What Does Creativity Feel Like?

View from the writing nook in a castle. Dublin, Ireland. © Christy Miles

It always amuses me when researchers try to pin down the “science” of creativity. Like this Fast Company review of a new book, 7 Surprising Facts About Creativity, According to Science. There’s nothing earth shattering here – 72% of people have creative insights in the shower? Okay. What else you got?

Call me naive or childish, but…why can’t we just let creativity be magical? Can’t we just let it happen and be? Do we have to analyze it to death? I am reminded of my days at Purdue, the starry-eyed writer surrounded by logical, scientific, linear-thinking engineers. One day, sitting outside at twilight on a hot summer day between classes with an engineer friend, a huge plane flew overhead. We sat in silence, watching it pass by. I couldn’t contain myself and said, “Wow, isn’t it amazing that a huge, heavy plane can just…fly??” My engineer friend immediately began to explain aerodynamics to me in pain-staking, exacting, excruciating detail. It’s how he was wired. I get it. 🙂

But I’m not wired that way. I’m wired for wonderment. Amazement. Appreciation. Observing. Synthesizing seemingly random data, words and visuals into new and different ideas. Detecting patterns and playing with new ways of constructing and organizing them. I don’t want to understand the science of creativity. I just want to feel it. Every damn day that I’m lucky enough to be here.

So what does creativity feel like?
Here is my feeble attempt to use words to describe it. I wish I was an artist so I could show you, but even my stick figures suck. So here goes: Continue reading “What Does Creativity Feel Like?”

Be more creative. Yes, you!

Do you see that guy? He's diving off of a platform about 120' up in the air into the ocean at Rick's Cafe in Jamaica. Creative? Stupid? Brave? You be the judge.
Do you see that guy? He’s diving off of a platform about 120′ up in the air into the ocean at Rick’s Cafe in Jamaica. Creative? Stupid? Brave? You be the judge. (I jumped off the 30′ cliff and was scared to death!!)

Being in a creative profession, I live, eat, sleep, breathe and dream creativity. It’s my job to be a master of my craft. I’ve spent 20+ years working on this – and every day I learn something new. That’s what I love about this journey that I’ve chosen to pursue. Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to meet interesting, creative, smart, cool people – and every one of them has a story. One refrain that I hear a lot is, “I’m not creative at all! How do you do what you do, especially in a short timeframe?”

I want to dispel any misconceptions right here, right now: creativity is a gift that we all have. It just looks different in everyone. I happen to make a living with my creativity, so I’ve dedicated a lot of my energy and time to understanding it. Creativity is a muscle that needs to be developed, trained and used. But the important thing to know is that we all have this muscle. Whenever someone tells me they are not creative, it makes me want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them and say, OH YES YOU ARE! 🙂

So if you’ve ever thought that you are not creative at all or wish to add more creativity in your life, here are 7 tips that have worked for me – and I hope they work for you, too.

Continue reading “Be more creative. Yes, you!”

the power of doing nothing

As a creative professional, I’m constantly faced with new challenges and decisions: what’s the best way to tell this brand story? What will resonate most with the audience? What will make them laugh, cry, comment on Facebook or order the product I am helping to market? What’s the best way to get all the different people on the project engaged and aligned? But the toughest challenge by far for any project I work on is this: where do I start?

This is where the power of doing nothing is absolutely critical. Everyone has a process that they use to get things done. I’m no exception. Doing nothing is a big part of my process, especially when I am faced with what seems to be an overwhelming task. I find that this has been helpful in even in my regular life. When I am most overwhelmed and uncertain where to begin, I start by doing…nothing.

I sit in my screened-in porch. I take in the swaying oak trees taller and older than I will ever be. I let the whoosh of the wind in the leaves wash over me. I watch the flash of the red cardinal darting in and out of the bushes. I listen for squirrels’ feet padding along the top of my neighbor’s falling-down wooden fence in desperate need of paint, then watch them chase each other in circles around my yard and up a tree. I watch my dopey 110-pound dog try to catch them, climbing damn near two feet up the tree with her huge claws dug into the bark as she strains every muscle in her neck to reach the squirrel chattering, taunting her from a branch one dog nostril out of her reach. I listen to music that moves me and baptizes my brain of everything but the rhythm and the pattern of the harmonies. As the lyrics wash over me, I feel the worry and the fear – Will I be able to do this? Will I find the right words? Will I ever find my way in to this story? Maybe I don’t have it anymore. Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe this is too much. Maybe I should give up. – all of that recedes as my brain powers down, forgets, feels, senses its way to…

…the answer I have been toiling to reach for hours or days to reach. It is murky and mysterious at first, I can’t make out what it is. So I make a grilled cheese sandwich, go sit down in the family room and stare out the bay window at the trees trying to see it until I smell something burning and remember I was making a grilled cheese sandwich. I toss it in the trash and walk the dopey dog around the pond. As I watch the ducks take flight from the water, tiny droplets falling from their webbed feet as they rise into the air in perfect unison, I feel the idea growing in me as sure as I felt my first-born flutter in my belly for the first time as I sat in a poetry reading 12 years ago. (He was stirred by the words, of this I am certain.) The idea is there. But it’s not ready yet. I’m not ready yet.

At six o’clock I make dinner and as I stir a pot of rice, my idea simmers as I wait for the water to boil. I sit at the dinner table and listen to tales of best friend sacrileges, Minecraft dramas, and remind everyone to keep their elbows off the table and put their napkins in their laps. I make sure homework is done, permission slips are signed, teeth are brushed, allergy medicine is consumed, and everyone is tucked in happy with all technology devices powered off and out of reach.

At midnight when the house is quiet and dark and no one needs me anymore, I drive to the grocery store and buy a case of Stella for me and a carton of Oreo Cookie Ice Cream for the kids and as I’m paying, the old, bored cashier with her spiky hairdo and bubblegum-pink lipstick and more gold bracelets than any human should be allowed to wear at one time surveys me in my sweats, t-shirt and converse sneakers with my beer and ice cream purchase and I know what she is thinking. This girl has just been dumped by the love of her life and is now off to drown and eat her sorrows away. I grin and shrug my shoulders in a sheepish “sorry no, these are my writing clothes” kind of way that writers learn to master over the years. And as I swipe my credit card – then dutifully swipe it again because I did it upside down the first time, the flicker of the idea flaps its tiny wings, becoming more clear, more recognizable as it slowly takes shape and floats to the surface, creating ripples of recognition.

I am ready to start. Ready to write. Ready to tackle that overwhelming challenge. I have found my way in.

I once attended a reading by David Sedaris, humorist, essayist, NPR speaker and one of my favorite authors (“Me Talk Pretty One Day,” among others). Afterwards, my friend and I waited in line for him to sign our books. After he scribbled a lewd drawing on my friend’s book for her twelve-year-old son and made a wisecrack I can’t repeat, I handed him my book and asked him what the toughest part was about writing funny. He told me about having to write a Thanksgiving dinner story for the New Yorker and how many times and ways he tried to start it. People behind me were impatient and muttering, but he took his time telling his story. I hung on every word. Finally he said, “The hardest part? Finding my way in.”

Next time you are feeling overwhelmed, unsure of where to start, try doing nothing. I hope you find your way in. Let me know how it goes.

How to avoid creative burnout

Once as a freelance marketing writer, I agreed to a ridiculously insane deadline. (As opposed to a regularly insane deadline.) At 4:36PM on a Thursday, I was asked to solve a huge creative conundrum by 8:30am the next day. I was provided with three previously failed concepts and asked to “make them all work.” Somehow, someway. And if I had time, (ha!) maybe I could also come up with “a few” concepts of my own.

This to me was akin to working with both arms tied behind my back and a coyote chewing on my foot. With a paycheck at the end if I could get my hands untied and kick the coyote to kingdom come.

I worked all night. By 8:27am, I met the parameters and the deadline. I had successfully compressed the creative process, but the results could have been so much better if I had just had more time. And sleep. This is an excellent recipe for creative burnout.

While there will always be crunch times and projects, it’s never good if your entire working life is one ridiculously insane deadline after another. If you don’t take control of your creative life and deadlines, burnout is inevitable. So to help save your sanity, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way…the hard way:

1. Don’t be afraid to abandon ideas. You might not be burnt out; maybe you’re simply tired of beating a dead horse. Sometimes you can find a way to make an idea work–some hidden angle or connection that comes with a fresh eye. But if it takes longer than say, 15 minutes, move on. You can always come back to it later–as in, for another project with a longer deadline and a completely different strategy.

2. Don’t taint the creative process. The worst thing you can do at the beginning of a new project is to focus on previous failed attempts. It’s like saying, “Ok, so here’s what didn’t work, what failed, what sucked. Now let’s find a way to make it work!”  Uh huh.

Start with the facts–the strategy, the objective, the primary goal or message. If the old ideas still have a shot, run with it. For 15 minutes. Then move on. Later you can ask what was tried before and what sucked, especially if you’re burnt out and need a giggle.

3. Ask for more time. It never hurts to ask what’s driving the deadline or if it’s a hard deadline. More often than not, you can get extra time–but not if you don’t ask up front. Sure, some of us “need” deadlines to get things done. And you shouldn’t be a diva, constantly pushing back on deadline requests. But if you don’t give yourself enough time to think and simmer, the process will take longer, you’ll be miserable and…hello, burnout!

4. Say no. I still remember my grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression, chiding me as a child for not eating my bread crusts, saying, “You never know when you might wish you had them.” This attitude permeates my work life, where I hate to say no to projects. But there are only so many things you can do at once before you lose your mind and your motivation.

It helps to “qualify your leads” ahead of time. Determine what your ideal sweet spot is for clients or projects–what’s most profitable for you? What’s your niche? Who is your ideal client? Define it all. Once you have these rules in place, it’s much easier to say no up front, before you overcommit or regret committing altogether.

5. Keep your creative warehouse full. All work and no play is the fastest way to drain your creativity. Read a little bit of everything you can get your hands on–blogs, magazines, newspapers, books, articles, white papers. Watch a little bit of everything you have time for–videos, vlogs, TV, movies. And most of all, be sure to get out from behind your desk and experience life. Live a little. It’s one of the best way to banish the creative burnout blues.

6. Identify your role in the insanity. I’ve already told you mine–I hate to turn down work, so I take on too much or too much of the wrong kinds of projects. It might be your fear of asking more questions or pushing back on direction that’s not clear. Analyze your last few crazy projects–what could you have done differently to make things less crazy?

7. Laugh. If you don’t, you’ll be crabby and crazy from your deadline. Boo hoo. So turn that frown upside down, call a funny friend, make fun of your worst concepts, crack a joke at your own expense. Creative relief, or at the very least, a little fun, is sure to follow.

How do you handle creative burnout when it happens? How do you prevent it? Enquiring minds want to know!