The Talent of Creativity

“Would you like to spend tonight in the throws of passion?”
“Would you like to spend tonight in the throws of passion?”

My older brother Maurice has a talent for creativity. I could list dozens of of examples, but you should just click this: Men_R_Dogs It combines suggestive personal ads (complete with misspellings) and puppy photos. It’s pee-your-pants funny. And he churns out this kind of stuff all the time.

Most of us think of creativity as a kind of conjuring, where, as Webster’s puts it, something new is “brought into existence.” But I’m not so sure that’s right. In fact, I think it’s dead wrong.

My reasoning has to do with my brother and also with the prolific (and, for my money, underrated) writer Stephen King, who delivers some insights into the creative process in his 2001 memoir, On Writing.

King’s opinion: we don’t create ideas; rather we connect them. We make a link between two things that hadn’t been linked before. As he puts it, we unearth a connection, and then, POW!

This idea works to explain King’s immense creative output. In fact, most of his books are fueled by these sorts of combinations. For example: Mysterious Barrier + Quiet Maine Town = Under the Dome; Classic Car + Demon = Christine, High School Cruelty + Telekinesis = Carrie. Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into converting these primitive combinations into works of art, but they are like the uranium core of creativity: the big bang.

The deeper question is, how do we create more of these explosions?

To answer that, let’s look at what those connections really are. They are neural links — connected wires in our brain. Ideas don’t just float in the air — they exist, as electrical circuits. Maurice’s idea is funny because his brain built a connection between the neurons for “Suggestive Personal Ads” and the neurons for “Cute Puppies.” In fact, we could replace the word “creativity” with a new term: “connectivity.” And to maximize creative connectivity, you need to do two very different tasks:

1) gather ideas

2) connect them

For the gathering phase, we need lots of inputs, lots of filtering and categorizing. To be good at this is like being a human vacuum cleaner, hoovering up ideas and funneling them into various memory bins.

For the second phase, we need time and space to let the connections form and grow. It’s what management consultant and author Jim Collins refers to as “the white space” — the area of the day when real thinking happens.

Look closely at any creative person, and you’ll see that they have structured their lives to create acres of white space; Charles Dickens took endless walks through the city; Einstein played violin; Collins unplugs all electronics and goes “into the cave” from 8 a.m. until noon every day. All are good examples of Flaubert’s code: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

We’re living an interesting moment. For gathering ideas, it’s unquestionably richest time in history; we are standing in a torrent of stimulus and ideas. For finding that quiet place to connect those ideas, however, it’s exactly the opposite; white space is scarce and getting scarcer. Which makes it all the more valuable.

(Special thanks to my friend Michael Ruhlman for urging me to read On Writing.)

p.s. We went back to press for the eighth printing today — thanks, everyone!