I’m not sure whether creativity is as complex as writers of books on creativity would like us to think, and books on creativity are not in short supply, which suggests that the writers of these books are not that creative, for if they were they’d write something on a subject other than creativity, something no one else has thought to tackle, for example, How to Speak Lobster or Dummies for Beginners.
From 1964 and Arthur Koestler’s monumental The Act of Creation to 2012 and Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine – How Creativity Works (later withdrawn as Lehrer was forced to admit he’d been a bit creative in the quotes he’d attributed to Bob Dylan) - I have read a lot of these books and I can tell you - they don’t help.
Because what they don’t often say is this: creativity is just a sunny word for work. Long ago, at art school, it was impressed upon me that artists have to understand how their chosen materials behave. Whether your materials are paint, stone or film, get inside the form, practise, work. You must understand your medium, and for writers, these are words, sentences, paragraphs and so on.
I kept journals for twenty years. Five hundred words a day. Whatever the weather, whatever I was doing, I wrote. If I had nothing to say, I made things up. If there was so much going on that I had no time to write, I would still write. And then one day I looked at all the words that I’d written and thought, if I’d written novels, instead of journals, I might have something proper to show for all this writing. So I stopped writing my journal and started writing a book.
Writing a book is hard, isn’t it? It’s not easy starting, and it’s even harder to keep going. To write well there is no doubt you need to harness your creativity. I noticed from the early chapters of my first book that I often harnessed my creativity to develop ways of fooling myself I was working when I actually wasn’t, and the three most brilliant diversions I came up with were notebooks, research and coffee.
The lure of the pristine notebook is very powerful: it’s so exciting shopping for one, you feel like you’re working when you’re not, of course, and you can even stop when out shopping for a notebook and have lunch. And once you’ve found the notebook, you can start thinking about a new pen.
Similarly, research. For me research is a way of reading interesting snippets on the internet without actually writing. I can spend an hour just looking for a minor character’s name. I set my most recent book in a real city I’ve never visited. This was a cunning excuse to spend weeks on Google Street Search, going for imaginary cycle rides.
But preparing coffee is the quintessential distraction. I have an elaborate coffee making ritual that lasts around twenty minutes. I love those twenty minutes. I can think about my writing, pretend I’m very close to actually writing, but be staring out of the window at a tree, or a bird. If there were a job that involved staring at trees and birds, I would love it. Although I’m sure that after a few months I’d be looking at ways of not actually staring at trees and birds but something related to it, like shopping for a notebook so I could jot down which trees and birds I intended to stare at for the next week or so.
You see, this is the problem with being creative. You end up creating so many forms of distraction that your whole day is spent making coffee, jotting in notebooks and conducting research. And just to make matters worse, you can add to this list of distractions reading books on how to be creative. And as I said, I’ve read lots of them.
There are wonderful things some of those books have taught me, and very few of them have failed to be interesting. Guy Claxton’s Hair Brain, Turtle Mind is good on the importance of allowing the mind to wander; Tor Norretranders’ The User Illusion – although more about consciousness than creativity, does say some astonishing things about how limiting conscious thinking can be. I’d also recommend Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary – a huge work exploring how western cultures have become too conscious, too ‘left brained’, too restricted.
These books, and many others, are compulsive, and all emphasise that creativity occurs unconsciously, and each, in its own way, suggests how we can set up the right conditions for allowing the unconscious mind to play with ideas and come up with something. But for all their insight, these books don’t really help, they just tend to confirm what I’ve suspected all along, which is this: I need to get on with it.
So if you came to this blog as a distraction from writing, stop reading now and get back to work. However, if you came because you hoped for a tip or advice, I’m not going to disappoint. Here it is: if you're a writer and you want to be creative, go and write, go and write anything at all, even if it’s what you’d rather be doing instead of sitting down and writing. Just write and write and write, and eventually, if you’re lucky, something magical will happen and you’ll suddenly realise that you have something, and you won’t know how it happened.
I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be a book on creativity.