Creativity

Ideas and resources for understanding and increasing creativity

Wreck Your Creativity

Wreck Your Creativity

Take chances, make mistakes, get messy! ~ Ms. Frizzle, The Magic School Bus

  • Student-wrecked journals
    Student-wrecked journals
  • Hole-y wrecked journal, Batman!
    Hole-y wrecked journal, Batman!
  •  Turn this page black (using items found in the world).
    Turn this page black (using items found in the world).
  • Turn this page black (using items found in the world).
    Turn this page black (using items found in the world).
  • Blank page
    Blank page
  • Draw something based on the moon.
    Draw something based on the moon.
  • Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
    Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
  • Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
    Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
  • Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
    Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
  • Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
    Find a piece of string. Tie this page up with it.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Choose your own wrecking method.
    Choose your own wrecking method.
  • Use this space while dreaming outside.
    Use this space while dreaming outside.
  • Cover this page in lines that you find.
    Cover this page in lines that you find.
  • Blank page
    Blank page
  • Cover this page using only items found in the outdoors.
    Cover this page using only items found in the outdoors.
  • Cover this page using only items found in the outdoors.
    Cover this page using only items found in the outdoors.
  • Fill the entire page with words you see on your adventures.
    Fill the entire page with words you see on your adventures.
  • Blank page
    Blank page
  • Cover this page in circles that you find.
    Cover this page in circles that you find.
  • Write down all the street names in your immediate vicinity.
    Write down all the street names in your immediate vicinity.
  • Find a piece of cardboard in the next five minutes. Tape it here.
    Find a piece of cardboard in the next five minutes. Tape it here.
  • Blank page
    Blank page

 

An important part of creativity is giving ourselves permission to be messy and imperfect. By the time we are adults, however, we’ve often been trained in the art of avoiding messiness and mistakes. School in particular rewards playing it safe rather than taking chances.

Another aspect of creativity is the habit of recording our ideas and experiences. One of the ways that I try to encourage a more playful approach to notekeeping for engineering, business, and nursing students is to assign as a creative thinking “textbook” Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal Everywhere. Smith’s various editions of Wreck This Journal—part creative journal, part sketchbook, part writing prompts—have sold over 3 million copies. Read more about her in the TIME magazine profile, “Meet the Woman Trying To Save Your Kids from Their Screens,” and on her website.

In the past, I have asked students to keep their own creative journals as a way to practice the art of paying attention, but many of them seemed stuck or intimidated when faced with so many blank pages. Smith’s journals are small (Wreck This Journal Everywhere is small enough to fit in a coat pocket), fun, and full of delightfully unexpected prompts designed to trigger connections with the world around us.

While not every student warms equally to their journal, most appreciate the chance to get class credit for doodling, sketching, daydreaming on paper—activities they have often been told are a waste of time. They get full credit for the journal, which is part of their class participation grade, as long as they use most or all of the pages (they don’t have to follow the prompts, but most do) and clearly get into the spirit of the assignment. Many tell me afterward that they have recommended the journal to their friends and family and that they plan to continue the journal habit themselves.

The photos at the top of this post are a few examples.

Lessons on Play from a Betta Fish

Lessons on Play from a Betta Fish

Recently I made a small change in my work that has resulted in an unexpected giant step in everyday enjoyment: I began to listen to music for a good chunk of the day, most of the time through headphones attached to my phone that also allow me to take hands-free calls.

I’m not sure when or why music had become an occasional treat, saved for the car or when I had nothing else to do, rather than an integral part of my life, but it had. Not until I was watching our betta fish this morning did I realize why music makes such a big difference. Music is a form of play.

Why Play Matters for Creativity

Consider what these creativity experts have to say about the importance of play:

Dan Pink, bestselling author: “The best way to get in touch with your inner child is to take it outside for some play. So go back to school… or at least, back to the playground. Visit a schoolyard, take a seat on a bench, and watch how the real kids play. See if some of their sense of wonder and curiosity penetrates your adult immune system.” (from A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World)

Tina Seelig, Stanford professor: “Simply put, when you play, you are having fun. When you have fun, you feel better about yourself and your work. And when you feel better, you are much more creative and deliver more.” (from InGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity)

Tim Brown, IDEO CEO and president: “Kids are more engaged with open possibilities…. when they come across something new, they’ll certainly ask, ‘What is it?’ Of course they will. But they’ll also ask, ‘What can I do with it?’ And you know, the more creative of them might get to a really interesting example. And this openness is the beginning of exploratory play.” (from his TED Talk “Tales of Creativity and Play“)

Lessons on Play from a Betta Fish

Fun doesn’t have to be complicated, and it can occur wherever we are. Here is a photo of our new betta fish’s heater. Notice the narrow space between the heater and the tank (and how Mr. Darcy, never missing a beat, is keen on figuring out what I am doing):

Aquarium Heater

Now watch how he uses that space to create his own playground. Round and round he goes, for several minutes at a time. I was lucky to be able to film a few seconds before he noticed my presence, which would have immediately broken the spell. (In case anyone is wondering, the Renoir card both gives him something to look at and hides his food jar so that he’s not constantly begging to be fed—bettas are smart fish!)

Music transforms my usual workspace into a similar playground, making everything else more fun and opening me to possibilities I wouldn’t normally notice.

Where and how do you find or create fun spaces in your workday?

Creativity Boosters for Writers

Creativity Boosters for Writers

As we come to the end of our series on Getting Serious About Writing, I want to share some ideas for ways to enhance our creativity that have nothing to do specifically with writing. The point of creating a writing life is that our everyday choices support and enhance our writing for the long-term. After all, writing is about so much more than words.

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry, for publication or for pleasure, these suggestions will boost your creativity on and off the page.

Be willing to fail. By now, most of us know that failure is an inherent part of the creative process, but taking the next step from knowing to allowing ourselves to fail is not always easy, especially for perfectionists. We can start with baby steps that may not even involve writing, such as cooking and serving a new, complex dish that we are bound not to get right the first time or learning a new sport or hobby that requires that we expose ourselves as beginners.

Design a creativity-friendly work space. Within our available budgets and space we can recreate our work areas in ways that inspire rather than hamper our ideas.  Especially important is to have all of our writing tools—books, paper, pens, computers, whatever else we use—within easy reach rather than something we must “get out” each time we decide to write.

View constraints as creativity enhancers. A bare-bones writing environment, on the other hand, can also be good for creativity, as can time constraints. See Ben Chestnut’s video “Creating an Environment for Creativity and Empowerment” for more about the value of subtracting time from the creativity equation.

Learn something new. Dan Pink calls it “symphony” and “border crossing.” Tina Seelig uses the term “cross-pollination.” What they both are referring to is making connections between unrelated fields or topics to come up with something new. If you were an English major, broaden your horizons by reading some physics. If you are a technical writer who usually enjoys non-fiction,  a mystery novel or some poetry.

Dare to be complex. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found that creative people often have complex personalities—they can not easily be pigeonholed as introvert or extrovert, for example, or disciplined or playful. They allow themselves to be whatever they need to be for the creative work at hand. If you normally think of yourself (or others think of you) as being the far end of one of his ten dimensions of complexity, make a point of “tryout out” another way of being.

Make friends with routine. Csikszentmihalyi also reminds us that routine is not the enemy of creativity. Far from it. Having a routine frees our mind from having to make dozens of time-sucking decisions—what to wear, what to eat, when to eat, when to exercise, whether to exercise. Those questions are already answered so that we can use our thoughts for more creative work.

Allow yourself to play. Having a playful attitude helps to loosen inhibitions and drive innovation, not to mention we have more fun! Making time in our day for games, humor, and other forms of play (when was the last time you made homemade playdough—for yourself?) a valuable investment in our writing life.

Pay attention. Tina Seelig, author of inGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity, explains that paying attention—simple but not always easy—gives us valuable knowledge we would otherwise miss and fuels our imagination. We can get better at paying attention “by actively looking at the world with fresh eyes, by seeing the ‘water’ in your environment, and by capturing your observations.”

Believe in your own creativity. Another of Seelig‘s reminders is one that many of us overlook: In order to be creative, we have to believe we can be creative: “Your beliefs are shaped by the language you use, and the language you use is shaped by your beliefs.” What is your personal, internal narrative about your writing and your creativity, and how can you change the words you say to yourself?

On Falling Behind, Failing, and Progress

On Falling Behind, Failing, and Progress

Writer Annie Murphy Paul writes in “How We Make Progress” that rather than a staircase model of learning, in which we steadily climb step after step to the top, a more apt metaphor may be waves on a beach, “where one wave overtakes another and then pulls back, overtaken in turn by another advancing and then receding wave.”

“Research by [Robert] Siegler and others shows that the overlapping waves model applies to learners of all ages, in all manner of subjects. Its image of a series of surging and receding waves is not only a more accurate view of learning than the staircase image; it’s also a more humane and forgiving one.” Read More

We can probably all remember times when we hit what felt like a plateau or even a period of going backwards, only to feel ourselves surging ahead unexpectedly when we least expect it. Allowing for this kind of organic learning was something I appreciated most about our years of homeschooling, as we did not need to adhere to rigid, one-size-fits-all timetables and benchmarks. Watching the natural ebb and flow of our son’s learning showed me that we cannot always force progress at specific times. Sometimes we need to wait. And sometimes we need to fail in order to propel ourselves forward.

Failing as a Prerequisite for Progress

Doll on the Beach, by inajeep
Doll on the Beach, by inajeep (CC BY 2.0)

And then there are those times when we don’t just fall backward: we wash up on shore, perhaps at a different part of the beach from where we began, so that when we start all over again, we are beginning an entirely new journey, with a valuable new perspective and opportunity. Novelist Marie-Helene Bertino writes about just such an experience in her essay “Failure as Muse“:

“If I had never failed at being a poet, I might never have tried writing fiction. If I had never tried fiction, I never would have assembled an impressive amount of ecru-colored rejections that still make me feel like a real writer, or been given the opportunity to fail spectacularly at ghostwriting novels with the nutritional value of a pack of matches. Most importantly, I never would have written a novel, the publication of which affords me the opportunity to tell this story at festivals, at readings, and right here, on the website of this magazine.” Read More

Being willing to fail is one of the most important aspects of creativity. A good exercise is to reframe our perceived failures as opportunities:

If I had never failed at ________________, I might have never have  _______________.

 How would you fill in the blanks? (I will post my own answer in the comments.)

The Creative Life and Opportunity Cost

The Creative Life and Opportunity Cost

Every choice we make has an opportunity cost.

That simple idea, first explained to me by my son, has had a lasting impact. It doesn’t always mean that I make the wisest choice in the moment, but I certainly have made some more thoughtful choices as a result.

Opportunity Cost
Image by CTSI-Global (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is opportunity cost?

Every choice we make has an opportunity cost. Every time we do or choose something, we are not doing and not choosing many other things. Whatever we opt not to do or choose that has the highest value for us is our opportunity cost. The idea goes far in helping us to explain why we often do what we do, and perhaps how we can change our decision so as to be happier and more satisfied, both in the short and long terms. To use a simple example, yesterday morning my husband and I had to decide whether to take our morning walk. Usually, it is not a conscious choice: We try to walk in our neighborhood every morning at the same time, after coffee and before beginning our work days. It is part of our routine. Yesterday, however, brought clouds and a steady rain. We enjoyed one cup of coffee while looking out at the puddles, then had a second cup while deciding what to do. In the end, we chose not to walk, at least not until later in the day. Here’s how opportunity cost fits into our decision. The prospect of getting wet and having to navigate slippery sidewalks lowered the value of our walk for us, so that the next best choice—getting on with our day—gained value in comparison. Without the rain, the value of the walk trumps an early start to our work. With the rain, we got more out of skipping the walk.

Opportunity Cost Is Relative

It’s easy to see that opportunity cost differs from person to person, and it can vary for the same person, depending upon circumstances and priorities. We aren’t the kind of people who pride ourselves on braving the elements no matter what. If we were, we would get more value from walking in the rain than not. Or, if we were on a tight deadline, we might skip the walk even on a sunny day in lieu of writing because the walk loses to the value of work. If daily walking was part of physical therapy or some other medical need, the opportunity cost would not be high enough for us not to walk. Finally, if we loved walking in the rain (which my husband does more than I do) or were on vacation where we had few opportunities to see the sights, we may have chosen differently. Thank goodness we usually don’t think through opportunity costs during our day in such detail! Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, reminds us that we can take thinking about opportunity costs too far: “I can become paralyzed if I think that way too much… if you try to preserve every opportunity, you can’t move forward.” However, because we often act out of habit, it is good to step back and think once in awhile about the opportunity costs of some of our more routine choices.

The Example of Facebook

Recently I’ve been very aware of the opportunity cost of checking Facebook with the same frequency I check my email. I admit that I do check my email quite often, primarily because, as a freelance indexer, I never know when I will get queries that are in my best interest to respond to sooner rather than later. I know for a fact that I’ve landed jobs mainly because I was one of the first to reply to an email sent to several potential indexers. Also, during the school year, I want to check email more than once or twice a day to be sure to catch time-sensitive questions from students. Checking email frequently doesn’t pose a problem for me now (although it has been in the past), because I don’t get sucked into it. Especially if I use my phone, I quickly know if there is a message that needs my attention. If not, that’s the end.

Unless I proceed to Facebook.

Facebook is an entirely different story. We all know the experience of checking Facebook just to see if someone has done something interesting or has commented on something we posted or—let’s be honest—to make sure we’re not missing out on something. Before we know it, 15 minutes or half an hour later, we’re still there, because as soon as we’ve looked at one set of pictures or clicked through to an interesting link, we can refresh and start the whole process from the top of the newsfeed again. This isn’t meant to be a guilt trip (I am writing from experience, after all). There is nothing inherently wrong with spending time on social media, and there are some aspects of Facebook I relish, but we are wise to think occasionally about the opportunity cost. If Facebook isn’t your thing, substitute email or whatever social media site or online game you are drawn to more than you’d like. What are we not doing when we are engaging in that space? What happens when we weigh the opportunity cost, especially in the long-term, against re-reading newsfeeds we’ve already seen or clicking through to yet another “You won’t believe this!” headline?

It Comes Down to Priorities

One of my goals for this series is to explore exactly what we mean by getting serious about our writing. It all comes down to priorities and commitment. If we take our creative life seriously (because of the meaning and satisfaction we know it can bring), the opportunity cost when we are doing something else instead is high, higher than it would be if we weren’t as serious. (And keep in mind that being serious does not preclude having fun.) I will admit I struggle with Facebook. After a recent nearly three-week trip to London, I was in a good habit of checking Facebook only a couple of times a day, morning and evening, which was definitely enough time to catch up with friends’ lives and bookmark interesting links. That continues to be my stated strategy, as often as I might fail. These tips have helped:

  • Removing the Facebook app from my phone
  • Removing Facebook from my laptop bookmarks bar
  • Using the messenger app so that I don’t have to check the site itself for inbox messages
  • Signing out completely after each session (the pause afforded by having to type in my log in credentials is enough time to remind me not to—see the important Viktor Frankl quotation below shared by Jane Friedman)

Today’s question:

How do you handle the lure of social media versus the need to write? What is the line between social media’s usefulness and its high opportunity cost?

See also