Start with a cookie
Being creative without all the answers
Years ago, I visited the ad agency Grey for an informational interview with a senior copywriter. He described his day-to-day and general responsibilities and then wanted to discuss the creative writing process.
“What do you need besides a good idea?” he asked.
“A second good idea,” I said.
“Right!” He beamed.
I have no first or second ideas about what he’s doing now but I remember that we understood each other in that moment. We practiced what psychologists call “divergent thinking” in our creative process. You don’t need a BFA, MFA, or even the word “creative” in your job title to try it. Anyone can do it.
I know this because I asked a room of 20 people to do it. When I taught essay writing at Pasadena City College, I wanted my students to feel inspired and I encouraged them to find a point of view that interested them, so they could write about it. But how would they start if they weren’t inspired? Start easy. Start with a cookie.
I handed out a sheet of paper with the below image of a chocolate chip cookie. I wrote on the dry-erase board, “What is this?” and the numbers 1 through 50. I said I wanted 50 definitions of what I gave them. I wrote 12 to get them started. Then I let them brainstorm, discuss, and write their ideas on the board.
- a cookie
- a piece of paper
- a few cents’ worth of colored ink
- what the Oracle gave Neo in The Matrix
- 150 calories
- enriched flour, sugar, butter, vanilla extract, eggs, baking powder, semi-sweet chocolate
- what to eat with a glass of milk
- what kids set aside for Santa Claus
- construction materials for an ice cream sandwich
- an edible coaster
- a way to aromatize a household
- a way to manipulate the Cookie Monster
…and so on
They shared ideas I couldn’t have imagined, because it was from their imagination. And I can’t imagine what you imagine either, so “insist on yourself” as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested.
Maybe you’re creating an ad campaign, painting a mural, writing a book, or redesigning your kitchen. Whatever it is you’re doing, do not doubt your first, second, or even fifty-first idea. Gag and blindfold your inner editor. Apply the filter of feasibility later. Your ideas — even if never produced — may inspire other creations.
Of course, divergent thinking is not the only way to practice creativity (that wouldn’t be very creative, now would it?). This is a multiverse in which there is no synonym for synonym. Act accordingly. Start with a cookie.