The creativity cycle

Are you a creative? Do you write, or take photos; paint, or design websites?

What do you do when you feel stuck? When you’re in need of inspiration?

There’s a tool I use to help guide my thinking when I’m stuck in a rut. Like most good tools, it’s elegantly simple. And if you ask a well established artist about their own creative process, you’ll come to recognize that they’re probably using this tool to good advantage.

I call it the Creativity Cycle.

The basis of the Creativity Cycle is pretty obvious. Do whatever it is that you do. Write words down. Click the shutter on your camera. You get the picture. (Hehe.)

Like my handwriting, whatever you’re creating might be pretty crap. Or at least a little crap. Otherwise you would be perfect. Stop reading this article now and go save the world!

No? I guess that’s where the next step comes in.

Do it a bunch more. See what happens. You might get slowly better over time. That tends to happen! But if you’re like me, you’ll hit a plateau. You’ll find yourself wondering where that old feeling of newness went. You’re not improving.

At this point, ask yourself the following question:

What is constraining me?

Constraints are good and bad in the creative process. When you’re creating art, you’re constrained by your medium. If you’re a painter, you’re constrained by the size and type of canvas you use. If you’re a writer, you’re constrained by genre, by vocabulary, by audience, by how and where you publish.

The constraints are good because they provide a framework to create within. The constraint of a 3-panel comic strip provides a space that shapes and guides the creativity of the comic artist. She chooses this constraint, or accepts its limitations, and creates within and around them.

Recognizing your constraints gives you two choices, both powerful when it comes to improving your creativity.

It gives you the choice of continuing to iterate within the same framework, molding and shaping your constraints. Playing with them. Drawing outside the comic panel wall from time to time, if you will.

Playing with your framework is fun! You will enjoy the creative iteration process for a long time if you do this.

The other powerful choice you have is to redefine the framework you operate in. Once you recognize your constraints, you have the ability to transcend them. Once you know the rules that you’re following, you can start to break them.

Breaking the rules is dangerous! You might alienate your audience. You might go back to creating crap for a while. But a lot of growth happens when you strategically break the rules.

Hans Zimmer is a composer of movie scores. He’s written original music for movies like The Dark Knight, Black Hawk Down, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

When Hans Zimmer begins his composition process for a movie score, he searches out a unique sound or two that he’s never used before. For the movie The Dark Knight, he recorded the bleak and eerie sound of razor blades scraping the strings of a cello.

This is an example of playing with the rules to enhance creativity. Recognizing the rule of only playing a cello with a bow, Hans Zimmer chose to supersede it and create a newer, different sound. It became a motif and a touchstone for the Joker’s theme music.

This is the creativity cycle. Keep continually creating under the system and the rules that you have. Ask yourself what those rules are. Play with them. And finally, look for ways to break them.

Dear audience,

Today you’ve seen something a little different than you may have come to expect from my posts.

You see, up to this point in time I’ve been following a certain format. I’ve been posting once a week, on Monday. (Or early Tuesday, depending on what time zone you’re in. And what time zone I’m in. F*** time zones. My brain wasn’t made to handle non-simultaneity.)

I’ve been typing up three or four segments of travel vignettes and life philosophy and tying them together with a theme.

And that’s worked fairly well. It’s had its ups and downs. I’ve had posts where I feel great hitting publish. I feel like I’ve tapped into some level of creativity that lets me write with individuality and purpose. It’s a good feeling.

And naturally I’ve also had posts where I followed the same old formula and didn’t feel inspired. I hoped the stories would speak for themselves. And maybe they did.

But it’s time to honor my own creativity cycle and exercise some freedom from the rules I’ve been following. Thus, today’s new format. I hope you like it!

If this idea seems familiar to you or you’ve seen something like this before, that’s no surprise. It’s pretty intuitive, when you think about it, that we humans tend to operate in cycles, right? And sure enough, as soon as I did an image search for “creativity cycle”, I found a diagram that’s kind of like mine. It cycles back and forth between creative “action” and creative “renewal”, in the shape of an infinity symbol.

I think that’s pretty neat! You can check it out at:

But what about you? Are you a creative person in your job or your life? Is there a process you follow or a special thing you do to help yourself be more creative? See, creativity is a conversation. It can be a one way conversation between creator and audience, but I’d rather it be a two-way street. That’s how we all get better.

So, what do you do or where do you go for inspiration? Let me know in the comments!

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