Recently I was asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s an excellent question, and one that made me chuckle. My immediate thought was, I worked for hours to wrestle that idea into shape! It didn’t just happen. When I considered the question a bit longer, my next thought was, I have no idea how my subconscious came up with that. I focused on a single image, and gradually, my mind worked out the rest.
Here’s the thing. We don’t get new ideas from logic. Adopting an attitude of playfulness is how we get in touch with our subconscious, yet most of us are conditioned to believe this kind of activity is “a waste of time” or “unproductive.”
The process of tuning into our intuition is counterculture. Workplace efficiency dictates that we arrive at the best possible decision in the least amount of time. The natural reaction to our fast-paced, profit-driven, time-obsessed society is that we’re constantly pressed into fight-or-flight mode. We leap to reason, often at the expense of suppressing our deepest feelings and creative impulses. If someone comes up with a clear solution quickly, that person is perceived to be more intelligent than someone who needs time to consider a problem from many angles and to take their time doing so.
In other words, if working out a solution takes time, we assume we’re doing it wrong.
As creatives, this is where we often get into trouble, stuck inside a vicious negative feedback loop in which the left hemisphere (our logical, analytical mind) dominates the right (our creative, intuitive mind). When we’re engaged in the creative process, our feelings, not our thoughts, are what guide us to truth. As soon as we allow doubts to creep in about the space (or time) required to give expression to those feelings, our Inner Critic wins – the voice that says, “You’re not good enough!” or “You’re not a writer!”
Our subconscious mind is temperamental. We can’t order it around or demand it to work for us a certain way. It exists in the deepest part of us, yet in a noisy culture, its subtle promptings are easily drowned out. Is it possible to ‘trick’ this essential component of our creative minds into working for us when we need it?
The answer is yes. Our creativity is like a muscle: the more it’s used, the stronger it grows.
John Cleese has a unique philosophy on the nature of creativity and inspiration. My tips are a summary of a number of talks he’s given about his creative experience and beliefs.
- Get quiet. Creative work demands that you set boundaries on your time and availability during those hours. Find a space you can devote solely to your writing. Then schedule specific times to write and unplug from distractions. It can take as long as twenty-five minutes to recover your concentration after an interruption. That’s a lot of wasted writing time. Recognize that your mind will start racing shortly after you sit down to write. That’s your supercharged right brain kicking in, tempting you to indulge in doing the simpler things you know how to do, rather than the important things you’re not sure about (like writing).
- Get comfortable with ambiguity, at least initially. Like infants, ideas don’t arrive fully-formed. They need time to develop. At this early stage, you may try to convince yourself your idea isn’t any good. Now is not the time to worry. Now is the time to play. The philosopher Alan Watts said, “You can’t be spontaneous within reason.” If you allow fear to grip you at this stage, you’re liable to kill your idea before it’s had a fighting chance. Just as you wouldn’t tell a kid “You’re not playing right!”, don’t tell yourself the same thing when you’re hatching an idea. Images need room to breathe and grow, and during this phase of creation, there’s no such thing as a mistake. Just as play is unpredictable, you won’t necessarily have quick clarity at this phase. Get used to living happily in confusion and not being clear about where your idea is headed. It’s a normal part of the process.
- Apply your critical mind once your idea is fully formed. When you’ve taken the time you need to flesh out your idea more completely, then you can decide whether it’s a good one or a bad one. Creativity is about making new connections inside a familiar context, and presenting those ideas in a fresh way. As artists, meaning is what we strive for. That’s our endpoint. Once we’re settled on the meaning behind our work, then it’s time to make a decision about whether or not our idea is a good one. Allowing ourselves time to arrive at this decision is the key to originality. Ingenuity can’t be rushed.
- You will have infertile periods. Don’t panic. Re-frame your thinking about these times and accept that they’re part of the process. Your subconscious mind is always at work, even when you aren’t connecting with it. Remember that maximum pondering time will lead to your most creative decisions.
- Trust your subconscious mind. Don’t order it around. Part of being a creative is learning how to coach and cajole your subconscious, to talk nice to it, and work with it. Keep your mind gently on the subject, Cleese says, and when you least expect it, your subconscious will reward you. Inspiration will strike. The Muse will whisper in your ear, though you might be in the shower or stirring spaghetti in the pot.
Our subconscious minds are powerful, more so than we imagine. Although I’m guilty of worrying about the amount of time it takes to develop a nascent idea into a fully-fledged story, recognizing when to allow my logical brain to impede on the creative process is vital. Play is essential. So is learning how to be comfortable with the ambiguity of the early stages of creation.
Part of respecting any idea is giving the creative process the time it deserves.
Trust your intuition. More than likely, it’s your subconscious mind trying to get your attention with your next bold idea.
Have any thoughts you’d like to share about your creative process? Drop me a line! I’d love to hear what works for you.