4 Ways to Make Space in Your Brain to Create

This is the first article in Quiet Revolution’s two-part series on seeking creativity. Check out Quiet Revolution next week to learn about the ways you can hack your environment to help you channel your creativity more effectively.

We’d enjoy nothing new without creativity. For extroverts, new ideas can come from external stimulation: collaborating with cross-disciplinary teams within the workplace, jamming with artistic friends, or attending group classes or meetups. Introverts, though, usually hit their creative peak in lower-stimulation environments.

In today’s over-stimulated world, this means introverts often have to work to carve out time for themselves. Sure, many on the quieter end of the spectrum also gain inspiration from the outside world, but then they need time for the ideas they’ve collected to incubate.

Whether you have 20 minutes a day or an entire weekend, use the four strategies below to make space in your brain so you can be open to anything.

1. Julia Cameron’s morning pages

In her internationally bestselling book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron shares her number one tool for creativity—an activity she calls morning pages.

They “are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.

‘Oh god, another morning. I have NOTHING to say. I need to wash the curtains. Did I get my laundry yesterday? Blah, blah, blah…’”

The important thing is to do them every day. By writing out everything that’s on your mind, everything that you’re worried about or distracted by, you’re actually performing an act of creative recovery. Morning pages allow you to get out of your own way, release the pressures and negativity of daily demands out of your brain, and move past your internal critic, or “Censor” as Cameron names it.

Creative thinkers, including filmmaker Brian Koppelman, journalist Maria Shriver, illustrator Francesca Chessa, and life-hacker Tim Ferriss, have all used morning pages with great success.

Try this theory in your life: Write by hand three pages every morning for eight weeks. See if they help you feed the artist within you.

2. Stephen Kosslyn’s psychology of ideas

What color is the Mona Lisa’s hair? Is your front doorknob on the right side or the left? To answer these questions, you most likely used visual mental imagery, also known as “seeing in the mind’s eye.”

Harvard professor Stephen Kosslyn has studied the psychology of the ways the brain uses mental imagery to generate ideas. Once we understand how the brain generates imagery, it’s easier to act upon this imagery and turn it into new ideas.

Essentially, in this process, the brain receives visual imagery straight from your memory, from things you’ve previously seen that stuck in your brain. When you answered the question above about the doorknob, your brain probably created a mental image of your door and then zoomed in on the door knob area.

Visual imagery is incredibly powerful, Kosslyn says, because “we can transform at will objects in visual mental images, for example by imagining them rotating, shrinking, or growing.” Kosslyn believes that we can use this visual imagery to come up with new ideas—but only if we’re paying attention.

According to Kosslyn, the brain uses four steps to transform mental imagery into new ideas:

a. Generate the image. Images usually come when we’re open to them but slightly distracted (i.e., in the shower). These images can be thought of as half-formed ideas.

b. Retain the image. If you get out of the shower and don’t write the image down, you may forget it as soon as you start making breakfast for your kids.

c. Inspect the image. Look at it from different angles.

d. Transform the image. Modify it to fit your own creative goals. By transforming it into something useful for your own life, you’ve turned it into a fully-formed idea.

At which step do you falter??

For introverts, ideas tend to come from reading, observing the world, spending time in nature, traveling, or taking in the creative arts (movies, art exhibits, concerts). But often, we don’t leave enough white space in our lives to follow up on creative inspiration.

If you leave the time, your first bit of inspiration will lead you to your next bit of inspiration, which can lead to transforming ideas. Twyla Tharp, successful dance choreographer, calls this “scratching.” In her book The Creative Habit, she writes,

“You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a dance piece. I’m digging through everything to find something… Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal and very private.”

Try this theory in your life: Schedule time to read a new piece of fiction or watch a movie, and also schedule some unstructured idea-generation time after you’re done to play mentally with the visual images you created from your viewing or reading. Or, if you already have many ideas, schedule time to follow up on the steps three and four: inspecting and transforming those ideas.

3. Ray Bradbury’s diet for your subconscious

In the world of creativity, people often talk about waiting for their muse to appear. Novelist Ray Bradbury wrote in his book Zen in The Art of Writing that your muse is your entire complete being. In other words, your muse is simply yourself.

“When people ask me where I get my ideas, I laugh. How strange—we’re so busy looking out, to find ways and means, we forget to look in.” – Ray Bradbury

Bradbury suggests we curate our own inspiration. “If we are going to diet for our subconscious, how prepare the menu?”

He suggests daily consumption of poetry first, followed by essays, and then short stories and novels. He recommends reading “those who do not think as you think.” Bradbury fed his muse by continually searching for excellence and differences in creativity in others’ work.

Try this theory in your life: Buy a book of poetry and a selection of essays (perhaps some from a previous decade). Read a few every day to help your mind foster a state of creativity.

4. Anne Lamott’s bird-by-bird mantra

The first steps of creativity are often the hardest. Once we have ideas, it’s challenging to act on them. We’re afraid of failure, so we get locked in inertia. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, best-selling writer Anne Lamott shares a story from her childhood about how her father helped her brother overcome his fear of the first step.

Lamott’s brother was working on a school report about birds, but he procrastinated too long and didn’t start until the night before the due date.

“He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Try this theory in your life: When you’re working on a creative project, ask yourself: what is the quickest way I can get started? How can I start making a bit of progress towards my larger goal? What’s the first step I can get done right now?

Author Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk in 2009 called “Your Elusive Creative Genius” about searching for a way to distance herself from her work in order to protect her creative spirit. Her search led her back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. She found that

“people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks . . . called these divine attendant spirits of creativity ‘daemons.’ Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar.”

Gilbert realized she had found a psychological construct to protect her from the results of her work. “If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.”

Although Gilbert believes her creative effort comes from her hard work, she said, “That’s not at all what my creative process is. I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly. But even I, in my mulishness, even I have brushed up against that thing [a muse], at times. And I would imagine that a lot of you have too. You know, even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source that I honestly cannot identify.”

What is Gilbert’s advice to herself?

“Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be.”

In other words, find a routine for your creativity, and stick with it.

Enjoy our stories on work, leadership, and temperament? Kate Earle of our Quiet Leadership Institute is hosting a webinar August 5, 2016 on Quiet Leadership: Tips for Empowering Yourself and Others. Please join us!

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  • Aimee

    This was so helpful. The last sentence is what i needed to hear the most. I love the idea of Morning Pages and have heard about it many times, but I think I have a barrier because it seems like it would be time-consuming. In reality it would probably only take 10-15 minutes.