For many, the wish to create burns like a passion. The parents of Jimi Hendrix, for example, were told when he was young that his wish to own and play a guitar was so intense it was literally making him ill! Of course, some have their creative urges satisfied by their career or by raising their children. Others, however, live in constant frustration, abandoning novels half way through, flitting from instrument to instrument, all the time convinced that a creative fire lies hidden deep inside.
The Nature of Creativity
First, a distinction must be made between creativity and technical skill. Anyone can learn to play the guitar, arrange lines of verse, or dance the tango. But these are skills. And learning such skills, important though they are, will not make you creative. Skills and techniques can be taught, but creativity must bubble up from inside. Take poetry, for example. Imagine someone retires. He is bored and so decides to try writing it. He buys Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled and lots of other books with titles like Unlocking the Poet Within and A Practical Guide to Writing Poetry etc. From these books, he learns about meter and rhythm, about end-stopping and enjambment, alliteration and caesuras. And then, after six months of intensive study, tries to write. All day long he sits, pen in hand, before a blank sheet of paper, unable to think of a thing. His head is stuffed with good advice, but he finds it impossible to actually create.
One of the problems faced by those who yearn to be creative is the continuing influence of Romanticism. The Romantics – who originated in 18th century Europe and included such figures as Blake and Byron – objected to the new emphasis on reason and rationality. Instead, they favored passion and emotion, something which influences our attitudes towards art and creativity to this very day. Many seem to believe that all you need in order to be creative is passionate sincerity. They will start a watercolor or a Haiku in the belief that so long as they are intense enough, something wonderful will appear. It just doesn’t work like that. Creativity is not the same as technical skill, but it can be stimulated by it. And for any work to be good, it must be moulded through technical skill. In other words, no matter how many original, visionary ideas you have, if you can’t actually paint or write, your work will be a mess.
Divergent and Convergent Thinking
Divergent thinking, which means developing multiple solutions to a single problem, is key to creativity. So, for example, if you wished to measure the creativity of a child, you might give him a paper cup, put him in an empty room with nothing to do, and then see what games or ideas he invents. If he can see no other purpose than to drink out of the cup, he may not be very creative – at least, that is the theory. If the second child puts it on his head and pretends it’s a hat, however, or puts it to his ear and claims he can hear the sea, he may be more naturally creative than the first. The same is true of adults. Someone with a narrow, literal, uncreative mind, would be able to think of no purpose for a paperclip than to hold bits of paper together. Those with a more supple, flexible mind might suggest an earbud, toothpick, and so on.
Convergent thinking, on the other hand, means using logical steps to arrive at a solution. At one time, it was believed that creativity depended on divergent thinking alone. It is now believed, however, that the truly creative combine the two. In other words, it isn’t just a question of the brilliant, chaotic, divergent thinkers creating the sculptures and music while the narrow, dull “convergers” do the organizing and planning. So be sure to practise both forms of thinking.
Open and Receptive
Creative people also tend to be open and receptive. A good example of this can be found in Aldous Huxley’s classic work The Doors of Perception, which provides a fascinating insight into the way perception can be altered. Of course, Huxley was detailing the effect of the drug mescaline. But he also suggests that the brain acts as a filter. Or, as Huxley puts it, “a reducing valve.” Under the influence of mescaline, however, this reducing valve was by-passed and Huxley was nearly overwhelmed. Everything appeared more intensely and vividly there and seemed charged with meaning and significance. Huxley also refers a great deal to artists and poets in the work. In his view, writers like Wordsworth and Blake, or painters like Vermeer, lived as though permanently under the influence of such drugs. In other words, they were more open and receptive than the rest of us.
Be curious, receptive and open-minded. Make a point of always trying new things – of being a yes-sayer. The creative allow their world to be shaken up occasionally. They are curious, and they are fearless. New experiences stimulate new thoughts, new ideas, and new ways of looking at the world. “Perception” really is the key word here. And your perception of the world can also be affected by the people you mix with. Just as you should be open to new experiences, so you should be open to new people, especially people you wouldn’t normally encounter.
Of course, most would shy away from mind-altering drugs. In any case, mindfulness may prove just as effective. This technique, borrowed largely from Buddhist meditation, is immensely popular right now. Indeed, it has been hailed as the solution to everything from anxiety and stress to boredom and depression. But it may also fuel creativity. Numerous guides have been published, but in essence mindfulness involves rapt attention to the present moment, to everything that arises and passes through consciousness, without labelling or judging it. Above all, it means detaching yourself from your thought patterns, especially when they involve the past or future. Instead, you shift consciousness into the here and now, thus experiencing the world with the freshness and vividness Huxley describes.
Mindfulness can also create an inner peace and calm. And this is vital, since creativity flows in large part from the subconscious. Poets, for example, will often begin a poem, meditate on the subject and form, and then set it aside, literally waiting for it to take shape in their subconscious. Some even find themselves waking in the middle of the night with the poem fully formed. In his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves recalls meeting the great English novelist Thomas Hardy, who told him he was once gardening (a calm, mindful activity in its own right) when the idea for a new novel flashed into his mind. He saw it in a sort of vision, complete with plot, characters, and even dialogue. He also felt, instinctively, that this would be his best. But, wanting to finish his pruning, he carried on. By the time he returned to the house, he’d forgotten it all!
It may even help to begin your creative pursuit by trying a little mindful meditation. Imagine you are about to paint a watercolor. The more anxious you are, the more distracted by thoughts of Monday’s job interview or the row you had with your husband, the less focussed you will be. Begin with some deep breathing, eyes closed. Now become aware of your thoughts. Don’t judge or label them, just allow them to pass through consciousness, observing them as you would observe the clouds passing through the sky. Past and future are illusions created by the mind. Only this moment is real – this canvas and these paints. You might even try allowing the painting (or poem, or whatever it may be) to form itself, giving the subconscious free rein to take over and guide the paintbrush or pen.
In the near future, we may find new ways of unlocking creativity. According to Professor Michael Bess, a specialist in the history of science, humanity is about to enter the “age of bioenhancement,” in which we will improve and extend our lifespans and capabilities, including intelligence and creativity. This will be fuelled in part by our ever-increasing knowledge of the human brain. It is often said, for example, that the human race has learnt more about the brain in the 21st century than in the whole of human history. And that includes those parts of the brain involved in creativity.
In his book The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science is Changing Our World, Zack Lynch writes: “As neurotechnology advances, we will have the ability to work backward, to reverse-engineer the experiences generated by art and use some future variant of fMRI to tell us how to construct great songs, plays, and paintings.” Indeed, even today there are so-called nootropic drugs available to sharpen and focus the mind. And even concert pianists have begun using medications traditionally prescribed for ADHD!
In the future, however, it seems certain that newer, safer, and more effective nootropics will appear. There may even come a time when anyone can choose to create almost any kind of art with the aid of such drugs. This area of neuroscience is known as “neuroesthetics.” And, as Lynch puts it, “a day will come when, for some, becoming a great artist will mean learning the fundamentals of neuroesthetics,” adding that “new forms and styles of artistic creativity will emerge that have not been conceived of yet.”
This approach, which some no doubt find cold and reductive, suggests that creativity depends largely on networks in the brain rather than some sort of divine inspiration. Again, this seems repellent to us because we still have a Romantic view of creativity. But it can be understood in the same way as any other human activity – and maybe brought under our control.