Cultivating Creativity

by Nancy Jane Moore

I’m a fan of the radio program “On Being,” hosted by Krista Tippett. It comes on a 6 AM on Sunday morning here, so I frequently wake up by listening to it. Last Sunday she interviewed Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist who is currently studying creativity, in a program called “Creativity and the Everyday Brain” (transcript here).

Jung said a lot of interesting things — I recommend listening to the podcast or reading the transcript — but what inspired me to post about the talk was his list of four things that are key to cultivating creativity.

  • Practice, practice, practice.
  • Play and take time away from your work.
  • Be persistent and persevere.
  • Try out lots of ideas.

These were things I knew, but hadn’t thought about much lately. Listening to Jung gave me a new appreciation for them.

In discussing practice, Jung referred to the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that developing mastery over a field takes about 10,000 hours of work. This fits into a concept frequently discussed in writing circles that one needs to write about a million words of crap to get to be a good writer.

Good practice is more than just doing the same thing over and over, though. As my first karate teacher used to say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; it makes permanent.” It needs to be practice oriented toward learning more about your craft. I suspect that’s why most writers benefit from good workshops and first readers.

Jung advises:

So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.

He also says that when he was in school, “[R]ecess was the most important class of the day.” You need a break from knowledge acquisition, and that’s where play comes into the equation. Whether it’s taking long walks or doing yoga, everyone needs to spend time doing things that aren’t concentrated intellectual work.

It’s a common joke among writers that they’re still working when they go to a baseball game or out to dinner with friends. But apparently neuroscience bears us out: Creativity comes out when your mind is not working directly on a problem.

As Jung says, combining the ideas of practice and play:

You have to have the raw materials in place to put together, but you also have to have the time to put them together.

If you’ve ever cast the I Ching — the Chinese oracle system — you’ve come across the idea “perseverence furthers.” (I once made myself some stationary with that at the top, just for the fun of it.) You don’t get anywhere in a creative endeavor without sticking to it when you’re not having any success. “[A] lot of rejection is usually the matter of course for people who are creative,” Jung says. You have to stay the course in the face of rejection or you’ll never get anywhere.

The last point, the one about trying lots of ideas, doesn’t get as much emphasis as it should. But Jung points out that “research almost invariably shows that highly creative people put out lots and lots of ideas.” The corollary to that is what Jung says next:

And they’re not all brilliant. You have a lot of failures and it’s not the one-hit wonders that win the day. It’s thousands and thousands of ideas. Picasso put out, you know, 20,000 individual pieces of art, and I can guarantee you they’re not all good.

I think writers know this instinctively, which is why the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” is such an in joke. (There’s this post office box in Poughkeepsie …) Ideas are never the problem. Distinguishing good ideas from bad ones and turning them into art, those are the problems.

This all strikes me as another case of neuroscience validating what we already knew. Jung has developed his ideas about developing creativity from studying people and their minds, but all of his advice is the same advice that any professional writer would give someone just starting out.

Still, you can never hear this advice too many times.

Practice. Play, Persevere. And try out your ideas. Amazing things will happen.

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Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.

My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.

Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.

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