You can be creative on demand.
Historically, inspiration and creativity have been thought of as something that happens to us, not something we make ourselves.
In Greek mythology, this idea was expressed by the nine Muses. Each Muse was in charge of one area of science or artistic creation. To be visited by a Muse was to be inspired. Wonderful revelations would pour out from every inch of your being if you were to be in the presence of one of the Muses.
For Plato, the poets of his time - and the creators of ours - were not be given any credit for what they’d created since they were merely the carriers of the sweet sounds of the muses and the gods:
“For a poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind and his intellect is no longer with him. So that we who hear should know that they are not the ones who speak those verses that are of such high value, for their intellect is not in them; the god himself is the one who speaks, and he gives voice through them to us.”
“I’m not feeling inspired today” has been the bane of many would-be creative people.
Inspiration is something that happens to us. Like lightning, we are struck by inspiration, and if we’re not feeling inspired there is nothing left for us to do but wait until such time as when the Muses grace us with their presence once more.
We are but passive receivers of inspiration, not its active creators. Such has been the myth of creativity since ancient times.
But what if the myth is wrong?
What if we could take the reins of our imagination and rather than letting ourselves be driven by the inscrutable whims of creativity, we became its driver instead?
What the research says about how to be inspired
Scientists write for a living. Sure, they also do other things, such as pipetting multicolored solutions into beakers and analyzing data to uncover the laws of the Universe, but by and large, the main job of a scientist is to write.
Scientists have to write grant proposals to get money to do their research and have to publish their findings on scientific papers for others to scrutinize. If scientists have trouble putting words to paper, they will be in all sorts of trouble.
However, writing is hard. It is therefore not surprising that when Robert Boice, a Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, put up a call for volunteers who’d been struggling with writing (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0005796783900451)[for a study he was planning to run], many heeded his call.
Boice wanted to study whether the writing strategies used by each of his volunteers affected the number of ideas they had.
The setup of the study was simple.
Boice split his volunteers into three groups. One group was instructed not to write anything down unless they absolutely had to. The second group was told to write whenever they felt like it. The third group was told they were to write three pages each day. Failure to meet this goal would result in an organization they despised receiving a check they’d agreed to prewrite before the experiment started.
Each group was also instructed to write down any ideas that came to mind. These ideas had to be original, relevant to their writing projects, and had to have occurred to them within their last scheduled writing day.
Boice’s idea was to see which of the three groups had the most ideas. With his data Boice could finally answer the question:
Was inspiration a random thing outside our control, like the Greeks believed, or was it more like a dormant fire that could be made to blaze brightly if you continued to add fresh logs to it?
Boice found that between the three groups, the one who’d written each day under the threat of people they didn’t like getting their money had the most ideas.
They obviously wrote more than the other two groups, which by itself goes to show that to write all you need is to sit down and, well, write. However, as a side-effect of all that writing, the people in this group also had more ideas than those in the other groups.
Rather than being at the mercy of the whims of the Muses, the people in Boice’s study who got into the habit of writing daily managed to engineer an environment where inspiration and creativity was a habitual event.
As Boyce writes,
“Subjects who were ‘forced’ to write by a powerful external contingency not only produced more written copy but also generated more creative ideas for writing than did subjects who wrote spontaneously.”
Or, more succinctly:
“Creative inspiration is more likely to follow, than precede, productivity in writing.”
The notion of the Muses and of having to wait for inspiration to strike puts the cart before the horse.
By waiting to be inspired before you start writing or producing any sort of creative output, you are effectively starving yourself of the very activities that fuel your creativity.
English novelist Anthony Trollope lays out in his autobiography how absurd the notion that you need to be inspired before you start creating is when he notes that the shoemaker doesn’t wait for inspiration before he starts making shoes. The shoemaker is a professional; he wakes up, goes to his shop, and starts making shoes. There is no Muse for shoemaking, and the shoemaker doesn’t wait for her to appear before he gets to work.
The shoemaker is almost diametrically opposed to the archetypal image of the writer, who develops a drinking and drug problem and writes his novels in a coke-fueled binge of orgiastic proportions.
The shoemaker is a reliable worker. Were he to sit at his working station, staring at the ceiling as he waits for inspiration to strike him so he could start making the shoes people pay him to make he would soon find himself searching for a new job.
The shoemaker is admittedly not as inspiring a persona as the tortured writer, but it is exactly that which makes him a good model to follow.
We should all strive to be more like the shoemaker.
Rather than letting ourselves be taken up by the excuse that we need to be inspired to work (for that is what it is; an excuse), we must work to create our own inspiration, to make creativity as banal as making shoes.
This is where the results from Boice’s research offer a path forward. They show the wheels of creativity are greased by the regular exercise of writing; of putting your ass in the chair and stringing words together iteratively and regularly.
We become a veritable attractor of new ideas by writing regularly. By writing consistently, rather than haphazardly, we become a magnet to the iron filings that are original thoughts.
As Picasso is supposed to have said, “inspiration exists, but you have to find it working.”
Importantly, writing is writing, whatever its purpose and no matter who sees it.
To put Boice’s discovery into practice to become more creative you need only to start writing; there is no further requirement. Write for yourself; write scraps of notes about your thoughts on the many topics you’re interested in.
Reduce the activation energy required to start writing by making it clear to yourself that your words are for you alone and that no one else will get to see them. If you don’t write because a part of you keeps asking, “but what will other people think?”, just answer: “they won’t ever know about it”.
The goal is to just write: no more and no less. The simple act of putting pen to paper - or finger to keyboard - regularly is all it takes to be creative on demand.
Anything that happens to your words afterward is inconsequential, for their creation was the goal in itself.
They are but kindling to the bonfire of creativity.
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