Creative Modes and Cycles

Part 3 of Fuck the Muse @ The Operating System

Cycles have become the core of my creative process. Thinking in cycles means I always know where I am and where I’m going, even when I feel overwhelmed by the size of a project. If I’m stuck, it’s time for a new mindset. If my last move was to zig, my next move is to zag.

In his 1991 lecture on creativity, John Cleese describes two modes of operating: an “open” playful mode, and a “closed” productive more. Creative people, he claims, are simply the people that cultivate the open mode of operating.

We need to be in the open mode when we’re pondering a problem, but once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it.

John Cleese is full of dad jokes

Your Brain at Work

Renowned psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist uses the same general framework in his RSA lecture on the Divided Brain:

The right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open, vigilant alertness where the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply-focussed attention to detail… Let me make it very clear, for imagination you need both hemispheres.

Both sides of your brain, together at last

Working in Cycles

Like all tools, our different modes of thinking allow us to solve different types of problems, or to solve the same problems in different ways. You have to know when to set down your hammer and pick up a chainsaw. That’s where cycles become useful.

Is your approach working? Keep doing it, or try something else.
How to everything

Cycling through different modes has become the core of my creative process. Thinking in cycles means I always know what to try next, even when I feel overwhelmed by the size of a project. If I’m stuck, it’s time for a new mindset. If my last move was to zig, my next move is to zag.

But open/closed and right/left aren’t the only modes available to us. I keep various mode cycles in mind as I work, and invent new ones when they seem useful:

What cycles are useful to you?

Action & Reflection

Putting these ideas to use is a cycle of it’s own — stepping in and out of the work. When you hit a snag, step back and consider your approach. Often, an obstacle to the open mind can be overcome with a closed mind, and vice versa.

Let Elmo explain distance to you

If I’ve been looking at the details, I step back and look at the project from a distance. How does it all fit together? Are the problems on page 12 caused by something on page 3? If I’ve been writing stream-of-conscious (expanding), I start editing with a vengeance (contracting). Creativity is subtraction as much as creation.

Garbage In (Please)

Similarly, If I’m all out of ideas, I spend some time doing research. It’s important to have a deep well of material to draw on, and that well needs to be maintained. Sometimes I’ll study a related topic, or I’ll read a book, watch a movie, or just watch TV. Ignore the old “garbage-in, garbage-out” mantra. Watch shitty TV, eat some candy, and enjoy it. You can learn a lot from garbage.

Practice being critical without being dismissive. The important thing is to replenish. Getting new ideas into your head is part of the work.

Stay Agile

And now for a callback framed as a diversion

No one technique is going to get you the whole way there. Practice changing directions quickly. What happens if you switch modes every five minutes?

Stay responsive to problems as they come up, changing your approach based on the problem in front of you. When you get stuck, that’s a good thing. Use your frustration as motivation. Frustration is just a cue for change. Push back. Ask why you’re stuck. Explore your stuckness, reflect on it, dive into it, adjust, and keep moving.

Creativity happens in cycles: the end of one cycle is the start of another.

50 ‘post’ episodes


Design Systems & CSS @ Views on Vue

We start by talking about design systems and design tooling – how they differ, and the problems they solve.

CSS Custom Properties @ Smashing Magazine

Pushing past the “variable” metaphor, CSS Custom Properties can provide new ways to balance context and isolation in our patterns and components.

Has CSS finally come of age? @ Creative Bloq

Steve Jenkins interviews me about the state of CSS, and what’s coming next for the language – from Intrinsic Design to Dynamic CSS.

Dynamic CSS Interview @ Thunder Nerds

Thunder Nerds interview me before her talk at VueConf US 2019.


Fonts & more @ Views on Vue

The panel and the guest talk about grid systems, fonts, and more!

Ethics, ES6 in Practice, and Dynamic CSS @ TalkScript

On Episode 18, the TalkScript team continues the live-ish at JSConfUS podcast series with guests Myles Borins, Tim Doherty, and Miriam Suzanne. Listen in!

Rejecting Maleness @ Journal of Mennonite Writing

The Journal of Mennonite Writing asked me to submit for their queer issue. I don’t identify as Mennonite, but I did grow up in the church, so I asked my friends what to write about. They suggested the common question: In a world without rigid gender roles, would anyone need to be trans?

Chosen Family (Thank You)

Yesterday, I shared an article about my impending surgery, and a request for help – both social and financial – as I go through this. I was embarrassed to ask, and not sure what to expect, but your response has been swift and overwhelming. I can’t thank you enough, but I’ll keep trying.

Mia’s Medical Upgrade

Denver Health has started offering vaginoplasty in addition to their other trans medical services. While I’ve been on the waitlist for various surgeons around the country, Denver Health called me this week to give me a date: September 10, less than two months away.


Sex, Love, & RomancePS I Love You

“I don’t have many guy friends, but my guitarist is one. Parting, I lean in for the cheek-kiss but he plants a good one right on my lips.”

More CSS Charts, with Grid & Custom PropertiesCSS Tricks

Inspired by Robin Rendle, I demonstrate some of my early experiments combining CSS Grids and custom properties to create dynamic layouts and data-visualizations.


At the family vacation in Moab, everyone is doing their best. It’s not enough, and my day is peppered with the wrong name and pronouns. I hide in my room through dinner so they won’t see me crying.

Shifting Nouns @ Twined Fragments

“I’ve seen myself in the mirror. I find me… disorienting. What do they see that I don’t? Why aren’t they laughing at me?”

Mothers, Fathers, Husbands, Wives @ Twined Fragments

“Mother finds me at her wardrobe, in her pumps and pearls. What are you doing? Being a mommy. Are you, then? She clips on the earrings (they pinch!), reaches for her lipstick.”

Fun with Viewport UnitsCSS Tricks

Viewport units have been around for several years now, with near-perfect support in the major browsers, but I keep finding new and exciting ways to use them. I thought it would be fun to review the basics, and then round-up some of my favorite use-cases.

Body & Gender Fragments

I wasn’t born in the wrong body. I was born, a body. Without my body, I don’t exist.

Getting Started with CSS GridCSS Tricks

It feels like CSS Grid has been coming for a long time now, but it just now seems to be reaching a point where folks are talking more and more about it and that it’s becoming something we should learning.

Justice [Under Construction]

I’m still reeling from this year of insults,  a traumatizing campaign turned traumatic election. I’m not sad about a contest lost, but what those results mean for real people around me. 2016 is over, but 2017 is going to be even harder.


Some Clarifications on Trans Language

There’s a lot of language that gets thrown around, but much of it comes loaded with over-simplified baggage and misconceptions. Here are a few that have been on my mind – from gender identity to biological sex, transition, passing, and visibility.

Some Kind of Resistance Tour

It’s been a month since our country pseudo-elected a bigoted blow-hard for president. I’m heading to DC to protest his inauguration in January, visit friends, and go on a mixed-media resistance tour…

Loops in CSS PreprocessorsCSS Tricks

No matter what acronym drives your selectors (BEM, OOCSS, SMACSS, ETC), loops can help keep your patterns more readable and maintainable, baking them directly into your code. We’ll take a look at what loops can do, and how to use them in the major CSS preprocessors.

*Beyond Pixels Profile @ Net Magazine

Miriam Suzanne creates experimental experiences with her band and her fellow developers.

An Interview with Miriam SuzanneCSS Tricks

Chris Coyier interviews Miriam when she joins the CSS Tricks team as a Staff Writer. We talk about gettting started in the industry, name confusion, fouding OddBird, building Susy, and more.

Versioning Show, Episode 8 @ SitePoint

In this episode of the Versioning Show, Tim and David are joined by Miriam Suzanne, best known for Susy, a responsive layout toolkit for Sass. They discuss going from being a lurker to finding your voice, the importance of writing about what you’re learning, stumbling into fame, approaching new projects, and unit testing in Sass.

Miriam: A How-To Guide

There are some questions that come up again and again if you are trans. A few of those questions are terrible, but most of them are well-intentioned. I’m lucky to have a supportive community around me, so I thought I’d write down my most common answers to help ease your stress about getting it right, and ease my stress about answering the same questions over and over.




Fuck The Muse @ The Operating System

a series of articles on creative process

Collaboration & Queer Art @ Boulder Writers’ Workshop

interview with Richard Wall of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop