If you can come up with a large number of ways to use a brick or a hanger, then chances are you already know about how to be more creative.
At least, this is what the Alternative Uses Task devised by J.P. Guilford’s seems to suggest.
Now, there was a time I thought this way of measuring creativity, though fascinating, was somehow too simplistic. A bit like the definition of creativity in the Merriam Webster dictionary: “the ability to make new things or think of new ideas.”
Yet, it has to be acknowledged that any idea, even the stupidest one, is an act of creation, and that sometimes great ideas don’t look very promising at the beginning.
So, instead of pondering on the possible pros and cons of all the different techniques purporting to teach us how to be more creative, I think it is much better to try them out in first person.
In fact, what works for me could represent a waste of time for someone else. And viceversa. We’re all humans, but we’re all different.
The power of constrains
An important aspect about creativity is that there’s a huge difference between coming up with a large number of solutions for a well defined problem, and whipping up a new idea, let’s say, for a new book.
In fact, whereas in the first case we have a problem presenting definite constraints, in the second case constraints are so vague as to be practically non existent.
Now, a constraint is generally associated with a negative aura. Something to avoid, if possible. However, as counterintuitive as it might seem, the reality is that constraints can boost creativity quite notably.
Indeed, about this, I remember that when I was in high school, whenever our teacher asked us to write a free composition, everybody in my class groaned. Instead, when the teacher gave us also some titles to choose from, the groans faded almost entirely away.
Now, it seems that in the example above about how to creatively use a brick and how to come up with a new idea for a book, we have to resign ourselves to an uphill battle for the second scenery.
But this is not at all the case. As a matter of fact, the distinction between the two tasks is illusory.
I mean, there’s no rule against the use of constrains in creative writing. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. We can therefore create self-imposed constraints just to spur us to be more creative.
For example, think of the famous six-word story that many people attribute erroneously to Hemingway:
For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.
That’s a whole story. And with a final punch too. If the author hadn’t forced himself to make it just six words long, therefore facing impressive constrains, it’s quite unlikely he would have come up with something just as notable.
Honestly, I believe this story alone is worth at least one thousand different ways of using a brick. Even if someone came up with the idea of using such a brick as a tiny stall for the baby shoes.
However, truth be told, if I had to punch a nail into a wall I’m sure I would be glad to have at my disposal the damn brick. Not the six-word story.
Therefore we’d better remember that the creative potential of ideas is contextual. Besides, instead of trying dozens and dozens of creativity enhancing exercises we would probably be better off making our tasks, at least those we can tinker with, more difficult.
In this way we would train and also get the work done. Creativity and productivity. The dream team is feasible after all.
How to be more creative – a holistic approach
As we have seen, just like muscles can be toned up and made stronger, also creativity can be improved.
But sometimes it’s not so easy to create artificial constraints. For example, what kind of constraints could an author impose to herself when she’s experiencing the infamous writer’s block?
A six word story? Fine. But then she would have to expand her mini story into a novel anyway. And if six words are enough for her to push through her block, then, maybe, that wasn’t really a block at all.
Besides, how to be more creative doesn’t have to do only with the quantity of ideas one comes up with. It relates also with the quality of such ideas, or intensity.
In fact, even though having a lot of ideas can be useful, if they’re not particularly creative it’s like jumping ten times to cover ten meters. Instead, quality ideas are like a spring that makes us jump just one time, but over the whole ten meters.
Someone now is surely going to say that ten meters are ten meters. So there’s no use in a single mighty jump.
That’s true, ten meters are ten meters. But the moment we have to jump over a gorge that happens to be just shy of ten meters, we begin to appreciate the real power of a single mighty jump.
This is why I believe it’s essential to approach this how to be more creative quest both looking at quantity and quality.
I mean, I can certainly paint myself into a corner, to force myself to come up with a flurry of creative solutions. But I also know what kind of situations are more conductive to creativity for me.
So, instead of sweating profusely only to overcome constraints, I think it’s way better to work hard to make sure we can recreate creativity inducing situations whenever we need.
This is what I do. As always what works for me could be all wrong for you. But even if this is the case, you can always find a way to reinterpret what I do to your own style.
Take a solitary stroll in the woods
I live in a place surrounded by woods and mountains. I like it here. A lot. Especially because whenever I need to recharge my batteries, I just have to take a stroll to find myself immersed in the quiet of the woods. Just like Beethoven–no, I’m not implying I’m just as great.
To me one hour of such relaxed strolling about in the woods does more good than one year of multivitamins. In fact, for me the coupling of mild physical exertion with the opportunity of examining my interior landscape in the quiet of the woods is usually conductive to a deep sense of well being and heightened creativity.
This is so true that, after one of these strolls, I don’t even have to strive to cook up some new ideas for my stories. Not really.
Instead, ideas begin popping up into my head. Like small and curious frogs, they don’t ask any permission. They just jump up at me to make themselves heard.
At this point I only need to take notes. This, though apparently banal, is an essential step. One I cannot skip. In fact, once the fragile connection that has allowed me to come up with all these ideas breaks, I’m no longer able to retrieve any of them if I don’t have properly jotted them down.
I don’t know why this is the case, but for me retrieving my creative ideas without the aid of some notes it’s like trying to climb up a ladder that lacks most of its rungs. I mean, maybe I can climb it, but not as effectively as I could if all the rungs were still in place.
And in any case, when I get at the top, I discover that my best ideas are gone. Probably migrated into someone else’s head already.
Driving – not necessarily from coast to coast
Driving is another situation I find quite conductive to creativity. But for this to happen the radio must be off and the traffic sparse. In fact, while driving moderately fast on a deserted highway can be extremely productive in term of ideas, the moment I must slow down and focus back on what other drivers are doing, all my creative juices dry up.
Besides, considering that nowadays the traffic is ever growing, and that for the environment a car isn’t exactly the most respectful means of transportation, instead of relying on this kind of creativity incubator, I exploit it when I have to drive anyway for some other reason.
In the past, I often asked myself why driving on a deserted road was so useful from a creative point of view.
I’m not sure, but the answer has probably to do with the nomadic origin of our ancestors. I mean, traveling makes me think of migrations and the change of seasons. I become pensive and melancholic–for me one of the best moods for cooking up new ideas. I feel something that begins to ache inside me and I find myself thinking, what if I didn’t stop and just went on and on?
I don’t know why, but when I drive alone, at times I end up also thinking of the final long passage of On the Road.
Yes, I look at the sunset, at the lights of the other few vehicles coming my way. I listen to the drone of the engine and drive on. Always thinking of that final page. That’s something.
Music is great but…
I hate multitasking. So much so that even music has a detrimental effect on my writing performance. The few times I tried to write and listen to the music I just burned out and didn’t get anything done. Really, the only things I could see go up were the mistakes I made.
This is why when I write my hi-fi is perennially turned off. I need to hear my own thoughts. Not those of someone else.
That said, I love music. A lot. And like with books, I hop from one genre to another. Shamelessly.
I love music so much that for me it represents a powerful source of creativity. However, for it to nudge me into my creative territory, I must focus solely on it. This is why I love sitting in a comfortable armchair or lying down on my bed and, with my eyes closed, listen carefully to what flows from the speakers.
I don’t have a list of songs I must listen to in order to get in the proper creative mood. But I do have my preferences all right. Some time ago I wrote a post about it. Check it out if you feel like.
There is no discernible pattern in the way I listen to music. But I know that if I follow my instincts, in less than half an hour my creative juices begin to flow.
At that point there’s just one thing I must do. I must stop listening to the music and begin to take notes, again.
Unfortunately, with the music flowing from the speakers, sometimes can be difficult to stop listening and get back to work. In fact music can be quite additive and on some occasions I just keep listening.
I don’t know how many great ideas I have failed to grab in this way. Probably three Pulitzers and a couple of Noble prizes. But you know, when a song hits you hard in the feels there’s no way you can cut it off.
In vino veritas?
Where I live there are a lot of winemakers. And many of them produce some of the best wines int the world.
As a result, I think it comes with the territory, I love excellent wine. Indeed, I enjoy it a lot. But I enjoy it from a purely convivial and sensory experience.
Instead, despite what some researchers have pointed out, drinking has never worked for me from a creative point of view. The only thing I ever managed to get when I drank a bit more than the usual was a headache, an irresistibile desire to go to sleep, and nothing else.
My brain was a frog sinking into a pot of molasses. And both my processing speed and ability to connect apparently distant concepts dipped way down below zero.
This just to make it clear that you have to invest time to get to know yourself. After all, even if researchers state something to be the case, you must always remember they have studied other people.
Inner creative landscaping
In general, to nudge creativity I must be alone, with no looming deadlines. I must also find myself in a pleasant environment, or doing something simple I like–like driving.
I would say this is a simple recipe in itself. The only problem is that nowadays, with the hectic lives we often live, these conditions are rarely met. We have therefore to work hard to create them.
In fact, like an athlete who is working out in a toxic environment can at best reach mediocre results, the same goes for creativity.
In fact, there’s really no point in working hard on many different techniques to improve our creativity if then, on the whole, we live a monotonous life. A life where there’s no space for introspection and self expression. A life where there’s so much noise—on and offline—that we lose the ability to listen to our own ideas. And to that of others.
That’s why we must learn to grow personal gardens in our everyday life. A lot of them.
These gardens can be big, or small. They can be strange and colorful. They can be full of silence, of music. Perfectly orderly or brimming with chaos.
Above all, they must be ours. Ultimately ours. In fact, how to be more creative isn’t only a matter of technique. Learning how to be more creative is an ongoing and ever changing process.