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Month: December 2017

The Writer’s Laboratory #7: Ask “What if?” To Boost Your Creativity

The Writer’s Laboratory #7: Ask “What if?” To Boost Your Creativity

Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on how creativity emerges from combinations.

Successful authors often get their ideas for a new story because they automatically ask, “What if?” throughout their day. On his website, Stephen King states this in regards to the all-important “Where do you get your ideas” question:

“What all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’ ‘What if’ is always the key question”

To see this “What if?” process in action in King’s work, here are a few examples:

What if a political assassin was psychic and in actuality he was trying to save the world from evil? Hello, The Dead Zone

What if a dog got rabies and terrorized a family? Come join the party, Cujo.

What if a writer was kidnapped by his number one fan? Nice to meet you, Misery.

Why do “what-if” questions work so well? The answer is that, as King noted above, they often combine two ideas or concepts in a unique way. And scientists are in general agreement with this idea that creativity comes from combinations. In fact, such combinations are thought to occur on a neural level, with patterns of neuron activation combining in novel ways. Neuroscientists call this combination “convolution”, but an easier way to think of it is to use the metaphor of braiding (you know from my earlier post that I love me some metaphors!). Braiding takes individual strands and twists them together to produce a single plait, which can then be twisted with other plaits to form even stronger ropes and cables. Similarly, creative thinking involves taking neural activity in the brain related to one concept (the family dog) and twisting it with activity related to another concept (rabies).

The nice thing about thinking of creativity as combinations is that it takes the pressure off. As a writer, you don’t need to come up with a completely new idea. As Mark Twain famously stated:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

So stop pressuring yourself to come up with a totally new story idea. Instead, think about how you can combine already known things in unique and non-obvious ways.

Of course not all combinations are good. Peanut butter and jelly is tasty, but peanut butter and sardines? Not so much. So asking the what-if question doesn’t guarantee the answer will be good every time. Neil Gaimen once joked in an interview about the idea, “Everybody knows that if you get bitten by a werewolf when the moon is full, you will turn into a wolf…There’s that moment when you’re sitting and thinking, ‘So what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?’” Chances are, there is a good reason Gaimen has never actually written that story.

In the end, you’ll have to judge which answers make it through the sifter and which deserve to fall through. But the more times you ask “What if”, the more creative ore you’ll have to sort through.

To institute this technique, train yourself to as what-if questions throughout the day. Better yet, consider combing this with the other tips mentioned in my earlier posts this week. Ask “what-if” while you’re outside talking a walk or just before you fall asleep. But keep in mind, when your unconscious mind begins answering this question, it will likely come as a whisper (especially for writing novices). So be ready and listen carefully once your inner mule starts talking.

The Writer’s Laboratory #6: “Get Some Fresh Air” To Boost Your Creativity

The Writer’s Laboratory #6: “Get Some Fresh Air” To Boost Your Creativity

Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on the benefits of the great outdoors.

I believe that nature is hands down one of the best cures for the constipated writer. And I’m not the only one. Stephen King, for example, states he walked four miles every day (at least until a freak accident stopped him). And many writers, like Joyce Carol Oates and Malcolm Gladwell, are lifelong outdoor runners. They don’t just run to boost their physical health, they run to boost their writer mind as well:

“The structural problems I set for myself in writing,” Oates says, “in a long, snarled, frustrating, and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.”

Gladwell echoes this sentiment: “I free-associate [while running]. I suspect a lot of useful thinking is going on a subconscious level. I do not run with music, so I am completely unencumbered when I run.”

For me, nature is my daily writing room. Rather than writing in an office or a coffee shop, I spend most of the year seated on the back porch with my computer in my lap. When it’s spring, I sit under the eaves, enjoying the sound of the rain or the rustle of the breeze through the budding leaves. When its summer, I drag my chair out into the sunshine. When Autumn comes, I bundle up with a blanket and a mug of hot cocoa. And when winter finally arrives and forces me inside, I pick a spot by the window and listen to nature sounds as I write.

Yes, writing outside has its drawbacks. The fickle weather. The screen glare. The neighbor mowing his lawn. The occasional chatter of noisy squirrels and buzzing of bees. But I find it is far easier to get distracted when I’m inside the house and surrounding by chores and people and technological intrusions that want to lure me away from the world unfolding on the page. I also know that the fresh air and sun and limitless sky above gets my inner mule working overtime.

Of course, writing outside doesn’t work for everyone (but here are some great suggestions on how to do it right). If you just can’t make the move, go for a run after you’ve finished your writing for the day or even just a short walk to combat your writer’s block.

It seems writers like King and Gladwell know something that scientists are just discovering. That exposure to nature greatly improves cognitive functioning and creativity. For example, in one study participants took a walk in a tree-lined arboretum or in a building-lined downtown area. Those who took did the nature walk performed better on a cognitive task than those who did a city walk. Another study found a nature hike boosted creativity by 50%! But what if you can’t get out in nature? Fear not. One study found that just viewing images of nature boosted brain power.

So why is nature so beneficial? One reason is that nature acts like a reboot for the overloaded brain. Modern life is constantly bombarding our mind with information and distractions. This makes it nearly impossible to hear the creative whispers of our inner mule over such mental noise. By removing these distractions, our mind is freed to wander, leading us on exciting new journeys across undiscovered paths.

Another less obvious reason is that being in the open air unconsciously stimulates our mind to think more openly as well. In a fascinating series of studies, researchers Meyers-Levy and Zhu examined how ceiling height influences the way our minds work. In their studies, participants completed tasks in an identical room. The only difference is that for some of them, the false ceiling was lowered to a clearance of 8 ft. For the others, the ceiling was raised as high up to the maximum 10 ft. Their results showed that low ceilings unconsciously activate thoughts of confinement, which causes the brain to think in analytic, concrete ways. Conversely, high ceilings unconsciously activate thoughts of freedom, which causes the brain to think in the abstract and to consider how things are related and integrated. Nature, of course, has no ceiling. So by being out in the open air, it may prime your mind to “think outside of the box” and “shoot for the stars”.

Lastly, keep in mind that nature has benefits that go far beyond just creativity. Research shows that it also reduces stress, increases happiness and vitality, and makes you a more generous and helpful person. So go already! Get outside and take a walk!

Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas!

The Writer’s Laboratory #5: “Let Your Mind Wander” To Boost Your Creativity

The Writer’s Laboratory #5: “Let Your Mind Wander” To Boost Your Creativity

Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Yesterday’s post suggested night dreaming is good for boosting creativity, but so is daydreaming. The more technical term for this childlike experience is “mind wandering,” which refers to times when your mind strays from your current situation in favor of unrelated thoughts. So just like dreaming, mind wandering occurs because your inner rider is relaxing its reigns and letting your inner mule decide your destination.

Mind wandering is incredibly common—one study found it consumed 47% of our waking hours—and happens during nearly every activity (interestingly, sex was the activity least likely to involve mind wandering). Studies on mind wandering mimic that of the sleep research mentioned above. When people are given a problem to solve and then given a break in which their mind could wander, they were more likely to solve the problem creatively. However, these studies suggest that mind wandering doesn’t boost creativity in general, so you need to be thinking about the problem you are trying to solve before the mind wandering occurs.

Given that our mind wanders so often anyway, it may seem that you don’t even need to encourage it. But remember that mind wandering is only beneficial when it occurs during that time when your mind is trying to solve the solution. So its good to learn some mind-wandering techniques so you can use this procedure strategically.

One way to relax your inner rider’s hold on your mind is to generate ideas during your non-optimal time of day. This means that if you are a morning person, consider thinking about ideas in the evening. And if you are a night owl, try mulling your ideas over your morning cup of coffee. This advice seems counterintuitive—we usually think our brain works better during optimal times when it is most alert—but research shows this isn’t always the case. Although analytical thinking (e.g., math problems) may be better during people’s optimal times, research shows creativity is higher during people’s non-optimal times.

Another, perhaps less advisable way, to relax your inner rider is through alcohol. For as long as writers and artists have been around, they’ve been using alcohol (or other mind altering substances) to uncork their muse. From Beethoven and Picasso to Twain, Hemingway and Poe—the list goes on and on (and on). Stephen King admits his drinking got so bad during the 1980’s that he doesn’t even remember writing Cujo. And he admits that his book The Shining may have been his unconscious’ mind telling him he was an alcoholic father long before his conscious mind was willing to admit it (suggesting your inner mule may sometimes act like a real ass, but it often knows more about yourself than you do!). So a word of advice here, it is one thing to use a small amount of alcohol to boost creativity. It is another matter entirely to succumb to alcoholism. So how much is enough? A research study found that a to a blood content level of just .075 was enough to improve people’s creativity (that’s roughly equivalent to two glasses of wine or two beers).

Perhaps the healthiest way to increase mind-wandering is through mindfulness meditation (specifically the type called “open-monitoring meditation”). In mindfulness mediation, you first focus on opening your breath, then opening your mind to allow any thoughts of sensations to occur. The key is that these thoughts are allowed to pass through your mind without judgment, like clouds floating across the sky (for an excellent beginner’s tutorial by Sharon Salzberg, check out this video). A study conducted in the Netherlands found that one 45-minute session of open-monitoring meditation increased the number of creative responses given by 40%, and it increased the originality of those responses by 400%! Plus, meditation has all sorts of other benefits for both your mind and body, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas!

The Writer’s Laboratory #4: “Sleep On It” To Boost Your Creativity

The Writer’s Laboratory #4: “Sleep On It” To Boost Your Creativity

In the third post for my “The Writer’s Laboratory” series, I suggested that writer’s often get their ideas from their unconscious mind rather than their conscious mind. To illustrate these two mental systems, I used the analogy of a tourist riding a mule down into the Grand Canyon. In that analogy, I referred to the writer’s unconscious mind as their “inner mule” and their conscious mind as their “inner rider”.

In that post, I suggested that writers hate answering the question, “Where do you get your ideas” because in truth they don’t really know. Their ideas often come to them when their inner rider is asleep or bored, allowing their inner mule to speak up.

“You get ideas from daydreaming,” Neil Gaimen once told his seven-year-old daughter’s class when they asked him the infamous question. “You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

So it’s not that successful writers have more creative ideas than the rest of us. They just do a better job of listening to their inner mule when it starts talking. But what do you do if your inner mule just isn’t cooperating? Each day this week I will post a new tip (based on psychological science research of course!) that should spur your inner mule into action. And keep in mind these tips are not just limited to generating creative writing ideas, they help spur creativity for any kind of endeavor.

Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on sleep. It seems counterintuitive but the best way to get your mind working may be to put it to sleep. Lots of scientists have discussed how some of their best ideas came to them either in a dream or upon waking. Thomas Edison, for instance, would nap with steel balls in his hands held over a metal pan so that when he dropped them, presumably because he was dreaming up some juicy solution, he’d awaken with new and creative answers to his problems.

Lots of writers have also mentioned how sleep has helped their creative process. For example, Stephen King tells a great story in On Writing about how he fell asleep on long plane flight from New York to London and had a terrifying dream about a famous writer who is captured and held hostage by a psychotic fan. When he awoke from the dream, he could still hear the crazed fan’s dialogue in his head so he jotted it down on an airline cocktail napkin. That snippet of an idea would go on to be Misery, one of King’s best novels.

Similarly, John Steinbeck wrote in Sweet Thursday, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

Lots of research backs up the idea that sleep boosts creativity. For example, in one study by Wagner and colleagues, participants were given a challenging and time-consuming number task. However, what the participants didn’t know was that there was a hidden secret strategy built into the task and if they figured it out, it would greatly speed up their progress. All participants were introduced to the task and them some were allowed eight hours of sleep while others were kept awake. After the eight hours had passed, participants resumed working on the task. The results showed that 60% of the sleep group discovered the hidden strategy compared to only 23% of the wake group.

According to these researchers, sleep allowed the participants’ brains to mentally restructure the information learned, resulting in new and insightful responses. To put it another way, when you learn something new and then immediately sleep on it, what you learned becomes clearer and more creative.

Don’t got time for a solid eight hours of sleep? No problem. Research shows similar creativity benefits occur for mid-day naps too. In fact, this study found a 60-90 minute mid-day nap was more effective in boosting brain performance than 200 mg of caffeine (which is equivalent to 2 shots of espresso)!

I mentioned in my prior post that I write stories in my mind long before I put anything down on paper. Most of my “mind writing” occurs just as I’m trying to fall asleep or just as I’m waking up (and sometimes, like Stephen King, a snippet of the story comes to me in dreams. So if you find yourself stuck on stale ideas or trying to work through some problem in your writing, try to thinking about the problem just before you fall asleep. One study found that when people did this, half of them dreamed about the problem and for 70% of them, their dream included a novel solution to their problem.

Just make sure that if you follow this advice, you keep a notepad or journal by your bed. That way if your inner mule starts chattering in the middle of the night, you can write down your creative ideas and then hopefully go back to sleep!

Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas!