Creativity is something I prize, and it is one of my constant goals. Whether in photography, woodworking, or the written word, I am always trying to break the bounds of conventionality and express myself in novel ways. Still, I encounter frequent and seemingly impenetrable blockages to self-expression, and I struggle to find ways to develop fresh ideas. Why am I blocked like this, and what might I do to unleash my mind?
Like many others, I succumb to the common belief that creativity happens through sudden and spontaneous inspiration, that it’s the product of serendipity. This viewpoint is well expressed by the cartoon image of a light bulb suddenly flashing on to illuminate the darkness with a bright idea.
Sure, sometimes fresh ideas do seem to appear out of the blue. But I strongly suspect that this is an illusion. More likely, for this to happen there has been some forethought about the situation, be it a problem or opportunity, even if subconscious. Inspirations that seem to be sudden are, as a result, not the flash in the pan they appear to be but the product of preparation, however inadvertent it may be.
But by adhering to the inspirational conception of creativity, I believe I cut myself off from a regular flow of fresh ideas and thus limit myself to randomly occurring thoughts. This is a restricted view of the creative process that contains its own limitations on new possibilities.
The larger question is, how can I foster creative thoughts as a regular practice? The research and writing on creativity contains a strong thread suggesting that creativity is less the result of inspiration than it is of the hard work of preparing the mind. Such preparation might consist of researching alternatives, assembling known ideas, carefully defining the situation at hand, and pursuing possibilities. According to this view, when the mind is thus prepared, it is better able to recognize viable ideas when they emerge.
This is not a conception that originates with me. The noted French pathologist Louis Pasteur is famously quoted as saying that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Others have expressed similar ideas. Thomas Edison is variously quoted as stating that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, said much the same thing in asserting that solid preparation sets the stage for invention.
So where does this leave me? If I hope to innovate, to spur fresh ideas, then clearly I must prepare myself for them. The more I consciously assemble my thoughts and examine the work others have done before me, the better I will have built a framework for assessing alternatives and recognizing good ideas for what they are.
Experimentation is one major means of trying out ideas. In a formal sense, it involves the repetitive trial of one possibility after another, looking for a best fit. But experiments need not be drudgery. They can be undertaken in a spirit of playfulness and when they are, the mind may be more open to previously unthought of ideas. So, incorporating more play into my daily practice may well be a major entry into new ways of doing things.
My daily practice of journaling is one example of this. By allowing my mind to range freely over whatever themes are on my mind each day, I probe the underpinnings of my thoughts and allow myself the chance to explore alternatives in a free form of expression. Therefore, if I apply the same free thinking and playful methodology to my photography, my woodworking, and even my public service, I may well come up with creative ideas that will better meet my needs and desires.