Writers Talk About Writing
7 Ways to Coax the Creative Cat
Are you already a creative person? Or are you the kind of writer who desperately wants to become more creative?
Our education system tends to focus on teaching analytical thinking, perhaps because Western society so highly prizes those types of thinkers. You know, people like Bill Gates and Barack Obama.
Now I'm not knocking analytical thinking. For one reason, my own brain — which I don't see as terribly creative — tends to operate along analytic lines. For another, analytical thinking has given us many of the advantages we enjoy today — bridges and skyscrapers, advanced medical care, grocery stores with mostly safe food (well, except for the chip and candy aisles).
But if you want to write — even non-fiction — it helps if you can temporarily turn off your analytic brain and turn on your creative one. Just keep in mind the words of Drexel University psychology professor John Kounios, who likes to warn that creativity is like a cat. "You can't order it to appear," he says. "You can coax it. But you can't command it."
Here are seven ways you can help coax that cat to come back:
1. Be sure to get plenty of sleep. Nothing strikes me as more wrong-headed than the frequent advice to writers that they set their alarms for 5:00 a.m. and write before the rest of the household wakes up. You should definitely not do this, unless you are already a morning person. We are all hard-wired to be morning- or night-people (I started life as a night owl and, mostly against my will, turned into a morning lark in my mid-40s — doctors blame it on hormones.) Don't work against your own biology. And, most especially, don't compromise your sleep. We all need different amounts — typically somewhere between seven and nine hours a night — and if you don't get enough, your creativity will be compromised. Protecting this sleep is the urgent objective. Sleep first; plan your writing time later.
2. Take frequent breaks. When we have stalled or simply feel incapable of coming up with a way to approach a tricky piece of writing (or editing) some of us want to keep working at it — almost as if we were hitting our heads against a brick wall. School calls this "diligence" but the habit ends up inhibiting our judgement and harming our performance as writers. Instead of staring at your screen, you’re far better off taking a break and doing something vastly different (talking to someone on the phone, reading about something unrelated to your current writing project or even doing some mindless filing). Overthinking is often the result of having too much information and taking a break from it will help you see the situation more clearly, and more creatively.
3. Spend some time in the natural world. Spending time with water, sand, trees and greenery not only helps reconnect us with the natural world, it also simultaneously calms us and energizes us. Research from the University of Rochester shows that this gives us more resilience and boosts our vitality. If you combine this with exercise — running or brisk walking — so much the better. And if you live in a big city and are far from any parks, consider using photos (even screensavers), ambient noise (the sound of pounding surf, perhaps) or even swaths of colour (a blue and green scarf?) to try to accomplish the same goal.
4. Work in a large room. If you're stuck in a small cubicle, your thoughts are going to be smaller, too. When you need to do something really creative, get yourself to a bigger venue. A large library — preferably one with an extra high ceiling — or a big conference room or even a cafeteria should help open up your mind. And, when the season permits it, consider working outside for a couple of hours. Take your laptop and go sit on a park bench or under a tree. Seeing far and wide will help you think far and wide, too.
5. Take a shower. I once worked with a writer who had all his best ideas in the shower but he could never remember them. (I advised him to buy a diver’s slate and pen so he could write under water.) But he’s not the only person who has great ideas in the shower. We all do! This happens for a couple of reasons: showers are habits for most of us and doing something "mindless" and habitual inspires our creativity. The warm water also relaxes us. And when we're relaxed our brains release more of the feel-good chemical, dopamine. A shower is a great way to boost your creative juices.
6. Be persistent. I know this idea might sound like it contradicts suggestion #2, above, but being persistent is one of the great secrets of creativity. So, take breaks when you need to, but then go back to your creative challenge. Research from Northwestern University has shown that most people tend to underestimate the number of ideas they're going to be able to generate and, as a result, give up far too easily. In one experiment, for example, university students brainstormed original dishes to serve at Thanksgiving in two intervals. Researchers found the students underestimated how much they could accomplish if they persevered: students predicted they could come up with about ten more ideas during the second interval, but they actually generated about fifteen.
7. Be happy. Most of us think that we'll be happy if we solve a creative conundrum. But, in fact, the happiness needs to come first. When we are happy, we work harder and more effectively. Harvard grad Sean Achor — one of the world's leading experts on the connection between happiness and success — has some great advice on how to make yourself happier.
Do what he suggests and see how it boosts your creativity.
For those of us who are analytic hard workers all of this advice may seem soft and easy going — too namby-pamby. But that's the point. You can't command a cat. You can only coax it. Let's all persuade that cat to come back.