Creativity is a much-studied activity that no one truly understands. And some of what we don’t understand about it includes:
- How it occurs,
- What triggers it, and
- How we can control it.
So in this post I’m intending to write entirely about my own experiences doing – and not doing – creative work.
Creativity is a flow
One of the first things I noticed about my own creativity is that it just flows out of me. I can have a creative thought in the shower, at dinner, walking along, chatting with friends, reading a book, watching TV or a film, listening to music, even falling asleep.
I’m not really able to turn it off. I have given birth to creative thoughts in the strangest places, at the least appropriate times, in the most difficult circumstances. Over the years, I learned to write down a lot of this stuff, because when the creative fever passes, I often can’t recall what I was thinking while I was in its throes.
I can’t force creativity
Although creative ideas flow out of me with astounding regularity, the flow is not under my conscious control.
As I said, I’m not able to “turn off” my creativity, and – symmetrically enough – I’m not really able to “turn on” my creativity, either. Although I haven’t ever tried this experiment, I’m willing to bet I can’t meet the challenge of coming up with a certain number of creative thoughts in a certain period of time.
Sure, on demand I can come up with quite a few random thoughts, and you might even be generous enough to call them “creative.” But I wouldn’t honor them with such a highfalutin rubric. Most of them will probably be silly, stupid, childish, crazy, or some combination of all four.
For me, trying to fill a quota will generally not produce creative thoughts that (as they should, in my view):
- Meet a need,
- Point toward a purpose,
- Exhibit relevant meaning,
- Feel satisfying, or
- Spark a lot of enthusiasm in others.
I can make creativity happen
Nevertheless, I have found ways to “set the table” for creativity, so I can sit down and wait to see if any ideas show up to feast.
These ways include:
- Setting forth a clear purpose for the creative ideas I’m anticipating, which could be anything from “selling breakfast cereal” to “explaining the motivation of a character,” and beyond.
- Sitting quietly without distractions and waiting for inspiration to hit.
- Avoiding other activities, such as sharpening pencils or straightening my desk. If I’m there to write, I’m there to write – and do nothing else.
- “Piggybacking” or building on any creative ideas that do show up, as a method of generating more ideas. Maybe the character needs money. (Yeah, that’s a good idea!) Maybe she needs it to pay for her mother’s life-saving surgery. (Yeah, that’s another good one!) Maybe she needs to borrow it from her boss. (Yeah, that could happen!) You get the idea.
- Avoiding any judgment of my creative ideas. That process comes later. For now, during the “idea generation” process (part of which I described in the previous bullet), there’s no room for negativity, objections, rejections, or rebuffs of any kind.
I understand that I am very lucky to have some kind of a creativity muscle in me that has performed so well so far. I recognize that many people feel they don’t have one. I hope they are wrong. In fact, I am pretty sure they are wrong.
In my view and experience, most people of average or better intelligence can tap into a wellspring of creativity if only they have the courage to try and the techniques to support their creative efforts.
I can exhaust my creativity
If you will join me in considering creativity to be much like athleticism, as in the metaphor of my having a creative muscle, you will readily see that every creative effort I make is going to require a commensurate effort at recuperation. I breathe in, I breathe out. I exert, I rest. I strain my brain, and then I make an attempt to soothe my brain.
What’s more, as with athletes, the quality of my performance as a creative person has exhibited good seasons and bad seasons, good days and bad days, even good times of day and bad times of day. There are periods when the ideas come thick and fast, then other periods when I have nothing creative to contribute. Of course, there are many periods that fall in between these extremes.
Just like an artesian well that brings fresh water from hidden sources, my flow of creativity seems to exhibit its own pace. I have never tried to plug it up, but I imagine if I did the urge to be creative would build up pressure until it would overflow.
I have occasionally tried to drain my creativity too much, and I have then found myself in a period where my creativity ran dry. Fortunately, this has lasted only for a relatively short period of time. But I have known people who have come to the end of their creativity.
It seems sensible that the creative juices can thin out and even dry up as the creative person ages – not always, of course, but often enough to warrant notice. In the same way that athletes “lose a step” in the latter part of their careers, creative professionals may similarly find themselves coming up with fewer or weaker ideas. I honestly don’t know if this is happening to me. So far, I don’t perceive any such changes. But if and when it begins to happen, I’m hoping I’ll accept the changes with grace.
You can find and nurture patterns of creativity
All these attributes of the creative flow lead to an inescapable reality: creativity exhibits patterns. I have mine. I would expect that you have yours.
If you can chart and understand these patterns, you have a fighting chance to nurture them. This will allow you to increase both the total amount of creativity you generate over your lifetime as well as your ability to direct your creativity when and where needed in hopes of accomplishing specific tasks and meeting specific goals.
I’m not telling you what your patterns of creativity might be. I’m merely encouraging you to expect that your creativity muscle is probably subject to one or more patterns, with highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses, good and bad periods, and the like. Look for them, and make use of them so you can more fully benefit from the creative flow that emanates from somewhere inside you.
If and when you find your patterns of creativity, please let me know.
I’ll be glad to hear from you about your creative patterns, not only to help me learn more about my own creativity, but so I can share some of the joy and satisfaction I can guarantee you will feel after you have gained a little more understanding of the profoundly exciting experiences your creativity has provided you – and will continue to provide you – over the years.
I'd love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.