10 Ways to be More Creative
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
There have recently been some great books and talks on the subject of creativity: Ken Robinson, Julia Cameron, John Cleese, Elizabeth Gilbert – they’ve all contributed so much to our understanding of the mysteries of creative inspiration. We all access creativity in slightly different ways; here are ten strategies that help me on this path.
1. Create space
In that inconceivable realm of nothingness absent both space and time, the big bang exploded in a massive release of artistic output, some 13.7 billion years ago. Leaving aside the philosophical questions associated with this event, there is a profound metaphysical lesson in this science: the absence of space and time generate enormous creative energy – absence is creativity. Out of nothing, something always comes. It’s true on a cosmic scale, and it’s true on a practical, mundane level; when you remove the clutter from your home, and pay no attention to the clock, you invariably invite more creative energy into your life.
Who doesn’t experience some inspirational momentum after throwing out a bunch of old boxes from ten years ago? Our very busy and cluttered culture pushes us to have more stuff, and less space, and less time, and so creativity is often pushed out as well. It’s not easy, of course, to carve out a day, or even an afternoon for yourself and your creative pursuits, but inspiration often seems to be lurking in that empty space where time stretches out indefinitely before you. Cancel all your plans for a Saturday, and ignore the clock, and somewhere in that spacious absence you are likely to be swept up in your own cosmic explosion of artistic output.
2. Stop thinking
Just as it’s important to create space externally, it’s equally important to create space internally. The incessant mind, with its constant worrying and commentary, is a great hindrance to fresh, original ideas. Meditation quiets the mind, and creates space for inspired ideas to flow to you directly from that place that the mind cannot fathom. One minute of meditation can unlock an hour of originality.
3. Don’t take things too seriously
Creativity is not a serious thing; it lives within a playful, whimsical feeling, and it’s not self-conscious about being playful. It often goes running away the moment you make it into a heavy and consequential pursuit. If you’re not having fun, then chances are, you’re not going to meet that creative genie, because that genie is always having a good laugh, and it doesn’t like serious frowns and heavy demands.
I was recently watching a video of the Beatles performing their classic, “Hey Jude,” and I noticed this look of irreverent playfulness on Paul McCartney’s face, just before he began singing:
His expression seems to be saying, “Come on then, let’s just have a laugh.” And then, ironically, he immediately launches into a song that embodies both mastery and artistic depth. Perhaps it was the Beatles’ irreverence and humor that allowed them to spend so much time in that space of creative genius. They never seemed to take themselves too seriously.
4. Allow synchronicity
There’s a wonderful essay by the writer Amy Tan, called “Saying Thanks to my Ghosts,” where she talks about the subtle clues and hints that inspire her writing, and how plentifully they come to her. In her TED talk, and in her book, “Big Magic,” Elizabeth Gilbert also describes the creative process in a similar, mysterious way. There’s an element of magic here – something we don’t fully understand. It’s like we go swimming in some forgotten current where we can once again hear the subtle, intuitive whisper of that ocean genie that lives so deep below the surface. And you can’t discern that genie’s whisper when you’re focused on daily tasks, deadlines, and hardened, methodical thinking.
Carl Jung famously described synchronicity as an “acausal connective principle.” How it works, we have no idea, but who hasn’t experienced synchronistic events that go beyond mere coincidence? On a much smaller, quantum scale, we have Einstein’s famous “spooky action at a distance.” Anecdotally, I’ve observed this phenomenon many times, during my own creative pursuits. When I was teaching piano, I advertised for clients, and for days, I would get no response. Then, when I sat down to practice the piano, the phone would invariably ring, and it was someone looking for piano lessons. This happened enough times that it became oddly synchronistic.
A hard-nosed rationalist would no doubt critique my logic and point to mere coincidence, and that’s fine. But for myself, it’s been very difficult to ignore the flurry of coincidences that come rushing at me whenever I commit to a creative endeavor, and I’ve heard similar stories from other artists. When you commit, it’s like you’re making a declaration to the universe, and somehow, that declarative energy comes back to you in an almost Newtonian way: “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Synchronicities are the universe telling you to keep going.
Alice Walker had a fascinating interview in Writer’s Digest, where she talked about the importance of consistently setting aside a designated time for creative pursuits. She compared her practice to inviting a guest for tea:
“If you are expecting someone to come to tea, but you’re not going to be there, they may not come, and if I were them, I wouldn’t come. So, it’s about receptivity and being home when your guest is expected, or even when you hope that they will come.”
You might sit there for an hour waiting for inspiration to arrive, and it may never come, but at least you were there. And you are not responsible for your guest's fickle nature; you’re only responsible for sending out the invitations, and being present when you expect your guest to arrive.
6. Getting enough sleep
When we sleep, we return to that un-manifested realm of absence, where creativity lies in wait. It’s telling that we refer to our unrealized wishes as our dreams; there is of course something very profound about sleep that science will never fully capture. The conscious mind is not the engine of true creativity; it’s merely the vehicle. The subconscious is a river that flows from that great ocean genie, and those waters will pull you with tremendous power if you let them. And it seems that the deeper you sleep, the stronger the pull from that subconscious tide becomes. So, sleep well, and sleep deeply, and let the river be your guide.
7. Do something you’re bad at
When I was teaching piano, spending all my time instructing people on the very basics of the instrument, I was lulled into a false sense of confidence, where I believed I was better at playing the piano than I actually was. And so I took my own lessons, with teachers who were far more advanced than myself, and that was a helpful reminder of how much further I had to go, which was both inspiring and challenging. Being in that beginner’s place where we’re constantly making mistakes is great for creativity because in that place, you’ve got nothing to lose, and nothing to fear – you’re already doing so badly, so you’re forced to jettison your ego, and just get down to the business at hand. With creative output and growth, mistakes will come, often in abundance, and you have to embrace that with a smile, as Ken Robinson reminds us in his famous TED talk from 2006:
“I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original -- if you're not prepared to be wrong.”
8. New foods & new smells
On a cold and lifeless winter afternoon, when you’re not feeling very inspired or creative, this is a perfect time to sample a new fragrance. A touch of cologne with coriander, vanilla and sandalwood can do wonders to bring you back into that aesthetic place where mundane living is not so mundane after all. The same is true for foods: Massaman curry sauce, onion, cardamom, cumin and Pinot Grigiot – the tastes and the smells inspire.
9. Travel (literal and imaginary)
Obviously, traveling to distant lands with spices, eucalyptus and palm trees will get the creative juices flowing. But you don’t need to spend a lot of money on airfare to go traveling through your imagination. You can conjure up the fresh wonder of new experiences by just closing your eyes: imagine being a bird, or a gust of wind, or a pirate sailing to Antigua. Imagine the smells and the sounds and the colors, and the textures of the linen pirate fabrics, and the emotions. Travel as much as you can, whenever your imagination is free, and see what inspiration you discover on those warm, leeward shores. Your body might be in a gray office cubicle with fluorescent lights and staff meetings, but your spirit doesn’t have to be confined within that forgetful structure. As Billy Joel wrote in his song, “Everybody has a Dream,” from The Stranger album:
“So let me lie and let me go on sleeping
And I will lose myself in palaces of sand
And all the fantasies that I will be keeping
Will make the empty hours easier to stand”
10. Jimmy Buffett’s music
He’s an entirely underrated musician. His music is so much more than just "Margaritaville" and "Cheeseburger in Paradise," and while he cultivates an image of a happy-go-lucky beachcomber, he has an unstoppable work ethic and an enormous amount of talent. And it’s pretty much impossible not to be creative while listening to his music. Check out his song, “Beach House on the Moon,” and I guarantee you’ll have some type of creative breakthrough midway through the song. How can you not, with these lyrics:
“There are windows to the galaxies
And hallways to the past.
There are trapdoors to the future
And a splintered ancient mast.
There are relics from Apollo trips,
When the earthmen came to play,
And a hammock from a distant star,
Out in the Milky Way.”
- Jimmy Buffett, “Beach House on the Moon”
These lyrics are inspired poetry, and when you set them to music, with the steel drums, and the relaxed, tongue-in-cheek vocals, well, it just makes me want to paint a poem on a pirate galleon, somewhere on a leeward shore. In fact, that’s what I’m going to do right now. So, until next time, happy creating to you!
Carl McCoy, copyright 2017
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