How does your creativity work?
February 8, 2009 4:10 PM   Subscribe

How does your creativity work?

For the longest time, I assumed that the only "real" way to generate interesting narrative ideas (characters, settings, etc.) was to essentially pull them out of thin air, and that any other method was artificial and clunky. I simply had no idea how artists like Imperial Boy managed to create such rich and imaginative paintings.

Recently, I discovered that I'm also able to think creatively, but only if I'm actually looking at something. For instance, I can easily think of a bunch of settings, stories, and characters while examining a photo or object, but hardly any if I'm working from memory. Is this typical, or was my original assumption correct? How does your creativity work?
posted by archagon to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Most of mine is subconscious. I'll think about a problem I need to solve, but usually won't see anything. Then suddenly, without any warning, a solution will spring into my head.

One time it happened to me while I was standing in line to get a flu shot.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:17 PM on February 8, 2009

I have a "clockwork muse." I start working, and invariably hate the uninspired crap I'm doing. But as I continue to slug away, the good stuff starts to emerge. Some wait for the muse. I flush her out. For me, creativity emerges from hard work, and not divine inspiration. That said, I do carry a little MP3 recorder around with me to take note of any revelations that might occur . . .
posted by Crotalus at 4:22 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mine comes from brute force. I will try different outcomes/solutions/configurations/etc until I come up with a great idea. Hard work. Luck is the residue of hard work.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:23 PM on February 8, 2009

Things usually come to me spontaneously as I'm falling asleep. Which is just peachy, seeing as the two routes I take are either 1) scramble for my pen and notepad which, even though I keep them close to my bed I can never find them in the darkness so I end up knocking the crap on my nightstand all over the floor (which I then trip over when I get up to pee several hours later), then scribble down something completely illegible and incoherent, or 2) think "wow, what a great idea! I'll never forget that!" then go back to sleep, only to wake up the next morning with some vague recollection of having had a great idea, but not being able to recall it.
posted by phunniemee at 4:28 PM on February 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

My creativity comes from extreme focus and diligence. Every once in awhile something good will pop up in the shower or while driving, but almost always after a week or so of really thinking about it.

If that doesn't work, stealing.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 4:32 PM on February 8, 2009

I think we're simply different in respect to creativity. I have a friend who starts to hum songs and different melodies when she smell certain things. Somehow it sparks a memory or gives birth to a impulse deep in her mind. She's never been able to explain how she comes up with the melodies in a rational sense.

For you, a photograph or a painting, triggers some kind of creative spark. Others may need booze and a cigarette, or a foot-bath of mustard (as some old french writer, can't remember who right now).

Anyway, what I want to say is that if you find a way that kindles your creativity: Keep using it. Go with the flow. Knowing how others feed their creativity won't necessarily help you foster your own.

But to answer your question: I can pull stories out of thin air, but I must be able to picture the action/people/landscape in my mind. As soon as I get a thread (eg. an event, place, person, sound), I can pull out the yarn (sounds in the place, how the person smells, how the place is built). Doing this several times (revisiting the inner picture to add new details) results in a quite well-painted view of an imaginative happening.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 4:34 PM on February 8, 2009

I start working and the either the good stuff shows up or I keep working until it does. Like for songs, I start to sing/mumble along, not worrying about what I am actually singing or how bad the singing is... And in a bit I've got some major parts to a song. Doing this into a recorder is best for me since I'm not really thinking about what I'm doing while I'm doing it. This makes remembering the lyrics long enough to write them down hard. The rest is all about editing.
posted by magikker at 4:55 PM on February 8, 2009

Fuzzy's Law of Creativity: The most urgent sparks of creativity always come when you are least able to actually work on them.

I keep a little Moleskin book where I jot down idea I have, that seemingly come out of thin air. ("A series of photos of only fences!" "Pairs of photos juxtaposing floral arrangements with woodworking tools!") I refer to these ideas when I am looking for something to do; or at least something to think about.

But also: do not misunderestimate the value of theft. Or rather, paying homage. Or maybe "being inspired by..." There is nothing new. Most artists are influenced or inspired by many other artists, sometimes subconsciously. If you listen to very many director's commentaries for movies, it's amazing the number of times you hear them say "I took that idea from Once Upon a Time in America," or "I loved how they showed this in Nostarafu, so I did my own version." It would probably be shocking if movies had subtitles that showed what each segment was based on or inspired by. All this to say: I also take note or write down things that other people have done that I admire. Obviously, you don't want to really steal, but using someone else's work as a springboard is common and, I would dare to say, necessary for the growth of art in general.

I am also often inspired by music, specifically music with somewhat abstract lyrics that create a mood rather than a literal image. I have a list of songs that I will sometimes use to try and create a photograph that captures that mood or idea.

So, there's no one "real" way to do it. The best stories and ideas are often Frankenstein-like creations, made up of parts of other stories stitched together.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 4:56 PM on February 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

In fits and starts and completely apropos of nothing. Yesterday I had a cool idea for a piece of science fiction technology, and also for a condom ad.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:17 PM on February 8, 2009

I believe that the more work you produce, the more luck you will have. For a recent photographic project, I took three months and shot several thousand pictures to arrive at the 120 final selects.
posted by conrad53 at 5:23 PM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nthing the it happens while you work. I usually have a phrase or scene that's bugging me, and once I get to work on that, the creative stuff just sort of falls out.
posted by OrangeDrink at 5:30 PM on February 8, 2009

For visual imagination - I travel, browse magazines and photography books, fiction and poetry with vivid imagery and movies and cartoons.

It's usually helpful to find experiences you do not already understand. For example, if I was looking a picture of a galaxy, I try to imagine what telescope may have recorded it, what it would be like to float in that galaxy - which in turns triggers memories from reading Arthur C. Clarke books and I just follow that train of thought.

Basically, I tell a story to myself to explain what I am seeing and I try to fill that world the best I can.

Now, that usually isn't enough. It has to impact you at some subconscious level. Eventually some of this stuff filters into my dreams. I don't know why - supposedly we dream to understand our world. Some of these dreams are normal, some of them are unusual.

I then try to write what I've seen on a legal pad next to my bed when I wake up. I probably get about a few lines before I start losing the intensity of the image. Some brief drawings help.

Another thing that helps is having boring meetings at work. I always bring something to write with and a pad. I doodle at meetings - paying attention to words and writing those words down in fanciful drawings.

I guess being mindful of your world, imagining other points of view, and understanding the variations in perception.
posted by abdulf at 5:59 PM on February 8, 2009

It seems apparent that Imperial Boy does not pull his ideas out of thin air, since he is most obviously drawing on map designs from first-person shooter games.
posted by rhizome at 6:03 PM on February 8, 2009

For anyone interested in screenwriting (or actually any creative writing really) I have to recommend the On the Page podcast by Pilar Alessandra. It's an excellent resource for very specific information about the craft and business of screenwriting. I'm not a screenwriter, but it has been extremely informative, entertaining, and inspiring for my own creative endeavors.

One tip I like is to ask "What if?" At a crucial part of the story, ask, What's the craziest, most unpredictable, earth-shattering thing that could happen at point (within the reality of the story, of course)? That might take you in an entirely new direction that will make your work less predictable. This idea can work for visual creations as well as written ones. For this kind of painting/photo/film/video, what would be be unexpected and break the mold? Even if the end result is relatively traditional, at least it opens your mind to other possibilities.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 6:11 PM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hard work trumps creativity every time.
posted by Max Power at 6:15 PM on February 8, 2009

Response by poster: rhizome - can you elaborate? Those don't look like any FPSs I've played.
posted by archagon at 7:04 PM on February 8, 2009 the very last minute.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:07 PM on February 8, 2009

In SF writing, I'll come up with a scene at a time -- something striking or cool. I end up working from the inside out. Sometimes I'll have, say, fifty extended moments with the same characters, and very little idea of how to build a plot arc that incorporates them.

I hate plot -- at least generating it -- but so many readers seem to want it. :^) I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in my disease with the device, though. In much famous fiction -- The Odyssey, Gulliver's Travels, The Bible, 1001 Arabian Nights, etc. -- the writing is a series of nifty shorts held together by a tenuous thread.
posted by quarantine at 7:22 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Writing music, my approach is pretty much brute force. I'll choose a random chord or some random notes, delete what sounds bad and keep what sounds good, and then think "what chord/note would sound good next?".

I've had ideas come to me "out of thin air" too, but I have to be really careful with those. One of them sounded brilliant and I had created a nice mix of the chords and was working on the bassline when I realized I had recreated an 808 State song I had heard years ago. I was kind of proud that it was so accurate, but I haven't trusted a "thin air" idea since.
posted by mmoncur at 7:34 PM on February 8, 2009

I'll take a long drive along the coast to a beautiful, quiet destination, and sit with a journal and digital recorder. I've found that once I'm outside the box (home/work), I can think outside the box (ordinary thoughts). I've had many creative breakthroughs this way.

Also, I sometimes stumble upon innovations and solutions when I make unusual, accidental juxtapositions (e.g., looking at a humorous cartoon whilst listening to 1920's music). And when I am lucky enough to come across a work of genius (be it in any discipline) or read the biography of a great achiever, I find that my own creative thoughts soar.
posted by terranova at 8:08 PM on February 8, 2009

For visual work - say, web design, for example - if I'm really stumped and needing inspiration to force creativity, I'll shop. Toy stores are the best! Especially funky local ones. It has something to do with the colors and shapes I suppose. Gift shops are also great. In the end, what I create looks nothing like what I saw - but that's fine. It was just a starting point. A spark.
posted by 2oh1 at 8:17 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, there are as many different ways for my creativity to work as there are days I've been alive.

I've gotten ideas by watching TV, reading short stories, reading encyclopedias (I kid you not -- I did that a lot when I was eight or nine), hearing spoken Irish for the first time, watching a theater company I loved do a really, really bad play and feeling personally insulted that I had to watch it and thinking, "well, HELL, then, I'll just write them a better one on the same topic," having a problem I had to solve, paying attention to the way people talk, having a deadline and having to produce something via brute force, or having someone ask me "here, try writing something about [topic X] and if you do well we may hire you."

They can come from anywhere or nowhere. They could work, or they could not work. It's a crap shoot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:26 PM on February 8, 2009

Would you say that a painter should be expected to lock themselves in a room and come up with beautiful images purely by imagination? While I'm sure some may do that, many others are inspired by landscapes, cityscapes, beautiful or tragic people, objects, etc. etc.

Jazz musicians inspire each other - sometimes across albums, sometimes across the briefest of moments in a jam session. Sameness is boring, but friction & change is interesting.

Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemmingway & others wrote from their experiences, sometimes fictionalizing more than others, but always from things they had experienced and people they knew.

If you need to look at images to get inspired, look at images to get inspired. Once you've been over the hump of writing, you'll develop a toolkit. A personal style, a filter through which you interpret the world.

As a musician I know that I fall into certain patterns. Sometimes I try to break out of them on purpose, sometimes I revel in them. The Edge from U2 played for years without any reverb because he was famous for his reverby style of playing and nobody noticed, they still associated him with that sound. You should be so lucky as to develop a style that someone could recognize instantaneously.

Lots of different things inspire me as a writer - mostly concepts & ideas. Theories & facts about human behavior & the world around us. One story idea came from reading an interview with Noam Chomsky. His worldview is so interesting that I wanted to create a story with that world view, with characters that could bring about change from his view of the world to something better.

Art isn't created in a proverbial vacuum. Art inspires art. Life inspires art. Art inspires life. You should never think you have to create the universe from nothing.
posted by Muffy at 10:45 PM on February 8, 2009

When in doubt as a writer, cliches!! But seriously, just as it's been said that luck is the residue of design, a thought that creativity is the residue of attempts to do creative work, be it more a moment of inspiration, great stuff coming along in the course of effort. As a colleague has said, vision without execution is hallucination.
posted by ambient2 at 12:31 AM on February 9, 2009

In a sci-fi/fantasy writing context, I usually get ideas in the following way:

1. I read something. I think, "What if...?" and have some spin to it.

This step is just something I do without even meaning to do it, just because something strikes me as curious. For example, one time I read an article about how we apparently were trying to buy Saddam Hussein out before we went to war. (I have no idea how much truth, if any, there is to this.) Then I thought, "Huh. What if we always did that, instead of going to war?"

2. I get a sort of domino chain of effects of that one thought going. This part goes very quickly. If I realize what's happening, and feel it has potential, I start scrambling for a computer or a pen and paper or whatever is around. Even when I can type it all, I feel like I can't actually get everything I'm thinking down quickly enough and sometimes some of it is lost.

Taking the above example, in five minutes or so I have what feels like a very important chunk of what such a government and world could look like. But it's just that: a chunk. It's not the whole thing.

3. So I put it aside.

4. #1-3 happens over and over again, inspired by really different things. Reading The New York Times every morning inspires a lot of it, as I imagine any national newspaper would, because there are so many different topics and interactions between people and entities covered. Then I read anything else I come across. In another AskMe on creativity which I can't seem to find, I had recently gotten inspiration from reading a cookbook. Sometimes some turn of phrase or other on a shampoo bottle will set off another domino effect. It all gets written down and put away.

5. I either consciously sit down and look for ideas to combine together, or sometimes they happen to just stick together in my mind. For example, if I thought of an idea I really liked, the next time I get an idea I'll think, "What if I stick it with this other one?" So, what if we buy out other countries and don't have any wars, and... what if people are also genetically engineered according to this weird system I thought up? Oh, and what if I put this other idea in too?

6. I start thinking about what kind of people would live in that sort of world. But, my thing is, I like to make them not very different at their core than people are now. Other people take an entirely different tack. Neither is right, but I'm sure having an idea one way or the other is helpful to actually get somewhere.

So at this point I try to think how the kind of people who actually exist would function in the world I'm thinking up, especially if that world is fundamentally opposed to their kind of personality, goals, interests, etc. That means if I'm thinking about there not being any war, then how do the warmongering types function there? What do they pursue instead? And I will do this for a whole lot of other types as well.

This almost always means breaking down the sort of psychological basis for specific actions.

7. I start reading specific things that have interested me, based on #1-6. So here I might realize, hey, for all these different psychological things, I should probably see what I can dig up that will give me some insight into those kinds of people. I might pick up some psychology books, or read the writings of someone I feel is a warmonger, in one instance I read half a dozen books about cults, or whatever.

8. During #1-8 I usually have some vague characters coming together in my head. They get fleshed out as a result of continued thinking and possible plot points emerging. I will say I have the tendency, when I'm reading nonfiction, to stop and think how I might feel if I were in a situation, and how various other kinds of people might feel. It didn't really occur to me until now that other people might not do that. In any case, it seems like a big part of how I get ideas.

9. About the same time, I start thinking of something I want to say with the story, and start imagining plots and characters that would best contribute to that message. Usually I get the "what I want to say" from something that has happened to me in real life, or something I've learned or noticed about people that I feel is important or moving in some way. It has to be something that I feel very emotional about.

So I guess I spend a lot of time thinking about those around me.

10. The characters and message, once I've begun thinking about them, get their best finishing touches from my dreams. There is one protagonist I'm working on who is kind of a nasty bit of work, but I had a dream where I just was her so I feel comfortable even writing her most unhealthy thoughts. She struck me so completely that her, and most of the characters from the dream, made it into the story. A particular scene from the dream is the "seed" of the story, but that scene is almost unrecognizable now, compared to what I had originally dreamed.

Also, that dream tied together the character and the message for me.

12. At any given time I have two particular stories going in my head, and a distant third. That means when #1-2 happens, I have a tendency to see if I can tack it onto one of the two stories. If I can't, I wonder about tacking it onto the third one, which is only in very vague stages.

What I'm saying here is that I find it helpful to have some sort of existing framework to try to hang these ideas on, because when I do, they really take off. When I don't, though, they go in the file, and maybe I'll come back to them later. I get far more ideas than I actually use.

13. Details tend to come from songs. I have a couple hundred songs which I add to when I find the right kind of song. I listen to these in the car. When a song comes up one time, I think, "Okay, from X character's perspective, what would this song mean?" I get a load of ideas this way, and little details for the story. The next time it comes up, I may think of it from that same character's perspective and get more ideas, especially if a song just seems particularly suited toward a character.

But sometimes, either because I feel like thinking about a different character or I feel like I've exhausted a song, the next time that song comes up I will pick someone entirely different, perhaps even someone the song doesn't appear to fit on-face. I'll try and make it fit. More often than not, this works really well and I get a bunch of new ideas and scenes. More importantly, I think it keeps a character from being too one-dimensional, because even though they have a general sort of personality, having extra sides to them makes them more realistic and human. Mixing up the songs gives them that extra side.

Sometimes, of course, I don't get much of anything, or it just seems that adding some extra side to a particular character would just muddy them up too much. The worst that can happen is I'll lose three or four minutes. The best that happens in this scenario is I think, "Ohh, that doesn't work for this character, but maybe for this other one."

So any particular song has about five different meanings, give or take some, depending on what frame of mind I'm in when I listen to it.

I also keep the songs on shuffle, because that way I'll be thinking of one idea, and when the next song comes on, it might build on that. If I always heard the same songs in the same order, I don't think I would get as many ideas.


Also, I'm not sure where to put it, but I'm usually reading a fiction book or watching movies while all this stuff is going on in the background, and I think about how the plot develops. This will often get morphed and moved around in my thoughts until I have my own plot ideas.

This isn't as regimented as it might sound -- I take the steps I do just because I naturally want to -- and a lot of it occurs concurrently. It's all kind of hazy. But thinking about it, I I do tend to have a "process" I go through. I really feel like ideas come from thinking about anything, literally anything, and can probably be refined any particular way. I tend towards certain ways, and I guess there's certain things that don't work for me -- like I can't sit quietly outside and look at nature and get ideas -- but others certainly do that with great success.

One thing I wanted to address: "For the longest time, I assumed that the only 'real' way to generate interesting narrative ideas (characters, settings, etc.) was to essentially pull them out of thin air, and that any other method was artificial and clunky." I think the issue at hand here is that nothing is actually pulled out of thin air. Maybe there's a kind of romanticizing to say that an idea suddenly occurred to someone for no reason and that's "true" creativity, but everything has its roots somewhere. It might remove some of the romanticism to say, "Well, okay, I was reading an article about this," or, "I saw something in a movie that reminded me of this, which lead to this," but I'm willing to bet that sort of chain of thought is where most people get their ideas.

In fact, the best description I ever heard of creativity is that it's the ability to make connections between seemingly unconnected things. To make that connection, though, you still have to come in contact with the unconnected things, so the ideas come from somewhere and not thin air. So when I describe my process, it's really a listing of where I get my "unconnected things" and what sorts of things I feel help me make connections, but that doesn't make it artificial or clunky. Your photos and objects are your unconnected things, and the creativity is what your brain does with them; the fact that you had to look at something to get the idea doesn't make it artificial.

If someone told you that, in order to get their ideas, they went outside and looked at an orange tree every morning while they ate breakfast, would you say that makes their ideas any less creative? Whatever breakfast they have, or the temperature outside, or an animal or bug that passes through might remind them of something in their past while they're mulling over something about the present or worrying about the future. While they're out by that tree, they're still full of books they've read, movies they've seen, songs they've heard, friends and family and strangers that they've had interactions with... They still think, and their thoughts all have their roots somewhere. The brain might make connections between those things, and a scene or a song or an image might emerge. So let's say this person always does the same thing, every morning, because they always get ideas sitting there eating breakfast by that orange tree. If anything, I would think they'd have to be incredibly inclined towards creativity to get so many ideas from so simple a thing.
posted by Nattie at 4:51 AM on February 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

Two points.

One. I think it varies with the thing that needs your creativity. If you're involved in a long-form medium, say a novel or a film, you can afford to let your mind wander and to allow inspiration to hit. That's not easy. You have to at least have your mental radio on if you're to receive the signals. But if you're involved in more short term creative projects – say weekly TV or radio or advertising or, in my case, a daily comic, you just have to go get the idea; you can't wait for it to come to you. That being said, without reading and viewing a broad array of things on a regular basis, you have no foundation from where to push off when it comes time to go actively fetch/create an idea. I've now done a comic a day every day for ten years this way and so far so good.

Two. I remember reading an rather indepth analysis of the similarity between the creativity of humor and the creativity of science. I believe they called the effects the "Ha Ha" and the "A-ha" effects. In both cases they postulated that people have sort of a wall in their brains that subconsciously separates ideas one would normally not link. Most people might randomly throw two concepts together, say "duck" and "surgery" and think there's no link there. The wall prohibits that. But someone with a low wall would stop and say, "Hmmm, what would a duck doing surgery be like." And that would lead to something humorous. I would imagine the same low wall would allow someone to consider that tree bark could be turned into a legitimate cancer med. So, when people ask me how to be more creative, I tell them to work on lowering that wall.
posted by lpsguy at 6:43 AM on February 9, 2009

I believe that the more work you produce, the more luck you will have.

This. Quantity first. Quality comes in sifting through and picking the good bits.
posted by juv3nal at 1:12 AM on February 10, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert did a great TED talk on this
posted by jpdoane at 8:04 AM on February 10, 2009

I think everyone is creative, all the time. The people who are productively creative are those that recognize an idea as being something they can do something with, and the tools to do something with it. And that comes from practice.
posted by empath at 1:21 PM on February 15, 2009

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