So you want to be creative?

Forget the myriad of self-help digests that offer steps towards unlocking your creative inner-self. The recipe for original imagination is disarmingly simple.

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“The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”
― Pablo Picasso

I remember it vividly. I was 25 and after being a student for the better part of a decade, I was finally standing at a rickety and dusty wooden lectern in a quaint suburban Australian university campus, lecturing to a roomful of teenagers on creativity - one of the more left field topics in the media and politics curriculum. Either way, I was a newly minted lecturer, eager to please and inspire, Dead Poets Society style.

Except, fate had other plans.

Before I could utter a single word, a bespectacled purple haired teenager stood up and declared earnestly - “mate…creativity is just claptrap mumbo-jumbo anyway - just got to keep dancing to what life dishes up…ya know”.

Whilst his forwardness was profoundly unsettling, I was intrigued at his reference to dance.

This lanky freshman had unwittingly opened a new world into how I was about to perceive the creative process.

To his utter surprise, I agreed with him.

In an effort to move on from my somewhat unceremonious start to academic teaching and harness the poignancy of the moment, I proceeded to dramatically tear the course program in front of 100 or so raised eyebrows. An action that I learnt to regret after realising it was the only copy I had. But I digress.

The purple haired lad’s spirited declaration was right on the money. Creativity is dance. Creativity is movement. And, I’ll tell you why.

As far as I can remember, I’ve never worked or created something with the express intention of making it creative, but yet there is no shortage of people claiming to know the secret passcode to creative nirvana. There are a tower of books on creativity on my desk—Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace’s “Creativity, Inc.”; Philip Petit’s “Creativity: The Perfect Crime”—each aiming to “unleash” creativity at home, in the arts, or at work. 

Like many other fields, creativity has become a commoditised haven of self-help digests and illustriously penned compendiums but the truth remains that the entire concept is based on a disarmingly simple principle. And no, I’m not going to attempt to ‘unlock’ any part of your mind.

Creativity simply involves embracing momentum. Any sort of momentum.

Henri Poincaré, the father of chaos theory and the co-discoverer of special relativity, is famous for a story that appears in his 1908 book “Science and Method,” about an insight being jarred loose while boarding a bus: “At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it.

For Poincaré, his creative epiphany wasn’t the result of a precise recipe of actions. It happened because he was brave enough to move on from the obstacles and creative blocks that occasionally plagued his thinking process. The idea of leaving ones brain child behind, even for the briefest of moments, can be daunting. But for most prolific artists - we are all artists to some degree, mapping our destiny- the key to solving a problem is to move it to the back burner, to let the unwatched pot boil.

I’ve often found that my most original ideas are usually synthesised in the odd liminal state just before or just after sleep. It happens in moments when I have relinquished all ‘control’ over creating something. At times these experiences border around hallucination, where I have a semblance of an idea for a journal paper, book or newsletter article in my half-woken state. Often I’d grab a random scrap of paper, receipt, parking coupon, on my side table and scribble whatever is it that my mind interprets as useful in this hypnagogic state.

There is an anarchical quality to these fleeting moments. These ideas are seemingly ungoverned by context, conventions and other material laws that typically shape our cognitive processes in the waking state. No bosses to please. No styles to abide by. No unspoken social etiquette to follow. These ideas are free-flowing and shapeless but they ultimately mean something within the broader network of one’s thoughts and experiences.

I’d even argue that the freedom to move away from ones projects and ‘idea bubbles’ is a necessary freedom for creativity to take root. It is like when you are the early stages of putting together a puzzle, with the pieces haphazardly spread out on the floor and you move them around hoping to find locks for the various keys that accrete to a finished piece of work. You may absentmindedly push the pieces around but also just letting connections occur as they will, sometimes coming back to the puzzle after a long walk or coffee break. Eventually, the pieces will fit but it can’t be forced no matter the amount of dogged perseverance and will-power.

There are no special codified laws to producing something creatively original (in the most liberal sense) or at least in the manner suggested by certain self-styled ‘creative gurus’. If we are not careful, we can often overthink these things and end up at a dead-end. The question we’ve all encountered—and, inevitably, will encounter again—is how to get things moving and keep them moving. That is, how to get unstuck.

For me, the quest for a breakthrough often requires getting myself into literal motion; as a lover of cars most of my movement usually involves some sort of driving during which my mind remains as empty as it possibly can. I worry about nothing (or try not to) except the road and what is in front of me. Each gear change for example feels liberating with just the right amount of tactility and effort to divert my thoughts away from obsessing about an idea. The momentary feeling of being untethered gives the mind free rein—the space to have a good idea.

The concept of rest and its relationship to fuelling creativity is often mischaracterised. Resting, in a creative sense, doesn’t mean passive lounging with cigar in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other (although that might help). Instead, rest is a type of strategic surrender to yourself and the universe that all fragments of thoughts/ideas will eventually coalesce into a discernible pattern of some value. Rest in this sense is a restorative activity and one that involves an expression of faith in letting things evolve under the all-encompassing embrace of time.

Perhaps we’ve become accustomed to understanding creativity as something that is sought after rather than something that naturally and uneventfully emerges. I mean the origin stories of big ideas, in any field, generally highlight big-bang type eureka moments.

The storytellers behind these moments do a great job at arresting our attention and they can’t be blamed. It is, after all, not really inspiring to read about how a walk in my local park was the creative impetus for me to finish an article on political theory, one that I’ve been procrastinating upon for some time. It just doesn’t have the same dramatic sheen as, say, Poincaré’s first steps on the bus and the creative epiphany and large-scale impact that followed.

The truth is, creativity in itself draws the outline of what is possible when one is unattached to expectations, laws and conventions. But there is no escaping the good old fashioned toil involved in either coming to a point where you need to be creative and/or when you need to express a creative idea. This arduous, mundane work is a key part of the process; without it, that eureka story is just a myth.

In other words, creativity doesn’t stand in place of hard work. It isn’t a shorthand solution around worrying about a problem or challenge. Rather it emerges as a series of vaguely numbered dots and a potential pathway into creating something uniquely original to yourself. Think of it as a kind of mental scratch pad: a system for calling facts and images to the mind’s eye and for comparing and making connections between them. 

Creativity, as much as we don’t admit it, speaks to an emerging structure of thought more than it does to the production of actual content. It is lawless and self-directed which in many ways makes it immune to canonisation, at least in the traditional sense of guide books.

I’d like to end by bringing to the fore a Wordsworth poem, “Prelude”, that I’ve lived by for several years in grappling with the creative experience.

In the “Prelude,” Wordsworth describes our deep creative imagination as “an auxiliary light” that changes everything it illuminates:

An auxiliary light
Came from my mind which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendor, the melodious birds,
The gentle breezes, fountains that ran on,
Murmuring so sweetly in themselves, obeyed
A like dominion; and the midnight storm
Grew darker in the presence of my eye.

The poem conveys the idea that creativity isn’t about making things but about reaching a point of self-realisation of your presence amidst the much larger world of nature, and of finding significance in that wider world. If you’re having a ‘creative block’ because you haven’t created anything, then what you’re experiencing is a lack of space, not a lack of creativity.

So the next time you yearn for the sense of imaginative transcendence and creative spark, just ‘dance’, as my purple haired friend would say, because creativity thrives when you are free.