Want to be creative? Stop trying!

philbirchbw-e1297112991794There is much written and discussed about how creative people “become” creative. Is it nature? Is it nurture? Is it effort or genius? Well I am no psychological or behavioural specialist and I bow deferentially to their collective greater knowledge so this is a personal piece on how and what works for me. I have 3 rules, well, guidelines really, that I share below.

Anecdotes abound regarding flashes of inspiration, eureka moments and the creative muse. There is, it appears, great consensus within most of the more popular theories that we generally we have to make the time and the conditions that are suitable for us as individuals – we cannot all sit under a tree and wait for the apple – and try NOT to think about being creative. Creativity, it seems, gets more illusive the more it is chased. Essentially that’s my point – I have to “let” it happen.

Listening to an interview with Henning Mankell recently, the author of the hugely popular Wallender detective series of books and films, he said that he finds creativity, inspiration if you like, comes when he is doing something else; something mundane that requires some attention but not complete focus. Washing the dishes, cleaning the car, ironing the shirts, can all serve as conscious distraction and gave his creative juices a chance to flow “in the background”. This works for me too. Some folk can walk in the countryside or meditate or “switch off” easily. I cannot. I find that invariably if I sit and think about nothing then loads of crap immediately floods in to fill the perceived vacuum that my chatty mind apparently thinks needs filling. I, it would seem, have limited control over this “notice me now” side of my brain. Whether left-side or right-side, it invariably sneaks into the gap and fills it with drivel. You haven’t done this or you need to check the other. The precious “no thought” moments are, for me, fleeting and illusive. So what do I do? I stop trying to find creativity but I don’t do completely nothing. I do what Kurt proposes and occupy my “notice me now” element with a task and it seems perfectly content to shut up for a few moments. As long as I don’t consciously tell myself hey, you are doing this menial task so that you can be creative – a self-non-fulfilling prophesy if there ever was one – I drift into menial and, occasionally, the creative block is unblocked.

Another way in which I encourage the muse is to know when to start and when to stop. I know that creative ideas, given the chance, will usually come (see above) but we cannot all wander lonely as clouds until it does. I was treated to a presentation by Lord Archer some months ago wherein he claimed that one of the secrets to his prolific writing was discipline – he arose early every day, completed ablutions and then wrote solidly for at least an hour. Then, muse released, he started the work of Government. This routine, he stated, meant that he could complete all tasks AND satisfy his creative whilst balancing the mundane (my words, not his). There is clearly merit in this organisation, well, for him at least. Personally I try to avoid too much routine – it kind of defeats the point of being self employed if you follow the clock too diligently – but clearly setting up some schedule to allocate specific time to specified tasks will help to keep on top of the rubbish and administration and , potentially at least, allow for some creative space. I try to recognise when I am “best” at particular types of tasks and duties. I am a relatively early riser and, like Lord Archer, I like to get started as soon as I have addressed my own and my dog’s ablutions – but for me I like to bash at the horrid stuff first. I always feel uplifted when I have been online to reply to that email, pay that bill, book that train or increasingly, complain to my service providers! These done, I feel my day is free for the nicer stuff which includes time for the creative moments. In the afternoon, however, its analysis time and the evenings lend themselves to reading and research. That’s how I tend to work. So, tip number 2 is work out when you do which tasks best and try to accommodate this as frequently as possible. There is a tip 2a) here too which is keep off your own back. Just because you plan something does not mean that it will always work out that way – be flexible and patient. You cannot force the muse, and plan in some spontaneity too!

Final tip. Look to the past for inspiration and before anyone with more US tendencies starts to fret about copyright and Intellectual Property law I am not advocating plagiarism. I am merely suggesting two points: firstly that there is nothing new (with the possible exception of cutting edge quantum physics or deep space Voyagers) and many great and creative a solution is either a variation on a theme or one applied in a different manner than previously and secondly, an idea becomes a great idea when the time for it has arrived. Just because it did not work out last time does not mean that it will not now (AND vice versa!!). Timing is key. As a post script to this second point I would qualify it by saying that we will not fix 21st century problems with 20th century solutions and unless you are creative, innovative if you will, then you will fall behind or fail completely. Innovation requires imagination and what is creativity if it is not imagination unleashed and made real? We may not all be intellectual geniuses but we ALL have imagination. Let it speak and listen to the muse.
So, my 3 tips for encouraging creativity
1.Stop trying to find it, it will find you.
2.Find your own routine and give the muse a chance
3.Look to the past, timing is as much genius as the thought sometimes.

I hope that helps and the best of luck (with the timing of your creativity).

6 Comments on Want to be creative? Stop trying!

  1. Anne Casey // March 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm // Reply

    I will try your three tips Phil, but I have to tell you that I don’t think that I have got past tip one yet!

  2. What would you say to Aldous Huxley or Hunter S. Thomson’s suggestion that there is a positive relationship between the creative process and the use of recreational drugs?

  3. Hi Hollie
    personally I cannot say. There seems to be reams of individual experiential and anecdotal “evidence” that some individuals make a direct associaton between some drugs – recreational being an attempt to moralise if not legalise certain substances – and the creative expression. Clearly there are many examples of the links between drugs, shamanism and the higher conscious or at least for entering into a mental/physiological condition that includes visions, dreaming, “out of body” experience and such. I do not, myself, equate induced hallucination with the natural muse but I am not qualified to comment further about such experiences and/or substances.

  4. The great German poets and thinkers, Goethe and Schiller, had an ongoing dialogue – call it a dialetical process similar to Freud and Jung’s until their final falling-out – about this very subject. Schiller believed that any art not proceeding direct from inspiration was tainted, since the divine must not be interfered with, and human efforts to shape it must necessarily distort and disfigure it. Goethe believed that any work of art that was not properly crafted was an unfit ‘offering’, since a poet, painter or sculptor was tasked with expressing the human urge to create beauty and that one should therefore pour everything one had into the work one was producing.

    I believe both were right. The initial impulse and inspiration comes from a mysterious source, and when you create, you often find yourself looking over what you’ve produced and thinking ‘Did I make that?’. When I write something and go back to it a year later, say, I’m astonished that someone as flawed as me can produce something that’s actually worth taking time to read! Sometimes you can write something and when you try to edit it, you realise it’s already as it should be, and you don’t edit a thing. Sometimes a lot of redrafting is necessary though, and I don’t think we need to be afraid of that.

    Of course it’s easier with writing: you can save multiple versions and then pick the best. You can’t do that when you’re carving a huge chunk of marble or cutting precious gems for jewellery. And when you’re being creative in business, you can only go down one path at a time…

    • Jan
      thanks for the comments. Truly appreciated. I am not a philosopher and so cannot comment with any degree of credibility about Goethe and Co and never having tried to carve a chunk of marble I feel hugely under-qualified here too but that said, I do whole-heartedly agree that writing offers the chance for constant re-draft until les mos justes are found – well, in the eye of the writer at least !!
      I rarely go back and read something that I have produced. Reasons? 1. Well, I already know it! 2. There are better sources for me to refer/research. 3. I try to write in the moment which usually passes and so the context within me (for that moment at least) passes too. I know that this may sound wholey unprofessional but I guess that we all work under our own muse and mine is quite . . . . fleeting.
      With respect to your comment about business and one path at a time; so true. On the one hand we have to select a direction (strategy) and on the other we cannot really analyse the potential of NOT choosing it. I know that there are millions of tools, techniques and consultants out there but the “What if” scenario (opportunity cost) is always a tricky one. My tendency is to think twice (at least) and act once (at most). If the muse is with me, it works, if she is not, it works. It is then up to me to try and decifer whether the results are satisfactory and then we enter the realm of subjectivity and oooh that can be difficult.
      I try to keep it as simple as possible and write as close to how I speak as is reasonable. It avoids internal translation and to date the general feedback has been positive. The muse or not the use, that is a question.
      I think, however, that I may return to a book I issued as a blog a year or two ago and test my own theory. Is it the same muse? Is it the same me? Mmmm?
      I can feel a chocolate frenzy coming on!

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