2 ways to be more creative right now

I gave this as a speech recently.

I’m a freelance copywriter and every day, I work on projects that require me to think creatively. Creative thinking is a big theme right now in the world of work, and sometimes we have a hard time finding creative juice when we need it. So today I’ll share a few ideas on how to get unstuck.

Both of these have helped me in a slump:

  1. Messing up my desk.
  2. Wasting time going for a walk.

Let’s start with the first one:

  1.  Messing up my desk.

I’ll confess: my desk is always a mess. (Maybe my entire house actually, but we won’t discuss that.) I wrote this piece on a desk so messy that I had to carve out space for the keyboard. For me, a messy desk makes it easier for me to jump from lily to lily in the creative pond. Ideas don’t hide in boxes, but sit tucked away in jagged corners. A mess on my desk keeps my brain from becoming too comfortable with its surroundings.

And there’s a scientific basis for you logical thinkers out there. In one study, people were given 2 environments to complete a creative project. The first was a messy room–jagged lines, stuff strewn all over–and the second was a neat and tidy room–straight, clean lines, everything in its right place. The two groups sat in these rooms and collected ideas based on a theme.

When all of the ideas were submitted to an independent panel, who do you think had the better ideas?

The ideas from the messy room. They were rated as much more creative and innovative than the ones from the tidy room. That’s because we work more freely in an environment that encourages messy thought. We don’t restrict ourselves.

And a fun fact: Even Einstein seemed to know this trick.

  1. Wasting time going for a walk.

I’ve had some humdingers of delicious problems handed down to me from clients lately. One afternoon I was working through something so intensely that I realized I hadn’t taken the dog out for 8 hours. (Whoops.) To atone for my sin, I took him to the dog park. It takes about 20 minutes to walk there.

To be honest, that kind of break is a big waste of time for me when I’ve got a big push. But something happened to me on that walk: As I walked, I felt my brain relaxing. The structure of the problem in my head began to rearrange itself. Thoughts and ideas started coming faster and faster–so fast that I started talking to myself out loud about what was going on in my head.

(At this point, I put headphones on so I looked like I was on a call. I couldn’t be “that crazy lady” at the park.)

When I got back to my desk, my brain had somehow worked out the problem I had been struggling with for the past three hours. I looked it up and found that my experience is backed up by science:

This year, a Stanford University study found that the simple act of walking can boost your creativity up to 60 percent.

That means if you are working on a specific problem, you are measurably more creative while you are walking and for a short period of time after you finish walking. It doesn’t matter where you walk – people experienced the same effect when they walked around a drab office and when they walked on a green, tree-lined street.

So next time you’re on a desperate deadline, throw a few papers around the room and then waste some time by taking a walk. What happens in your brain might surprise you.

Creativity is a state of mind you can choose. Last year I had another big breakthrough in creativity, and you can read about that one here.

A short poem can make your day more beautiful

The last phrases of this poem… wow. Seen on The Writer’s Almanac. (Note: I have not requested permission to reprint this. I am simply spreading poetry into the world. My hope is that it will be seen as a good thing. Linked source for good will.)

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983.

The story that most of us live

As a writer, I was disappointed to learn that there are no new stories. My original plan was always to write a story that would make me filthy rich – but more important, it would convince everyone on earth that we need to live differently in some way. My story would change civilization.

Cut me a break, I was twelve.

The point is, I can’t write a story like that. All timeless stories about humankind have already been written (and ironically, many of the writers made no money on them and achieved no fame during their lifetimes, and generally had terrible lives). They are the stories about falling in love, going on long journeys, and killing dragons. Coming afterward, writers are left to retell different versions of them. Once a generation or so, a story shoots to fame when someone successfully hides the fact that they’re copying something thousands of years old.

Except Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s totally original, 100 percent new material we have never seen before.

All stories – original or not – have something in common: there’s always a problem that seems impossible, but which the main character has to overcome – within herself, within society, or against nature. In children’s stories, the problem is straightforward: a main character has to fight a dragon. She searches for the dragon, fights it, and defeats evil. She returns to her city, which is filled with parades and rainbows to welcome her back.

Sometime after childhood – or for some people, during childhood – we learn that dragons are not as easy to fight as we thought. Our grown-up stories have to adapt to this grey area. A main character is attacked by a dragon on her way to work, but she is unarmed against it. She blacks out after a big blow to the head.

When she wakes up, she is perched a thousand miles away on the edge of a cliff. She looks down to see that she was half-eaten by the dragon and she has no map to get home. In that story, we watch her as she bandages herself, listen to her as she talks herself through her own healing, and see what she makes of herself in a world that looks different to her now.

She finds that after being half-eaten, she has much scarier things to fight than dragons. People stare at her mangled frame while she walks down the street. Her bosses don’t expect that she’ll be able to get things done with only one arm. She has to fight for everything she has, forever after.

It’s the same story of overcoming, but not by killing a dragon. It’s being forever changed by something, and finding a way around it so that we can go on. Living with our scars and bite marks, and deciding whether to show them to others or cover them up. It’s the story of redemption, the truest human story in western culture.

It is the story that most of us live. And because we are living it, we don’t always see the beauty in it. We just face the hardship, whatever it is, and move on. As a writer, that’s why it’s so hard to tell it in a new way: it is just normal. It’s the way life is.

That’s why there are no new stories. Because for thousands of years, we have spent much of our lives fighting to succeed after being half-eaten by a dragon in our past.