25 Things You Should Know About Creativity

1. Let’s Just Get This Out Of The Way Now

As is my way, I’m going to use this list to say lots of hard-nosed stompy-footed scowly-faced things about creativity — blah blah blah pragmatism! Bippity-boppity-boo work work work! So, let me just say this upfront: creativity is fantastic. It’s a necessity not just for us wifty creative types but for all people everywhere — parents, astronauts, custodians, detectives, cowboys, Navy SEALs, harbor seals, custodial astro-cowboy detectives, and so on. Creativity is how new things are created. How old problems are solved. Creativity is fire, yes, but fire you use, fire you harness — it must not burn uncontrollably but be the match-flame that lights the fuse. Creativity is the fire we stole from the gods.

2. Key Word: Create

The key component of the word “creativity” is “create.” Meaning, to make something. It’s why I like the word creativity better than imagination — the former suggests the impetus for action while the latter suggests that everything is sealed away in the Sid and Marty Krofft hallucinogenic dream-house that is your mind (“OMG TALKING BUTTPLUG”). Imagination demands unreality; creativity demands reality.

3. “Oh. How Creative.”

The word “creative” inspires hasty judgment. A child who learns to fish around his diaper for fecal material which he then promptly paints on the wall gets labeled as “creative,” but it’s said with the faintest sneer and an imagined eye-roll. “Oh. Look. A poopy giraffe. How creative.” The way people say it, it sounds like a word reserved for mental patients and serial killers. “Oh. Look. A refrigerator full of eyeless human skulls. How creative.” Anybody in a creative industry is used to this. You tell someone what you do — writer, artist, musician — and they get that same poopy-giraffe head-collection look in their eyes, “Oh. Look. A writer. How creative.” Hey, fuck those people. Fuck ’em because they don’t grok the fact that creativity is what makes this whole human race not just function, but evolve.

4. Creativity Is Worthless Without Action

You can be as creative as you want, but unless you light a fire under your ass and shock-prod your brain-squirrels into powering the endeavor at hand, what’s the fucking point? Creativity demands action, direction, ambition. You tell me, “I want to write a novel about the persecution of magical ponies,” and then you sit there staring all slack-jawed, then the best you’ve done is committed an act of mental masturbation. Piss on inertia. Jump in. Get your hands dirty. Make something or shut up about it.

5. Creativity Is Dead Without Skill

Sucks, but there it is. “I want to write a novel about the persecution of magical ponies” is only going to be a functional expression of creativity if you have some measure of skill to go along with it — and yet, the irony is, you only gain a measure of skill by trying to do the thing you probably can’t do. Creativity is an eager beast, snorting and growling and ready to bust out of the stable, even if the beast is unready. You can’t walk until you can walk, but you still have to try to walk — even if that means falling on your face and shitting your britches in public. Mistakes must be made. Skill must be built. Creativity always runs ahead of your ability to perform the desired tasks, but hey, fuck it, that’s how we learn.

6. Early Frustration Indicative Of Imbalance

High creativity! Low skill. Sad trombone. Weepy panda. Creative-types often find themselves woefully frustrated by the process at hand. We feel like we’re beating our head against the wall, the ceiling, the floor. We experience that thing some might call “writer’s block,” or “painter’s obstacle,” or, uhhh, “flutist’s colonic obstruction.” Such frustration often grows out of that gulf between your rampant creativity and your nascent ability. You just have to push through the pain. Birth ain’t easy, people. It’s work. You’re going to turn your netherparts into microwaved bologna. It’s all part of the process. (See Ira Glass’ take on this problem here. Er, the problem of frustration, not of exploded birth canals.)

7. I Want To Rabbit-Punch The Term “Creative Writing” In The Kidneys

All writing is creative. Not just novels. Not just screenplays or games or the poetry you compose in your attic for all the little rats and roaches to read. All writing is creative. *bangs the gavel*

8. The Monkey With The Stick

The connotation of creativity is some goggle-eyed artist creating worlds with the tickling tips of his fingers — “Unicorns! Happy trees! Doodlebugs and space freighters!” — but that’s not what creativity is about at its core. Creativity is about problem solving. The monkey wants the ants in the hill and doesn’t know how to get them, so he breaks off a nearby stick and jams it in the anthill. Ten seconds later: delicious insect popsicle. Problems are an excellent motivator. Creativity needn’t trigger out of nowhere; it often activates when one is presented with a problem that needs an unexpected solution. Fiction requires this in spades: the author must solve problems he has created within the storyworld. Mmm. Delicious metanarrative conflictsicle.

9. The Frankenstein Monster Effect

The true power of creativity is gathering unlike things and glomming them together so that they function as one. For a storyteller, individual components needn’t be particularly original. The art is in the arrangement.

10. NF Over F, MFers

My bookshelves — comprising two full walls of my office — feature about 75% non-fiction, 25% fiction. Fiction does not generally inspire functional creativity. Reading fiction helps you to write fiction, yes, but over time you may find more creative value in gently shuffling your reading habits toward absorbing more non-fiction. Read broadly, widely, weirdly. Reading lots of non-fiction will expose you to a wide variety of those aforementioned “unlike things” and you’ll find this inspires more compelling arrangements than reading only fiction. A diet of fiction is regurgitory: it’s a Two Girls, One Cup version of the creative process. “I’ll poop in your mouth. Now you poop in my mouth.” Read a book about insects. Then read an article about the Hadron Collider. Then read about Shanghai in the 1930s. Your mind will find weird, glorious ways to cram these gears together in order to form a new machine.

11. Motes Of Dust To Mammoth Star Clusters

Creativity lives on the page at all levels, micro to macro. From word choice to worldbuilding, from sentence construction to story arcs. But the creative process must still be subject to organization. Creativity is not raw, unrefined whimsy. You don’t just fountain golden streams of infinite possibility from all your gurgling orifices. It has to work together. Shit has to make sense. But even then creativity lives in the margins and gaps: when something doesn’t make sense, creative problem solving will help Make It So.

12. Tickling Your Temporal Lobes

You can stimulate creativity. No, I don’t know how you do it. It’s as personal as What Makes You Laugh or What Gets You Off. Is it listening to music? Reading poetry? Going to a bar and drinking with your buddies and talking about whatever barmy goofy fucking shit comes into your fool heads? Do you draw mind-maps or outlines or write dream journals or light up your perineum with a quick blast from a stun-gun (BZZT)? Only way to know is to try anything and everything. Now take off your pants. (BZZT.)

13. The Zero Mind

Some rare flowers bloom at night, and sometimes creativity blooms in a vacuum of stimulation rather than as a result of it. If we assume that creativity is a muscle (it’s not, shut up, just pretend), then tensing it all the time is not productive. Sometimes it must relax. Sometimes it must be allowed to rest. Mow the lawn. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Get a massage. You can even set your brain like a slow-cooker before you go to sleep. In the morning? HARVEST ALL THE DELICIOUS IDEA CHILI. *nom nom nom*

14. You Catch More Bunnies With Tractor Beams Than With Giant Comical Wooden Mallets That Pound Them Into Bunny Fritters

You can coax creativity — but trust me when I say, you can’t force it. You can’t just grit your teeth and bug your eyes out and eject a litter of squalling idea-babies. NGGH POP. Doesn’t happen. You ever try to remember a name or word you can’t quite conjure? Or have sex when you’re totally not in the mood? Thinking extra hard about it and forcing it just doesn’t work. It usually just leads to frustration. It might mean your project is not yet ready. It may need time or (as above) stimulation. …and yes, “Bunny Fritters” is the pseudonym under which I write all my sexy romance novels.

15. Johnny Five Is Alive, And Also, Needs Input

Sometimes you need to jack new shit into your brain. You need to accept new Experience Modules as part of your human motherfucking program. Creativity may occur when you go out and try new things. Have new experiences. Eat foods you’ve never tried. Take a trip. Fuck somebody new (er, not if you’re in a committed loving relationship). Fly down a zip-line. HUNT AND KILL YOUR FELLOW MAN WHILE TRIPPING ON ACID. I mean, whut? Nothing. Point is, sometimes you need new input. You’d be amazed at how fresh experiences provide a defibrillator jolt to your creativity muscle. Which no, is not a euphemism for your wangle rod. And yes, “wangle rod” is a euphemism for penis. Shut up. I hate you so bad right now.

16. Prison Break From Your Comfort Zone

To build on that following point, you sometimes need to Hulk out, tear your purple shorts asunder, and bust free of the prison you’ve built out of your own routine and habits. It’s not just about new experiences but about new ways to work. Take risks. Experiment with a new style of writing. Sometimes creativity gets blocked behind an ice cube dam in your drinking glass and you need to rattle the cup and fill your mouth with the sweet milky fluid of… I’m suddenly uncomfortable. IN THE PANTS. Pow! Zing! Elbow nudge, elbow nudge! Ahem. Point is: sometimes you need to shake that shit up. Write in a different POV. Or tense. Or write shorter. Or longer. Or in a different genre. Fuck what people expect of you. The only thing they should expect is your best. Otherwise? Flail those Kermit arms and go crazy.

17. Explore Your Inner Art Teacher

Let your mind don the colorful frock! Drape a necklace made of whole conch shells around your neck! Bespectacle yourself in tortoise-shell spectacles! Okay, I mock the art teachers of the world, but seriously, to build again on the following points, sometimes it’s not just about finding new ways to write — it’s about finding new ways to create. I’m a sucker for photography and cooking. You might be into oil paints and the mandolin. That guy over there might be over macrame and the art of undetectable poisons. You’d be amazed at how a new artistic pursuit will widen your view and allow new creative synapses to fire.

18. The Muse: Substantial As A Ghost

The Muse is not real. Relying on the Muse is like leaning on a crutch made of playing cards. You are your own Muse. Inspiration comes from within, not from without. Dig deep into that pile of squirming viscera. Reach high into your gray matter. Find the pearl tucked inside your swiftly-beating heart. Stop looking elsewhere for that creative spark. You command it. It doesn’t command you.

19. You Cannot Damage Your Creativity

Some folks treat their creativity like it’s a baby mouse with a low fetal heart rate; someone sneezes in the next room and so dies the tiny beast. You cannot damage your creativity. It is not an expendable resource. Sometimes you hear people say that outlining diminishes their creativity. Or that if they write every day it somehow pees in the mouth of their peacock magic. If your creativity is so frail a thing, or if it demands highly specific circumstances to emerge like it’s some kind of precious lycanthrope, then you’re fucked. The professional life of a creative-type must stand up to buffeting winds and scorching temperatures.

20. I Smell Ozone And Can’t Feel My Legs

Your creativity isn’t broken and it isn’t “gone” — but push too hard and too fast and you’ll find that your interior intellectual space feels like it’s been rubbed raw with a rusted rasp. Ease off the stick, meth-monkey. Give yourself permission to suck. Take a break — but not too long of one.

21. The Left-Brain / Right-Brain MMA Cage Fight

“I’m right-brained,” said the wispy top-hat wearing Willy Wonka wannabe as he smeared paint on his own pallid buttocks. “That means I’m creative.” Pfft. Pssh. Piffle! The right-brain is not the keeper of creativity. Right-brain and left-brain work in tandem. Language is left-brained. Craft is left-brained. Plot logic is left-brained. The right-brain is the galloping stallion; the left-brain reins in the horse.

22. These Aren’t One-Handed Push-Ups

Creativity can be cultivated with the help of others. We aren’t alone. Bounce ideas. Share a meal. The act of creation need not begin, continue, or culminate in isolation. Fair warning: you may need to wear pants.

23. No One Tool, Method, Or Strategy

There exists no one shining path to access and grow your creativity. We’re not robots. I mean, I’m not. You might be, and I suppose your titanium chest-plate and telescoping eye-stalks should’ve given that away. But whatever. Most of us can’t just program our creativity to power on and off like a fucking lamp. It is what it is. We’re all different. We all have different tricks to allow us to pop our intellectual cookies.

24. Transformation Through Destruction

Shiva, god of destruction, is also a god of creation — that’s because transformation happens through annihilation. You may need to destroy your current manuscript. Or your excuses. Or your bad habits. Or your ego. Or the wretched soul-shackles we call “pants.” Sometimes creation is first about obliteration.

25. Sometimes, It Just Won’t Be There

Once in a while you’ll reach for your creativity and all you’ll find are empty shelves — but creative types do not always have the luxury of sitting on our hands until creativity decides to show its face. Doubly true when deadlines (and by proxy, money) is on the line. What do you do? You do. Meaning, you create anyway. You say fuck it and make shit anyway. If the pantry is empty you create food from whatever is near to hand: linoleum, chairs, guinea pigs, your children. You’d be amazed at how often you think you’ve got nothing left in the tanks and it turns out you hadn’t yet shined light in all the darkest corners. Confront the blank page. Being generative creates creativity. DID I BLOW YOUR MIND? *asplode*

44 responses to “25 Things You Should Know About Creativity”

  1. What a creative post!

    “Creative” was a word used all too often by my mother growing up and I am still to this day, working to undo the many ways it has warped my sense of what is good and what is poop.

    *lies back in couch*
    Let me tell you about my mother…

  2. You are right on about reading non-fiction, or just keeping an eye open to the rest of the world around us.
    In another lifetime I might’ve been a cosmologist, anthropologist, or some other -ologist, but my passion for science isn’t wasted by my writing. I find my passion for science often presents me with oblique solutions to problems in my writing and story telling I might not have discovered otherwise

  3. Another great brain tickler of an article. That is one thing I have had trouble with; fostering my creativity. I thought having awesome ass kicking ideas was all I needed. Creativity requires & is tied to craft. I guess simply put, the ideas need to mixed with the art of writing. And stating the obvious writing requires writing & rewriting & writing again. It’s your world that you’re creating & it best be the most perfect fucking world you can create. With effort come results, good, bad or other put in the effort & you will produce results.

  4. I hate you.

    I swear I really do.

    You contradict everything I have ever read or been taught about writing and you cram it down my throat like a big nasty syringe full of medicine. But medicine can be good for you, right? Now I have to forget all that crap I have learned that has really done more to hold me back and sell Writers Digest books than actually help me write.

    Your blog posts are just the stuff that writers and artists of all types need to read.

    BTW… You are like the Eminem of creative writing (hehe, creative writing)… you drop lyrics that are so hot people HAVE to listen.

  5. Chuck,

    Thank you. Because I needed to hear some of this. This is well done, and I especially liked the point that “all writing is creative.” Because YES. I like to think my blogs are creative. Hell, some of my emails to friends are, too. I also really like the point you make that creative is great, but it needs to be put to task, to action. Otherwise, it’s a lot like having a pile of firewood, but not making a fire out of it.

    Thanks for writing this!

  6. #15 is so important. So many times a person in a writing group bores you and then you find out: they’ve lived in the same state their whole life, have had the same friends since high school, and done the same job since their teens.

    Well no wonder.

  7. “Hulk out, tear your purple shorts asunder” – Gotta love Hulk references!

    Loved all of this, but especially what you said about reading non-fiction. Some of my favorite books are non-fiction (The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester being one) and they get my brain twisting in all sorts of unexpected directions. As a bonus, you’re learing something new, too. Yay knowledge!

    Thanks for another kick-ass list!

  8. Thank you for this but especially points 3, 4, 7, 10 and 25. I find your writing advice the most useful for me as a writer. I like the fact it gets straight to the point.

  9. “Fuck ‘em because they don’t grok the fact that creativity is what makes this whole human race not just function, but evolve.”

    I am a writing honey badger. I don’t care what non-creatives thinks. I am so nasty and I eat ideas like King Cobras.

    Just having coffee with my friends, and during our conversation they will often tell me “You should write THAT as a story.”

    Now I’m shutting up and making something.

  10. […] 25 Things You Should Know About Creativity (warning: explicit language) In Other News: I feel like I need some kind of tshirt that says I Survived TxSC! It was a lot of a good fun and I made some new friends (full re-cap coming tomorrow). I can’t wait until the pics from the photo-booths are available, should be good. Also, I forgot to mention last week that I finally had my first lesson on my sewing machine! It was a LOT to take in all at once (so many tiny parts!), but I can now get thread on the thing and experiment away. I’ve picked up some fun fabric for pillows, and will be tackling that soon. Advisory: if you are a friend that lives in Austin, expect a pillow as a present for any and all special occasions in the next year or so. […]

  11. That was like stuffing my face with double chocolate cookie dough smores brownies (nope, I’ve never eaten them, but I saw a recipe the other day and let’s just say I’ve had private time with the idea – creativity RULES). Yet again, you have provided total braingasm, and I am in full synchronistic mindtune with this post. Well met, sir!

  12. Conflictsicle is hard to say. Have you tried? Out loud? That ‘cts’ combo is a bastard. Also, I want a t-shirt that says Team Do Stuff.

    Magnificent list once again.

  13. #17

    YES. I thought writing was supposed to be MY THING. I WAS DESTINED FOR IT. I MUST DO THIS WRITING THING AND DO IT AWESOMELY AND RULE THE WORLD. But I forced and forced and forced. Blog after blog after novel concept after novel concept: all beginnings, no endings, and completely frustrated and disgusted with myself.

    So I said, “Fuck this shit and the horse it rode in on.” and picked up a paintbrush out of rebeilliousness and a desperate attempt to make writing jealous and HUZZAH! IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW. I’d never seriously painted a day in my life, but then it came, and kept coming. And it’s good and it massages my ego and fills my brain with color and it’s exactly what I was supposed to be doing all along.

    So, yes. Number #17. Yes, yes, yes.

  14. Hellz to the YES. It’s this way of thinking that has encouraged me to return to my roots and starting writing on a far more regular basis. Not for work, but for pleasure. I completely agree that creativity IS a muscle and needs to be worked out on a regular basis. Michael Jordan had the ability to be an amazing basketball player, but without regular workouts and practice, he’d just be some tall dude with latent ability.

  15. All you say is so true. But I think you could expand your one-handed push-ups point (number 22). Creativity is social. It is fueled by tuning in to and talking to other people. Whether you see that as stealing ideas or fusing others’ ideas with your own is up to you. Other people also have a huge role in helping to develop and validate ideas. Even for writers.

  16. Dude, when your pants phobia has taken over the narrative, it’s seriously time to get some help. I suggest copious amounts of bourbon.

  17. […] 25 Things You Should Know About Creativity from Chuck (NSFW) Wendig. Yes, creativity is more than about writing! There is even creativity in accounting! Booyah! […]

  18. A fantastic article, Chuck. Deliberately blunt with sharp edges. I agree with much of what you’re saying, and you’ve certainly opened my mind to a lot of new ideas about the realization of creativity. However, I feel you could’ve added some valuable insight into the individual nature of creativity. How does one person size up their creative accomplishments against those of another? Should they at all? Should creative campaigns be made for a personal growth or a prideful demonstration? You’ve stated clearly that exercising the biceps of your creativity will improve the self, but how does one quantify creative self-improvement? In exercises of a qualitative nature, it’s hard to count reps.

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