Want to Be Creative? Relax. And Look Around.

Archimedes having a Eureka moment

Archimedes having a Eureka moment

Sure, it’s all well and good to talk about being creative, to agree that creativity is vitally important to success in school, to effectiveness on the job–and even to a joyful life (see Glorious Curious To-Do List and Credo, Item #2)–but here’s the fundamental question that underlies these notions: Where do creative ideas come from?

“By looking attentively at old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marble of various colours, you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused liines the inventive genius is excited to new exertions.”

That’s our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, giving advice on “The Method of awakening the Mind to a Variety of Inventions,” from A Treatise on Painting, a volume that was assembled from his writings by his assistant and companion Francesco Melzi. The master prefaces his suggestion with an admission that students of painting might find his comments a bit unusual: “I will not omit to introduce among these precepts a new kind of speculative invention,” he says, “which though apparently trifling, and almost laughable, is nevertheless of great utility in assisting the genius to find variety for composition.”

By looking closely and losing himself in the random lines and designs of old walls and stones, Leonardo found inspiration for his masterworks. Other “inventive geniuses” discovered their creative ideas in equally odd places. In 1934,The New Yorker reported that Gertrude Stein was fond of driving around the countryside every morning, with her partner Alice Toklas in the back seat, seeking inspiration in the great outdoors:

“Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow.”

Yep; observing cows stimulated Stein’s creativity.

Often, inventive geniuses get their creative ideas in a “Eureka!” moment, when they’re sitting around not doing much at all; in fact, the very term “Eureka” to describe such a moment comes to us from Archimedes, who stepped into his bath, watched the water rise, and realized that he could measure an object’s density by comparing its weight to the volume of water it displaced. The story goes that he was so excited by this epiphany that he leaped out of the bath and ran,  naked and dripping wet, through the streets crying out, “Eureka!”–which means “I have found it!”

J.K. Rowling was pretty much doing nothing, as well, when the idea for a story about a boy wizard came to her:

“I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head…. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one.…I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”

Rowling even credits this lack of a writing tool with helping her to develop her idea for her novel: “Perhaps,” she muses, “if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them.”

When Ernest Hemingway was interviewed by George Plimpton for The Paris Review in 1958, Plimpton asked the writer where his ideas came from. Hemingway talked about the importance of observing the world around him:

“INTERVIEWER: So when you’re not writing, you remain constantly the observer, looking for something which can be of use.

HEMINGWAY: Surely. If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen.”

“The great reserve of things he knows or has seen.” From that reserve come ideas, connections, realizations that inform all sorts of creative work. Shakespeare was of a similar mind, penning these lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V.1. 12-17):

“The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

The poet observes, as Hemingway did, as Leonardo did, and out of the “airy nothing” of his observations come creative ideas.

It seems, then, that inspiration comes to us not when we’re chained to our desks but rather in the in-between times, when we’re driving or bathing or wandering about. This speaks clearly to the necessity for taking breaks–for stopping our work for a bit and going out in the world, to relax, to look around, to think and breathe and absorb the landscape. The more we do that, the more material we have in our “great reserve,” and the more easily we can make connections and have realizations that lead to exciting, creative endeavors.

Image: By Giammaria Mazzuchelli (www.ssplprints.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons