Start with a cookie

Being creative without all the answers

This monster uses cookies. By continuing to read this, you are agreeing to the monster’s consumption of cookies. // photography by Michael Verhoef, CC BY 2.0 //

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.

  1. a cookie
  2. a piece of paper
  3. a few cents’ worth of colored ink
  4. what the Oracle gave Neo in The Matrix
  5. 150 calories
  6. enriched flour, sugar, butter, vanilla extract, eggs, baking powder, semi-sweet chocolate
  7. what to eat with a glass of milk
  8. what kids set aside for Santa Claus
  9. construction materials for an ice cream sandwich
  10. an edible coaster
  11. a way to aromatize a household
  12. 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.


I write

fiction, mostly and also tell stories about people without names. And I’m seeking literary representation for my urban fantasy novel.

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