Jump-starting your creativity

A technique for using your environment to jump-start your creativity.

Compare the following two situations.

Situation one:

You are sitting looking at a blank sheet of paper, or an empty word processing document on a computer screen. Perhaps you have decided to write a short story. You don’t know where or how to begin. It’s as if your thoughts have nothing to latch onto and slip off the blank page in front of you.

Situation two:

Someone you know asks you a question, or tells you about a problem they need help with. Immediately, thoughts, ideas and follow up questions rush into your mind. It happens automatically, without your bidding, and seemingly without effort.

Our brains seem incapable of not responding to external stimuli. Without a push from the outside, however, they tend to lapse into inertia and inaction.

The two situations bring to mind a passage from Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings. As I remember the episode, Sacks is treating a patient suffering from Encephalitis Lethargica, or sleeping sickness. The case in question is so severe that the patient is immobile for most of the time. However, when the patient was led to a doorsill, she was able to take a step over the sill on her own accord. The sill provided an external affordance, or trigger, that provoked a counter move on her part, and enabled her to act. Later, someone tried the experiment of placing a handful of balled-up papers in the patient’s hand. She would then drop a balled-up paper in front of her, step over it, and drop another, making it possible for her to walk around one slow step at a time.

The same kind of strategy is available to us when we are stuck in the face of a new creative project. When we don’t know what to do, or how to begin, all we need is a metaphorical doorsill, a little push and pull from the environment to give us the mental momentum that we need.

We might use inkblots, tea leaves, doodles, random words and pictures, or self-prescribed rule systems, like those employed by the surrealists and the Oulipo. Any external stimuli will do the trick if we have the requisite tools for taking that stimulus and turning it into creative movement.

I enjoy searching outside the standard creativity literature for practical methods. I have found much that is useful in improvisational theatre, for example, as well as in modern occult literature. There are many occult exercises that can be read as thought experiments and games of the imagination.* In Patrick Dunn’s Postmodern Magic there is an exercise that he calls symbol surfing that I think fits our current purpose well.

The basic idea of the exercise is that you endeavour to interpret everything around you as if the universe is trying to tell you something. You imagine that everything (objects, people, colours, sounds, movements) is a kind of code that you are required to unlock.

As I write this I can see a car lot out the window. I let my gaze roam freely over the lot and allow something to grab my attention. Associations might come freely or, more likely, I have to do some work to make them happen. I look for patterns. Are there any regularities, recurring shapes, sequences or relationships between objects in the environment outside?

Closest to me, outside the window, is a row of cars. Some are turned so that they face me, others are turned away from me. The fronts of the cars that I can see remind me of angry faces. From this I associate to people turning towards or away from me, and start a string of thoughts about my need to belong and to please others. The cars that are turned away from me have conspicuously red tail lights and I use this as my next spring board and start to look for other things in the environment that are red in colour, and on it goes.

In the example I have just given, random external stimuli gave rise to thoughts about social situations, of belonging and of fitting in. These are thoughts that I did not have a few minutes ago, and that I would not otherwise have been disposed to have.

I can use the same method to pose a specific question, or problem, and then interpret the world around me as if it somehow embodied an answer to that question or problem.

Thinking associatively does not come easily or naturally to everyone. It helps if you build up a collection of different associative strategies, ways of moving from one thought to another.

Those transitions can be logical, relational, semantic or symbolic. In looking at the external world you might search for quantities, sequences, and relations between things. For example, what is under, over, inside, outside, adjacent or connected?

Or, you might interpret the things in front of you, and the things happening around you, as if you were in a dream. In dreams, things can stand symbolically for other things, and one and the same thing can have multiple meanings. What else does something look like or remind you of? What else does the name of a thing sound like? Or what words rhyme with the name of the thing?

Or, you might interpret the world as if you were inside a story. If this was a scene

in a movie, what would the things and the events around you mean?

In one of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s biographical books he describes a difficult period in his life in which he would sometimes interpret circumstances and events as if it was a Zen koan, a kind of Buddhist riddle.

Building a broad repertoire of logical and creative moves — strategies for transitioning from one thought to a new thought — will allow you to use anything in your environment to trigger a sequence of new thoughts. Symbol surfing can be both fun and liberating, and you stand a good chance of thinking something you did not know you were going to think.

What you do with the thoughts and ideas that arise through this process is an open question. You are at liberty to bring all your other skills and knowledge to bare on what you unearth. The purpose of the technique is to take you past the blank page, and to replace creative inertia with creative movement.

Happy surfing!

Endnote

* Anthony Alvarado beat me to it. He has put out a lovely creativity book taking occult exercises and methods as inspiration.