How to Decide What to Do with Your Creativity
Two Starting Points to Discover Your Creative Inspiration: Collect and Remix
When it comes to creativity, some incredibly successful artists will give you the very honest secret to success:
This type of quote is honest because that’s how they got to where they are today — it did all start with one piece of work. (And then another, and another!)
However, a quote like “Just start,” may also leave you with a bajillion other questions.
One of those next questions, when you want to start, is probably something like:
“What do I actually want to do?”
If you have no idea what you want to do, you can start by collecting references. For example, you could make a list of your favorite 10 pieces of work — perhaps in one format (e.g., “10 favorite blog posts under 1,000 words,” or “5 reports that I liked” or “3 things that made me feel happy”).
The theme for the list may start very ephemerally, like a feeling, or with an experience, a song, a story, or an object of some sort. This is the first phase of the creative process, which is all about preparation:
For example, in The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp writes of the importance of coming across ideas and memories. This can be done through re-creating other people’s work (known in writing as copywork), studying old photographs and documents, and visualizing the future.
Of course, this is just the beginning. She writes, “Creativity is more about taking the facts, fictions, and feelings we store away and finding new ways to connect them. What we’re talking about here is metaphor.” This stage of the creative process is all about making new connections between previously unrelated ideas.
Tharp uses a file box as the container for each creative project, in which she puts in index cards with her goals for the project, as well as the research and references she comes across. In other words, this is how she organizes her ideas, She writes, “The box is the raw index of your preparation. It is the repository of your creative potential, but it is not that potential realized.”
You may use a file box like Tharp does (she uses a banker’s box), or some other sort of container. You could also use a vision board, a Pinterest board, or something else. I use a box full of 4x6 note cards.
This process is organic and generative. Keep gathering references until you find the common thread, or the throughline, of what you want to do. If you still can’t decide what to do yet, just start making some versions of it and let go of the outcome. Like Shantell Martin says, discover your process through repetition.
To Get Started, Loosen Up
The next step is to actually start making something from the list or box of references; in other words, remixing it. You may want to choose a format at this point, and decide, “Okay, from this list, I’m going to write a story of the time I felt this way,” or “I’m going to create an image from these characters and colors.”
Creativity requires a simple, but different, approach than most of the work we’re used to. For example, you might be super successful at your day job because you’re obsessed with results. But with the creative process, sometimes you’ll make the progress when you actually let go of the outcome and focus on the process. For example, consider a lesson Richard Feynman learned when he started drawing:
In his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recalls an art class when he was told, repeatedly to “loosen up.” He writes, “I figured that made no more sense than telling someone who’s just learning to drive to ‘loosen up’ at the wheel. It isn’t going to work… I resisted this perennial loosen-up stuff.”
Feynman was then instructed to draw without looking at the paper. He kept his eyes on the model, not looking at what he was doing with the pencil. The first time he did it, his pencil broke at the very beginning and he had nothing but impressions in his paper. The second time he did it, he was impressed with the results, noticing a “funny, semi-Picasso like strength” in his work.
Something clicked. Feynman realized that he knew that it would be impossible to draw well without looking at the paper, so he didn’t consciously try. He writes, “I had thought that ‘loosen up’ meant ‘make sloppy drawings,’ but it really meant to relax and not worry about how the drawing is going to come out.”
Some creators call this part of the process “magic,” for this reason. They can’t explain it, but somehow (through meditation, prompts, and perhaps other elixirs or stimulants), they’ve finally let go of all the baggage and minutiae of the day-to-day, and they can tap into a universal truth about themselves. In other words, in writing for themselves, they write for others.
As cartoonist Scott Adams says, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Don’t do both phases at once — if you’re just getting started, focusing on letting yourself be creative. The editing and art will come later.
Do It Every Day, and Allow the Answer to Come to You
As you collect more material, and start remixing them and processing them yourself, you’ll realize that you may have a few answers — or possibilities — of what you want to do creatively.
You can choose from these options however you like. You can go with what you feel the most conviction for, or what other people have given you the strongest reaction for. You could also flip a coin, or roll a dice.
Once you’ve decided to try one, you may need a structure like #The100DayProject, #100DaysofPractice, or SketchDaily, or the 250 Box Challenge, in order to get your reps in. But eventually, new ideas will come up in your brain. You just need to write them down, and put them into that box that Tharp suggests.
As you start doing, you may realize that the choice you made wasn’t the best one for you. For example, when I talked to #The100DayProject facilitator Lindsay Jean Thomson for my book, she said that her first 100 day project was taking a photo each day. She soon realized that writing suited her better. Still, Jean Thomson fulfilled her 100 days of photography.
You may also realize that, after a few days of practice, it really becomes the best (or second best, or third best) part of some of your days. This isn’t necessarily meant to be a lasting, permanent, “I’ve found the thing!” but rather, “I’ve found something.” As you keep on creating, you’ll discover why a person labeled a “creative genius” would tell you to just start:
There is no right way to do this, and everyone starts somewhere.
Start collecting work that inspires you. Make sure you have a place to put all your references, and that’s where you’ll put all the notes and sketches you make as you go. Do small projects that you can finish in a short time — perhaps in one or two days. Start making some versions of whatever it is you want to do. And before you know it, you’ll have chosen what you want to do with your creativity.
Or in some cases, it will have chosen you.
If you liked this piece and want more of these starting points for your creative work, check out my book, There Is No Right Way to Do This. Studying people like Leonardo da Vinci, Allen Ginsberg, and Richard Feynman, I’ve written up 46 of these propositions to support you whether you’re looking to get more creative at your job or for a hobby.