Creating creativity - can it be done?
August 11, 2011 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Help me participate in a mental exercise - how do I establish a more creative mindset? Right now, I'm not creative at all, painfully aware of the fact, and feel powerless to change the situation.

(This recent question asked by me may be related, but my lack of creativity pre-dates my cancer diagnosis, so probably is not).

I am not a creative person. Literally. I am unable to create things, write stories, paint, or create music, etc. Whenever I attempt to do this, my first exercise is to find something else to copy / steal from, with poor results. I believe this is down to an entirely mental attitude - i.e. I don't believe I am creative, therefore any inherent creativity is stifled before it has a change to exert itself. I'm a 40 year old man based in the UK, if that is of any relevance.

This wouldn't necessarily be of concern but in the last six months, whilst recovering from cancer, I find myself yearning to be a more creative person, and perhaps start my own business. Both of these are hampered by my inability to generate any ideas that aren't sadly derivative, and lack originality. I've cogitated over this for months now, and have isolated this down to the point that a certain level of creativity is necessary to further oneself, and I feel I lack this.

So, what I ask is: are there tools to assist in developing creativity? Are there mental exercises one can do to stretch oneself and encourage creativity? Or am I putting too much emphasis on something that I feel is needed and in fact, isn't?

I'm throwing this open to the hive mind so I can gain valuable insight from responses - these have been incredibly useful previously in opening up areas of thought I haven't considered before, so I thought I'd apply it to this.

P.S. I'm on holiday for the next four days so responses may not be immediate, but I'll attempt to connect when away to read and post.
posted by jjleonard to Education (30 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

posted by michaelh at 2:59 PM on August 11, 2011 [52 favorites]

This makes me think of the part in Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where he assigns his student to write about a brick.

An exercise an art teacher of mine had us do that I found very helpful to get myself out of my own brain was to have us draw a part of a picture that she had cut into squares. She had numbered the back of the squares so we could then put it all back together on the wall to see what the final picture was (the bottoms of someone's feet curled up - so it had some really interesting shading). We didn't know what the entire picture was, so we just had to focus on duplicating the odd little square we were assigned. With no frame of reference to guide us other than trying to make sure we'd line up the edges with the other students' squares, I found it a very creative experience. Freeing, at the very least.

Buy a book of drawing paper and a box of charcoals and a pink eraser. Have someone take a macro picture and cut it up into pieces without telling you what it is. Then work on recreating one of those squares. Do you want to do black charcoal on white paper to recreate it or black out the whole sheet and use the eraser to bring back the white? I myself find art almost meditative so this exercise was really very interesting to me.
posted by jillithd at 3:08 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Being "creative" doesn't always have to mean that you're able to pluck something novel and pristine out of thin air. Adopting an idea and being able to tailor it to your specific needs and situation is also a form of creativity that you shouldn't discount merely because it's not 100% unique.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 3:12 PM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

You're 40 years old. You know yourself. You know your strengths and weaknesses.

Timothy Ferriss, in his bestselling book The 4-Hour Workweek, gives this rule to live by: "Emphasize Strengths, Don't Fix Weaknesses." He explains:
Most people are good at a handful of things and utterly miserable at most. I am great at product creation and marketing but terrible at most of the things that follow. . . .

The choice is between multiplication of results using strengths or incremental improvement fixing weaknesses that will, at best, become mediocre. Focus on better use of your best weapons instead of constant repair.
Look, most people are not very original, but they get by just fine. Some people, on the other hand, fall too much in love with their own creativity. This can cause people to waste their whole lives toiling away in poverty. ("But I just can't not do this!," they'll rationalize.) The most famous geniuses did have something original to share with the world, but the reason they're so famous and considered such geniuses is that they're the rare exception. Here's the (taboo?) flipside: 99.9% of the time, the world isn't ready for something unlike anything they've seen before. People usually prefer things that are comfortable, familiar, useful. So go ahead and start that business, but don't worry if it's not too "creative" or "original."
posted by John Cohen at 3:17 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, yes. What michaelh said.

You gotta do the work.

When it comes to creativity, there's no substitute for the work. There are a lot of ways to approach it, and I can't say specifically which way would be the best for what you're trying to achieve, but whatever you do, you want to be coming up with loads and loads of ideas. Some may even be half-decent. This is not a slam on you - anyone who's famous for their great creativity Or inventiveness got there by coming up with shedloads of different ideas - most of them garbage - and showing the occasional good idea to people.

So experiment with ways to get your ideas out of your head. Write 'em down on paper. Big sheets, small sheets, whatever. Whiteboards. And then, make sure you're not self-censoring.

That might be the hard part, but whether an idea is stolen or repetitive or dumb or whatever - you are not thinking about the quality of your idea as you are writing it down. Judging is a different task from creating. You can't do both at the same time.

Eventually you'll have emptied your head of all the ideas you have, and that will leave room for new ones. Empty those ideas out, too. Keep making room for new ideas. Eventually, one day you may even have a "eureka" moment. An idea will show up that will make you think, "hey, I'm more creative than I thought".

Those are good days, but you gotta do the work to make them happen.
posted by TangoCharlie at 3:21 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

On re-reading, it seems like you'll have to work hard at the judging vs. creating thing. If you believe you have to be a creative person in order to create, well, 1) I disagree, and 2) you're going to have to find a way around that idea because it sounds like the king of all judgmental thinking and again, you gotta get those ideas out there free and easy, whether they're good or bad.

Good luck!
posted by TangoCharlie at 3:27 PM on August 11, 2011

What are you good at? What do you love to do? Forget about whether it comes under being creative or not, just do it, whatever it is, sports, management, organization, helping others, knitting, martial arts; anything you do well and like to do. Many "creative" artsy-fartsy types are 90% bullshit and the rest is ego. Most people are not very good at creative writing, art, music ,dance, etc, but can do those things for fun. If you like those things, do them without worrying if you are creative or not. If you think you "should " be doing artsy things but do not enjoy it, follow another path.

Agreeing with Horselover Phattie that being able to adopt other's ideas to your specific needs and goals is just as useful and creative as coming up with unique ideas out of thin air. As they say "there is nothing new under the sun". If you want to start a business, look at what you have been doing, what you liked, what you did not, what you want to learn and what you realistically can do, and do it, and see where it takes you.
posted by mermayd at 3:31 PM on August 11, 2011

Oh, what I forgot to add is that if you try the square exercise, make it bigger. If it is a 1 inch by 1 inch square, make it on a 1 foot by 1 foot piece of paper. It let's you really dig in there and play with it.
posted by jillithd at 3:36 PM on August 11, 2011

There's a fun book called "642 Things to Draw" and you may find similar books (in art and outside of art) that give you a short challenge of some sort. The Things to Draw book asks you to flip pages and, at random, select a challenge--I just hit Amazon's look inside / surprise me selection, and it gave me "luminescent plankton" and "string quartet." It's a fun exercise, and it spurs one to be more creative.

Obviously, you're not just talking about art--but this is a start; the brain is a muscle and needs to be trained.

If you don't find a similar book/site of challenges, you might try just putting your own prompts in a hat--like "make a business plan for dogs who like to travel" "create an advertising slogan for rocks that come in different flavors" "what kind of chair would an octopus find comfortable?" "make an (almost) anatomically correct skeletal hand using baby carrots"--you can break the ideas down: X task, Y adjective, Z noun.

Have fun!

And congratulations on your recovery!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:37 PM on August 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

Admiral Haddock - thanks, that's an excellent set of suggestions - I felt ideas coming to me even as I read your post, and it was a surprisingly good feeling. The randomness of the suggestions is what apparently frees me from a) self judgement and b) the feeling of being trapped in a never ending spiral of repetition.
posted by jjleonard at 3:42 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been reading The Creative Habit, which has a bunch of interesting exercises for whatever style of creativity you're trying to cultivate, even for identifying what type of creativity might suit you best. It's worth checking out and she's an engaging writer.
posted by ch1x0r at 3:50 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes! Find things you can do with enthusiasm and free of self-judgement. One example is playing games like Why Did the Chicken? or Cat and Chocolate.

A huge impediment can be the gap. You want to ensure you are having fun, not getting down on yourself for some arbitrary self-imposed standards. This is what the story of the quantity of clay pots is about. Practice doesn't need to be repetition. It can be exploration, experimentation, or my favorite way to think of it: play.
posted by meinvt at 3:55 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just so you know, I am the least airy-fairy person ever. I have no interest in meditating on my inner anything in order to get creative work done. My ability to sit down and bang out 500 words for a client or draw competently is down to rote practice. My English teacher in HS made us write for 5 minutes at the start of ever class. About ANYTHING - pen, moving on paper, for 5 minutes. Go. Same thing in art class: sketch, for five minutes continuously. Go.

There is huge value in that, in just the doing of the craft.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:12 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Like others have said, it's just a matter of practicing, learning, experimenting, picking something your interested in and delving in. I would separate the idea of starting a business and just trying creative exercises for yourself. It takes the pressure off.

Do you like to take pictures? I feel like I've trained my eye by taking a lot of photos. I'd give myself little exercises like "graffiti and street art" or "cactus" and would walk around with my camera taking photos of a certain subject. I really liked having a Lomo LC-A film camera for that--I like the whole process of developing film, not know what the outcome was, being surprised when I got my photos back from the printer. That's just what worked for me...but digital would be fine too.

Also, you might want to try ceramics. There's something about sinking your hands into clay that gets you out for your head. If there is a community college near you, that's a good place to take ceramics and they will give you instruction and assignments.
posted by hellochula at 4:36 PM on August 11, 2011

The connection you've made between creativity and originality seems like a major stumbling block. I would try as hard as you can to separate those two things. TONS of people create things every day that aren't the least bit innovative. Random example that just popped into my head: fan fiction. Those people write thousands of words, often in a way that entertains thousands of other people, but it's all using the framework and characters that someone else came up with. They're still creating. Or, for some reason I'm obsessed with fashion blogs lately, the kind where girls take pics of themselves each day in different outfits. It seems like every girl under 25 does this now, and most of the blogs are very similar, but it's still creative. They're still going out and making something of their own.

Another thing - I think all children start out creative. It's mean teachers and that crushes the expression of it it out of them, but it's still there. The best way to access this probably depends on you. Maybe play with some young kids, if you can? Or just try to look at the world as if it's all new to you, and imagine what questions you would ask?

One last practical thing. I'm a writer and a long time ago I signed up to get emails from Writer's Digest. They have writing prompts in them. (Or used to - I never actually used them so I don't know if they've stopped.) I'm sure if you Google "writing prompts" you can find all sorts of different ones. That might help with the "just doing" that DarlingBri mentions above, if you find you can't think of what to write about on your own.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:39 PM on August 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

You might find Anne Lamott's advice about shitty first drafts opens things up a bit for you. (The entire book this is from, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is worth reading.)
posted by Lexica at 5:17 PM on August 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm specifically keying off of your question: are there tools to assist in developing creativity? Are there mental exercises one can do to stretch oneself and encourage creativity?

There was a similar question asked about a year ago that you might find useful. I'm going to paraphrase my answer from that thread. I absolutely believe that creativity can be cultivated. I've got a small library of books on creativity. The three that have made the biggest impact on me are:

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step

Mathematical Discovery: On Understanding, Learning and Teaching Problem Solving

The first one is more of a "theory of creativity"; second one is a practical "how do I be more creative"; third one is more applicable to scientists and mathematicians. I'd recommend starting with first and second ones.

In a nutshell, a lot of the creativity techniques boil down to either (a) thinking about problems breadth-first, instead of depth-first and (b) using some kind of external stimulus. For the external stimulus part, one of my roommates in grad school swore by something like the Creative Whack Pack. The card deck idea didn't work for me, but I salted my desk with things like silly putty, slinkies, rubik's cubes, etc. with some success.
posted by kovacs at 5:23 PM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think most day to day creatives tend to be technicians rather than inspired lunatics in a frenzy (those exist, though). So perhaps apply your lack-of-creativeness to analyzing the tools and construction of the artist or creative in question. For example, in looking at a musical piece, take it apart. What instruments did the artist/producer use to set the mood? What can the beat and rhythm tell you about how they constructed the song? How do the lyrics flow together to form a whole? Or for a story, how do they create a mood in the story? How do they spin out the plot? How do the characters interact? And so on. Have you ever said to yourself "Geez, I could write a better book/song/movie/poem than this?" Try it next time. Maybe even stay on the same subject or the same plot so you don't have to come up with something original. Consume a lot of art, both the art you want to work in and lots of other art.

Putting in the work is both the easiest idea and the hardest. Most of the would-be artists/creatives I know are perpetually waiting for inspiration to strike, like the "How's that novel coming along?" bit on Family Guy. Most of the working artists/creatives I know are perpetually undertaking some new project and grinding it out. Personally, I found I got a lot more inspiration when I got in the habit of writing every day whether I was actually inspired or writing 500 word articles about transmissions, and now I have a whole list of ideas I don't have time to work on because I'm working on other things, when there was a time I would've killed for one idea. But that's part of it, too: A lot of the would-be artists I know will immediately discard an idea for being stupid, whereas a lot of the working artists I know will jot down just about anything that sounds or looks good and maybe use it for inspiration down the road.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:25 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Consult Mr. Ze Frank for this one.
posted by nímwunnan at 5:43 PM on August 11, 2011

Read Poemcrazy, and remember that its basic lessons apply to all kinds of creativity, not just poetry.

Basically, the ideas is to become a collector of ideas and inspiration without processing or judging. Just collect! Steal! It's not only okay, it's the only way to gather the building blocks you need for your brain to synthesize new thoughts!

Poemcrazy suggests keeping notebooks with word pools, just stealing words and phrases and writing them down all willy-nilly, being sloppy, don't worry about meaning, just write down whatever you like the sound of, whatever catches your eye, collect field guides, steal words from EVERYWHERE, create lists ("spine poems"), words listed and tossed together that will fall into poems seemingly by themselves. Try this. Really!

Me, I collect more than words. I keep collections of phrases and quotes and ideas I've liked in various places. I keep flickr galleries of images with good color or composition that I want to play off of. I have a fishbowl full of paint chips with cute names and colors. I take iphone photos everywhere I go of inspiring images that can trigger ideas. I keep my eyes open. Whenever I learn something nifty, or have ideas, dumb or useless or whatever, I write them down. When connections between multiple thing or ideas, analogies, or intersections strike me, I write them down. I write lists in my sleep. I create terrible junk all the time, throw it away, remember the best bits, write/sketch them down fresh, keep churning it all up.

And then, very often, random ideas pop into my head and tada! I'm off and running. Effortlessly! (Except for all that invisible work, of course.)

Not because I'm special. Anyone can do this. Lots of people do! Because if you collect enough, it splashes around the inside of your brain and all you have to do is pay attention and you'll catch some pretty interesting stuff showing up along the way.

TL;DR - Just relax and keep moving. Don't be afraid to steal and collect and create crap. Focus on hoarding and playing, not judging. The rest will work itself out.
posted by Eshkol at 6:39 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

The creative license by Dan Gregory

"Creativity is someting we are all born with, but somewhere along the way, we convince ourselves we don’t have the right to label ourselves as creative or artists. This book is my attempt to reverse that with a step-by-step process to reawaken the creative impulse in us all. It’s designed to be fun, easy, a little snarky, and addictive."
posted by ljesse at 9:43 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am not a creative person. Literally. I am unable to create things, write stories, paint, or create music, etc. Whenever I attempt to do this, my first exercise is to find something else to copy / steal from, with poor results.


Okay, maybe not the best bit, but trawling through other people's stuff, looking for things to steal, is part of the fun of creating. See something you like? Try and do it yourself. Screw the anxiety of influence. Honestly, biggest block to creativity is setting the 'creative' barrier too high.

So take a creative type whose work you like and do it yourself. Literally rewrite their story or stencil their painting or copy out one of their poems. Then write your own story that's more or less the same, paint a very similar painting or lay down an almost completely identical poem

And don't care about the poor results: a) this ain't about quality but creating b) the person creating is always a terrible judge of what they've created c) takes about 50 poor results to get 1 good result.

As a side note: you say you're not a creative person, but that's a pretty strong creative first impulse you've got there.
posted by litleozy at 12:37 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wow! I'm stunned and inspired in equal measure by these responses. I knew the hive mind would come through for me. What occurs to me as I read these replies is that my own process of trying to be creative and come up with new ideas (literally straining to do it) is part of the reason why I'm not creative - I'm not giving myself permission to just play with ideas. At the moment, everything generated has to be of value, and as a result I create nothing at all. I think it's time to drop the barriers and just play for a bit - I already feel inspired! Thank you all.
posted by jjleonard at 1:05 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Watch Everything Is A Remix
posted by TrinsicWS at 2:38 AM on August 12, 2011

I flunked art for nonartists in high school. I couldn't draw a damn tree. That affected me for years. Then I went crazy. We did art therapy in the hospitals (yeah, plural). I learned that it was OK to just produce something. It didn't have to be beautiful, it just had to have meaning to me.

Now I dabble with soft chalk pastels. I just bought a set of colored pencils that turn into water colors when you brush water on what you did.

I found the courage to set up a redbubble account (katm) and have actually gotten some positive feedback on my work.

I also have my p&s camera with me. Some of it is to document activities for my teaching blog and part of it is I'm living in Korea so it's to document places I go and interesting things I see.

Blatantly stealing, "Just do it!"
posted by kathrynm at 5:50 AM on August 12, 2011

So it sounds like you have the idea already, but I just want to point out that flickr's interesting photos page is a great source of inspiration, and you can even search through flickr for creative commons derivative-works-allowed pictures. (I'm working on a painting of a squid using a photo from there as a reference.)
posted by mismatched at 8:13 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Read What It Is by Lynda Barry; thank me later.

From the product description:
How do objects summon memories? What do real images feel like? For decades, these types of questions have permeated the pages of Lynda Barry's compositions, with words attracting pictures and conjuring places through a pen that first and foremost keeps on moving. What It Is demonstrates a tried-and-true creative method that is playful, powerful and accessible to anyone with an inquisitive wish to write or to remember.
posted by Robot Johnny at 6:40 AM on August 13, 2011

For drawing: Fantasy Genesis is a creativity drawing game that uses role-playing dice to randomly generate ideas.
A series of dice rolls and corresponding word lists present you with an infinite variety of jumping-off points and visual problems to solve. The challenge (and the fun) is to meld seemingly unrelated and everyday elements such as a caterpillar, seashells, fire or a hammer into exceptionally curious, grotesque, oddly beautiful and totally unexpected creations.
Book that explains the rules:

Blog that supports the FG book:

For writing: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
posted by cephalopodcast at 10:12 AM on August 13, 2011

I think creativity has a lot to do with connecting disparate things. You could create your own practice project by free associating words on a piece of paper, once you fill the page, pick two or three and do a project based on connecting those ideas.

I've been trying to practice creative writing and given myself a little structure by doing day trips somewhere I've never been then writing a short story using characters and settings from that experience.
posted by abirdinthehand at 6:52 AM on August 14, 2011

These tips are about improving wellbeing by changing your perspective, but could equally be used in the service of creativity.

Make a completely random choice of somewhere to go, something to do - eg get on the first train that comes along when you have a day free.

Look at objects from an unusual viewpoint (bottom up, from the inside out).

Look at things on a different time-scale, either longer or shorter than normal (how will this even/object look 20, 50, 100 years from now? - or what does the fruitfly have to achieve in its 24 hours of life?)
posted by Bradfordian at 5:48 PM on August 21, 2011

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