For the artist, the wellspring of ideas is like the Holy Grail: the elusive key to eternity, the stuff of legend. Creativity goes by many names: inspiration, invention, genius, The Muse. Where, though, does it come from? As writers, we’re obsessed by this question, desperate to derive a map to it, that we might come and drink from it as we desire, fearful that at any moment we may be cut off from it forever.
As parents, you are confronted daily by the spontaneous creative explosions that are the norm for kids. What’s the only thing more creative than a bored child? A group of children. Hyped on sugar.
I had a front stage pass to this innate, if raw, creative capability recently. When the play-date ended and I had a few minutes of quiet to work in my office, I sat staring at the cursor while it blinked at me. I had just been tossed about by a whirlwind of creative play, and yet found myself unable to articulate an idea, let alone a useable sentence for my Middle Grade fantasy-in-progress. (O! The irony!) Instead, my mind kept wandering not only to the question of where ideas come from, but to why it is it that kids and adults experience creativity so differently.
So I turned to Google. What could it tell me about the sources of creativity? Apparently, it doesn’t exist in any one part of the brain. According to professor of psychology Arne Dietrich, author of How Creativity Happens in the Brain, creativity taps into many different mental processes. And contrary to the old adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ this 2016 Scientific American article from Tim Vernimmen posits that plenty may actually foster greater creativity. Very Maslowian. The other key factor? The degree to which we are interconnected as a society, at least according to psychologist Michael Muthukrishna. He’s supported by evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich, who (in the same paper) states, “History shows that inventions invariably build on earlier findings that are recombined and improved upon. Most of the things we use every day are inventions that no single human being could ever design within her lifetime.”
So there are really no new ideas? Just new combinations of ideas? This sounds not only like it could be a quote from Audre Lorde or Mark Twain (which it very nearly is) but like we’re getting close to the idea of a universal mind, or “Over-soul” as Ralph Waldo Emmerson dubbed it. If you think this concept belongs purely with the Transcendentalists and psychologists (a la Carl Jung’s collective unconscious), then you might be interested to learn that eminent physicists David Bohm and Erwin Schrödinger (who won a Nobel prize) also support the theory that there is a single human consciousness which we only perceive as being individual.
I guess it could explain how multiple individuals, or even groups, can arrive at the same point of invention at the same time without communication: whether we’re talking cave paintings, pyramids, or plot lines. But why do kids seem to be able to tap into it so much more readily than those of us with a few more years under our belts?
From personal observation, I’d suggest that kids access the creative realm so easily at least in part because they practice it so often. Take the other day for example: I took my kid to a wildlife park. He spent the entire time pretending his pocket notebook was a communication device, able to download data about the animals we saw, then capable of turning him into any of the animals (thank you, Wild Kratts), and also capable of ordering mutant alien species for intergalactic delivery. Judging by the reactions we got from some of the other adults in earshot, I’m willing to concede that our family may enjoy imaginary play more than most. I think we’ve gotten here through repeated use and encouragement of imagination. Rather than shut down any of the kiddo’s inventions, we tend to ask questions about the scenarios with which we are presented, pushing him to deepen his creations, to evolve them. And noticeably, the next time we’re presented with an imaginary creature or scenario, we find he’s already gamed out the answers to the last questions we asked.
In other words, creativity is like exercise. It gets easier as you build the muscles. Or create the channels in your gray matter. As you establish the routine.
For those into ritual, you can dress it up by lighting incense or candles as you sit down to write, you can say a prayer or invocation, you can meditate or turn on your writing music, but it all basically boils down to consistently opening the door to invite the creative into our lives. The more often we open the door, the easier it swings on the hinges. The more consistent we are about opening at a certain time, or after we’ve been through a specific rite of passage, the more readily we will be able to enter into the creative and the creative will be able to enter into us.
Still, I get it: there are days that the door seems firmly closed, no matter that you’ve stuck to your schedule religiously for a month, lit your creativity candle, meditated for 10 minutes, journaled for five, invoked your muse and begged the Almighty to please let you just squeeze out ONE page worth of material that isn’t utter garbage (if you offered to trade your creative child for that one page that is between you and the deity to whom/which you offered it, but I strongly suspect you aren’t the first). For those days, we offer this fun 3-minute activityto get the creative juices flowing.
If it doesn’t work, don’t fret. Just put the computer away, find your kids, and engage them in their internal worlds for an hour or two – it might just work the rust off those hinges.
Leave it to Thea to find awesome research that sheds light on our quest for one more story…or one more sentence, even! When she told me she was writing this, I remembered a book I used with my staff – Caffeine for the Creative Mind. I loved it! I ordered a copy this week to put it back on my shelf.
I agree that practice is the key to creativity. Practice and the willingness to just show up to the paper or computer screen and hammer through whatever garbage comes out. And keep hammering. Some weeks, I hate most of what I’ve written, but I know that I have to hammer through the garbage to get to the good stuff! And eventually, the story will begin to take an acceptable shape.
Kate DiCamillo had a great Facebook post this week regarding this. You can read it here. Take heart! Keep writing!