My Top Tips For Creativity OR where do I get my ideas?
Updated: Sep 25, 2022
When I had lived in LA for my first year, I celebrated by going down to Venice Beach, (or as, a Londoner, I call it Camden by the Sea), and got a tattoo. It was of a rune I had worn on a pendant around my neck for years. The rune was the Celtic rune of creativity.
I’ve always been a creative type. I wrote my first play when I was in primary (elementary) school, and have always loved painting, reading, and of course, movies.
But where does creativity come from? Are we born with it? Or is it something we have to practice? Can we get better at being creative? If so, how?
The great songwriter, comedian and genius, Tim Minchin once said, “Happiness is like an orgasm: if you think about it too much, it goes away.”
I would say that creativity is much the same.
Creativity isn’t something you achieve by focusing on being creative. Creativity is something that happens to you. It’s a state of being.
How, therefore, can we become creative?
John Cleese says:
“Telling people how to be creative is easy. How to be creative is difficult”.
Recently, I’ve found myself in whole days of creative “flow”. It’s happened partly because Ben and I have started doing a podcast where we write a spec screenplay from scratch over YouTube (you can find a link to it on the podcast banner elsewhere on this site). In that hour, every day, I am recorded being creative. And yes it’s as nerve-wracking as it sounds.
That said, I take the attention off myself, and focus on the project we are discussing; a movie about a demon who, with the promise of a gift of a soul of her own, must accompany a young woman across America, all by Sunday evening.
I’m not “thinking” about being creative. I’m just letting my mind wander. And while it’s being recorded, I’m taking my mind off that, and poking at the idea, figuring it out, asking questions, pitching ideas. It’s experiencing creative freedom.
But how do we get this freedom?
So here are some of my top tips on how to do that.
LET YOURSELF SUCK
I frequently pitch bad ideas. And I give myself permission to do that. Luckily Ben does too. But while I know they’re bad, I don’t judge myself because they’re bad. I let them be bad. They might be bad because they’re half-formed. Or they might be bad because they’re silly. “Here’s the bad pitch…” is something you can let yourself do. But it is in the letting of a bad idea come out that so often leads to a good idea. And that good idea eventually leads to a great idea.
It’s about giving yourself permission to suck.
And when you give yourself permission to suck, you let yourself off the hook for trying to get it “right” or be “perfect”.
What you create can be bad. Heck, it probably will be at first. And you know what, that’s ok. Because you can keep talking it through, keep honing, keep refining.
Let yourself suck.
I love games. Of all kinds. For those who know me, I am an avid player of Warhammer 40,000, and have been for the last 30 years. I loved playing D&D when I was a teen. I love board games. I love video games. I love playing with my kids. And I always have.
I remember a time, when I was about ten years old, when my mum took me to a HUGE playground in London. I didn’t know any other kids there, and being a pretty shy kid, I just played by myself in an imaginary world based on a bad sci-fi movie I’d seen at the time, and lived in that world, by myself, for an hour.
One of the things about children is they have no problem doing this. It’s something that is somehow bred out of us as we mature. But I have held onto it religiously. I let myself play all the time.
And playing is a powerful way to let your mind let go. When you play, you aren’t judging how you are playing. Because that would just be odd, right? Because you are so removed from “judging” because you are wholly playing.
Letting yourself play, in whatever way that means for you, is a way to train your mind to get into a way of creative being that can be easily accessed the more you do it.
Get a good board game, or video game. Join a D&D group. Take improv or acting classes. Play with your kids if you have them in an imaginary world.
But play. And make time to do it.
Which leads me onto talking about…
In John Cleese’s excellent speech on creativity (if you haven’t seen it, you can check it out HERE), he talks about the importance of Time. It’s so important in fact, that he talks about it twice, but in two different ways.
Firstly, when it’s time to be creative, you need exactly that. The time. On screenwriter twitter, there are many writers who announce that they are doing a writing sprint, an hour of time whereby they will do focussed work. No calls. No web browsing. No doom scrolling. Just writing.
Schedule it on your calendar. Tell your loved ones you are not available during that time, This is sacred time. Time to get into creative flow, and see whatever happens.
This length of time is different for different people.
My friend Hadrian is currently working on his first book, just like me. For him, it’s 45 minutes. After which, he gets up, makes a cup of tea, has a stretch, gets some sun on his face, then goes back for another 45 minutes.
For you, it may be longer. An hour and a half, maybe two. But when you need a break, take a break.
But why does John Cleese think that time should be another factor of creativity?
He goes on to talk about his time in Monty Python where another member of the cast, whom he considered to be more talented than he was, often turned in scripts that were less creative than his own.
He put this down to the fact that he felt that he was willing to stick with a problem longer. To sit with the discomfort of a problem not being solved, rather than finding an easier way out.
And it’s that feeling of discomfort that can be so, well, uncomfortable.
I have given up on writing screenplays simply because of that discomfort. But had I just let myself feel that, and keep probing and poking at a problem, inevitably it would have been fixed. (I must get back to those screenplays…)
Which leads me to—
Keep asking questions. One of the things that I love about being in a writing partnership is that we always ask questions of each other when we’re developing an idea.
And then we answer them. And we’re making the answers up as we go along. And in the making the answers up, we’re being creative. We’re exploring the idea through the asking of a question.
Then the all-important question: What if…?
I went to see The Goonies recently with my kids. I love that film, and now live (semi) near where to was shot. I was reminded of the scene when they’re down the wishing well. And I began to think about wishing wells. What if… when you threw your coin down a well, it was collected by some kind of being who took it to the place where washes are made true? Not sure what this idea is yet, but I’m poking at it.
What if… Santa Claus wasn’t always a good guy? Who was he when he was young?
What if… H.G. Wells got his ideas for his books through actually living them?
I was recently working on the outline of my second book in the Milly Tipton series. And the document was just a list of questions. But through the asking of those questions, my creative unconscious went to work. Which leads my to my final point today which is:
LISTEN TO YOUR INNER VOICE
One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, said when asked where he gets his ideas come from said “Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea.” (See his full talk here)
In the story above about the wishing wells, my mind said “I wonder what it would be like if wishing wells were real? Who lives in a wishing well?”
If I wasn’t a writer, I might have just ignored that voice as something inconsequential, passed it off as another one of the myriad odd thoughts that pass through our minds millions of times a day.
But I stopped and went: “Huh. Yeah… what if…”
Now I haven’t answered those questions on that idea yet. It’s still percolating. And maybe at some point my creative unconscious will. Because I believe that my unconscious mind is always working. And it will drop these little hints into my conscious mind, often at completely inappropriate times. And often while I’m doing something else unrelated.
I always remember I had the idea for WInter’s Knight, the first screenplay Ben and I sold, just popped into my mind while I was chanting (meditating) one day. I have no idea where to came from. It was just POP, there.
“What’s the origin of Santa Claus?”
If I wasn’t a creative writer, again, that thought might have just passed me by. But I listened. And me and Ben wrote it. And got paid for it. Hurrah!
Learn to listen to that little voice inside you. Because it’s giving you gold.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to be able to share articles like this with you directly! You can join my mailing list here.
What are your tips for creativity?
Let me know in the comments below!