Sometimes the ideas won’t come. You want to paint or write but you don’t know what. You started something and now you hate it. Or maybe you’re trying to get started again after a drought or forced hiatus. Like a stalled car, you need a little push to get going.
The Two Types of Thinking That Affect Creativity
The way we think has a great impact on creativity.
Divergent thinking creates possibilities. It gathers ideas and combines them in new ways. There is more than one answer to a question. And all ideas have potential value. Divergent thinking creates options using right-brained methods; imagination, visualisation, and intuition.
Convergent thinking solves problems. It considers, weighs and discards options, narrowing them down until the right answer emerges. Convergent thinking achieves results using left-brain methods; sequencing, logic, and facts.
We need both types of thinking to achieve a result. First, come up with ideas using divergent thinking, then execute an idea using convergent thinking. A brilliant concept is nothing without the techniques to make it a reality.
Judgement can wait
But choosing which idea to work on too soon can choke off possibilities. We tend to judge ideas and discard them without fully exploring them. So it’s vital to gather all your ideas without judgement first. It’s like mining a fine diamond; they’re not lying about on the surface. After digging through a lot of worthless stuff, you spot something with potential. Then you get to work cutting and polishing.
Creativity exercises are best done quickly to outwit the inner critic. Keep moving and let yourself be imperfect.
We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents. Bob Ross
1 . Get random
Having too many choices can lead to being overwhelmed. Because you could do anything, you end up doing nothing. Research has shown that we are more satisfied with our choices when options are limited.
Try letting chance dictate your next move rather than fretting over what to do.Then you can put your energy into doing, rather than frustration that you don’t know where to start.
Turn to a page in the nearest book to hand. Count the tenth verb or noun. Set a timer for ten minutes. Write a story or poem inspired by this word.
Do the same with a magazine, instead using the tenth picture as inspiration.
Go to Pixabay or Unsplash for photos. Use the first image containing a yellow object as inspiration.
This is a classic way to access divergent thinking. The idea is to generate quantity rather than quality. Concentrating on quantity leads your brain to think widely, past the obvious. Creativity sees new links between ideas or objects that were not connected before.
Keep asking “what else?” but do not ask “would this work?” For example, a Lego brick could be a doorstop. It doesn’t matter at this stage how effective that might be.
Most people can think of 10–15 ideas for a paperclip. See how much better you can do.
Write down as many uses as you can think of for a paper clip; a Lego brick; a small silver coin; or a teaspoon.
Pick an unusual use for an object and write a short story about it. Or draw it instead.
3 . Do the same job with fewer tools
Creativity blossoms within restriction. When we challenge our skills by limiting the available options, we have to find another way to get the job done. In other words, divergent thinking comes into play. That is the essence of creativity.
Artists, paint or draw using shades of only one colour. If you usually draw in pencil, try using ink. Set a time limit.
Writers, use a random first line generator like this one to write a one-page story. Sometimes this works better writing by hand; somehow it’s less daunting than the blinking cursor.
4 . Play in a different sandbox
To create we need to see the world in a different way. When we’re comfortable in one way of seeing, it’s good to mix it up. Maximise your creative muscle by trying something new, just as you’d train different muscle groups in the gym. You will benefit by finding new solutions and skills that you can bring back to your chosen field. That could be improved memory, attention to detail, or improvisation. And it’s fun to try something new.
Make something small, in a different medium.
Doodle your favourite animal, if you write.
Write a song or poem, if you paint.
Cook a meal using a new recipe or only three ingredients from your fridge.
Look at an object in the room for one minute, then try to draw it from memory.
5 . Move
The brain requires up to 20% of the body’s energy. That energy comes from circulating blood, and getting active improves circulation. Sitting or standing in one position for extended periods also leads to stiffness and even pain. Artists and typists are prone to repetitive strain injuries from small repeated movements.
Spending long periods inside in solitary activity can have a number of negative effects, from vitamin D deficiency to low mood. We need to take care of our bodies if we want to stay healthy longer.
Go for a walk and notice the animals. One of them will become a character in your next story or painting.
Wander around a gallery, craft supplies store or even a toy shop. Surround yourself with interesting visuals to spark ideas.
Running, swimming, walking or gardening are good ways to clear the mind and occupy the body with soothing repetition. This allows ideas from your subconscious to bubble up to the surface.
Just do it
The most important thing you can do to access creativity is to make more things, no matter how small or mundane. A new recipe, story, garden, doodle, or haiku all come from looking at the world, seeing new possibility and then expressing what you see in your own way. And that’s what creating is all about.
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.Art is knowing which to keep. Scott Adams
A breeze blows still, cooler and sharper than summer’s soft sigh, an edged whisper stealing beneath my ill-advised layers of silk. I should wear a sweater, perhaps. It’s almost time, but I cling to the dying summer as a drowning man cradles the last hopeful flotsam to his chest. It’s not enough, in the end. But it will do for now.
Vibrant spring greens gave way to lively grass greens. Varied hues fade in sunlight that promises much from behind a window, but delivers less than wanted in reality. Here and there, wine red blushes leaves while others flicker orange and yellow, a final bonfire of colour to warm the season’s end. The green of life retreats to its source. We know the dark is coming.
Not today though. Today energetic clouds bustle in cool blue. Scarlet fruits bob and sway. Nature keeps her promises in generous bounty. And in the imperceptibly shrinking day another voice hides. Now you see me, then you won’t. But the world turns, and brings another, harsher time. Gather in while you may.
The automatic doors spring open for me, the only welcome on this chilly grey morning. Hot air blows briefly through my hair and I blink in the harsh lights of low-end retail, piled high, never mind the quality. Price is king. I’m not here for anything fancy. I have a specific task in mind.
Get in, get it done, get out clean.
Taking off my gloves, I flex my fingers and let the warmth seep into my fingertips. Cold hands lack feeling, and I need to discern every change in texture, weight and balance point as I seek my target. I’m not sure where to find it. Time to roam the ground floor.
I think he’s seen me.
I wander, apparently aimless but in fact with a definite route in mind. Back to bathroom goods, along the rear wall to soft furnishings, over towards the tills and retrace my steps. I pause next to lighting.
He’s still there.
No need to panic. I belong here, just walk like I belong here. I do belong here, I do. But he’s following me, upstairs to kitchenware, past textiles. I hide in the furthest corner, flipping through pictures. Maybe when I turn — no, I see him slipping between the shelves.
When I approach the till and the tired operator asks me if I found everything today, I nod and smile and hand over my debit card. No worries about the trifling amount for a laundry hamper. I dreamed of this day, when prices wouldn’t worry me. A nightmare dogs my steps all the same, even though I’m in the black.
Or because of it.
The security guard watches me exit the store today, just like every other day I visit, keeping a close eye on people like me. I want to shove the receipt in his face and scream.
He didn’t see me.
The automatic doors spring open for me, a cold machine welcome. I’m in another store, a giant halogen-bright temple to consumerism. I have a specific target in mind.
Get in, get it done, get out clean.
These salespeople are bright, smart, and cheerful. They want to help, and commission is a great motivator. I am faced with many options to replace my ageing bed. I look around, but it seems everyone is busy, helping someone else, earning commission somewhere else.
They haven’t seen me.
No need to worry yet. I definitely belong here; my bank balance says so. I do belong here, I do. Black Friday deals everywhere, now if I could only get some assistance with all these different sizes, fabric colours and delivery dates. It’s a high-end store with beautiful room sets and lots of empty space. Price matters, but quality matters more.
I’m not here for anything cheap.
I linger by a truly regal bed, its headboard glamorous buttoned purple velvet. Maybe in another colour, it could be the one. Thirty percent off in the sale ends tomorrow. This is the cue. I’ve stopped walking, I’m ready to be sold something.
Ready, willing, able.
I pick up a brochure on my way out. No one asks me if I found what I wanted today.
You’re only as old as you feel. I don’t know about you, but on any given day that number ranges from 25 to 100. There’s an unfortunate skew towards the top end of that range.
My daughter went to a festival recently with her friend. She returned home tired, dusty, and hoarse from singing along. As she said, when your favourite singer tells you to scream, you scream.
Festivals were never my thing. But last month I went to a concert, stood in 42*C heat at the barricade alongside fans less than half my age, and sang along till I was hoarse. Yes, I could have been seated rather than in the pit, but where’s the fun in that?
In an experiment, viral video brand CUTdrew a hopscotch board on the street in downtown Seattle and set up hidden cameras nearby. In ten hours, 129 people hopped, skipped and jumped down the sidewalk, while 1058 walked on. That’s just under 11% of adults who (a) took a moment to connect with their inner child and (b) took another moment to silence their inner critic and have some fun. In public.
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. George Bernard Shaw
Play is a serious business
We take ourselves so seriously as the years roll on. Childlike curiosity and creativity is squashed in favour of sitting still, paying attention and not messing about. We watch depressing news programmes and listen to earnest classical music and jazz that you can’t sing along with. We read prize-winning novels and worthy self-improvement. All this is good and important and adult. But it can’t be the entirety of experience.
If you wait outside a school, especially on a day where it rained at break time and children could not go outdoors, you will witness something amazing. After a day of being not-children, kids explode out of the school gates like a fizzy drink that’s been shaken and uncorked. They run, skip, call to each other, smile and laugh for no reason other than the joy of being set free.
We lose that purity of being on the way to growing up.
Grown-ups need play too
Someone (but probably not Einstein) said creativity is intelligence having fun.
In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences psychologist Howard Gardner suggested that intelligence is more than a simple IQ score. He proposed nine types of intelligence.
It follows then, that we all find our creativity and fun in different things. I’m good with numbers but sudoku bores me rigid. It feels too much like work. Crosswords and music are much more appealing to me. Your mileage may vary, but the theory helps us understand what we enjoy and are good at – not always the same thing.
Find your fun
The thing is to find your fun, and engage in it without censoring yourself. Allow yourself to play, to be an amateur, to fail. Without these, none of us would learn to walk, to talk, to do anything well. The reward is in the doing, not the result.
Don’t worry that the person next to you is only twenty, or whether you ought to be doing it at your age. That kind of ossified thinking is a sure route to being old, whatever your number.
The serious adult world will always be there. After a good play session you can return to it energised, with a skip in your step and a smile on your face.
I’m travelling to the US, for the first time in over a decade. And travelling there alone, for the first time in much longer. The America we see now from news and tweets is a confusing and worrying place. While I know rationally that things will be fine, that the friends and family I will see are good people, that most people are good people, I cannot help but feel a prickle of anxiety. I also know that bad things happen even when you follow the rules.
Enhanced security at airports is annoying but routine now. We know the drill; liquids, laptop, shoes, belts. Everything is organised and moves efficiently. It’s hard to remember when it was any different.
I travelled back from the US with my family a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Security was a ramped up, disorganised mess of extra screening for suitcases and lines that were hours long. We arrived in good time but still had to be pulled from the line because our flight to London was about to close. Two hours standing with increasingly fractious young children, and increasingly anxious passengers all around. Uncertainty hung thick in the air like smoke. Fear settled in the pit of my stomach and took root there. But we got home safe.
The next year, we took a short internal flight from San Diego to LA, for a connecting flight. The timing was tight. My husband, travelling on an Irish passport, was singled out for a random check. The first time, it was a surprise. I went through security with my children without a hitch.
He was asked to step to the side, remove his belt and shoes, go through the scanner again. He was frisked. His carry-on was searched thoroughly. When I lingered I was told brusquely to get on the plane, ma’am. Time was ticking away, the little plane was waiting. I got on and held my children close. I assured them that Daddy would be right there, and the plane would wait for him, and it would be fine. My voice shook and I smiled a lie to soothe my anxious daughter. I willed them to release him and I didn’t know if they would, or what I would do if they closed the doors.
For the first time, I was afraid.
He made it with minutes to spare. We were both shaken, but we got used to it when it happened again, and again. Repetition does that. The thing we fear loses its sting with repeated exposure, until it’s mere annoyance and then finally, we become indifferent.
This time, security checks go smoothly. I empty the water bottle in my carry-on. I have my ESTA. I expect biometrics and customs forms. I have my destination address memorised. I exhale and try not to sweat despite the heat and the fact it’s three a.m. London time and I’ve been awake twenty hours straight and I’m a bit low on blood sugar and I have done nothing wrong.
Rationally, I know everything is fine. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m suspect, not really welcome anymore.
Hey, we’re off to the pub. Coming? Sure. Why not.
Football scores. Office politics. The girl in the corner wearing blue.
Nothing to say. Sips a beer. No response to desperate glances.
Must be getting home or there’ll be hell to pay, right? Right.
He is at work. Friday comes.
TGIF, am I right? Right.
She’s got my weekend booked up, shopping and a BBQ, groan. You? Nothing much.
Three beers and Netflix. Pizza delivery. Quiet bed.
He is at work. Monday comes.
So busy this weekend, didn’t have a minute to myself. How about you? Oh, you know. Quiet.
You’re lucky, time to yourself. Yes. Lucky me.
Friday can’t come quick enough, am I right? Right.
He is quiet. No trouble. No drama.
No sun. Engulfed by eternal cloud, muffled, numb.
Rain drips icy fingers down his neck, freezing his bones.
Invisible, lost, a lone wolf.
Teeth ripping at his own heart.
A final scream, choked. Unheard.
None to sing his elegy.