Holding creativity up to the light

“How the fuck do you write so many books?” George RR Martin asks Stephen King in this interview. At a mundane level, there’s an obvious explanation for the difference between these authors: King writes daily and dutifully churns out 30+ pages per week; if GRRM finishes a chapter, he considers it an unusually productive couple of months. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a mystery here. Some might even call it the mystery, as far as writers are concerned.

If King creates more than GRRM, does that make him more creative? (“No!” you yell into a computer screen deaf to your anguish, ruing the moment you chose this post to distract you from the blank Google doc sulking in your taskbar.) The verb certainly seems to go with the adjective, doesn’t it? And yet, intuitively it seems not quite right, like something needs to be added before “creating” can be transformed into “creative”, or else we’d have to start calling people like Nora Roberts creative geniuses.

So perhaps you also need to bake in “originality” or “imagination” or something in order to have a fully-fledged definition of creativity. But then you may wonder why these concepts would come to complicate our clean little definition from before, rather than keeping to their own adjectives. And in fact, there’s a very good reason, which I will illustrate with the following convoluted analogy.

The scavenger hunt

If you want to get from point A, one corner of an empty room, to point B, the opposite corner, it’s a pretty straightforward operation. We can make it a bit harder by hiding B in the next room over, forcing you to use more time and more steps to get there, but you’re almost sure to make it anyway.

Now point A is a room inside a vast mansion with point Bs scattered throughout. I’ve already run this game with many friends in your place before, so I’m all set with security cameras to watch your every movement. Of course I’m not surprised when you get the obvious Bs close to your starting point, just as most of the people before you have. Naturally, those are worth less. In fact, the Bs are all worth more or less as a function of how often they were found.

You want to win, so you figure you’ll just scour the whole place, right? Wrong! I’ve been counting your steps as I watch you from my secret lair, and once you hit a certain pre-specified number, thwip goes the tranquilizer dart into your neck, and my goons drag you back to square one.

“It’s not fair,” you might whine, “You gave Susie 100 steps and I only got 50!” To which I reply shut up, do you know how many veterinarians I had to bribe to get the good stuff? Don’t look a gift horse tranquilizer in the mouth. But maybe I take pity on you, and I reveal some secret trap doors and dumbwaiters behind paintings and bookcases and so on, shortcuts to spots other people had to trudge to on their own two feet.

In the end you come away with a score based on how many different Bs you’d found, and how many Bs you’d found that other people hadn’t. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve done one of those divergent thinking tests that rewards you for coming up with words that other players miss (ie Boggle), or more generally because it’s approximately how we allocate the title of “creative” in the real world.

If you’ll notice, your score doesn’t reflect how you got there. All it reflects is your ability to get from point A to some desired point B, and that’s primarily what “creative” means too. It’s a word designed for consumers, not the backend, a term denoting “a person who can make stuff that I want”. And as an investor, who would you be funding if not “people who can make stuff that other people want”?

The scavengers’ craft

Unfortunately, that leaves those of us that want to talk about process with a senseless morass of conflated concepts. Sure you got to point B, but how? Am I doomed if I don’t have that many steps in me? What if I can’t find any trap doors? And how can I ask any of these questions if I don’t have the words for them? (The “insecure artist” is a popular caricature, but how do you think you would fare if you had no coherent way of communicating about your professional obstacles?)

So in the interest of clearer discussion, I propose the following facets: generativeness, and divergence.

Generativeness, in figurative terms, is how many steps you’re allowed before I tranquilize you. It could be expressed at a high level–how much you talk in conversation, how many words you’ve written, how much stuff you’ve created–or a low level–how many ideas occur to you, how far you run with them, etc. It’s a sort of measure of “raw power”, and it has little to do with content.

Divergence describes how weird your path is–when everyone else looked right or left, you looked up; when everyone else was searching for stairs, you checked out a neglected corner and fell down a mine shaft.

Though they may seem like strange bedfellows to inhabit one word, you’ll find they can indeed accomplish similar ends. A generative person can brute force their way to the less popular prizes by simply walking the well-trod path farther than others do, while a divergent person stumbles upon them by way of lesser-known routes. However, depending on how the game is set up, they can end up finding many of the same prizes, or entirely different sets, which in the real world means that these talents can’t substitute for each other in many types of tasks.

Worse, no standard set of “creativity boosting” advice will affect both traits in the same way. King may use cigarettes and booze to keep his juices flowing, but would any of us really be that excited if Martin delivered a scotch-soaked draft of Winds of Winter? (The answer is: yes, obviously, but not for the right reasons.) It’s no accident that every writer who ever lived had a bunch of idiosyncratic little habits that didn’t work for a substantial chunk of the people who tried them.

Hopefully someday, instead of telling everyone that real writers write for 3 hours each day or drink a pot of black coffee at 4pm or pat their head and rub their stomach before sitting down to work, writing advice will come with a disclaimer about the sort of strengths it plays to, and the sort it doesn’t. The first step on that path, of course, is for people to start figuring out what strengths they do have.

The atmospherics of flow

The flow state appears to be an altered state of consciousness, quite like being hypnotized. As with hypnosis, people vary widely in their inclination to it, and many seemingly trivial background factors influence susceptibility (in addition to obvious ones like medication state). Since flow is the most efficient and pleasurable state to work in, it would seem only natural to take stock of these factors in order to optimize them, and yet I hardly ever run across recommendations in that vein! Perhaps I don’t get out enough. Along analogous lines, but for a more clinical purpose, the idea of manipulating environmental conditions to modulate mental state is taken to the extreme with the Snoezelen, and I invite the adventurous to explore that more creative avenue. However, I’ve found a relatively easy and inexpensive set of tweaks that will do the job nearly as well, and so the following is a collection of recommendations based completely on my n of 1.

The first order of business is to figure out what doesn’t belong. Getting knocked out of flow is so much easier than getting into it, so rid your environment of attention vampires: movement in your field of vision, noise of all sorts but especially the high pitched variety, and what I like to call “distractables” – shiny or otherwise desirable things within easy reach that threaten to capture precious attention. Humans are the most egregious offenders, what with all their movements, and their variable pitches and rhythms, and their secondary sexual characteristics. Keep humans to a minimum.

What does belong is ultimately a matter of personal taste (and budget), but it’s typically better to delineate The Space Where Work Is Done in some way, usually with physical separation. It’s also nice if you can stick to working in that space, but if you’re hyperactive or ergonomically problematic you may find that impossible. My own work time is split between a desk in the corner of my room and my bed, because I am both of those adjectives. Even if I don’t intend to stay there long, I find that beginning the day at my desk provides the activation energy necessary to throw me into the proper frame of mind, and it has the practical advantage of allowing me to use things besides my laptop. Select your furniture on the basis of how long it will sustain a comfortable posture, and whether it allows for whatever amount of position-shifting you like, because sometimes you really do just need to sit with your entire body compacted into a tight ball. Also consider “alternative” furniture, such as kneeling chairs.

Visuals are an important component of a work space, yes, even in the 21st century when we’ve all got our heads in The Cloud. Some people enjoy the aesthetic of clutter, but it tends to make me prone to overload, and I think the vast majority of people are better off without it. I encourage tasteful (and preferably muted) decoration, and if you have beneficial associations with a particular image, color, or texture, try to include it. My most important visual elements are an analogue clock, which doubles as a medication tracker through the use of carefully placed stickies, and my calendar, which is necessary to remind me that days exist as discrete time periods, tend to follow one another, and will coalesce into weeks if they get out of hand.

The most dramatic way to control ambiance is with lighting. Light draws the eye, so make sure everything you want your attention focused on is better lit than everything you don’t. Bright, cool-toned light promotes wakefulness and is recommended if you tend toward the depressive, but those with manic tendencies may be better off keeping things dim. Especially if your workplace functions as something else, such as your bedroom, it’s good to have modifiable levels and/or colors of light, which can be done fancily with remote-controlled LED strips or dimmable fairy lights, or lamps for the lazy.

Some people like to dress up in real clothing to work, but this is unnecessary. The proper work attire is soft, doesn’t restrict movement, and is not at all distressing to tactile sensitivities. It should also provide adequate thermal regulation. And be clean.

The feeding state is a delicate balance. It is easy to over- or underfeed, neither of which are conducive to concentration. The variety matters as well: now is not the time for virtuous food. Eat stuff that tastes good, but not good enough to reminisce over, and pick something that won’t overburden your digestive tract (I’m looking at you, oatmeal). Food that is too boring will bore you, making you likelier to seek out other forms of easy stimulation, so save your virtue for dinnertime. And water! Drink water. An astounding number of people don’t replace the fluids that coffee has caused them to pee out, and then feel tired, and try to remedy it by drinking more coffee. Don’t get caught in this ridiculous loop.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is noise. Until very recently I preferred to work in complete silence and wore noise-cancelling headphones constantly, but an addition to my medication regimen has cured a bit of my misophonia and lately I’ve taken to listening to music while I work. This playlist is composed exclusively of tracks that are rhythmic, repetitive, and of course free of human-sounds (now and again I’ll indulge in some Sigur Ros). Ambient music, soundtracks and unremarkable classical music would also be sound choices. Noise does still tax executive function, so I prefer to make decisions without it, but once I’ve chosen a course it can set the tone, soothe anxiety and push me through tedious bits.

Most of these modifications are what you might call “facilitators”: they make it slightly likelier that you’ll enter or stay in a flow state, and tend to have an anxiolytic quality. (Flow generators are another worthy topic, but not one I’ll get into here.) The individual effect size of each of these is probably not large, but the overall effect of cultivating an environment filled with small cues that you’re supposed to be doing something productive is an excellent supplement to pharmacological aids. There may be a danger in getting too attached to such conditions – I’m unable to work effectively without them, although that was also true before they were available to me. So it’s possible an optimized workspace will spoil you for the coffee shop experience.

But I think we all know that real work isn’t done at coffee shops anyway.