Can You Force Creative Work?

When I sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, it can become anything. I might sketch a scene, draw a cartoon, write a poem, write a joke or make notes for a book. But more often than not, that blank piece of paper stays a blank piece of paper.

Creative block is not something that happens to me once a month or even once a week. It happens almost every day. It’s almost as if when I wake up I have to make a choice, an analytical day or a creative day. Most days, by default, I have to make the left brain analytical choice. My day job is more important right now than poems or drawings.

In the evening, after work, it’s always a struggle to turn off the programmer and turn on the artist. But if I don’t do it, I’ll never get any of the things I enjoy done.  I’m trying to teach myself to switch between my left and right brain tendencies at will. This is more difficult than it might sound. It’s like your body going from burning carbohydrates to burning fat. There’s a period where you haven’t yet started producing ketones from the fat but you’ve used up all of the glucose stores in your body. You feel miserable and useless and just want to give up.

So to make the transition as quick and painless as possible, I usually try to jumpstart the process. This means reading someone else’s poems, looking through a comic book or watching a stand up show. Anything to spark an idea or give me a prompt.

Another thing that helps jump start the creative battery is photography. You don’t have to use a fancy camera. A phone will do. Just go through your kitchen or neighborhood and try to take a photograph that tells a story.

If the above methods fail, I’ll try freewriting. I’ll just write down whatever comes to my mind without filtering anything. This is often the most effective way to start getting creative ideas quickly because you’re entering into a diffuse mode of thinking where you are letting your subconscious do the thinking.

Whatever you choose, if it isn’t working, try something else from a different angle. Eventually you’ll hit upon something that will open up your mind.

Creativity in Motion

Boredom can eat away at your enjoyment of a day. That’s why when I walked into my son’s room the other day and saw him listening to music and staring blankly at the wall, I knew something had to be done.

Usually when I hear the words “I’m bored” from my kids I take it as an opportunity to remind them of all the chores they have put off doing. But this time I pitied the boy and decided to work with him on some ideas for interesting projects.

Here is the list of things I mentioned he might enjoy:

  1. Create wall art for his bedroom. He enjoys drawing and is actually quite good. I encouraged him to make a large version of a smaller drawing he had already done. Then we could frame it and hang it.

    My son’s hand drawn Hollow Knight fan art.
  2. Make origami. He has dabbled in origami in the past so I thought this could be a good opportunity to get back into it. I recently bought a pack of origami papers to practice with and have on hand for the kids.

  3. Painting miniature figures. He likes fantasy and miniatures games already. He could get a game that comes with figures or buy them separately.

  4. Build PVC weapons or other crafts. PVC is cheap and readily available. There are some really cool things you can do with it.

  5. Build model planes, boats or cars. I had fun building plastic models and painting them when I was a kid. You can find models that can be glued or snapped together. The real fun and creativity is when you custom paint your model. It takes time and a steady hand but can be rewarding.

Basically, I was looking for something that would be a challenge but something he could do mostly on his own. Anything that would be more than just a flash-in-the-pan activity. In the end he choose PVC weapons.

Over the next two days we had a great time building a PVC sword and dagger.  Although I helped buy materials and gave a little instruction on measuring and cutting and painting, this was a project done primarily by my son. I wanted it this way so that he would have something enjoyable that he could do any time and could get his creative juices flowing.

I could tell he was having fun creating something of value to him. As he built his projects he kept telling me about his other ideas for more PVC projects. That’s what I was hoping for; something to spark his creativity and thinking. Something to get the ball rolling and keep his mind busy.  Creativity in motion tends to stay in motion while creativity at rest tends to stay at rest.

Creativity in motion tends to stay in motion while creativity at rest tends to stay at rest. Click To Tweet

 

Speaking Better by Speaking More

Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of speaking to a leadership class with three of my colleagues from the GIS world. We were tag team speaking since our two separate GIS systems share data and we work together from time to time on projects.

I’m not the world’s greatest speaker. It’s not that I don’t have great things to say. But when it comes to delivery, I often feel less than adequate. There’s a psychological boost that you get from speaking with a team of people though. When you’re up there by yourself you have to have all the answers but when you have someone with you, you have a fallback.

After my speaking segment I was able to sit and watch the others present. It’s beneficial to watch others speak on your same subject because it shows you that all the stumbling, bumbling and uncomfortable pauses are common among normal people who are called on to speak in public. The key to getting better and reducing those problems is to do it more.

Better Creativity Through Better Rest

I haven’t been sleeping well lately. It’s partly my fault since I’ve been staying up late watching pointless TV shows on Hulu. When I do go to bed I end up thinking too much. I usually come up with ideas that I feel I have to write down. So I get up and write them. Or worse, I use my note taking app on my phone. That kind of late night screen time, even a few seconds, just wakes me up too much. Unfortunately, this behavior can be a detriment to creativity. 

I used to not even bat an eye at not getting enough winks. But it’s been affecting me more lately. When I’m tired and sluggish I have little capacity for creative thinking or doing. I’m OK working on left brain analytical projects which is a lot of what I do for my job. It’s after work when I have time to write, build or edit that I find myself flagging with little motivation to do the things I really want to do.

I started thinking about this today after coming across an article on the London School of Economics and Political Science Review website (LSE). The article asserts that creativity isn’t a fixed commodity. It waxes and wanes based on several factors including rest and stress.

Stress is another big creativity killer for me. I get really nervous when preparing to speak publicly. When I’m prepping to give a talk, that’s about all I can do. Forget writing poetry or sketching something the night before an event.

After a stressful event, my mind relaxes and it more easily shifts to creative endeavors. The same thing happens when I’m more rested from adequate sleep. The key, according to the LSE article authors, is in allowing physiological recovery, primarily through sleep.

Of course this isn’t anything new. Last year I read an excellent book called Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Pang makes the case for not only a good night’s sleep but resting throughout the day to allow your mind the time it needs to work on problems and ideas subconsciously. There’s a lot more to his book and I highly recommend you read it. It’s one of the rare books that I actually read all the way through.

Ultimately, the point is that we’re much more creative and productive when we aren’t running ourselves too hard. Putting in more hours to the detriment of rest and reflection will only make you less effective at what you’re doing.

Now I have to heed this advice, keep Hulu off at night and get more sleep.

Dare to Sketch

I’ve always done my sketching and drawing in lined notebooks or on plain printer paper. I’ve never bought a sketch book. I must have been scared to make less-than-perfect drawings in something that costs more than, well, free.

If you draw on a sheet of paper you can just crumple it up and throw it away if you don’t like it. In a sketch book, you’re committed.

Fear of imperfection is a terrible thing. It’s hard to overcome. It can affect all areas of your life. And it can keep you from realizing your life’s full potential. Even if you’ve determined not to let fear rule you, it often creeps up stealthily. I see this fear in myself when I don’t want to commit imperfect code to GitHub. I even recognize fear when I keep interrupting myself while starting a good book. I’m afraid I might not be able to understand it or finish it or accomplish what it’s trying to teach.

Fear of imperfection is a terrible thing. It’s hard to overcome. It can affect all areas of your life. And it can keep you from realizing your life’s full potential. Click To Tweet

A book I found recently at the library has started to change the way I think about sketch books. Dare to Sketch: A Guide to Drawing on the Go, by Felix Scheinberger is a great motivator for starting to sketch in an actual book. Scheinberger gives the reader permission to make mistakes with sketches and to not make the images perfect.

Sketching isn’t fine art. It’s a way to capture the world around you in a personal pictorial narrative. Scheinberger emphasizes the personal aspect of sketching. It’s for you and no one else. These are your own private drawings, almost like a journal, that documents your own private artistic journey.

Sketches may be personal and private but of course you can show them if you want to. Scheinberger puts plenty of his own sketches in the pages of his book. It’s encouraging to see just how imperfect they are. By seeing the author’s rough line work and often disproportionate shapes, it gives the reader confidence to start sketching even if they don’t think they’re very good.

So I went out and got a sketch book. I’m determined to use it as an exploration tool for my drawing art. It won’t be a “public” book so I can make terrible sketches and not worry about what other people think. Instead, the challenge will be in not judging myself too harshly.

The Game of Everest

I love it when my kids go from “I’m bored” to “I’m making a board game”. This is one my older son prototyped with cardboard. It’s called Everest and the premise is that you’re part of a mountain climbing party trying to reach the summit.

The cool thing about it is that it’s a cooperative game so you’re not trying to battle each other. Each player has health, hunger and warmth points that go up or down based on cards you draw when you land on certain parts of the board. Even if your character dies, you can win the game if someone else on your team makes it to the top.

It’s kind of like a monumental Chutes and Ladders type of game only instead of playfully being sent down a slide, you starve, get hypothermia and get buried by an avalanche.

Taking Time To Tinker

In his famous lectures on creativity, John Cleese says that if you play around with a problem and put off calling it done for a while, you’ll often come up with a better solution than if you simply took the first solution that came to you.

Tinkering with an idea or a map or a code base is a great way to not only develop it but to develop it into something better than it had been before. It’s taking something that could be called complete but then further playing with it and manipulating it until it becomes something else.

This is an approach I take with application and code I’ve written. Even after I’ve finished a project, I’ll let it sit for a while and then come back to it. When I do, I try to reimagine its uses or how it can be written. I went through this process today with a code module I had written over a year ago. With fresh eyes I was able to play around with the code. I asked myself why something was written a certain way. I tried things like stripping out important lines of code just to see if it would improve performance in other areas. I also had fun seeing just how massively I could make the code fail.

The result of my playing around with my code wasn’t as dramatic as an entirely new application. But I was able to reduce its size and rewrite parts of it more elegantly. Well worth the time it took to tinker.

The Power of Story

This pencil sketch was hand drawn by my 10 year old son yesterday. He’s been reading a lot from the Warriors book series by the multiplicitous and pseudonomous Erin Hunter. After each book he tends to get inspired to create fan art like this. Now, he’s a great artist but it’s still hard to get a 10 year old boy to sit long enough to put in that amount of detail. It goes to show how a powerful story can be the genesis of further creation.

How Observation Influences Art

For my birthday yesterday I went to a lecture by mixed media artist Mary Robinson called Shifting Perspective. She talked about the role  our environment and experiences play in making art.

www.marysdrawings.com
I sat next to this enormous print during the talk. It was either inspired by the swamps in the authors home state of South Carolina or a crime scene in CSI New Orleans.

The writeup in the paper for the lecture used the word observation to describe this. However, I found it interesting that Mary never used the word observation in her talk (unless I was hearing but not really listening). We so often go through our days seeing things without really observing them. It takes a concious shift in thinking to truly observe our surroundings and understand what we’re seeing.

This is the same concept Maria Konnikova writes about in her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. I wrote a post about this book a few years ago and just started re-reading it earlier this week. It surprised me to spot the apt description of this lecture in the paper on the morning of the talk.

We see things every day but we rarely observe. Yet true mindfulness and observation of our surroundings and interactions are so important for everyone from photographers to programmers and everyone in between. It allows you to discover new ideas, methods of implementation and more efficient strategies to accomplish goals. At the very least you’ll get better at Trivial Pursuit.

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Mastermind

I often go to the library to try and find something entertaining, intriguing or just different. Last week I found just the thing. It was a book called Master-Mind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. Now this is the kind of book I love to find. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to think like the famous detective of 221B  Baker Street?

The title itself intrigued me enough to take it home right away. It promised to free my mind from being common and show me how to be a logical processing machine. Perhaps I could become as great a thinker as Holmes was portrayed to be in his stories.

I won’t go into a deep book review here. If you want to know the details you will have to read it yourself.  I will tell you, however, that after reading the entire thing, my brain is not yet governed by a Holmes-like system of thinking. I have not yet mastered the skills of observation, imagination or deduction that it takes to become a master thinker. But I am further along that road than before reading Mastermind. Many of the book’s insights have actually already helped me solve problems with my programming using the methods that Holmes used to solve his own puzzles.

The book was a fun read. I would encourage you to buy a copy or go to the library and check it out.