The Nature of Creativity

Note: this post is from a previous incarnation of this blog; while not motorcycle-themed, it still fits.

This morning, I was having a conversation with a biologist on a comment board I belong to, when he mentioned that he was expanding his studies outside of his area of expertise, and it suddenly hit me, that this is the answer to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

That doesn’t make sense when I put it like that; let me explain:

The creative process is largely a mystery to most people, including creators themselves.  It’s something that just happens, and we just dig it and let it roll.  But where do the ideas come from?  It’s something all creators get asked at one point, in one way or another.

Stephen King, in the Foreword to The Far Side Gallery 2, gave his answer to the question as “Utica.”
It’s a great answer. but I think I’ve got one that’s a little closer to the mark.
It dawned on me, during that conversation this morning, that stretching one’s awareness by learning and doing new things is the key to creativity.  Think about this: who are the most creative people you’ve ever known?
We play and pretend a lot when we’re kids, always making up stories to go along with our toys and our drawings and our games—even if it’s as simple as narrating our actions like a newscaster watching the action.  Everything has a story to it.  Some people struggle when it comes to writing it down in class, but that’s not what I’m focused on here; the point is, we have vivid and powerful imaginations as children, but it’s rare for adults to maintain those imaginations, which rarity is what makes the aforementioned Mr King a household name across a good chunk of the globe.

So what is the difference, between children and adults? What saps the creative juices?

Our lives are not all that different as grown-ups, after all: when I was in elementary school, classes were six hours a day, five days a week.  That’s 36 hours, just shy of a full-time job, even with 42 minutes per day for lunch.

The difference lies in the variety, and in discovery.

Think about it: those six hours are never spent on the same subject.  You’ve got science, math, reading/writing, art, music, and whatever else has been added to the curriculum in the depressing amount of time since I’ve been in elementary school.  At this point in your life, you have no choice but to think in at least five different directions in six hours…and then you go home and watch mind-bending cartoons.

Plus, most if not all of this information is new.  Not in the sense that it was just discovered a week before being part of the learning, but new in the sense that you haven’t heard it before.  There is a very real sensation, a “click” when you understand something that you hadn’t previously thought of.  All this continues right up through the end of your senior year in high school; college is for many the first real step of adulthood, and it also is the part of one’s life where your focus begins narrowing, where you start thinking in less than 5 directions a day.

As adults, our jobs require us to think in one direction all day.  And it doesn’t take long for us to get really used to it.  For all the information to be old and familiar.

That’s what sucks the creativity out of us.  Our minds, in a nutshell, are correlators: we’re always relating our current experience to other experiences.  Always relating information.  When you’re constantly being exposed to new ideas and different subjects, your mind has a lot more material to work with, many more means and opportunities to notice similarities, to come up with “what ifs” and “how comes” and develop some imaginative answers, than when we think in one direction, about the same things, day in and day out.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Ritual is important, spiritual or temporal; I’ve been blessed with a job where I get more variety than most people, but I still have routines in place, both to help focus, and to make sure nothing’s left undone.
There is a difference between a ritual and a rut.  A ritual is a key to a mindset, it implies being a part of something larger.  A rut is a kind of prison, it implies that it is all there is.

It’s the rut that’s the imagination-killer.  When you stop looking outside the rut, you lose a lot of your potential.

We can’t all quit our jobs or take lengthy vacations, but we can all be mindful of the rut, and look outside of it as often as we can.  The knowledge of the world is quite literally at our fingertips here in the modern era, and for the most part, for free.  Challenge yourself to learn something, as often as you can.  Pick something at random if you have to, depending on how well you’ve honed your intuition, you might thereby learn something of great import to you.
And always remember, the knowledge one gleans from a source is not necessarily the knowledge that was intended to be imparted.

Sometimes you have to get creative to get to it.


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