Columns > Published on February 19th, 2014

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.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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