There’s a persistent myth about creative people — that they’re inherently messy and disorganized.
Moreover, many of us assume that disorganization is essential to creativity.
I invite you to question these assumptions.
Many creative people are organized. In fact, artists often cultivate a meticulous process that allows them to produce a body of work. (Chuck Close, the visual artist, offers a fascinating example.)
In this post I offer a process for writing that blends spontaneity and organization to fuel creativity. The aim is to kindle your intuition as you refine your ideas and share them with the world.
The essence of creativity
This process is for you — even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer or other kind of artist. To get started, keep one thing in mind: Creativity happens any time that we make new connections between existing ideas.
In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler called this bisociation — the “perceiving of a situation or idea…in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.”
Matt Ridley and James Altucher describe this in more graphic terms — “letting ideas have sex with each other.”
Recently, for instance, I re-read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In this book he combined his love of jazz and passion for writing in a quest to marry the two art forms.
This led Jack to compose long-flowing lines with cascading phrases, much like an improvised jazz solo. The result was a new hybrid art form — Kerouac’s musical prose.
Creativity for all of us
Writing is a way for everyone to practice the creative process. If you already keep a diary or personal journal, you’ve got a start.
To become more creative, remember that creativity is a process. Like any process, it involves inputs, processing, and outputs. As a writer, I prefer the terms collecting, revising, and testing.
You’re swimming in many streams of information on a daily basis — voice mails, emails, snail mail, articles, books, podcasts, conversations, meetings. On top of it all is the constant flow of thoughts running through your head.
Much of this information is transient and forgettable. But a tiny percentage of it is worth capturing for later use.
Stay alert to seeds of inspiration — ideas that could develop into a blog post, book, presentation, video, podcast, product, service, or something else that you want to create.
One thing you can count on: Many of these seeds will occur to you at the most inconvenient moments. So, be prepared to capture ideas on the run.
I use Apple’s Notes app for this purpose, since I almost always have my iPhone with me. I can pull it out whenever an idea occurs to me and create a short note to expand on later.
But of course there are many other options. These include good old-fashioned pen and paper stashed in a pocket, pack, or purse.
If you’re not sure what information to capture, then take a cue from Tiago Forte and his concept of resonance: Don’t make any explicit rules about what to save. Just capture whatever resonates with you in the moment, for any reason — even if you’re not sure that you’ll ever use it.
In short, let intuition — not reason — be your guide to collecting. This makes room for the unconscious aspects of the creative process.
Also allow yourself to collect without committing. You are under no obligation to further develop any idea that you capture. These are just possibilities, not obligations.
Reduce. If you systematically capture ideas over time, you’ll accumulate a lot of notes. Avoid the collector’s fallacy, however: a mounting pile of notes that just gather dust. Collecting is not the same as creating.
Instead, revisit your collection periodically to purge notes that you’ll never refer to again. Better to have a small volume of carefully curated notes than a large volume of outdated and useless notes.
Often I reduce the length of individual notes as well, keeping only their key passages and deleting the rest. I also break up long notes into series of shorter ones.
Restructure. At some point you’ll start seeing relationships between notes that you choose to keep. Combine those notes so that the ideas can have sex with each other.
Rob at Cultivated Management has a different and equally useful metaphor for this process. He refers to it as “crunching” ideas. This means revising your notes on a topic to:
- Delete redundancies.
- Add new ideas.
- Look for ideas that complement each other.
- Look for ideas that contradict each other — and possible ways to resolve those conflicts.
Reword. Many of my notes are direct quotations pulled from their original source (which I cite within the body of the note). I reduce these notes even more by expressing the ideas in my own words. This helps me understand and remember the key points.
It’s important to test the results of our creative thinking — to get feedback about what actually works and what does not. You can test ideas by:
- Publishing the results of your creative thinking. This can be anything from a self-published book to a post on your personal blog or simply an email to your colleagues.
- Presenting the results of your creative thinking — anything from a formal presentation to an informal conversation with friends.
- Practicing new ideas by turning them into new behaviors (such as Tiny Habits) and observing the results as they unfold in your life.
It is here that you reap the rewards of organizing for creativity: You are learning. You are turning information into action.
You are changing from a passive consumer of information to an active creator of knowledge.
Immersion + incubation = Aha!
What’s so cool about the creative process is that you never have to start from scratch. Instead, you simply collect information that interests you, play with it, and let the whole stew simmer until a project emerges that begs for completion.
And, you’re never done. This a continuous cycle with no finish line — a lifetime of creative practice.
Collecting, revising, and testing your notes are ways to immerse yourself in information and incubate ideas over time. These create the conditions for an “aha” moment — a flash of illumination when you suddenly see how to place old ideas in new contexts.
This is where spirituality enters. The moment of illumination is not something that you control. It wells up from a source beyond the conscious mind — God, Spirit, intuition, Buddha Mind, or whatever else you want to call it.
In any case, all we can do is open ourselves and wait patiently for that moment of grace to arrive.