Containing your creativity

How boundaries ignite boundless ideas

The puzzles we face each day can be daunting. They’re the problems we encounter with a definite—yet not always obvious—solution. Puzzles like: How do I get my first business off the ground? How do I cultivate a loving relationship? How do I find a career that not only enriches my bank account, but enlivens my soul?

If you’ve ever ventured into the world of jigsaw puzzles—and I bet you did sometime in 2020—then you know there are certain steps that make puzzles easier to solve.

The first is to gather all the pieces and to flip them right side up. In the creative process, this is akin to gathering inspiration through experience, drawing insight from diverse and nontraditional means.

The second step in solving a difficult puzzle is to find all the edge pieces. To start with the corners, and steadily build an outer frame that will contain the rest of the pieces. This creates a boundary, which as it turns out, is essential if you hope to harness the power of creativity.

Harness your unconscious mind

“The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once,“ explains author John McPhee. “For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me.”

McPhee, at 92 years old, is still writing for The New Yorker and has been for the past 60 years. As a veteran of the magazine, he admits that the pains of writing never ease. After cranking out over 100 articles and publishing over 30 books, he knows a truth about the creative process that many of us have yet to understand.

McPhee always starts with a shitty first draft. This ugly first attempt has an essential purpose, beyond that of what we were taught in school. A first draft gives McPhee the scaffolding for his thoughts to develop. It gives his creativity a place to bloom.

Once his first draft is done and the mental scaffolding is erected, McPhee gets on with his life. He’ll do errands and chores. He’ll go for walks or a long drive. “On the way,” he says, “your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem.” And that’s the magic of it. After the very uncomfortable and very conscious effort of writing a first draft, McPhee has offloaded the rest of the task to his unconscious mind.

Without a first draft, he explains, “you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day.”

Our minds need a structure to build our thoughts around. Writing a first draft, gives us this structure. Once assembled, it will begin to automatically look for meaningful connections. In other words, we can domesticate creativity by building a fence.

Creating base reality

But isn’t creativity unlimited, childlike, and boundless? As soon as you start trying to control it, start boxing it in, surely it diminishes some of it magic. That’s what I used to believe too, that is, until I started learning about improv comedy.

I love going to improv shows. I always envied those who had the guts to get on stage and summon the raw, uncensored, and unrestricted power of creativity in the name of a good laugh.

I’ve been to dozens of these kinds of shows in the past few years, and what I learned is they usually end in one of two ways. Either I’m red-faced, gasping for air between hysterical laughter, or I’m squirming in my seat watching an hour long bomb.

I figured that the difference was made by the personalities on stage. Those who were naturally funny would thrive, while those who were socially awkward would flounder. As it turns out, I was wrong.

Improv, like any other form of creativity, has rules. The first of which is called “creating the base reality”. Since anything can happen in an improv scene, it’s critical for actors to determine the who, what, where, and when of the scene from the outset. Are they in outer space? Are they time travelers? Are they seagulls on the Jersey shore, pulling apart the last slice of pie at Sawmill Pizza? Without this foundation, nothing quirky, or surprising, or terrific can happen. The scene is dead on arrival.

“You have to teach people technique,” says comedian Ian Robertsand, “principles and rules that they can practice that allow inspiration to come out.” Robertsand is a comedy legend and the founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade—the premier proving ground for any serious comic in the genre. The group, which was also co-founded by Amy Poehler in 1990, dismisses the notion that improv is about releasing your inhibitions, and being a free-flowing vessel for comedic inspiration.

“In reality,” the group writes in their Improvisation Manual, “no matter how much fun they are having onstage, great improvisers are working together while adhering to a clear set of guidelines.” They’re building a world together, a container in which comedy and creativity can thrive.

A genius deception

The old Renaissance masters—Da Vinci, Donatello, Raphael and Brunelleschi— are all considered creative geniuses. People who taught themselves geometry, chemistry, architecture, and anatomy, and then wove the disciplines together with unmatched grace. Yet, one stands out above the rest.

At 23, he sculpted Madonna della Pietà. At 26, the David. Then at age 37, after five years of back-breaking labor, Michelangelo finished painting the 343 figures that adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” the young genius would be quoted as saying. The truth, however, is much more human than divine.

While Da Vinci is known for taking extensive notes and sketching his initial works hundreds of times before completion, Michelangelo has no such reputation. And that’s exactly how he wanted it to be.

Michelangelo worked hard to conceal the process of his genius. The labor, the toil, the failures, and false starts. Until just recently—with the discovery of lost sketches and anatomical studies—it was believed that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel unaided. Like a freestyle rapper, we were lead to believe that he arrived for work each day with nothing prepared, summoning forth the divine on the spot. But that wasn’t the case at all.

As it turns out, Michelangelo burned at least 1,400 sketches and first drafts. One can only imagine the countless others that were crumpled up and thrown away during the conceptualization of the David or the painting of the Sistine Chapel. There’s an Italian word for this deception, sprezzatura— taking great pains to make your genius seem effortless.

For centuries, we’ve been misled with stories of unaided genius. Stories like Michelangelo’s deception fooled us into believing that some people “just have it”, and that the rest of us do not. The truth, as it turns out, is that all creatives are using the same recipe. They’re all sketching, and planning, and tweaking.

That’s because creativity is a vine, not a tree. It can grow, and weave, and climb to magnificent heights, but it needs a lattice to adhere to. It cannot support it’s own weight. That’s where we come in.

Structure enables creativity

Rick Rubin, the legendary music producer behind Eminem, Adele, and Jay-Z, has been a student of creativity for the past 40 years. He’s observed the idiosyncrasies of dozens of multi-platinum level artists, up close and in the studio. In doing so, Rubin has been able to codify a wholistic perspective into the creative act.

“If you’re holding a center puzzle piece in your hand and staring at an empty tabletop,” he’s written, “it’s difficult to determine where to place it.” Instead, what he suggests is to start with building the outer ring, then let your creative mind fill that space.

By creating a rough outline of where we hope to go, we give bounds to our creativity. These bounds, paradoxically, make solving any creative challenge that much easier. As Rubin puts it, “If all of the puzzle is complete except for that one piece, then you know exactly where it goes.”

Which implies an order to the creative process. First, we must gather information, and collect our puzzle pieces. Then we must assemble the edges, building the container for our work. In this way, action precedes thought.

We must act our way into creativity, not think our way in.


PS. If you’ve made it all the way down here and don’t feel that you’ve just wasted five minutes, consider hitting the like button on this essay.

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