Making Creativity Work for You

This article is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Songwriting Demystified by Christopher Kent. It previously appeared in Songwriter’s Monthly.

IMAGINE this scene: you’re sitting at home and the weather outside has given you a great idea for a song. You’re going to compare your feelings for your lover to a thunderstorm. You find your notebook, turn to a clean sheet of paper, and write:

The first time that I saw you
I heard the thunder roll
Your eyes were filled with lightning
I began to lose control…

You think about this for a minute. No, you decide, it’s a little too corny and melodramatic. You cross it out, and after a minute you write:

‘Twas a dark and stormy evening
When you came into my life…

No way, you think, crossing it out. Too cliched. You try again:

There’s a storm that’s brewing in my heart
For a lover just like you…

No, somehow it still doesn’t sound right. Not only that, but you have the sinking feeling that each attempt is worse than the one before. Frustration begins to set in. After a dozen more tries you start thinking there must be something wrong with you, and you close the notebook in disgust. At this point your creative juices have totally dried up, and you spend the next few hours in a bad mood watching “I Love Lucy” reruns.

Most of us have had an experience like this at one time or another. It’s very frustrating because you know you have something to say, but you can’t seem to get it out in a way that sounds good. In a situation like this, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that you’re just not a very good writer. Actually, the problem is not your ability as a writer, but the way you’re using your creativity.

The Two Creative Processes

Most people think of creativity as a single process. In fact, creativity is two very different processes that have to work together effectively. The first process is inspiration – coming up with ideas. The second is editing – deciding whether or not to use the ideas.

While many people wouldn’t think of editing as even being a part of the creative process, it is. In fact, it’s crucial. During the editing process we sort through the inspiration and decide what to keep and what to discard. Without editing, inspiration can produce tons of material, but a lot of it is likely to be garbage.

In many respects, inspiration and editing are opposite kinds of mental operation. One is impulsive and largely unconscious; the other is logical and involves conscious thought. Yet the fact that they’re so different is what makes them so complimentary, The inspiration process mixes and matches different pieces of your experience in new ways and presents the results to your conscious mind, The logical editor, on the other hand, considers the context you want to use the new material in and decides whether the new material is appropriate or not. Both processes must function effectively in order for creativity to produce worthwhile results.

Even everyday decisions would soon lead to disaster without the editing process. For example, suppose you work at a 9-to-5 job and your boss decides to tell you just how incompetent he thinks you are. If you’re like most people, a situation like this would fill you with inspiration – all the things you’d like to say back to your boss! But if you want to keep your job, your mental editor will step in and decide not to use most of that inspiration right then and there. (You can always use it later, after you get to be the boss!)

Inspiration without editing tends to produce chaos, not useful results. True creativity is the result of both processes, properly used.

The problem . . .

So what was our songwriter doing wrong that stormy night? Was he forgetting to edit his work? Not at all. He was making the most common creative mistake of all: He was trying to produce inspiration and edit it at the same time.

The problem is that inspiration and editing can get in each other’s way. The result is “writer’s block.” That’s exactly what happened to our songwriter.

Here’s how it works: When we come up with a little bit of inspiration, our first impulse is to examine it to see whether it’s acceptable. This works fine in day-to-day situations when we have to make quick decisions about what to do or say. But in a more thoughtful mode, when we’re working to create a particular result, this natural tendency can backfire.

The trouble is, we frequently don’t like the first thing we come up with, so we have to start over again. And each time we ask our inspiration center to come up with another possibility that will serve the same purpose, it gets harder to do – and it gets easier to judge ourselves negatively. In essence, our “mental editor” hassles our inspiration source until it gives up, and the creative flow grinds to a halt.

We may never make it past that first creative effort!

This kind of “writer’s block” is far more widespread than you might think. Even the most successful creative people run into it. In fact, many people spend a lifetime struggling to be creative this way without realizing there’s an alternative. By trying to be inspired and edit at the same time they make the whole creative process much more painful and time-consuming than it needs to be.

Making the process(es) work

The way to avoid all this difficulty is simple: finish one process before you start the other. Whether you’re writing a song or doing some other creative endeavor, start off by writing down every idea that comes to you. Keep going until you’re totally out of inspiration. Don’t be critical! That’s the whole point. Sure, you’ll probably put down a lot of embarrassingly bad stuff, but the good material will be there too. After the inspiration is all there on the page, go back and decide what you don’t like. Even if you throw out 90% of what you put down, you’ll be left with a lot of great stuff.

Most people are not accustomed to working this way, but the difference it makes can be dramatic. By not trying to edit while you’re being inspired, you avoid getting hung up on the stuff you don’t like. That makes it possible for all the good material to come out. In fact, by giving your inspiration center this kind of freedom, you may be amazed at the amount of high-quality material you can produce.

This same idea can be used when a group of people need to be creative, in which case it’s called brainstorming. Before big business started using brainstorming, for instance, idea sessions were much less productive. People were afraid to make innovative suggestions for fear of being challenged and looking foolish. It was the same creative stumbling block – allowing inspiration and editing to happen at the same time.

Using the brainstorming process, the first half of the meeting is devoted solely to inspiration. Everyone is encouraged to call out any idea that comes to them, regardless of how far-fetched it seems. No one is allowed to criticize anything. All the ideas are written on a chalk board. Then, in the second half of the meeting, everyone edits, and one by one the unworkable ideas are discarded. The end result is a number of workable ideas, some of them so offbeat they might never have been suggested without the creative freedom that comes when you separate inspiration and editing.

Letting the juices flow

This one practical idea – keeping inspiration and editing separate – can save you hours (maybe even years) of frustration and wasted time and energy. In a 1984 interview, Paul McCartney — currently ranked as the most successful musician in history —  said that his discovery of this way of writing was a major revelation, and that it helped him cure his writer’s block. He also quoted Quincy Jones — a huge factor in the success of Michael Jackson and many other artists — as saying that this idea had changed his life.

These guys should know, right?

Give it a try and see for yourself. The next time you do something creative (like working on a song) make it a point to not be critical of anything you come up with until you’ve exhausted your inspiration and written down everything you’ve thought of. Then go back and edit – or better yet, wait a day or two to give yourself more perspective. You’ll be amazed at how easily inspiration flows without the interference of premature editing.

Just don’t separate the two processes when your boss is yelling at you!

© 1999 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.