by Paul Schmid
I think, therefore I am stuck.
Or, how I tell my brain to shut up so I can be creative.
Joseph Conrad once asserted that thinking is “…a destructive process, a reckoning of the cost. It is not the clear-sighted who lead the world. Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm mental fog.”
In my 30 years experience as a conceptual artist, I too have observed that more ideas come to me seemingly as a gift from my intuition rather than directly from mental effort.
In fact, I often think thinking to be a hindrance to creating.
I am fond of my brain, and it serves me well for most things, but it does have the habit of quickly pointing out the problems and inconsistencies in my ideas. It also asks annoying questions, and is quick to doubt. It often unfairly compares my efforts to others, sometimes telling me rather bluntly that I am stupid and have no business doing what I am doing.
When I am beginning to search for fresh ideas, the last thing I need to hear are problems and limits (however correct my brain may be). Problems can be solved creatively, but first you must allow yourself to create the problem.
Creating is yearning, hoping, dreaming. Thinking is grounded, practical. When I am using my intuition, I am not listening to my rational head, but it’s more clever brother, the impulsive gut.
While the head doubts, the gut is eager to believe.
Brains like rules and order. Rules are dull. Obeying rules will not cause my manuscript to leap off the slush pile. As Susan Sontag remarked: “The only interesting ideas are heresies.”
My brain also tends to grasp at solutions, with a lazy preference for the first solution that shows up. But as a reader myself, I find surprises more deeply satisfying than solutions.
While creating stories I am often confronted with the power struggle between my gut and my brain. Since I use my brain most of the time, and am rational much of the day, it jumps first in line to help. It likes to be helpful. So, over the years I’ve acquired some tricks to lull my rational brain to passivity whilst inspiring my intuition to flow.
Have some pie and take a nap.
Thomas Edison was said to have sat in an armchair with two pie tins placed directly below the arms. In his hand he held two ball bearings. While keeping whatever project he was working on in his mind, he endeavored to nap. As he drifted into a relaxed state, his mind would begin to wander and flow in non-linear directions. Then as he became drowsy enough, his hands would relax their grip on the ball bearings, which dropped, clattering on the pie tins and rousing Edison. He would then immediately write down whatever thoughts he had at that time. It was his sneaky way of accessing his subconscious. It actually has a name: Hypnagogia.
I will sometimes set a timer for 20 minutes, lay on my couch and drift off thinking of any current project’s roadblocks. My thoughts will gradually begin to get wacky and unrestrained. Sometimes quite unexpected solutions will just flow by.
Deny you have a problem.
When ideas aren’t flowing like… umm… whatever flows really well… the frustration can cause flow to stop. The mind gets involved because I am having problems and the mind loves to solve problems.
I then persuade myself that what I am really doing is simply waiting for an idea to show up. I find my intuition is rather demure. It does not flow smoothly, but resists order and regularity. I must have patience, then pounce when it ventures out. The following are some ways I do that.
Sneak up on it.
When I’m feeling stuck, I will put a project aside and move on to another. After a while, and when I am mentally involved in this new set of problems, I will suddenly go back to thinking of my original problem. A fresh idea will often present itself, as if it was really there all the time, but wearing an invisibility cloak.
Take a hike.
I am certain that physical activity confounds linear thinking. My own train of thought will get befuddled while I am moving about, apparently unable to walk and chew ideas at the same time.
So when stuck, I get away from my desk and take a walk. Or make tea. Or fold laundry. And while my poor logical brain is overburdened and struggling, my intuition begins to frolic. Archimedes may have gotten his eureka’s in his bath, but most of mine arrive during a stroll in the neighborhood.
John Cleese declares: “The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode (of thinking) quicker than anything else.” Just don’t spend too much time watching YouTube videos.
Try to fail.
Perhaps the most radical approach I use to thwart my logical mind set is to deliberately do something reckless so I can sit back smugly and see how bad it is. But many times I find myself putting down the bold solution I somehow knew it needed, but had been too afraid to attempt.
Let it be.
Similar to a flower, ideas can take time to blossom. Be a good gardener: get the dirt on the subject, lightly fertilize with inspirational work by others, firmly plant the seed, and then let things happen in their own sweet time.
I have become convinced that creative thinking is very like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it will be. Which allows me to end with Picasso’s words of caution: “Inspiration exists, but must find you working.”
Paul Schmid is an author and award winning illustrator of children’s books, including OLIVER AND HIS ALLIGATOR, A PET FOR PETUNIA, HUGS FROM PEARL and PERFECTLY PERCY.
In the fall of 2010 Paul was awarded a month-long fellowship with Maurice Sendak.
He lives in Seattle with his wife, Linda, and their daughter Anna.
You can visit him online at PaulSchmidBooks.com.