"I’d love to do creative work! But how do you think of all these crazy things?" It seems that creativity is magic, a mystical process, the secrets to which the mundane struggle to comprehend. So many want to be writers; so few actually want to write.
When asked “where do you get your ideas?”, science fiction author Harlan Ellison – sweet-tempered darling that he is – would tell people that there’s this idea factory in New Jersey. He pays a subscriber’s fee and they send him a fresh six-pack every two weeks. To which he always morosely adds, you’d be surprised how many people ask him for the address of the idea factory…
Let’s be clear about this. Most creators themselves don’t exactly understand their own creative process. You have to be a little bit crazy and a little bit mystic. This won’t turn you into an exciting idea machine from nothing. But if you have been visited by the imp of creativity more than once, here’s how to put out the milk and cookies to ensure that it comes back and makes itself at home.
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The Spock / Joker rule
Use the two different kinds of creativity for two different purposes – the two kinds of creativity being Practical (Mr. Spock) and Fantastic (The Joker).
Practical creativity is what you use to do engineering, programming, interface design, and any place you’ll be applying technical knowledge. Fantastic creativity is when you’re inventing entertainment. The best time for Practical Creativity is just about mid-morning, after your first cup of coffee (or whatever starts your engine).
The best time for Fantastic creativity is the opposite of this time: when you’re not quite as fresh, somewhat tired, not at the top of your game. Maybe even after one drink.
Why is this? Because your logical mind gets in the way of silly playtime that you need to be creative. You can’t come up with the cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants at 10 AM. Your inner Mr. Spock will frown, "A talking sponge? How illogical!"
But at 2 AM when you’re scrabbling for ideas for a cartoon character, your brain is loose and plastic, so it can make illogical connections more easily. "A talking sponge?", shrieks your inner Joker, "That’s hilarious! Let’s make his house a pineapple."
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Subtract 10% from your IQ
Oh, no, you had to compromise your artistic principles just to appeal to the common masses! What shall you do? Cash your paycheck and use it to finance your highbrow art in another market, that’s what.
Really, the experience will show that to make an idea popular, you need to dumb it down. This is why the most famous song by any rock band is also the easiest one to hum. This is why the "Twilight" books fly off the shelves while headier fare gets shipped back to the publisher.
It’s why reality shows with ludicrous concepts are on your TV right now instead of quantum physics lectures. Dream all the dreams you want, but if you’re going to make a living at this, then live in the world around you.
Be a squirrel
You can’t control when inspiration strikes, but you can save an idea until its time comes. That’s what squirrels do – store away nuts when there’s plenty of them, and dig them up later when they’re scarce. Have files and notepads handy at all times – jot down any idea that comes to you at any time. You’ll find a use for it later.
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Another thing squirrels do is move around a lot. Have you ever sat at your desk trying to have an idea only to come up dry? Now have you heard people remark about how readily ideas come to them in the shower? The reason has nothing to do with the shower.
The reason is that when you shower, you have quiet time to think without much distraction, and you’re standing up and moving around. An active body activates the mind. Need an idea? Take a long walk. It’s sometimes that simple!
Throw a lot away
"Before you can grow one acre of wheat, be prepared to shovel one ton of manure."
You can pick almost any artist whose work you admire, and be assured that what you’re seeing is about 10%, at the maximum, of their output. That’s right, even geniuses are wrong 90% of the time. That’s how you produce brilliant ideas: Make it your goal to instead produce ten brilliant ideas, then throw away the nine that don’t work.
Dig trenches, then build cathedrals
There’s a false impression out there that creative work is some kind of exalted pursuit where you bask on your throne in an ivory tower, showered in rose petals by your hovering muses. Actually, creative work has a lot more in common with digging ditches.
When it comes down to it, there’s too much fixation on ideas. What makes the difference is the execution. That part requires passion for what you’re doing and the confidence that when your vision is realized, it will become the cathedral you were seeking all along.
So don’t just dream the ideas, make them work. Don’t procrastinate, don’t daydream the project away. Ideas are worthless if you don’t make them happen.