May 13, 2012


I've created products, illustrations, and now stories. Those who have hired me, referred me, and beta read with me may have some choice words to say about my bold demeanor, but they will all say that my strongest quality is my creativity.

Sometimes I think that's a wonderful thing. Other times I think I'd rather be a bit more in check--more able to hold my tongue, or less passionate in my opinions. But we are what we are. My husband brought a speech to my attention last week that is perhaps the VERY BEST speech I have ever heard on creativity, where it comes from, and how to cultivate it.

Who gave this speech? Why, none other than John Cleese. He's the only guy who could make a hundred light bulb jokes while giving a serious lecture on the nature and basis of creativity. Plus fart noises. I'm serious, you have to watch it to believe it.

As some of you may know, I'm still new to this whole writing thing. Granted, I wrote my first words at four years old, but it wasn't until nine months ago that I started writing my first novel. So I consider myself still very much in the learning, growing, creative phase of a new endeavor. This phase is riddled with anxiety. Fuzzy uncertain moments. Flipping stomachs. This is a state of being I'm well accustomed to.

As a product designer, I lived in the flux of creative decisions. When you design a product, you do not run with the first idea that pops into your mind. Well, some people do, but unless they're narcissistic billionaires you are unlikely to find their product on the shelf. When you design a product, you need options. The skill is in generating alternatives at every single step of the process. Only by generating alternatives can you arrive at the right mix of qualities, features, materials, and manufacturing processes.
A Product Development Board
Cleese discusses this process in hilarious detail. In his words, "Having a new idea is about connecting two separate ideas in a way that generates meaning." What he's referencing is the concept of lateral thinking, a creative thinking technique heralded by Edward De Bono , one of the great teachers of creative thinking. If you haven't read his books, do yourself a favor and grab them.

Lateral thinking is all about generating alternatives. One of my favorite techniques is random word stimulation--sounds fancy, but really it just means shutting your eyes and flipping to a word in the dictionary. Use that word to solve your problem.
A product design example: How should the toothbrush flex?
Random word: Carrot
Solutions: Maybe there are multiple flexible strands between the handle and the head, like greens atop a carrot. Or maybe there are rubbery ridges ringing the handle, acting as a spring, like orange carrot flesh. You can see how I could go on and on here, I'm sure. Granted, not all words are awesome fodder. I recommend using a children's dictionary to remove the odd words. Use the definition as well as the word to spur ideas.

The same method for generating alternatives applies to writing. You can use random words to generate solutions for plot holes, character traits, setting details, descriptive phrases, etc. Thinking laterally keeps you from trudging down the same straight path with no success. It keeps you from thinking linearly, and lets your brain hop to the solutions hiding off in the bushes.
An Ideation Map
These techniques are part of my creative process. My husband often laughs about the way I write--he says it's unlike any writer he's known. I write the same way I design. What matters is arriving at the solution. Words rise and fall along the way. I'm not particularly attached to them at the letter-level. I've been known to chop more words than I write in a day. The feeling is exhilarating. Yes, of course it makes me anxious. But I know that nervous feeling means I'm on to something. The good work is coming.

John Cleese talks about this feeling how it's essential to creativity. I'm paraphrasing here:
The most creative people are prepared to tolerate that slight anxiety that we all experience when we are facing a problem . . . an internal agitation that makes us just plain uncomfortable. And so in order to avoid it we make a decision, not because it's the best decision, but because taking it will make us feel better. Well, the most creative people have learned to tolerate that discomfort.

So if you have that sick feeling in your stomach, good for you. Stick it out. The good work is coming. You can watch a complete video of John Cleese's speech here:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...