April 8, 2014

Some Rambling Thoughts on Creativity

The creativity of my kids never ceases to amaze me. They seem to be able to come up with new ideas for a story at a moments notice, and have no bias for characters. Spider-Man often saves My Little Ponies from a burning firehouse made entirely of foam blocks, and an unnamed female superhero has a tendency to help a little ghost out of a wad of sticky gum ("gumtrapment" ... she never gets it). Paper towel tubes and sticks find all sorts of new identities. Those multicolored foam blocks become everything from Iron Man to cars to pet houses to mouse traps.

Clearly, for those of us who suffer from bouts of writers' block, there is something to be learned here.

Not that they've caught any mice yet.

The imagination of kids seems, to me, to come from a certain innocence. They haven't yet been totally molded into our cultural lenses because a lot of those lenses still make utterly no sense to them. They've not yet accepted that these two things don't go together because, of course, THAT would be ridiculous. Mice can't be trapped in foam block structures. Ghosts can't be trapped in gum. That doesn't look like a car.

I wonder if creativity has more to do with an innocence of the rules?

A few months ago I was in a mall searching for the Apple store, when I noticed, right across the aisle, a store that looked oddly similar. And then I smirked, because of course, it was the Microsoft store. The two looked nearly identical; same aluminum facade, same backlit tables, same dress-casual employees. And the thought that came to my mind was not "ooh, I want to try the Surface!" but, "boy, it must be sad to define yourself by someone else's standards." Microsoft had gotten good at following the rules; Apple, on the other hand, had decided that they would, instead, make the rules.

Successful creatives don't react to the ideas of others as if there's only one way to do something; they're proactive, constantly searching. Creativity and curiosity go hand in hand, and so they ask two questions a lot, more than any others: "what if?" and "why?" Creativity means seeing the universe for what it can be, not for what it is or for what it's not. Creative people allow themselves the permission to wonder, to explore. Everything is connected and so, often, creativity means finding ways to link ideas that seem unrelated. Inhibitions and fears of getting it wrong can be overridden by the wonder of the possible. It's not that failure doesn't hurt or isn't discouraging, it's that, since every idea is worthy of exploration, every failure can be a learning experience. It means not letting the voices pressuring us about limited resources (voices that are as often inside as outside) get in the way of the possibilities. Creativity is only necessary when there ARE boundaries; we don't need creativity if we don't have a problem to solve (which, coincidentally, explains my fascination with MacGyver and Fringe).

Sometimes that problem is simply "there needs to be more beauty in the world!"

Creativity often comes out of stillness, out of what Ori Brafman calls "white space" - a place where our minds are free to wander and make those connections we wouldn't ordinarily make. It's why I keep a set of bathtub crayons in the shower, to literally record those ideas on white space (since my mind is like that of a fish; three seconds and the idea's gone). I know everyone says that bathtub crayons are just for kids, but I've lost too many good ideas because I forgot, and I've had too many good ideas saved because I wrote them down when I thought of them to follow that rule. Some of my best ideas came when I wasn't trying to think of my best ideas.

Draw in the margins.
Do weird things.
Keep a record of your ideas, even the ones that don't work.
Ask a lot of questions.
Look at it from a different side.
Don't just see the problem, smell it, taste it, touch it, hear it.
Try something else.

Some (ok, all) of that sounds a bit cliche. Do it anyway.

Sometimes, we make things too complicated, we try to over-think, over-analyze, over-create. A piece of music can be refined only so many times; a blog can be re-written only so many times; that canvas can only hold so many layers of paint.

Sometimes, creativity simply means knowing when to stop.

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