Busting the creativity myth: how to harness your ideas
Photo: Ahmed Shahwan on Unsplash
People often worry that they’re not ‘creative’ enough to produce writing that will be interesting to others. They believe that they don’t have enough ideas to create a compelling article or a book like all those superhuman creative types who seem to churn out books and podcasts in their sleep. But having ideas isn’t an innate quality that's impossible to develop. The problem is rarely a lack of ideas; most people have ideas all the time. They can be reactions to books they’ve read or films they’ve watched, or to the sights and sounds of everyday life. They might come out of conversations with friends and colleagues, or they might be genuinely unexpected thoughts or images that seem to pop out of nowhere. The problem is not a lack of ideas, but having the ability to recognise them and the confidence to run with them, to take a fleeting moment of inspiration and ask ‘What if?’.
Those who are considered 'creative' have developed the skill of noticing their ideas in the noise of the mind – among all those thoughts about work deadlines, tonight’s dinner and the latest political scandal. Unless you’re some superhuman yogi, your mind will often be tossing and turning with thoughts and anxieties. The question is how to separate the wheat from the chaff and to notice ideas that might be of use to you – perhaps those to do with a topic or area of skill that you’re interested in and that might form the basis of a writing project.
Making space and noticing
The first step, then, is to notice your useful ideas when they pop up. Creativity experts often advocate the use of meditation and mindfulness practices to help you quieten your mind and allow valuable ideas to appear and not get lost in thoughts. These are powerful techniques, but they don’t appeal to everyone. Some people find that ideas surface when their mind is naturally relaxed and unfocussed, such as when you're drifting off to sleep or staring out of the window of the bus. Allowing small spaces of time like this in your day will allow your ideas to percolate.
Another practice that I’ve found invaluable over the years is simply to carry around a pocket-sized notebook and pen (or if you prefer, a phone with a user-friendly note-taking app installed on it). Then simply jot down ideas – particularly those to do with the topic that you’re thinking of writing about – when they bubble up. Focus on simply recording them. Don’t evaluate them too much at this stage. Idea generation is not a predictable activity: interesting ideas often occur to you when you’re not trying to have them – driving to work, cooking dinner, walking the dog. The act of having a notebook with you and making a point of recording ideas as they come to you will make you more sensitive to useful ideas as they appear in your mind.
Intention and interest directs the consciousness and acts as a filter for the stimuli all around you – if you’re interested in birds or antique door handles, you’ll tend to notice more of these as you go about your daily life compared to someone who has no interest in them. So developing the habit of recording your ideas as they come up primes you to recognise them.
Reflecting and developing
The second step is to learn how to develop these ideas. Once it’s in your notebook, you’ve preserved it. But it’s important to go back over the ideas that you record, otherwise they’ll end up as neglected scribbles hidden in the pages of a notebook. So, every few days, make a point of flicking through your notebook and seeing what you have. Reflect a little on what you’ve gathered. Not everything that you write down will turn out to be useful, but sometimes you’ll come across some intriguing nuggets. Underline these and see if there’s anything in them that you’d like to pursue. Do they suggest the need to find out more, perhaps by doing a little research? You could even try writing a paragraph or two using the idea as a writing prompt and then seeing what develops from it.
Hushing and holding
The psychologist and creativity expert Eric Maisel stresses the importance of noticing and nurturing ideas, and particularly the need to quieten the mind enough for fruitful ideas to emerge, then to allow these ideas the space they need to develop. He calls this ‘hushing and holding’, and for him it's the foundation for creativity. When not present, it's one of the main reasons for people with creative urges to feel blocked and unproductive.
If you hush and hold, perhaps by using a daily notebook, over time you might find that clusters of ideas start to develop. If you find that you keep returning to the same idea or image over and over, consider why you keep coming back to it. Might it form a central theme or a way of tying other ideas together? You might notice links and connections between different ideas. Are there contradictions between some of them? Contradictions and can be the sign of a set of ideas with interesting contrasts contained within them and therefore a fruitful place to begin writing.
Mapping your ideas
At this point you might need something more than your pocket notebook to explore your ideas and to see the relationship between them. You might try exploring them using mind maps or notecards that you can move around on a wall. You might also want to develop the fleeting ideas in your notebook into more fleshed-out notes. Expressing your ideas in words and full sentences can really help to clarify and pin them down. Eventually you will have the kernel of a fuller piece of writing. Writing, daunting as it can seem, often starts with small actions and habits, like keeping a pen and notebook handy and letting small flecks of thought coalesce into the material needed to make paragraphs that might build chapters, and eventually whole books.