Why Being Creative Is A Lot Less Difficult Than You Think

There’s more shit talked about creativity than any other field of human endeavour, and in recent years I have watched with dismay as a whole industry has sprung up dedicated to enhancing and promoting this particular ability. I can't be alone in thinking that as a society we have reached some kind of nadir when job seekers are obliged to take creativity tests, seemingly with the rationale that the more uses you can think of for a brick, the better a lawyer you will make.

Yet being creative is as fundamental to human existence as walking and talking. Since we emerged from the Savannah, we as a species have managed to domesticate animals, construct pyramids, cross oceans and rustle up some pretty snazzy cave paintings, and all without the assistance of a single brainstorming session.

Contrary to what the creativity industry would have you believe, being creative doesn’t require special techniques, equipment or attributes. Let's dissect the five most widely held beliefs about creativity and see if we can't make it all much more simple.

Creativity needs space to flourish

Image search ‘creativity’ and what you get are images of fingerpaints, crayons, and rainbows exploding out of heads, as if the only people on the planet who are capable of serious creative activity are those of us still enrolled in daycare. Lodged in our collective psyche is the notion that we lose our creativity as we mature and that we can only regain it by freeing our minds – lucid dreaming, meditation, rolling around on the floor – these are all activities recommended by creativity experts as ways to reconnect with your inner creative genius.

The fact that you only eat foods beginning with the letter ‘D’ or occasionally feel the urge to stick feathers to yourself and howl at the moon doesn’t mean you’re going to produce better work than everyone else.

For those of us who don’t look good in yoga pants (in other words anyone who isn’t Heidi Klum) or who don’t have the time to sit on a mat imagining we are a bird, the good news is that rather than stifling creativity, constraints can promote it. For example, ask yourself how many story competitions allow entrants to write about anything, without a word limit?

Not many. However much we want to believe that creativity flourishes when we let it roam free, the unspoken wisdom is that rules help us to focus and that focus encourages us to produce our best work. Flash fiction, stories on a theme, writing from a restricted view point – all these enable rather than constrain. And none of them involve the use of incense.

Creativity can’t be forced

Hard on the heels of the ‘inner child’ line of thought follows the argument that too much planning and preparation kills the creative process. Arguments regularly rage in writers’ forums over the benefits of ‘pantsing’ (making it up as you go) as a sure fire way to unleash a veritable Godzilla of creativity on the quaking townspeople of the printed word.

The Freudian technique of free association, popular during the early days of psychotherapy, gave rise to the idea that flow is more important than structure, a concept eagerly grasped and developed during the 1950s and 60s by writers like Kerouac and his partners in beat-crime, Ginsberg and Burroughs. Kerouac liked to glue together sheets of paper, creating a giant roll which he would feed into his typewriter. In this way he could write without interrupting the flow by inserting a fresh sheet into the works.

But does structure really limit creativity? Though techniques vary, many prolific authors plan very carefully, some even using an outline as a basis for successive longer drafts – from plot to chapter headings, to chapter outlines to complete prose.

Even if that seems a little extreme and mechanical, there’s no hard evidence that creativity requires a blank sheet of paper. Likewise, no proof exists that you need to be cheerful or well rested or free from all external pressures. Writing to a deadline gave us Hard Times and Oliver Twist. Plath produced her greatest work when in the grips of depression. Waiting for time, mood and aura of spontaneity to coincide before rolling up your sleeves might mean the right moment never comes. Set a deadline, a word count, and write a summary. Put a doughnut just out of reach, only to be eaten once you hit ‘save’. You will be amazed at how creative greed can make you.

Creativity requires solitude

‘Solitude is the great inspirer’ Kafka said.

No lonely genius, Kafka juggled a full time job with an active social life and several girlfriends. For him solitude probably made a nice change, and while writing requires enough peace that you can concentrate, the rest of your life doesn’t have to resemble Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball in Castaway.

People who make art, consume art. Observing how different artists in different media communicate what are often the same ideas can inspire new approaches and techniques. The same goes for collaboration. Quite why the cultural icon of the lonely artist caught on is a mystery, because most artists like nothing better than discussing their work with the likeminded (though if you’re stuck for an audience, your cat will also do). Creativity is a process of synthesis, of bringing together disparate material and combining it in new and interesting ways. Deprive yourself of material and you literally don’t have anything to work with.

Read widely. Visit galleries. Listen to music. Then make time to allow all those influences to influence you. But don’t lock yourself in a room or confine yourself to a few genres or favorite bands. Rigidity will be reflected in your writing and it’s hard to be broad minded if you never interact with other people.

Creativity is the same as being crazy

Let’s blame the Ancient Greeks for this canard. Ever since Aristotle noted a link between creativity and depression, in cultural terms artists just aren’t artists if they’re also shiny, happy people. More recently, eccentricity has joined moodiness as evidence of an artistic disposition: from Einstein to Michael Jackson, we’re increasingly encouraged to believe that weird behavior is normal for people who create.

Scholarly articles regularly discuss this relationship, but research showing a clear correlation between battiness and the ability to produce beautiful work is thin on the ground, not least because we only have no agreed way to measure either eccentricity or creativity. Mostly, the evidence is anecdotal and selectively mined from the back stories of a small band of personalities.

But for every Einstein there is a Niels Bohr, for every Salvador Dali a Pablo Picasso. Legends grow around interesting people, but the boring truth is that most ‘creatives’ are of entirely sound mental health (lucky for them because creating in a straitjacket isn’t easy). Flippancy aside, nurturing one’s little eccentricities in the hopes that this reflects an artistic temperament is a complete waste of time. The fact that you only eat foods beginning with the letter ‘D’ or occasionally feel the urge to stick feathers to yourself and howl at the moon doesn’t mean you’re going to produce better work than everyone else. Celebrate your ordinariness and save the costumes for Halloween.

Creativity is enhanced by drugs and/or alcohol

The big one, and a subject to which Robbie Blair is going to return next month. Much is made of the idea that drugs can unlock your creative vision, from Coleridge and his opium dreams to Philip K Dick and his amphetamine-fuelled writing frenzies. Certain drugs get special kudos for opening the windows of the mind — LSD, mescaline and cannabis for example — but it’s interesting how period-based many of these claims are, how associated with a particular time and place. Opium made you creative in the 1800s, alcohol during the 1920s, LSD in the 1950s, and cannabis in the flowerpower 1970s. Drugs follow a predictable social path — they start off rubbing shoulders with the intelligentsia and end up in a homeless shelter — and what was chic last year is addictive the next. Without glamour, drugs don’t make you creative, or to put it another way, writers of the 2000s aren’t likely to claim their masterpiece was made possible by the mind expanding properties of Oxycontin with a chaser of crack cocaine.

The same goes for alcohol, which has become progressively less debonair since its heyday during Prohibition. Even by 1950, alcohol still looked liked Ernest Hemingway. In 2014, alcohol looks like a guy with no teeth who can fit his worldly belongings in a shopping cart.

In short, if you want to be creative, just say no, kids. The best way to use drugs in fiction is to write about them, a la Breaking Bad, not to actually use them.

Creativity is simple: you don't need toys, or primal scream therapy, or a cabin in the woods, or a history of insanity, or a well stocked drinks cabinet. All you need is the desire to create and the determination to practice until you are good at what you do. But if you have a special trick which helps you come up with the literary goods, don't hesitate to share it below.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


Rob Blair Young's picture
Rob Blair Young from Utah is reading Driven February 19, 2014 - 12:16pm

An interesting look at a complicated issue. You make some good points, though I'm not sure who exactly you're arguing against. Those who study creative thinking aren't typically making the claims you present here. For example, there have been plenty of studies on the need for some constraints in order to enable creativity, and positive social contact has been scientifically demonstrated to boost creative thinking.

In the couple instances where those studying in that niche discipline are actually saying something different than you are, I'm not sure you've addressed the arguments of your opposition. The studies on the benefits of meditation are convincing, but what you've referenced here doesn't sound much like meditation. (Ths may also be my bias coming into play. Meditation is a central part of my daily routine, and something that has made my life far better.)

I look forward to re-visiting the topic of altered states next month. The studies looking at the "write drunk" hypothesis are pretty dern interesting, and the theories on the neurological reasons for creative-altered-consciousness are equally fascinating.

V.R.Stone's picture
V.R.Stone from London is reading Savages by Don Winslow February 19, 2014 - 12:57pm

My take on this is that Cath is trying to dispell a few myths. There are plenty of people in this world who talk a lot of bullshit when it comes to 'creativity', which is just a fancy word for ideas bubbling up from the subconscious. So called creative people, probably like the crazies, have the confidence to put their ideas out there. For a lot of writers, I don't think coming up with ideas is the problem. It's about knowing which ones are good, it's about having the writing skills to present the ideas in an engaging way, and having the discipline to sit down ever day and bash out the first, second, third and fourth drafts.

Personally, I get all my best ideas like this: spend an hour or two working on a story, get up up to make a cup of tea or take a piss, then the idea pops into my head, as soon as my hands are occupied with menial tasks. Then I write the first draft, the second draft, the third and the fourth...

Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Thomas Ligotti's works February 19, 2014 - 7:48pm



Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong February 20, 2014 - 5:43pm

I wonder if maybe a distinction needs to be made between creativity and art.

I'm with you on all of this, Cath. The only thing creativity really requires is for you to get out of the way and let it happen. I don't mean to suggest that it's a passive experience, that creative things just flow out of people. Not at all. But I do think most people who claim they cannot be creative really just need to get out of their own way. Telling a story, for instance, is one of the easiest things to do. It's something that's ingrained in us perhaps as instinct. We yearn to pass on traditions and stories. We seek to leave legacies. Even suicides more often than not leave notes to explain themselves, and those read as tragedies in their own right.

Is that last thing creative? I think it might be crossing a line if I said "yes," but I think what it takes to leave a suicide note may come from a similar place as what it takes to allow yourself to catch an idea, hold onto it, understand it, and put it out there despite fear of judgment.

So, then, does this mean anyone who can do those things is creating art? I suppose that's debatable, but if art is the achievement of a fully realized piece of creativity, and anyone can be creative, it stands to reason that anyone has the capability to create art. It just takes dedication, practice, and work, and I think part of all of that is learning what it takes for you to get out of your own way.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig February 21, 2014 - 1:36am

Yes, I have heard all these myths... the ones that are the most troubling are the ones that promote not treating mental health issues and/or embracing alcoholism. Neither of those things are good for anyone, not even "creative people."

My "trick" is to stay up a little later than my family and put headphones in so I'm sort of isolated. I have the ability to concentrate and a good nightly habit. I tried mornings, as a friend of mine does super early mornings to get writing time in, but that didn't work because by the time I had my coffee and could put thoughts together coherently, my kid was up because she heard me pottering around the house. I'm just 100% not the kind of person who can concentrate in the early morning.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast February 21, 2014 - 5:12am

Those who study creative thinking aren't typically making the claims you present here.

And yet I have at my side an edition of Scientific American Mind, which contains articles relating creativity to eccentric behaviour, the ability to play like a child and schizotypal personalities. Most psych research into creativity seems welded to just those stereotypes I presented above. Weird, I know, but true.

My point is that creativity is a regular human activity. We don't need to go to special measures to achieve it (I also think that we're all pretty good at it, but only think we're being creative when we produce 'art' of some kind). Looking forward to your take on the subject, Robbie.

I'm a morning person Renee, but also used to write at night when the kiddies were small. Now they are old enough to read the big 'Fuck Off' sign on my study door, I write in the morning.

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide February 21, 2014 - 2:21pm

Yes, on the drugs/alcohol one.  You can't write well (or at all) if you're fucked up all the time.  "Write drunk, edit sober" is the drunk writer's justification for drinking.  Even Stephen King admits it in his memoir On Writing: “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

Charlotte's picture
Charlotte from Germany is reading Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore February 22, 2014 - 12:44am

I hear you, Cath. I work in the software industry and suddenly now, to show that we are creative, we all have to play with Lego. It does feel like daycare and the people who espouse it are shiny and happy just like nursery school teachers.

Creativity as a writer is about butt in chair, having some alone time, a clear head and getting the hell on with it (here, I am speaking to myself, suffering as I am from a bout of extreme and protracted procastination).