This piece was originally written for Paul Overton’s creative process blog Make & Meaning, which is now sadly defunct. In honor of our quarterly theme, I’m resurrecting it to live here at Make: Online. It is both touchier and feelier than we usually get, but I hope you will enjoy it, anyway. —SMR
hatever else may be said of me, I am fundamentally a dreamer: I have ideas. Lots of them. Most are terrible (ask me sometime about my scheme to potty-train cattle), but every so often, one will work out. And, like many creative people, when others see my work, I often get asked “How did you ever think of that?” When I was younger, the process was as mysterious to me as to anybody else. But over the years, I’ve learned a lot about where my ideas come from and what to do with them when they pop up, and the more I read about and talk to other creative people, the more I come to believe that there are, in fact, some more-or-less universal principles of creativity. And while there will always be something mysterious in the workings of the muse, I do not subscribe to the common belief that creativity is a magical gift bestowed on some and not on others. Like drawing, doing algebra, or speaking a second language, having original ideas is a mental skill that can be developed, and with practice, can become second nature. What follows is a brief list of the stations on my own personal “assembly line” of ideas. If you need an idea and can’t seem to have one, give it a read, give it a try, and see what shakes loose. If it works for you, remember it; if it doesn’t, throw it away. Experiment, as always, and develop your own process.
Step 1: Give yourself permission
Society does not always encourage us to express ourselves creatively. I was lucky and had supportive parents who put up with my messiness, my inattention to detail, my continual dismantling of household appliances, my tendency to hunt for treasure in other people’s garbage, my constant carrying off and breaking of tools, etc., etc. They always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and when I came to them, for instance, with a very ugly “modern” table nailed together from scraps out of the lumber pile, they didn’t just pat me on the head and say, “That’s nice, dear”—they put it in the living room and left it there until it fell apart. My friends who had stricter upbringings are off making more money, now, but none of them is very creative. They learned early on to do what was expected of them, and that their own ideas were less important. So they stopped having them. And when they are called on to produce original work, they are plagued by insecurity: Well, I might do this, but that’s stupid and would never work. First ideas almost always are, and almost never do. You’ve got to stick with it. Anybody can do it. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.
Step 2: Clean the slate
One of my favorite American artists is an everyday-object sculptor named Tom Friedman. Tom Friedman, famously, started his artistic career by going into an empty all-white room, closing the door, and sitting in it for days on end. This from an interview with Friedman in Bruce Hainley’s 2001 survey of his work, published as part of Phaidon’s Contemporary Artists series:
Every day I would bring an object from my apartment and place it somewhere in the space. The first day I placed a metronome on the floor, and it just clicked back and forth. Or I would sit the whole day, on the floor, looking at it and thinking about it, and asking questions about my experience of it…For me, this was more like a mental space that had been cleared away.
When Tom Friedman came out of that room, he started making art that today is valued at millions of dollars by collectors all over the world. Cleaning the slate is about eliminating the distractions of daily life and listening to what bubbles up from inside. The longer and more deeply you listen, the more interesting the things you’ll hear.
Step 3: Use a prompt
I have a favorite personal exercise that I call a “junket.” It goes like this: Reach blindly into your junk box (you do have a junk box, don’t you?) and pull out a random object. Now make something beautiful and/or useful out of it. Depending on the extent to which you express the hoarding gene, you may be dismayed to find yourself holding a completely ugly and useless piece of trash, like a bent rusty nail. Don’t give up on it. Take it into your empty room and stare at it for awhile: What shape is it? What interesting features does it already have that you could exploit? What’s it made out of? How was it manufactured? What tools or processes could you use on it? Mechanical? Electrical? Chemical? Satisfy yourself with the results, and don’t worry what anybody else is going to think. At least not yet.
Step 4: Write it down. Immediately.
Once an idea comes to you that seems even a little bit interesting, get it on paper, or at least into a computer, within a few seconds. I shudder to think how many good ideas I have lost over the years because they came to me while I was driving, or working, or out with friends, and some real-life obligation or crisis got in the way before I could record my inspiration, and my brain just moved on. Don’t let that happen to your ideas. Write them down. Right now. Come hell or high water.
Step 5: Do your research
George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s dramatic language, certainly, and oft-quoted in the context of weighty political, social, or economic questions, but just as true in the context of individual creativity. If your goal is just to satisfy yourself, then it doesn’t really matter, but if you want to bring your work into the public sphere, you need to know what’s come before. If somebody else has already had your idea and acted on it, you need to know that to avoid repeating their work. Even if you got there entirely on your own, there will be those who criticize what you’ve done as derivative. This will almost certainly happen anyway, and because nothing comes from a vacuum, in some sense such critics will always be right. But if you know your history, your work will show it, and you’ll be prepared to explain, if you are so inclined, how what you’ve done is new and meaningfully different.
Step 6: Make it ugly and quickly, at first
If you’re passionate about your idea (and you should be), your head may be exploding with possibilities: If this works, then so might this and that and these. Or I could try it this way, or make it out of cheese and film a time-lapse video of its being devoured by rodents. Then play that backwards so it looks like a bunch of mice are spontaneously building it from cheese. Whatever. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the possibilities, and at this point it’s a good idea to remember the KISS principle. First time out, reduce your idea to its simplest, most minimal execution, and make that version. Otherwise, you can get caught waiting on the tools, time, or materials to make it “perfect” the first time. Remember Picasso: “When you make a thing, a thing that is new, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly. But those that make it after you, they don’t have to worry about making it. And they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when others make it after you.”
Step 7: Set it aside
Once your idea exists, in the world, as a prototype or concept or model or whatever, put it down for awhile. Take a deep breath and go on a little vacation from it. The point is to clear your mind for a week or two so that you can come back with some perspective.
Step 8: Come back to it
This can be the hardest step of all. Once the initial euphoria of creation has dimmed, you have to switch modes and become the editor, the critic, the analyst. If you’re like me, much of the satisfaction of the creative process is in the “inspiration” stage, and I’d usually rather go on to another inspiration than go back and put in the perspiration necessary to refine an earlier idea. But very often it’s precisely this effort that makes the difference between mediocrity and excellence in the final product.
Step 9: Make it better
By now you should have some ideas about what’s working and what’s not, and the challenge is to fix the latter without screwing up the former. Solutions may be hard to come by, and you may have to go back to your empty room for awhile, limit your options, redefine the problem. Now can be a good time to court serendipity, and try to consider the ways your idea might have completely different applications in some other area. If the Kalahari bushman from The Gods Must be Crazy came upon your work in the middle of the desert, what would he think of it? What would he do with it? What would a child do with it? A convict? An architect?
Step 10: Rinse and repeat
The process of making improvements and revisions is, in truth, endless. You make one, you set it aside, you come back to it, you make it better. Then you set it aside again, come back to it again, and make it better again. The returns of this effort may diminish with each cycle, or they may increase. At what point you stop is entirely up to you, but keep in mind the words of Leonardo: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”