Creativity is not the exclusive property of artists. It blossoms in everyday activities — solving a problem, closing a sale, helping children and grandchildren to see the world anew, making any creation that pleases you.
In my 40 years as a dancer and a choreographer, I have learned the power of following daily patterns in creative output. Facing a blank computer screen, an untouched canvas, a block of stone or, in my case, an empty white room can be paralyzing… or inspiring. The prospect of beginning to create may be frightening, but it’s also a source of energy and inspiration.
RITES OF PREPARATION
Begin by establishing a work environment routine.
What I do: Every morning, I get up at 5:30, eat three hard-boiled egg whites, drink a cup of coffee and then hail a cab to the gym, where I exercise for two hours with my trainer.
Variations on this plan work well in many fields. Athletes are famous for following some sequence of comforting activities before a game. A chef I know starts the day among the herbs, spices and flowers of his terrace garden. Before picking up a brush, one painter plays loud music. Both Beethoven and novelist Edna Ferber started the day with a brisk walk to get their creative juices flowing.
Such rites of preparation propel us into creative mode. My morning ritual reminds me that I can depend on myself. To work, I need my body. I am more productive when my body is strong. Therefore, I start each day getting stronger.
NEED FOR SOLITUDE
An essential part of creativity is the solitude to think.
To build your tolerance for solitude: Sit alone in a room and let your thoughts wander for one minute. Do this daily, adding one minute each day until you reach 10 minutes. Then start paying attention to your thoughts. Does a word or goal appear? Tease your thoughts forward in your brain until an idea sneaks in. You are not alone anymore.
An unwelcome attribute of aging is the prospect of losing memory and the words or images that feed our imagination.
How I keep my memory sharp: While watching my dancers rehearse, I memorize my first 12 to 14 comments, sorted into categories, that I will make at the next break. Trick: Reconnect with something old to make it new.
Example:Study an old photograph of yourself. What do you see that resembles the person you have become? What’s different? What people and places come to mind? What do you feel? Nostalgia, pleasure, isolation, regret?
WHERE TO GET IDEAS
I call my first efforts to make a new dance “scratching.”
It’s as if I’m scratching a lottery ticket to see if I’ve won… digging through a pile of ideas to find one to expand on… clawing at the side of a mountain for a toehold and grip.
A chef pores through recipes… a fashion designer visits vintage clothing stores and observes pedestrians from a sidewalk café.
What environments would support the kind of creative output you desire?
Many ideas aren’t worth pursuing. You know you have a good idea if it turns you on instead of shutting you off… keeps generating more ideas, which improve on each other.
Scratching gets you going when you can’t wait for a thunderbolt of imagination to strike. To develop a big idea, scratch for small ones.
Composers often start with riffs or licks — small combinations of notes. I improvise dances with phases of choreographic movement — a quick three-step combination… a foot turn plus an arm movement… a new way to collapse to the floor.
Other ways to scratch for ideas: Read great books… eavesdrop on others’ conversations… enjoy other people’s art… emulate ideas explored by your mentors and heroes… study nature.
As you scratch for an idea, don’t think ahead. Let the idea hurtle forward unedited. Admire it. You can fix it later.
CREATE ORDER FROM CHAOS
It takes training to put chaos into a satisfying order.
This exercise works for me — I toss a handful of coins on my worktable and move them into strange or familiar designs. I may line them up, stack them or poke them until I find an arrangement that feels like the resolution of a chord. The essence of creativity is that among many possibilities, only one solution seems inevitable.
Mental warm-up: Try the same exercise with poker chips, pickup sticks or paper clips. Moving them around with your hands may get your mind moving, too.
DON’T WAIT UNTIL YOU’RE “READY”
However limited your resources, you have enough to get started. Limited time can compel us to move with energy and passion. Limited funds oblige us to find creative solutions. It worked for me.
Example: For my first dance, I had no money, no scenery, no music and no real stage. For five years, I choreographed to silence. Under impoverished circumstances, I was forced to discover my own dance vocabulary.
At the start of the creative process, perfectionism can act like procrastination. Just do. Don’t strive for perfection.
Other mistakes that undermine you: Overreliance on others… feeling obligated to finish every project, even if it’s failing… working with the wrong materials.
PLAY 20 QUESTIONS
The patience to accumulate details is a valuable creative skill.
Example: Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are crammed with evidence of his obsessive thoroughness. Illustration: After examining numerous aspects of water, he understood rivers and was prepared to make creative use of their power and potential.
Before applying paint to brush, chisel to stone or finger to keyboard, write down 20 questions about your chosen topic. Then answer them.
How: You want to paint a landscape. From what direction is the light coming? What trees are native to the area? How much sky can you see? Is the wind blowing? What is the predominant color? Why are you there?
The more you know, the better you can imagine.
BUILD A BRIDGE TO TOMORROW
To keep creation flowing, know when to stop. Ernest Hemingway stopped writing each day when he knew what would come next. I quit for the day before everyone is exhausted, but enough energy is left in the room to proceed.
Like a comedian who leaves the audience begging for more, exit your daily work while you have some reserve. Describe leftover ideas, words, images or intentions on an index card. The next morning, read your notes.
And get started again.