Creativity: A Look at Three Books on the Subject

by Glenn Miller

Creativity Light Bulb"We hear about it all of the time. We've all probably experienced it, in one way or another, in our own lives. Creative people know that it's always there, ready to crawl out of their typewriter or keyboard or felt-tipped pen. They fear it and hate it but, if they're successful, have learned how to surmount it. It's the dreaded mental block. The moment when nothing happens. When the next idea does not appear on the screen in the back of your head. When you don't know which way to go or how to get there. And it comes in a variety of sizes and goes under a number of names... writer's block, musical blackout, painter's block, the great wall of nothing, the dry well. But whatever we call it, the effect is the same. Panic (if you're new at the game), depression (if you're moderately experienced), resignation (if you're an old pro)."

That's from The Creative Mystique, by John M. Keil. He's "been the creative force behind campaigns for Toyota, Life Savers, Hamms Beer, L'eggs pantyhose, and the 'Take a Bite Out of Crime' campaign." In fact, he is the voice of McGruff the Crime Dog in the TV and radio ads. (This book, by the way, was written for people who have to manage, motivate, and nurture "creative types.")

Mr. Keil's description of panic, depression, or resignation in the face of a mental block struck a respondent chord in me. I can still remember the first time I panicked. It was my first job at a country/western daytimer in Bellingham, Washington. (Country/western was a format then.) I was walking down Eldridge Avenue on a partly cloudy Wednesday afternoon thinking, "Gee, things are really going great. I'm coming up with so many great ideas for commercials but... what if I run out of ideas?" I walked past an alternative book store, turned around, and went in. I came across Lateral Thinking, Creativity Step By Step, by Edward de Bono. I haven't panicked since. Depression is a foggy memory. And, as far as finishing this creative book review -- the heck with it. I'll do it later.

Okay. It's later.

While both those books have some excellent points on creativity, what it is and how to produce it, The Creative Mystique is skewed toward management, and Lateral Thinking reads like it was written with educators in mind. They're good, but if you're sitting there looking at a fistful of production orders, relief is more than just a swallow away. Robert von Oech's A Whack On The Side Of The Head could very well be the "plop-plop, fizz-fizz" you need right now. This book has lots of pictures, big letters, an' lays it out slicker'n snot. (But tastefully.)

The title originates from the need for all of us to be shaken out of routine patterns, forced to re-think our problems, and stimulated to ask questions that may lead to other right answers. That's all creativity is: Doing things that are not "routine," or, doing routine things in a fresh and novel way.

Why do we rut around in "routine?" We don't need to be crea-tive for most of what we do. Much of our educational system is an elaborate game of "guess what the teacher is thinking." And, we adopt certain attitudes that lock our thinking into the status quo and keep us thinking "more of the same."

Mr. von Oech calls these attitudes "mental locks." He lists them, gives examples of thinking within those locks, and offers suggestions on how to pick the lock to creative freedom.

Here's the list of ten:

1. The Right Answer
2. That's Not Logical
3. Follow the Rules
4. Be Practical
5. Play Is Frivolous
6. That's Not My Area
7. Avoid Ambiguity
8. Don't Be Foolish
9. To Err Is Wrong
10. I'm Not Creative

The Right Answer: Remember how your teacher would ask you to raise your hand if you knew the answer? You raised your hand. She called on you. Oops. Wrong answer. And that little geek in the front was right again!

You learned two things. There is a right answer, and you stop looking for answers when you find that "one right answer." Now you need a whack up side the head! You're not in school (at least not in the traditional sense) and if there is any one "right answer," it would have to be "the client says it's right and it's his money." (If I were paid commission on those "right answers," I'd probably agree.)

That's Not Logical: Logical thinking is "hard thinking." It's precise, exact, consistent. Humor, fantasy, and intuition are examples of "soft thinking." Hard thinking eliminates all possibilities until the one right answer stands alone. Soft thinking includes anything it wants, producing an infinite amount and variety of possibilities. True, many -- maybe all of those possibilities -- will be unworkable but maybe, just maybe, one or two or three will be workable. Those possibilities would have been rejected if hard thinking alone were used (and preceded soft thinking). It's okay to dream, and fantasize, and follow your intuition. It's more than okay. If you want to be creative, it's your job. (Someone would have to take the fun out of it, wouldn't they?)

Follow The Rules: Much of what we call "intelligence" is our ability to recognize patterns. In fact, we tend to impose patterns where none is intended. Patterns help us to understand the world and can easily slip into the driver's seat and "rule" our thinking. Then, the Aslan Phenomenon appears. 1. We make rules based on reasons that make a lot of sense. 2. We follow these rules. 3. Time passes, and things change. 4. The original reason for the generation of these rules may no longer exist, but because the rules are still in place, we continue to follow them. Challenge rules! Break the rules. (Caution: Rules are different than laws. How? You break a rule, people think you're stupid. You break a law, they throw your butt in jail. That's how you tell the difference.)

Avoid falling in love with ideas. Inspect your ideas and beliefs periodically. Do they serve your purpose or do you serve them? We have an enormous cabinet in a hallway at WKDF. It was set there "temporarily" to be "out of the way" till it could be installed where it was built to be placed. It obstructs traffic, interferes with work, but it's been there so long people now believe it belongs there. Don't leave ideas like that in your head.

Be Practical: This is about the same as saying, "Be logical," and it eliminates alternatives. To break out of practicality ask, "What if?" and then finish the question with some contrary-to-fact condition, idea, or situation. "What if I did this hard sell spot in a whisper?" "What if I did this dance club spot with polka music in the background?"

Another thinking tool useful in leaping out of practicality is "the stepping stone," a provocative idea that stimulates us to think about other ideas. The author gives the example of an engineer at a chemical company that suggested putting gunpowder in house paint. After a few years, paint chips and cracks, and is very difficult to remove. If it had gunpowder in it, you could blow it right off the house. Not very practical, but it lead the company to develop a house paint with inert additives that would react with other chemicals at a later date rendering the paint easy to get off. (I prefer the gunpowder idea. I can see someone casually flipping a butt in the bushes when he's trying to quietly sneak in the house at 3 am. Boom! "Honey, I'm home.")

Play Is Frivolous: The author asked hundreds of thousands of people what kinds of activities they were doing when they got their best ideas. The answers fell into two categories, "necessity," and "just foolin' around." "Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father. A playful attitude is fundamental to creative thinking. Getting into a humorous frame of mind not only loosens you up, it enhances your creativity. Humor stretches your thinking." It's a whack up side the head because it (a punchline) surprises you. Humor often connects dissimilar elements; things that don't fit are suddenly related. "If you can make fun of something, then you're more likely to challenge the rules that give "something" its legitimacy, and perhaps you can think of alternatives. There is a close relationship between the "haha" of humor and the "aha!" of discovery."

That's Not My Area: Creativity is a generative process. What we want is more and different, not more of the same. Specialization excludes, eliminates, isolates. True, you want to be very good at writing/producing promos and commercials; that's specialization. But your hobbies, reading material, viewing habits, if these are static, you're isolating yourself in a web of comfortable, agreeable ideas and activities. Your stream of consciousness is in danger of stagnating.

Years ago I put together my own agenda of qualities I wanted to develop and cultivate. One was to "actively search for new avenues of experience and learning." How I do that is totally at random, but if you need some ideas to stimulate your thinking, here are several the author lists: Daydreaming to sound effects records, going to a junk yard or flea market, browsing the want ads, and taking an acting class. In a word, explore anything you aren't familiar with.

Avoid Ambiguity: When you know what your message is, by all means, be specific, be precise, make it "perfectly clear." When you want to stimulate your imagination, it's time to ask yourself, "What else could this be?" "How would you explain this service or product to someone from another culture or another planet or to a six year old?" "What else could this product be used for?"

Another way to "whack" yourself into a new perspective is with an oracle. An oracle, in this case, is nothing more than introducing a random element. When you need a fresh approach to a piece of copy, open the dictionary and choose a word at random. Riffle through a magazine or catalog and choose something at random. Look out the window and choose the second or third thing with a particular color. Go into a store, pick an aisle at random and choose the thing that smells the strongest. Whatever item you end up with, ask yourself how it answers your question. Try to find three to five different answers. "Be literal in your interpretation. Be metaphorical. Be off-the-wall. Be serious."

You may be tempted to dismiss a certain item as irrelevant and search for something that seems more related. Don't, for two reasons. First, you'll hurl yourself right back into the rut you were in, and second, everything is related or connected to everything else. The mind, when told a pattern exists or that there is meaning in something, will churn away until it succeeds in its mission, or burns out. The disadvantage of this technique is time. It may take some time before you get an answer you can use.

The author also mentions dreams as a source of inspiration. Some of the questions he suggests asking yourself are: "How do you feel in the dream? How do you feel about the dream? Who is in the dream? Where does it take place? How do the different people react to what happens in the dream? What is unusual?" Go past the first interpretation to the second and third meaning. I have no success with this. Maybe it's the caffeine.

Don't Be Foolish: The Egyptian pharaohs had them. The rulers of Rome and Greece had them. Chinese emperors had them. Fools, court jesters. They were given a license to parody and ridicule the prevailing mindset. Usually the court's advisers were "yes-men." And, when everyone thinks alike there's not much thinking going on. Through the use of jokes, off-beat observations, and sometimes the truth, the fool introduces a new slant on things.

How to play the fool? (You really have to ask?) Reverse standard assumptions. Be irreverent. Deny a problem exists and treat the negatives as positives. Be absurd. Find a little detail others overlook or consider trivial and magnify its importance out of proportion.

To Err Is Wrong: "Most people consider success and failure as opposites, but they are actually both products of the same process." If you're in a comfortable routine, you'll make very few mistakes. If you're coming up with stuff no one's ever heard of before and approaching the copy from a different perspective, you'll make mistakes. Those mistakes, though, can be stepping stones to new solutions. How many times have you pressed the wrong button at the wrong time and gotten some sound or effect and said, "Gee, that's keen." (Or, something to that effect.) It may not work in the spot you're working on but it might be perfect for another spot. And then again, it may cause you to scrap the idea you were working on and go in a different direction.

One danger of success is that it "tends to lock you in a pattern." This is the mentality behind, "If it ain't broken, why fix it?" That kind of mentality leads to the unemployment office. "This attitude prevents you from experimenting and trying other approaches that in the long run may do you a lot more good." The author recommends taking at least one risk every week. How? "Try a new recipe. Invest in a new idea. Tackle a problem outside your field of expertise."

There are two benefits of failure. "First, if you do fail, you learn what doesn't work. Second, the failure gives you an opportunity to try a new approach." As Woody Allen said, "If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not trying anything very innovative."

I'm Not Creative: "Several years ago, a major oil company was concerned about the lack of creative productivity among its engineers. To deal with this problem, a team of psychologists was brought in to find out what differentiated the creative people from the lesser creative ones. They hoped that their finding could be used to stimulate the less creative people.

The psychologists asked the engineers all kinds of questions ranging from what their educational backgrounds were to where they grew up to what their favorite colors were. After three months of study, the psychologists found that the chief differentiating factor that separated the two groups was: The creative people thought they were creative, and the less creative people didn't think they were."

The power of the self-fulfilling prophesy. Do you have a sneaking suspicion you've just about reached the bottom of your creative idea barrel? That's dangerous thinking. (Even if it's true, it's still dangerous thinking.)

But on the other hand, let's say you believe you're the most creative copywriter and production person on the face of the earth, past, present, or future. And, you come up dry. And, you've gone through the aforementioned "whacks" and still come up dry. What then?

Four possibilities come to mind. First, you may simply have been working on the account so long that it or you have become stale. It's the same thing as dessert. It's dessert unless you have it for dessert after every meal every day. Advertising agencies move people from account to account for that very reason. They want to avoid boredom from setting in. (And what if you can't transfer an account to someone else? Review all the material you've done for the client. Was there a character somewhere in there that could be resurrected and enhanced? If there's a consistent theme, are there any "holes" or "hazy areas" that can be filled in? Tell the salesperson if they want to keep the account they'll have to come up with some good ideas. Yeah, I know, it's your job but it's their money. If it was your money would you come up with some more ideas? And, read the next paragraph.)

Second, you may not know what it is you're supposed to do. I know that sounds stupid. "I'm supposed to write a spot. That's what I'm supposed to do." From Mr. Keil's book The Creative Mystique, "I've become more convinced than ever that if every challenge was given a strategy outlining whom we want to reach, what we want them to do, what we want them to remember from our message, and why they should believe what we're saying, managing the creative process and making creative judgments would be somewhat simpler." Those four things are so obvious that we tend to overlook or forget them. It's easy to get lost when you forget your destination.

Third, your job may no longer be challenging enough. If you're a genuinely creative person, this is going to happen periodically in your life. You have successfully met every challenge this job has or ever can throw at you and you know it, whether or not you're willing to admit it to yourself. You need to find a new challenge, something that can excite you as much or more than the job you now have, something that can make you feel as alive as you did when you started your present job.

Fourth, you were never creative in the first place. Sorry pal, but it's true. Well, yes and no. Yes, everyone is creative. No, not everyone is creative enough to generate a large volume of ideas every day or every week year after year. Then there are those "idea persons." (That's how they refer to themselves; I have other names for them.) They have an endless supply of "simply brilliant" ideas but lack the energy and discipline to execute them or expect others to "hop to" and carry them out.

Here's another view on non-creative people in creative positions from Mr. Keil. "But, you say, presuming they're not beginners, how did they get there in the first place? Or how did they get as far as they did without being discovered? (They're simply more creative than the Program Director, and certainly more creative than the General Manager! Now, now, stop it!) The answer is that there are different levels of creativity. And, unfortunately, one level is called competence. It consists of the mechanics who know enough to perform the function but never seem to grow. The bassoon player who plays competently but never puts any fire or feeling into it. (Help! My bassoon's on fire.) The architect who imitates, never innovates. The author who wrote an interesting novel in 1954 -- and has written it over and over in five succeeding books since then."

Well, this is beginning to smell like editorial, not review, so let me finish on a positive note. The most important thing I learned from Edward de Bono's book (Lateral Thinking) was the generating of new ideas for the sake of generating new ideas. One reason he chose the word "lateral" over creative thinking or brainstorming is because it is a deliberate process and as definite a way of using the mind as logical thinking. He demystified creative thinking for me. He gave, albeit academic and geometric, exercises to develop, enhance, and perpetuate creativity. Robert von Oech does the same thing in a more (in radio lingo) "accessible" way.

Generating new ideas for the sake of generating new ideas is so important because change is inevitable, and unpredictable. We are in a business of change. Life is a business of change. And, sometimes the process is more important than the results. Generating new ideas for the sake of generating new ideas not only gives you the new ideas but makes you more adept at the process of generating new ideas. Mr. de Bono further states about his book that in using it, remember that practice is far more important than understanding the process. This circuitous train of thought can be summed up in two words, "Do it." Lateral Thinking and A Whack On The Side Of The Head preach the same doctrine. "Whack" is easier to read and apply. (New pump applicator available in limited areas.)

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