Techniques for Greater Creativity

By. A. Michael Shumate


When given a new creative assignment, many professionals will sit at their drawing tables, pianos or favorite chair and think hard until they come up with an idea–or several ideas. The novices in the same situation will often take the first idea they come up with and run with it, often, only to find out later in the process that their particular idea was lacking in some way. Typically, those beginners will just forge ahead philosophically thinking, “you win some, you lose some.”

How sad. How unnecessary.

Other creative professionals–the ones we read about in trade journals—seem to never strike out at the plate. They only bat home runs. They never appear to be saying to themselves, “can-I-come-up-with-an-idea?” but instead, “which-of-these-great-ideas-do-I-have-to-discard?”

What special genius do they have? Or is there a special creative skill that they’ve learned? Have they learned a creative skill that others can also learn with practice? Here are some ideas to increase your creative output.

Working at Creativity

Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Of course, some wise guy will counter, “But who wants sweaty ideas?”

While it is often admitted that ideas are the result of work and discipline, such ideals are mostly just given lip service, and there remains in many people a quietly held gut conviction that creativity is some indefinable mystical process that not only can’t be examined, but shouldn’t be examined, lest the magical spell be broken and the erring individual be banished outside the ethereal realm of creativity.

Although you can’t force creativity, there are many things that you can do to increase it in your work.

Don’t Kick Against the Limitations

The novice and the amateur usually equate true creativity with the lack of limitations, the absence of rules. Unfortunate for them, true creativity can’t be manifested unless there are constraints.

There are always limitations with creative problems. It is just a fact of life. Working within the limitations of budget, deadline, media restrictions are always there.

When a composer creates a marvelous new piece of music, the same 12 notes were used that have been around for millennia. When a poet or lyricist comes up with a turn of phrase that expresses something better than anyone ever did before, no new words have to be invented. When a painter captures an image that in turn captures the hearts or imaginations of thousands, no new colors are required. Just the new application of the medium in a way never accomplished before.

If we stop thinking of creativity as something that has to be new, but instead, recognize that true creativity is the act of solving problems, we will be much farther on the road to creative wisdom.

Holding Onto Ideas

Many writers keep notebooks. Composers might use recordings or notebooks. Like many other visual artists, I keep sketchbooks and have quite a stack of them by now. When I am ready to create an illustration to solve a client’s problem, I go through my sketchbooks and look through the ideas I’ve already had independently. I am always amazed at concepts that I have recorded in my sketchbooks because often I have no memory whatsoever of having had that idea. And yet it is recorded there in my sketchbook. The weakest ink is better than the best memory.

Sometimes I find just the solution I need in an existing sketch. But even if I don’t find a ready-made solution in my sketchbooks, reviewing the sketchbooks helps me to come up with new ideas to solve the problem. I consider the sketchbooks a quick start to a solution-making frame of mind. 

Keeping things you’ve already created is a good habit. Even if they are not adopted for the specific problem at hand, they can still be perfect for some future problem. I prefer to think of it in more mystical terms: give an idea a good home or it will go somewhere else.

The Back Burner

My father was once head chef at a resort in Maine. One of the dishes he invariably received complements on was his Chicken Imperial. People raved about it.

His closely guarded secret recipe was this: he bought some old stewing hens, which he threw into a giant pot with a few onions, some wine and left it to simmer on the back burner for a couple of days. After that, the two chunks of breast easily came off the birds as whole units, which he wrapped and froze. The remainder of the meat was used for chicken salad. The broth was left on the back burner for a few more days and condensed into an extremely flavorful sauce. This was divided into appropriate portions and frozen also. When someone ordered Chicken Imperial, a portion of meat and a portion of sauce were micro-waved and, voila! Chicken Imperial.

The special ingredient was not thyme but time.

Time can be a crucial element in any creative endeavor. I have asked my students if they have ever come up with a superior creative solution after they have submitted the project or so late in the project that they could not switch to the superior idea. Almost every student has had that happen.

What they were experiencing was their own brain’s “back burner.” When you undertake a problem directly and deeply, you engage your conscious mind, of course. But you also engage your subconscious mind. After the conscious mind has put the problem aside or even decided on a course of action, the subconscious mind will continue to work on the issue.

Albert Einstein said, “As one grows older, one sees the impossibility of imposing your will on the chaos with brute force. But if you are patient, there may come that moment when, while eating an apple, the solution presents itself politely and says, ‘Here I am!’"

The problem is that you can’t rush the brain’s back burner. It takes time. Cooking that chicken on a higher heat for a shorter time just wouldn’t get the same results.

So the solution is to get fully engaged in your problems as soon as you can, not as late as you can. If you don’t get immersed in the problems early, you can’t employ the back burner. And that’s a shame, because it’s free and usually gives you better ideas than your first ideas were.

Creativity is not luck nor is it the goddesses breathing ideas into you. It is work, but approached intelligently, you ca learn to be more creative. When you’ve learned that, it is the most satisfying kind of work.

This article may be freely reprinted as long as the copyright notice and credit block below remains intact.

©2006 A. Michael Shumate

Author of “Success In The Arts: What It Takes to Make It in Creative Fields”

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