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The Secrets of Creativity

I have been approached repeatedly about the so-called ‘secrets’ of creativity for as long as I can remember. The subject of creativity is surrounded by so much mystery and there is so much advice out there about how to be creative that it is easy to get overwhelmed by the whole question. Too often people fall into the following traps:

1. They conclude that their favourite rock star, painter, author or other artist has unlocked the way to creativity and so decide that they must be like that person in order to be truly creative.

2. They imagine that there is some connection between insanity or depravity and creativity and so go off the rails in life in an effort to be more creative.

3. They conclude that they are not creative and that the secret of creativity belongs to some kind of mysterious elite but can never be theirs.

All of these are mistaken deductions, it seems to me. Creativity is native to all and can be tapped into quite easily. As a matter of fact, you can tap into your own personal creativity in minutes.

The Block to Creativity

Almost everyone as a child is naturally creative. Children see the entire world differently, as they learn with every glance, every sound, every touch. Growing up means that children slowly sub-divide their experience into what works and doesn’t work in this world. Some continue to live in the sub-world of what doesn’t necessarily work but which is fun to think about, while others close that particular avenue of thinking down entirely and label it as ‘useless’.

As we grow up, then, some of us lose this natural creativity and withdraw into a more solid existence. We begin rejecting the imagination as ‘just fantasy’ and regard the hard and fixed world around us as superior, senior, more logical, more real.

Imagination and fantasy are, by some, relegated to the nursery. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien, world famous author of The Lord of the Rings and connected works, fought a life-long battle to get fantasy as a literary genre back out of the world of children and back into adult acceptance.

Creativity, though, is about much more than fantasy. It’s about being able to think along lines which are not necessarily ‘workable’ in the world in which we live. If we can’t be creative, then how can we claim to be anything other than robots, electronic brains who take on board what they are shown or told and regurgitate it on command? If we can’t think ‘outside the box’, then we might as well just settle down into being part of the box and give up thinking at all.

The main block to creativity is that we have forgotten how to generate power in that part of the world of thought which is not necessarily ‘useful’.

The answer is simple.

What People Try to Do About It

People who think that they are not creative have probably swallowed one or two assumptions:

1. Their imagination is mysterious and somehow unconnected to their ‘real’ lives.

They may have grown up in a world where the emphasis was on being logical, ‘realistic’, following rules, facing grim realities. None of this was their fault, perhaps, but the overall result is that they have come to believe that thinking ‘outside the box’ is something reserved for another kind of person.

2. Their lives have perhaps been unstable enough for them to conclude that to be able to generate imaginative power they would need to go away and spend considerable time meditating or getting themselves into a state of relaxed awareness so that ideas begin to flow.

Neither notion is correct, though the second one has some workability. The so-called ‘secret’ of creativity is a very simple one which is staring everyone in the face but which probably requires a little background explanation first. Once you have this basic data, you will be able to get your own creativity going in minutes.

What To Do First

Very quickly and very easily, let’s try to open the floodgates a little. Think of some object somewhere. Any object, anywhere.

Now think of something entirely unrelated and very distant from the object you first thought of.

For example, I might think of a piranha fish, deep in the Amazonian waterways. Then, for my second thing, a banana sandwich in a council flat in Leeds.

Two disconnected and apparently unrelated things.

Now try to connect them.

They could be connected in any number of ways: perhaps along the subject of food; perhaps as subjects that would fascinate a child; perhaps by colour (the piranha may have been yellow!) or by the fact that they are both silent. It would be possible to construct a narrative to link them -a boy adventurer, growing up in Leeds, fantasizes about encountering the wild creatures of the Amazon.

Already the creative juices are flowing, as they say. Try the same exercise again.

Let’s say someone came up with an old chewed slipper in the mouth of a dog in Chicago, and the feather of a wild albatross circling the coasts of Antarctica. Two vastly different objects. Connecting them makes the imagination work overtime because they are so different. What it comes up with is bound to be creative.

So prompting the mind to think of wild opposites also urges creativity to kick into gear.

What principle is at work behind this?

The Secrets of Creative Success

In truth there are probably as many ways of boosting creativity as there are people. The way I suggested to you above will get you creatively flowing in minutes. It’s based on the idea that you have stopped thinking about ‘useless’ things. By connecting up two apparently useless or unconnected things, you can stir into life that part of the mind which you have shut down -the part that can think with things which don’t necessarily have any connection to each other or to reality as we experience it on a daily basis.

You could stop reading this right there and you would have enough to become more creative. But to make creativity work successfully another principle needs to be grasped.

We’ve all read good books, seen good films, been entertained by good music or admired great works of art. But have you ever wondered why these things work on us? What is the principle underlying their success? There’s a fundamental, prime factor at work here about which you probably won’t have learned much at school.

It could be called the most successful technique ever, used by all great artists and in all effective art to one degree or another, except that the word ‘technique’ doesn’t quite do it justice; it is the thing which, as readers or viewers or listeners, we most look for even when we don’t know we’re looking for it; the principle which underlies almost all emotional and spiritual effects in art and in life.

It can be summed up in one word: rhythm. What is rhythm?

In brief, rhythm is any kind of movement or change characterised by the regular recurrence or repetition of strong and weak parts.

The key things are regularity and repetition.

We usually think of rhythm in relation to music, where we can clearly hear it and often even physically sense it. It’s less obvious to us, perhaps, in other art forms, but it is so prevalent that, once you really notice it, you’ll be amazed that you never noticed it consciously before. It’s been working on you ‘behind the scenes’, if you like. The full extent of its power explains much of what makes great art work. It’s also the secret to getting your creativity going in the direction of success.

Creativity and Rhythm

Rhythm of whatever kind establishes a relationship.

This is how the creative artist enters into a relationship with a person he or she has never met and is never likely to see: a mutual trust or affinity develops between the creator of the work and the participator in it based on repetition and regularity.

Think of an audience in a theatre: it is not merely a group of spectators, unless the play is failing. The people sitting there are participators. What encourages them to participate?


An audience in rapport participates in small or large ways with the performer or the artist or work of art, often by vocal or body motion. In writing, this actually is a component of the action of reading -entering into a rhythm, consciously or unconsciously, with words on a page.

Participation in art is achieved by:

1. A reliance on the even recurrence of the rhythm of words, ideas, images, colours themes, sounds, objects, characters, any of the elements of a work of art.

2. The ability to predict they will recur, established by regular repetition.

3. A formation of a relationship based on such reliable predictions.

4. Permitting the audience to fill in gaps or significances.

Regular omission of a beat or step or full explanation causes the audience to fill it in for themselves and encourages physical or mental participation. Just as we stamp our feet or clap our hands to rhythm in music, so we enter into a piece of art, mentally and silently ‘stamping’ imaginatively with the ‘beat’ of the artwork.

So coming up with at least two apparently unconnected things is part of the answer; making them work together in a way which engages the reader or audience is another.

Simplifying the Answer

When one changes rhythm within a single creative work one creates the same effect as in music - a disharmony occurs, jolting the audience or reader. The reader has predicted the rhythm but the prediction does not come true. If the rhythm recurs, the reader’s confidence is restored.

Some artists often use disharmony and even disappointment within a work to set the reader or viewer or listener up for the ‘joy’ of a restored harmony. A writer can begin an unwanted rhythm, use the reader’s objection or disappointment to focus attention and then transform it into a wanted rhythm. What we call dramatic tension is really an offshoot of this -no tension would exist if all rhythms were entirely regular and predictable.

Rhythm can excite, soothe, lull and arouse any kind of emotion. A rhythm slightly below the usual or expected rhythm of a piece of writing will depress or relax readers; a rhythm marginally above the usual rhythm will capture and interest them. Rhythm and its expression is the basic key to all creativity. Using it well is the most successful technique ever because it underlies so much else.

Taking Creativity Further

So let’s take the original idea of the piranha and the banana sandwich. Poles apart, but already that establishes a rhythm of sorts -the very fact that they are so different sets up a series of expectations. If this was a novel, the reader would detect disharmony and expect to be surprised and maybe even shocked. What we have here is similar to the two terminals on an electric motor -they are held apart by the base of the motor and so the positive and negative poles can discharge against each other. That’s creativity right there -the discharge between these two concepts is the imagination trying to connect them.

Try to work out a series of points between the piranha and the banana sandwich by moving one step closer in from each.

•Piranhas and bananas might both be found in tropical regions.

•The boy who is going to eat the sandwich may have a pet goldfish.

Now let’s try and get even closer.

•It might be possible for a piranha to be shipped to England accidentally along with a banana shipment.

•The boy might be reading about piranhas as he eats the sandwich.

So we have a connected narrative now and the flow can go both ways -either a story about a piranha who finds himself in England, or the tale of a boy’s imaginative encounter with a piranha.

It’s only a small example, but a large number of great works of art began along similar lines.

Tolkien’s The Lord of Rings epic, for example, began when his vast imaginative structure of Middle Earth found its way into the innocent children’s story he was telling his own children called The Hobbit.

'The Lark Ascending', one of the most sublimely peaceful pieces of music ever written, was initially composed by Vaughan Williams as he watched troops cross the English Channel at the beginning of the First World War.

C.S. Lewis’s famous children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia began when a series of disconnected images in his imagination were suddenly and unexpectedly brought together by an overpowering image of a lion.

The Two Step Plan

1. Think creatively by thinking of random opposites or unconnected things and then try to connect them. The creative energy you will unleash is the beginning.

2. Use the principles of rhythm to guide your creative impulse towards artistic success.

The funny thing about creativity is that it is not something that can be learned in the same way as arithmetic or spelling where there is a right way and a wrong way. Creativity is to do with individual imagination and so there is really no right and wrong. But there are workable techniques for getting started, and I hope that the above has revealed a way for you.

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