For many decades, experts have argued about how creative processes work. Based both on scientific research and my own experience, I will tell you how I think it works.
Having said that, this is all I’m going to say about how creativity works as a mental process. Because dissecting it too much takes the magic and the fun out of it. Which is exactly the opposite of what creativity scholars (should) want.
However, there are some points worth looking at if we want to be more creative:
Knowledge Acquisition (Or: Input)
One common denominator in the definitions of creativity is that it produces something novel and useful in its respective domain. If we want to get at something that isn’t there, we have to know quite a lot about the things that are.
This does not mean we have to be experts. It would rather be an obstacle if we were, for experts tend to be too sure about their ‘facts’ and too unwilling to question them. An outsider often sees something pros don’t see because they are too close to the problem. However, if the outsider knows nothing at all about the subject, how can he make useful suggestions?
If we are well-versed in our subject—or, even better—in many subjects, this is a good foundation for innovation.
But don’t fret about it if you don’t know much about the topic that you want to be creative in. Do research, try it out, talk to people who know it all. If you are interested enough, you will soon have enough input to solve your task.
In fact, the time when we research a topic and aquire necessary skills is already the time when the first ideas begin to come. It may not be THE idea yet. But they are important and necessary intermediate steps.
Incubation Time (Or: Digesting the Input)
This works two ways, which often take turns:
1) Thinking about the solution and the collected input very thoroughly and intensely. In other words: Working on the problem/task. This can be in your head. It can be in discussions with family, friends, colleagues … It can also be thinking on paper while (free)writing about it.
2) Not thinking about the problem/task. While you do other things, the various thoughts and ideas and information you have gathered subconsciously continue to work in your head. You incubate the idea. You can either relax and let your mind wander at this time or do something else entirely. The latter can bring new aspects into the equation—especially if you don’t intent it to do so.
You only notice this if an idea suddenly surfaces, which is usually during the next phase:
A Moment of Silence
To allow an idea to surface from the abyss of your subconscious mind, you have to give it a moment to breathe. It is no coincidence that many people have sudden sparks of inspiration while doing some automatic chore, walking, relaxing on the porch in the sun or on the sofa, or while freshening up (as we women say ;-)).
This is because your idea needs a moment to get out. Imagine it like this: If a climber is trying to get out of a ravine, it is not very helpful for him if stones and other debris keeps coming down on him. The same is true for your precious inspired idea: If it tries—oh, so desparately—to climb out of your subconscious mind but is constantly hit on the head by new incoming information, it has a very hard time. If it is strong enough, it might surface anyway. But why give it such a tough ride?
This is the very brief but often very pleasurable moment when the idea finally does find its way into your conscious mind. Even if it often comes at the most inconvenient of times—while it often does not come if we want it most—embrace it!
This is optional, but highly recommended: Write the idea down. Even if it is just scribbles on a paper napkin. If we are distracted by other things, ideas are often gone as quickly as they came. Some for good.
The Moment of EnlightBULBment 😉
So, you think we are done here, don’t you? The idea is there, you might say, what is there left to do?
Well, this is where Thomas Alva Edison comes in. You know, the chap who invented the light bulb. Edison enlightened us by saying:
Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.
This is the case if the idea itself is not the final product. It rarely is. It needs to be put to practice. It demands to be turned into a reality that is useful for someone—even if that someone is just me.
Under My Skin
How do we know an idea is good? Often, we don’t. But the idea knows it. 😉 It gets under your skin and nags you until you decide to develop it further. It keeps popping up in your head. You catch yourself thinking about it when you were not planning to. Some ideas just appeal to us. We should see where they take us.
The Spanish writer Enrique Jardiel Poncela said about writing:
When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.
This is also true for all other creative ideas. Until it becomes a useful ‘product,’ long, long hours of hard work have to go into it. This work can consist of doing more research to verify the idea, working it out in your mind or on paper, or building it. Much creativity goes into an idea until it is ready for display. It is not enough, for instance, if I have the idea for a beautiful scarf. First, I have to learn how to knit. Then I have go out to buy wool and matching needles. Then I have to sit down and knit for a couple of hours.
Yes, developing an idea is hard work. But the good news is: If it is an idea you really enjoy pursuing, this is usually the time when flow experiences happen.
In A Nutshell
So, what can we take away from this?
– Creativity requires knowledge. Immerse yourself in your topic and try to cross-reference it with other areas you know about. Many ideas will be the result. (Research and Brainstorm!)
– Creativity requires relaxation. Most ideas come if you are not desperately thinking about them. Make sure you have enough moments of rest for the ideas to surface.
– Creativity requires effort. While the spark of insight usually comes at a time when we do nothing at all, it takes research and thought to develop it and hard work to turn it into a useful creative product.
– Creativity is worthwhile and a lot of FUN. Yes, it is work. But what the heck? It lets us have a good time and the ideas and products can be highly satisfying. So is the feeling of having created something important. Why not be creative today? What about right now?