Creativity: using the ultimate search engine

This post is an adaptation of an online article I wrote elsewhere about ten years ago, which I thought would shed a little extra light on the subject of inspiration. Granted, it’s a theory based on my personal experience, and therefore debatable, but I do believe it’s a valid approach to creativity.

Many years ago I found a publication issued by the Library of Congress Council of Scholars, titled “Creativity: A Continuing Inventory of Knowledge.” I opened it expecting to find marvelous secrets, but, alas, I was disappointed. The book turned out to be about a series of questions on various topics, discussed by a committee, and resolved by the committee in a very scholarly, committee-like manner. I didn’t even finish reading it.

That title, however, stuck with me: “Creativity: A Continuing Inventory of Knowledge.” Thinking about that title over the next few years, I realized that this is exactly the key to being creative. It’s how we were taught in design school, it’s how most of us in the creative professions think, and it’s a technique we use all the time.

So what does this mean? Here’s a condensed version of a condensed version of a potential treatise on how to be creative, in five simple steps:

1. Stuff as much material into your brain as you can. Read, watch movies, go to museums, concerts, parks, sporting events, and so on. Develop your curiosity into an obsession.

2. Keep all this material open and available all the time. Pretend it’s all on one gigantic table or bulletin board and that you can see it all at once.

3. When looking for an idea, look at this entire mass of material. Don’t just focus on the obvious stuff, and don’t get locked into the first idea that comes along.

4. Don’t take anything literally or for granted. This is one of my personal mantras.

5. Relax and enjoy the experience. Our brains are actually very good at this type of thing. The trick is to allow the brain do it, instead of restricting it.

That’s it. Yes, it takes work sometimes. But who ever said anything in life was easy?

Now, If you go back and look at step three, you’ll notice that this is very similar to using a search engine on the Web, because that’s exactly what our brains are doing. Here’s a little background…

Most of us went through the same learning process in school: a linear, one-subject-per-period system. Maybe the first period was history, then math, then maybe English, then art and so forth. In math period, we studied math. Period.

I could buy a roll of butcher paper and divide it into columns, one column per subject. Let’s see, I had about six subjects per semester, times two semesters per year, times nineteen years: that’s two hundred and twenty-eight columns. This column is Algebra I, that column is History of the Western World Part I, another column is Scenic Projection, another is Topics in Neoclassical Theatre, and so forth.

After twelve, sixteen, or more years of school, most of us have learned to think this way and do it subconsciously. One column per subject. All neatly organized, but totally segregated.

Then I can add more columns for everyday stuff: my job, cooking, buying a house, and so forth. Again, everything neatly organized by columns.

And still segregated.

So, if I’m looking for an idea that involves Germany in World War I, my first reaction is to look in the History of the Western World Part II column. And maybe one or two others.

But creative people don’t do that. They look at everything at once – every column – for anything that might have anything to do with the subject. They use their brain like a search engine and look at everything that comes up.

For instance, let’s say I’m looking for an idea with a pyramid. Not necessarily for a set: just a pyramid. Instead of going to a reference on Egypt, grabbing something, and calling it a day, I would let my mind ramble as I search through everything I know about pyramids.

Remember e.e.cummings from high-school English class? Stream of consciousness? Here we go:

“Pyramids. Egypt. The Great Pyramid. Okay so far. What’s that thing over there, by Saqqara? Aha, the stepped pyramid of Djoser. Hmmm… Stepped pyramids. Didn’t the Aztecs and the Mayas have those too? Yep. And they sometimes did human sacrifices on them. Okay, I’ll file that away.

“More pyramids. The 1970’s and the little pyramids that supposedly sharpened razor blades. Pyramids and razor blades. The whole tie/dye movement. The book Chariots of the Gods. Thor Heyerdahl and Easter Island. Mysterious islands. Jurassic Park and Isla Nublada. No pyramids there, but some good images anyway.

“What else has to do with pyramids? The glass one outside the Louvre, designed by I.M. Pei. The Da Vinci Code. A-ha! The Lost Symbol: the top of the Washington Monument is a pyramid. How about those little glass prisms used on old sailing ships to allow sunlight below decks? They weren’t exactly pyramids, more like faceted cones. A small glass pyramid-shaped paperweight. Then there’s the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas and of course the pyramid on the back of a one-dollar bill.”

And so on and on. One thing leads to another as my mind jumps among and between those neatly ordered and segregated columns and finds fascinating things hidden in them. Eventually an idea will come, and then I can do some dedicated online or hard-copy research as needed–which will of course put more material into my brain for next time.

Probably my favorite book on scenic design, Robert Edmond Jones’ The Dramatic Imagination (1941), has a beautiful section on this in the chapter “To a Young Stage Designer,” where he describes how he would design a tapestry featuring a heraldic lion. Instead of just copying originals of heraldic lions, he would let his mind wander among adventures and tales of the period: Richard the Lion-Heart, King Arthur, the Holy Grail, Tristan and Isolde, and many others until his mind was picturing, not what the lion looked like, but what images it summoned and what it meant in the context of the stories. He states: “Perhaps without knowing it I have stumbled on a definition of art in the theatre: all art in the theatre should be, not descriptive, but evocative. Not a description, but an evocation.”

Closer to home, a Wikipedia article on creativity cites studies on a theory known as Incubation: “…a period of interruption or rest from a problem may aid creative problem-solving. Ward lists various hypotheses that have been advanced to explain why incubation may aid creative problem-solving, and notes how some empirical evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that incubation aids creative problem-solving in that it enables ‘forgetting’ of misleading clues. Absence of incubation may lead the problem solver to become fixated on inappropriate strategies of solving the problem.”

My take on this (not being a psychologist) is that the brain simply looks at everything it has stored inside when we relax and allow it to do so. And maybe that’s the key: relax and allow the brain to do what it does so well.