What creativity is not

In the last posting I talked about what creativity is – or at least, how I see it – but in addition to knowing what it is, it is equally important to know what it is not. There are a lot of conceptions floating around about how creativity functions, and I believe that many of these interpretations are impractical – they lead to beliefs about how to make inspiration happen when it doesn’t seem to be happening on its own. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m just saying that some views of creativity paint you into a corner, making it hard to work with. As with many things, your mental model of what’s going on is crucial.

How often have you heard someone talk about searching for a creative idea, or worse, about locking themselves in a room and refusing to leave until they’ve come up with a good idea – trying to force things. This approach is based on the belief that creativity is an act of will – that we can turn it on, crank up the appropriate mental juices, and literally will a good idea into existence, as though what is required is the mental equivalent of clenching the right muscles.

Most anecdotes told by creative people about their moments of greatest insight, however, convey a sense of peace, or even of complete distraction from the concerns at hand when their n’est plus ultra idée came into being. What we find over and over again is that great ideas occur when you aren’t trying to have them.

Seems kind of paradoxical then, doesn’t it? Because here I am, talking to you about how to have yourself a good idea, only I seem to be saying that you can only have one when you aren’t actually trying to have one.

Not quite.

The problem lies in the misconception that being creative is about exerting your will. It isn’t. It’s about opening yourself up to being inspired. To put it succinctly:

Creativity is not an act of will – it’s an act of awareness.

Some of the great composers used to talk about going for a walk in the woods and finding inspiration in the particular shape of an oak branch, or in the call of a finch. The important part of this process is that they had defined a particular problem to themselves, mulled it over, and then set it aside, only to have the answer appear to them later, when they appeared not to be thinking about it. The same story is told over and over again, whether it be composers, inventors, chemists, physicists or even plumbers.

What’s really going on is the following: first you establish the problem in your mind, familiarizing yourself with all the nuances and details, and then you step away and expose yourself to other, unrelated inputs. But the subconscious mind can’t accept that some ideas are unrelated to others, so as you go for your paddle on the Thames, or take the kids for ice-cream, your brain takes everything it sees, hears or smells and tries to fit it into that mental structure you fed it earlier.

And every now and then, it finds a good fit. Cue the angelic choir.

So, that’s why I say that creativity is an act of awareness. Will has a role to play – you need to consciously immerse yourself in the right situation, present the problem to yourself, and then consciously set it aside in favour of exposing yourself to random inputs. But then awareness takes over. Your subconscious is a pit bull when presented with a problem, and it will naturally pay attention to everything you do for the next little while – maybe even several days – and try to use what it finds as a solution to the problem you showed it.

So the next time you find yourself stuck for inspiration on how to get your villain out of the room without being seen by the night watchman, or how to have your protagonist convince his mother to finally give up the smoking habit that’s killing her, sit yourself down, look at all the players in the scene that are at your disposal, be really sure you understand the situation and the predicament… and then go bowling. Or take your kids to a climbing wall.

You’ll be surprised how often this works.

Measurement is the heart of improvement
What is creativity?

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.