Creativity -- the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.
by Frank | May 30, 2020, 10:15 PM
By Matt Richtel
You know how you’ve got this image of the creator as a somewhat crazy, slightly unbalanced person lost in his or her own head? I have great news. You are one, too! Everyone – adults and children alike – has a creative streak. But while most of us have a spirit of invention, major or minor, for too many of us it lies dormant even though it can be awakened with the simplest of acts. Follow these steps to find your inner writer, composer, finger painter, chef, lyricist, entrepreneur, filmmaker, comedian, politician or professional Tweeter.
First, Give Permission
Tapping into your thoughts, dreams and imaginations is the first step to finding your inner creativity.
I think I know what you do before you go to bed every night. Don’t worry, everyone does it. You imagine. You imagine some or another version of: If I only had this much money, I’d spend a weekend in the Caribbean; if I’d had just a second more to think, I know what I would’ve said to that jerk who had too many items in the express checkout aisle; or if I’d had just a second to think about it, I know what I’d have said to that beauty I nearly talked to reading my favorite book at the café.
We all have fantasies or, if you prefer, ideas. I will give them a different word: “Seeds.” These seeds are the germ-line of books, short stories, songs, the faces in a painting. Sometimes, when the idea is for a gadget that might, say, keep that guy in the car next to you from texting and driving, it’s the seed of an app or business. If it’s a doodle made during a boring corporate meeting, it’s the seed of an art project; the mixture of the barbecue sauce with the onions and the lemon might be the seed of the next, great slow-cooking invention.
But often, especially as we age, we hear the voices of creativity, and without realizing it, we ignore them, failing to see them for what they are – imagination and creativity – or, worse yet, tell them: “No.”
Give In to What Your Mind Is Trying to Tell You
Mo Willems, the prolific children’s author, has a great story that adds a twist to the permission adage. It took place, he told me, in 1999 before his career had taken off. He had sequestered himself in a cottage in Oxford, England, to write what he was determined would be “the great American children’s book.”
One day, as he doodled in his idea sketchbook, he drew a pigeon. It admonished Mr. Willems: “Don’t write about the other stuff. Write about me.”
“At one point, I remember very distinctly, there was a sentence: ‘Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus.’” It was spoken by a plucky boy that Mr. Willems had drawn. It was as if the boy was saying to the writer: Don’t you dare.
Mr. Willems didn’t pursue his pigeon – not for years. But he pitched to his agent the ideas for Great American Children’s Books that he’d conjured in Oxford. “The agent said they were terrible,” he said. Then, as a gift, he gave his agent a copy of a self-published sketchbook from the cottage days. She liked the crude story of the pigeon and the bus.
In that story, a pigeon begs to be allowed to drive a school bus, after the bus driver admonishes the reader not to allow it. The pigeon cajoles and offers reasons and excuses. He screams and rants. Never does he get to drive the bus. But in the end, he becomes distracted by another seductive option: driving a semi-truck.
Mr. Willem’s had relented but simultaneously realized that he had something interesting, even powerful. “He’s railing against injustices, real and perceived, at not being listened to,” Mr. Willems told me. “They’re all universal things that in my case may be a little more extreme than the norm.” Mr. Willems, the story instructs, had initially given himself permission to create, to imagine, but not full permission to trust and follow the muse in its natural state.
Let Yourself Find Your Creativity
Another quick tale to make the point: A family friend once told me that, in college, he was curious to find out whether he was creative so he picked up an easel at the store. He painted for 10 minutes, put down the brush and declared himself not remotely creative. But he went on to make tens of millions of dollars as an entrepreneur. He had mistakenly conflated artistic creativity with any type of creativity. But not all creativity looks the same, and it doesn’t take the same name.
This all sounds obvious to those who have cracked the creativity code. Often, though, I hear people asking how to write a book or song or comic strip and I know that they are asking a bigger question: “Can I create something?” The response to that question should always be “Yes, give yourself permission to see the seeds for what they are.”
Those before-bed mind wanderings you are having are just as valid a force of imagination as the ones had by the world’s greatest artists: They are your natural impulses, the things that make you who you are, and are your inner creator speaking out.
More on Being More Creative
Feel confident that whatever you create will be amazing.
Decades ago, under a pen name (Theron Heir), I created and wrote a syndicated comic strip called "Rudy Park." Its editor had long been the editor of a comic strip you’ve actually heard of: "Peanuts." She told me a story about Charles Schultz’s process. Each morning, grandmaster Schultz would wake up and think: “That’s it — I’ve got the perfect idea for a strip!” and he’d work on the strip all day.
At the end of the day, he’d look at his “perfect” strip and think, “No, that’s not quite it.” Then the next morning, he’d wake up and think, “That’s it — I’ve got the perfect idea for a strip!””
By contrast, I once spoke to an amazing journalist who said he didn’t want to write a book because, as he said, everything great had already been done. What could he possibly add to the pantheon of books in the world? Why foist himself upon humanity?
Boldness Is a Virtue
As someone who followed up my venture in comic strips with writing thrillers, a nonfiction narrative, thousands of articles, dozens of songs and a children’s book, I can tell you that there is a moment in each of these creative flights where I become convinced that, “Yes, yes, I have something profound and wonderful to give to the world, and it’s going to be great; it not just deserves, but needs to be heard or seen.”
This is audacious, at least, and possibly delusional, and it is 100 percent O.K. In fact, it is the price of admission. You are allowed and encouraged to give in to this feeling of ecstasy. In fact, if not you, who? And if someone else, why not you?
Keep at It
There is a punchline, of course, to thinking that you are going to create perfection, and Charles Schultz told it; often, the resulting product comes with a recognition that the Promised Land eluded you, again. “Wait, that didn’t turn out as well as I thought it would. It never does. Ah, but next year we’ll get it right and it’s going to be the greatest New Year’s Eve ever!”
I particularly like a line that Tina Fey used in her acceptance speech for the Best Actress Emmy in 2008. In her list of thanks: “I’d like to thank my parents for giving me confidence that is disproportionate to my looks and abilities. That is what all parents should do.”
Which brings us to how we pay it forward.
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Foster Creativity Through Your Parenting
Help your kids be more creative, and you’ll reap the benefits as well.
Parents are often blamed for everything – neglecting our children, spoiling them, neglecting them while spoiling them. Those are all subjects for a different guide, one I would pay to read.
Here, though, I can offer one piece of parenting advice that I feel relatively qualified to suggest. It has to do with the most powerful creative exercise I’ve come across as parent and occasional educator. It’s called:
What if, a kindergartner once told me when I was doing the “What If” exercise in his classroom, you could sit on a toilet and when you flushed the handle it sent you to Egypt?
It is tempting, in certain eras or maybe this one, to think that the proper response to such an idea is: "Well, now, Johnny, that’s a silly idea, isn’t it?"
Instead, I said to the kiddo: “Go on…”
And, what if, another kindergarten classmate said, you flushed and the toilet took you to outer space?
Now we were getting somewhere.
Just Say ‘Yes’
Years ago, I read a terrific book called “What If,” by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, that was aimed at spurring along adult fiction writers. It got tucked away in my subconscious and resurfaced as a tutorial aimed at accomplishing two goals. The first is to spur along fledgling creators to let their minds flow with possibility and the second is to help parents and educators get the heck out of the way.
Implicit in the question – what if? – is a sense of wonder. It frees the would-be creator to fill in the blank, gives her permission, while also giving the listener or parent permission to allow the sentence to come out without judgment. What if a tractor beam dragged an ice cream truck from the street into my bunk bed? What if I was chewing gum and as I blew a bubble it came out as a hot air balloon and I flew away?
But what if a parent tells a kid that the idea wasn’t proper – which is like saying it’s silly or even stupid – and the kid stopped asking what if, and got lost forever in multiplication tables?
Be Prolific and Follow-Through
John Dacey, a professor emeritus of education at Boston College, said the ‘What If’ exercise accomplishes a third powerful goal of encouraging would-be creators to be prolific, which turns out, he says, to be a hallmark of creative sorts. They tend to pile up ideas, like so many slips of scrawled-on paper on the nightstand. Then true creators, he said, follow-through. “People think creativity is inspiration but it’s mainly perspiration,” he told me.
It is unavoidable elbow grease-related cliche: Stick with it. Create, complete, repeat. From hard work comes a genuine understanding of the medium you’re working in -- clay, finger paint, prose, anonymous flame posts. Actual prodigies are so rare. Our misconception about them is a creation of book and Hollywood writers who toiled for years learning their craft and then invented unrealistic teen characters with impossible genius and made the rest of us think such a thing is possible.
Hard work, though, doesn’t have to be drudgery. Alternate persistence with playfulness. Even as I now type this, I feel the ache of my calloused fingertips from playing my skin raw on the guitar, learning but also writing songs on a new instrument.
As much as sweat equity is essential, Dr. Dacey’s perspiration comment can sound like it’s an argument for subverting mechanism and muscle to muse. I actually read it as a simple directive: Give yourself enough jet propulsion of inspiration to do the hard work of follow-through.
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You can’t improve on something if you don’t let it exist in an imperfect form.
I was at lunch recently with a hyper-creative man named Roger McNamee. He’s an avid songwriter, musician, innovator and investor who helped found Facebook and is business partners with Bono. That Bono. Mr. McNamee and I were talking about music and he described a philosophical difference between himself and U2.
U2, Mr. McNamee said, is always trying to record the definitive album, the perfect song, something that can be recreated over and again, played in concert to perfection.
That’s one way to think about record making, he said. But he has a different philosophy about recording an album, and it’s one that I must say I agree with, and that cuts across fields. The idea isn’t to be perfect, but to create a version of the thing you’re creating that feels right to you and then to let that thing build and develop, to take shape or even different shapes.
Let me put this another way – and it’s one of the strongest lessons I can confer about the subject at hand: Perfectionism is creativity’s biggest foe. Perfectionism is public enemy No. 1, the axis of evil when it comes to letting ideas take their natural course.
Your own impulse is perfect in one way: It’s perfectly you. If you don’t sound like Michael Chabon or Elmore Leonard, thank goodness. You are not them, other than in that you’ve also shown the courage to leap headlong into creating works that would never delight anyone if they were stopped for want of perfection.
Put Down the Eraser
If you’re an aspiring creator, this scenario might sound familiar: You come up with an idea, give yourself permission to write, start feeling audacious that this is going to change the way the entire world looks at literature, put pen to paper, write two pages and, then….begin rewriting. "No, no, that first sentence just doesn’t sound right. And, the next sentence, well, should it really begin with 'And?'" The next thing you know, you’re in your late 80s with nothing but wrinkles and eraser marks to show for it.
To underscore this, I’ll relate my own conversion tale about perfectionism. Fifteen years ago, I never thought I’d write a book – it sounded absurd, all those words, all tied together in one place – but in 2004, I started writing a story I couldn’t let go of. I didn’t show anybody and I didn’t pause. Somewhere, around 80,000 words, about three-quarters finished, I showed the beginning to a colleague at The New York Times who doubled as an author. She professed to love it, and showed it to her agent, who, in turn, professed to love it. Great news, right? Nope. I couldn’t write another word.
For two weeks, an experience that had been pure joy turned pressure-filled. I’d given control to the voices outside me, the little audience in my head, sitting in the balcony channeling the outside world. Fortunately, it was a temporary state. A few weeks later, the external world of expectation and perfection disappeared and I happily finished a book that would become my first thriller, “Hooked.” Much more importantly, I’d found a process that I’ve come to trust, one rooted in rarely looking over my shoulder or in the grates under the sidewalk to see IT, the perverse-faced clown of perfectionism, beckoning me to rewrite vapor before it’s barely on paper. (Thank you, Stephen King.)
Leave IT to the sewers. And then, after you’ve created, seek feedback. Do. Not. Fear. Feedback. It’s rarely personal. It means someone is taking your muse seriously, and you are inspiring them to react. They're your first audience. You may be newly inspired by their response, the birth of muse entropy. But this is all said with a big caveat: seek feedback from someone who speaks your language, such as someone who you’d trust to think through your relationship or your troubles at work. They will be most able to see you and your creation for what it can be.
Now, ready yourself for your final step, with a quick pause first about getting filthy rich.
But what about the money? So, you don’t just want to create, at the same time you want to have your creation earn you Steven Spielberg’s kitchen. Simple solution: Be creative in your application to ... law or business school. Creativity in the right careers can beget affluence. But the kind of creativity I’ve been talking about, mostly the artistic variety, a wellspring of personal expression, is generally a path to looking up at the minimum wage. Even published, sometimes well-known, artists work for surprisingly little. That’s a particular reality in an internet world where intellectual property is usually free.
Sometimes, self-expression and profit are even at odds. Once, a friend who is major bestselling author told me: "Matt, you can keep writing what you like, or you can learn the formula and try to make bank." The tradeoff isn’t always that stark, but you can generally heed a truism: Artistic creativity only works when it comes from you, foremost, and starting with the profit motive likely will not only frustrate you but might even be counterproductive. On the other hand, many of our most financially successful artists succeeded because they introduced something new into the world that could’ve come only from them.
And so we’ve come to the last, crucial step.
Get Some Creative Inspiration
Take a Nap
Any type of time away from your project gives your brain room to process your work.
So many wonderful scientific experiments have been done to show us the value of downtime for creativity, memory and learning. One of my favorites involves what happens inside the brains of rats when they are constantly stimulated.
In the experiment, done at the University of California at San Francisco, brain activity was measured in rats when they have a new experience. The researchers put the rat on a table, and could see that the rat developed a brain signal associated with a new experience. (It turns out, a new experience for a rat, like being set down on a table the rat has never been on before, can be fairly exciting.) Then, the researchers added a twist by dividing the subject rats into two groups. One group of rats was immediately subjected to another new experience (look, new table!), while another was given downtime.
In the rats that got downtime, researchers could see the brain activity move into a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory. That didn’t happen with the rats that had a second new experience. When they were stimulated with a second new experience, they, in effect, had less of an ability to process what they’d already experienced. This is one experiment of many that show how crucial it is to let your brain go lax, to give it time and space. Think of your brain as if it were someone you’re in a relationship with; sometimes, it needs to have some alone time.
Let Your Brain Rest
Practically, that means turning off Netflix when you get on the stationary bike, strolling at lunch without ear buds or riding the train with a blank stare, not Words With Friends. These are the nickels and dimes of wandering minds that add up to ideas, maybe, or just rest. Both are good outcomes.
It is hard to overstate the value of this increasingly well understood idea, and it’s one that applies to the broadest swath of creativity you can imagine – from being creative with arts, to business, your family, challenges at work and in relationships. It is even harder to overstate in an era in which “smart” phones have become our deepest soul mates, like our digital siamese twins, attached at the brain. They constantly stimulate, but, research shows, they can overstimulate if not kept in their place. “Bring back boredom,” says Dr. Michael Rich, director for the Center for Media and Child Health in Boston. “Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.”
The value of downtime to creativity is, to my mind, twofold:
• It allows you to synthesize what you’ve already come up with. Allows it to bake, so to say.
• It also starts over the process of giving you the space to think creatively about something else.
If you get in the habit of giving your brain downtime, the soil of silence, permission and audacity will let ideas root and bloom.
Then, right when the urge hits to pause and perfect things, take a nap, and return to the project when you’re totally refreshed, ready to find out how you use the toilet to get back from outer space.
Now, go, quickly, and create, before you turn into an adult again.