is good for the brain. We don’t need to pack every second with a newsfeed or podcast. Miller is a dedicated meditator too, further reinforcing the idea that white space in the brain makes room for creative thinking.

3.   Design a supportive environment

When Miller was getting started, she took classes at an adult education center to put herself in a place that lends support. Miller now shares her inspiration and craft with aspiring writers by hosting in a workshop, where her number one tip is to not be too serious about the process.

“I find that when people struggle is that they’re afraid to mess it up, or to have a bad idea or take a risk.” she said. In other words, if you want to generate more and better ideas, find some kindred spirits who will encourage you.

4.   Bake something

In addition to the mind wandering, the act of baking itself is a brain booster. Even better, a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology indicates that baking and cooking not only enhances creativity, but also alleviates stress. I would argue that it’s the stress-relieving element that contributes to the creativity, but perhaps it’s a chicken and egg situation.

“During readings people ask me ‘if you could, would you give up baking’ and I’m always really hesitant because it’s become such a part of my process,” said Miller.

If it works for a bestselling author, it can work for us.

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