We create a lot of things.
Caroline and I write all the non-fiction content for this site, we produce our own fiction writing, we record a podcast, I draw a webcomic, she does freelance webdesign work, the list goes on. As a result a question we get asked a lot by friends is how in the world we manage to come up with ideas for everything.
Being creative isn’t a talent or something magical, it just comes down to having the right kind of processes and systems to keep things rolling. Here’s the basic system we follow that helps us keep the creative ideas flowing.
Five Steps to Creativity
Usually when creativity comes up as a topic it tends to get talked about in semi-fanciful, artsy kinds of ways as though it’s a kind of mystical force or divine blessing. In reality, creativity is more about showing up and putting the work in, just like everything else is.
These are the five steps that we use to make sure we do just that.
Absorb Ideas, Experiences, and Content – A large part of creating something new is finding inspiration. Again not in a mythological muse sense where it’s suddenly bestowed upon you, but by absorbing enough ideas that you’re able to see connections between things where you didn’t see them before. Creativity doesn’t happen in a void – you need to take in material before you can generate your own.
Now if you’re working on creating something specific – developing a novel, painting a picture, writing a song, etc. – then you can focus in a little on devouring things relevant to that area. If you’re writing a sci-fi novel, read science fiction books, and watch science fiction TV and movies, and play science fiction video games. It’s usually a good idea to focus in on the best examples of whatever area you’re focusing on, but sometimes you can find inspiration or learn a valuable lesson from looking at terrible examples of things as well.
You should also always have a broad goal of taking in as many ideas and experiences and things as possible overall. Not only will this help you to generate new ideas when you’re not working on a specific niche but sometimes creativity comes from finding that connection between two disparate ideas. Writing a science fiction space war story but inspired by the mythological Hero’s Journey and old samurai films? Congratulations you just came up with Star Wars.
Deconstruct and Play with the Material – The next step is to take all that material you’ve absorbed and to pull it all apart and tinker with it.
Look at each thing in turn and try to figure out what makes it so great, why you or other people enjoy it so much, what techniques the creator used to develop it and why you think they did so. It is possible to over analyze things but in general the more you can pull everything apart the better.
Once you’ve done that start mixing things up and playing around with all of it. How is this piece of material similar to this other one? How are they different? What connections can I make between this thing and that other thing? Questions like these help spark those little insights that lead to the type of consistent creativity we’re after.
Allow Things to Cook – Walking away from a project for a little while is one of the best ways to reset your mind so you can come back to it with renewed creativity. Whatever thing you’re working on set it aside for a little while and work on something completely different, or maybe even on nothing at all. The point is to get it out of your conscious mind so that it can cook for a while in the unconscious parts of your brain.
Different projects will benefit from different amounts of time spent left alone. As a rule I always let each piece of fiction I write sit for at least one month before I come back to it to begin the editing process. Sometimes deadlines prohibit you from putting things on the back burner for too long, but any time you can step away for a while it’s a good idea to do it.
Be Receptive to Sparks – All of that absorption, deconstruction, and time spent letting things stew in your unconscious is going to be for nothing if you’re not ready when the ideas jump back out at you. All of the steps up to this one are built around priming your brain to have those little sparks of inspiration, to have an idea suddenly pop into your head making a new connection or seeing something from a new angle. You have to be ready for it.
In the past I would’ve recommended carrying around a little notebook, and you can certainly still do that if you want to feel old school or just have an affinity for that sort of thing, but it’s the age of the smartphone now. There are plenty of excellent ways to record ideas so you don’t lose them later. I’m a big fan of Evernote so I use that a lot to record ideas that come to me when I’m doing other things. I take thirty seconds to jot the idea down in there when it comes to me (make sure you put down enough notes, I’ve lost several ideas wondering what in the hell I had meant by single-sentence ideas I had put down) and then review them all later when you have the time. I also like to use the voice recorder if ideas come to me while I’m driving since typing on your phone and driving simultaneously is a very bad idea.
Get Feedback – One of the biggest advantages Caroline and I have for being creative is that we have each other.
Having another person to bounce ideas off of, to look at things from a different perspective, and to critically evaluate the things you’ve come up with so far is an invaluable part of being creative. You effectively double the chances of being able to come up with something if you’ve been struggling with it for a while.
It can be a friend, a spouse, something like a writer’s group, or even something online like Reddit. Any opportunity you have to get good feedback from someone is a huge benefit.
This process definitely isn’t the only way to boost your creativity, but we’ve found it does help immensely.
In the end being creative and coming up with new ideas is almost never about coming up with something new out of thin air – it’s about making connections between ideas where no one has before or in a way that no one’s considered.
Do you have your own system for generating consistent creativity? Have you struggled with being creative or finding inspiration in the past? Leave a comment and share with everyone!