So, you finally find the time to sit down and write, and that blinking cursor just blinks, and blinks, and blinks – waiting for you to have anything to say.
It’s a classic nightmare.
Creativity just doesn’t come easily to most people, and there’s a widespread idea that if creative work is hard, it must be because one “isn’t creative.” But creativity isn’t a divine spark bestowed by the Muses from their seat on Mount Olympus, but is the result of studied, ongoing labor. The greatest works of art in the world weren’t dropped into their creators laps, but intensely worked on for ages; they are, in short, the end product of skill, not innate, inborn “creativity.”
So the key to getting creative is often being creative – or at least doing the kinds of things that get you working that part of your brain. It turns out that creativity is a machine that needs a little oil to get rolling, and once it’s on its way, it’s a powerhouse. You just need to start thinking about creativity as a skill and not a gift. Gifts happen all on their own, but skills? Those you can cultivate. And you can do it regardless of your field; whether you’re a web developer, a writer, an artist, a musician, a chef – anyone can develop this skill and apply it to their real-world experience.
Because all creativity is is the ability to make connections you haven’t made before. It’s really just a matter of learning how to exercise the right muscles.
1 – Freewrite
If all creativity is about connections, how do you start finding them? You have to start drawing the lines and seeing what sticks. Freewriting – the practice of sitting down with a piece of paper and just writing whatever the heck pops into your head – is a fantastic basic exercise that anyone can try. The beauty of freewriting is that it’s unconstrained by form or outcome; you simply go. We often talk about freewriting as a practice to “get the creative juices flowing,” but more concretely, freewriting – especially when working off a prompt – is useful because it forces you to start wandering down some less-traveled neural pathways. You want to get those signals firing off to parts of the brain they don’t often talk to.
And you can work off anything; there are websites that will give you single-word prompts, but I find a great practice is to pick up a book off your shelf, open to a random page, and use the first sentence you see as your jumping-off point. Whatever it is. Write it down, and then keep going; you never know where you’ll end up, and that’s exactly the point.
2 – Collaborate
It’s easy to get stuck in your own head and feel stifled; you only seem to be making the same connections again and again. That kind of stagnant thinking gets frustrating, and makes it harder to do good creative work. That’s when it’s a great idea to sit down with someone and hash something out. This can work in two primary ways.
The first is that talking with someone gives them an opportunity to introduce something new into the mix that can break you out of your rut, in much the same way a swift kick to the side can knock you over when you’re pacing a hole in the floor. Team brainstorming forces you to confront new information, deal with a new possibility, and make – that’s right – new connections.
The second, and more substantial, way that it helps is that it forces you to explain yourself. The act of synthesizing an idea, story, or concept for someone else requires an inherently different way of looking at it than the one you use in creating it. One of the key elements of functional creativity is precisely in learning to look at things from new, unexpected directions, and building up the skill of explanation can help you learn to do precisely that. Working with a collaborator can strength the heck out of that muscle.
3 – Stop Saying No
One of the biggest inhibitors of creative thinking is self-editing; it forces you to retread the same paths again and again, second-guessing yourself at every step along the way. Author Anne Lamott has famously said that everyone writes what she describes as a “shitty first draft.” It’s not just an inevitability; it’s a deliberate strategy. The idea – which also fuels the annual NaNoWriMo writing challenge – is to simply get it down on paper, warts and all.
As a writing strategy in itself, the Shitty First Draft has serious merit. But taken as emblematic of a larger creative approach – tearing down inhibitions – it has greater significance. The larger theme of this piece is centrality of making connections to the process of creativity, and of pressing import to that is the willingness to make odd and uncomfortable connections. You can practice this through the deliberate act of saying yes to, well, everything.
Not in a literal sense, of course. But entertain the odd thought, and humor the crazy idea. It might just work. Practiced, deliberate freedom from inhibition can lead to dramatic and unexpected results. And maybe those ideas aren’t very good, but the act of reaching those ideas is practice in the skill of creativity. An electric pineapple probably isn’t a great suggestion for wedding party favors. But getting there first can lead to the right idea at the right time, because you’ve trained yourself to look for a wider range of connections. That is the difference between wide and narrow thinking – and it’s precisely the ability you need to have if you want to thrive creatively.
Following these steps in isolation won’t make you creative, but integrating them into your regular life can help you build up the right skillset and neural musculature to foster real outside-the-box thinking both now and in the future.
Good luck! And don’t get shocked by the electric pineapples.