Creativity and goofing off

Scientific studies reveal that not thinking gives creativity a big boost.

That means doing something that doesn’t require much concentration, such as going for a walk or washing the dishes, is more likely to result in an imaginative idea or the solution to a problem than sitting at your desk straining your brain into an acute case of constipation.

It turns out that the mind operates in two modes: linear and creative. The first, which most of us are in most of the time, helps us plan and accomplish our day-to-day tasks and long-term goals.

The second is more of a freewheeling state populated by daydreams, random ideas and off-the wall thoughts. Some call it goofing off.

It’s this freedom from focused thinking that opens the door to creativity. It works best when the body is active, and the brain minimally engaged. So, walking (alone or with a silent companion) is good, scrolling through your social media feeds is not.

Throughout history, famous people have credited non-thinking moments to creative inspiration. Mozart claimed he often “heard” his music while on a walk, while Albert Einstein counted on Mozart’s symphonies to loosen the creativity tap when he was stuck.

Unfortunately, our culture and therefore our brains have been trained to go, go go and we often don’t get enough – or maybe any – idle time.

In a Psychology Today article titled, “3 Ridiculously Easy Tips for More Creativity and Happiness,” Emma Seppälä suggests:

-Make sure you have some downtime every day

-Do something different, meet someone different or read or watch something different

-Play, whether it be sports, or with your children, grandchildren, or pet(s).

Those all open the door to a broader perspective and thus more inventive thoughts. In fact, researchers say, dividing your day into focused and non-focused thinking segments is most productive. It will likely boost your mood too.

As George MacDonald, Scottish author and mentor to Lewis Carroll, once said, “Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.”


On being creative

Some say being creative has to do with a person’s genetic makeup. Others consider it an attitude. I’ve learned that the drive to create can be a lifelong passion.

In 2013, I interviewed Ruth Dickson about her upcoming art show at the

Ruth Dickson in 2013. Image courtesy Comox Valley Record

Pearl Ellis Gallery in Comox, BC. Within the last 12 months, she had completed nearly 52 paintings and published her sixth book. She was nearly 95 years old.

As a young mother living in the isolated community of Sayward, BC, Ruth played around with her children’s paints and pastels. Later, when the family moved to Cowichan, she took her portfolio to the University of Victoria and was accepted into the second year of the art program. Eventually she taught classes in oil painting, silkscreen and batik at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University).

When Ruth turned 90, she decided she’d lived long enough to have something to say about her past. So, she took her walker and a manuscript to a week-long workshop at the Victoria School of Writing. “I was the oldest student they’d ever had,” she said. “But they thought my work was funny and interesting and were excited about it.”

Ruth wrote the first draft of her books in longhand as it “helped her think.” She taught herself to type and transcribed her first two, poetry collections on an old Remington typewriter. For later books, Ruth joined the technological age, noting that she loved everything about computers except learning a new word-processing program.

Ruth credits her love of the outdoors and her rich fantasy life to growing up in remote locations on Scottish light stations and the Canadian Prairies.

She was always curious and eager to learn but, due to the Depression, was unable to receive as much education as she wanted. Instead, after marrying in 1941, she vowed to learn something new every year.

“I discovered you can learn your whole life — and to never be afraid to try something new,” she said.

Ruth’s memoir about her time in Sawyward, BC in the 1940s. The painting on the cover is her work.

In her mid-to late nineties, Ruth’s normal routine was to paint one week and write the next. One wall of her spare bedroom contained a table and painting supplies, while the other was set up for her literary endeavours.

Despite health challenges in her later years, Ruth accepted a commission to create a two-metre painting of a great white shark. She also participated in an hour-long Port Townsend, Washington radio program sharing the story of how, as a young mother, she shot at a cougar sneaking up on her baby’s carriage. And, when a rat made a brief appearance in her apartment, she incorporated a much cuter version of the unwelcome guest in a baby sweater she knitted to celebrate the birth of a great-grandchild.

Despite our age difference, my interview with Ruth evolved into many emails, phone calls and visits over tea and cookies. She was a lively, entertaining companion and will always be an inspiration to me on how to remain curious, engaged and creative throughout life.

Ruth passed away in Courtenay, BC on March 12, 2021 at age 102. Wherever her spirit has gone, I’m sure a paintbrush, notebook and computer are close at hand.

When You’re 97 is a collection of humorous drawings and comments Ruth created as a lighthearted look at the challenges of growing old.

Lighting up the dark…

2020 turned into a weird blip in the 21st century, where life as we know it, took an abrupt and life-changing shift. For many, it has been marked by fear, boredom and frustration.

And now it’s the shortest, darkest day of the year. Winter Solstice, the official beginning of winter. What could be more bleak than that?

But when I look outside, I can’t help but smile. My neighborhood and many others are ablaze with colourful lights and displays. The holiday sparkle began  early this year. I believe it’s humankinds way of lighting up the dark in the midst of a global pandemic.

Reflecting on my personal life during the Time of Covid, I also see some light. One of my most rewarding experiences was a Covid-safe writing retreat at Cluxewe Resort on Northern Vancouver Island.

Welcome sign and my cabin at Cluxewe Resort

My cabin provided a view across Queen Charlotte Strait to the BC mainland, a stunning estuary a short distance to the rear and, perhaps most important of all, time.

I opted to not hook up to Wi-Fi or turn on the big screen TV so my soundscape consisted of eagles calling, pounding surf during a big storm and raindrops beating a staccato rhythm on the metal roof.

Nature was my only distraction and with it came a feeling of space, as if the vastness outside had seeped into my mind, providing room to ponder the book I’m working on and what direction it will take me. The oasis of that little cabin and the time and space it provided were precious gifts in a year of uncertainty and upheaval.

Cluxewe River estuary

And, although there is still an abundance of darkness in each 24-hour stretch, light is on the way. The Winter Solstice means minutes of light will be added to each day and, even better, Covid-19 vaccines are on the way.

As 2020 comes to a close, I hope everyone can find some time to think about what lights up their life (even during Covid) and take at least one small step to make that happen.

Top image by Dzenina Lukac

Creativity and Covid-19

Covid-19 and the resulting restrictions are like living in a science fiction movie only the end doesn’t arrive in two hours. We fret about toilet paper, people who invade our two metre space and loved ones that are now kept at a distance. The tilt in our world was sudden and the future remains uncertain.

People cope with stress and change in different ways. My instinct was to sleep and for the first month I clocked in nine hours or more a night plus an afternoon nap. I haven’t slept that much since I was a teenager.

My partner’s coping crutch is chocolate. During the first week of physical distancing, Rick brought home two giant slabs of chocolate cake, two pounds of Belgian chocolate and two boxes of chocolate cookies. At some point, we realized that excessive sleeping and gorging on chocolate was not sustainable long-term.

I turned, as I have for much of my life, to writing. To me, writing is a place in my mind where there are many doors and endless opportunities for exploration and adventure.

But on occasion, it’s difficult to access this place. For a while, Covid-19 was an invisible wall resulting in lots of white space on my laptop screen. And I wasn’t the only one. Artists abandoned their easels; some writers didn’t even turn on their computers.

So, how to prime the creativity pump in the midst of a global pandemic? Unfortunately, there’s no magic trick to seduce the muse into a visit. But going for a walk can produce startling results.

According to an article by psychologist Sian Beilock in “Psychology Today,” an abundance of concentration can kill creativity.  On the other hand, doing something that requires only a small amount of concentration such as washing the car, vacuuming the rug or brushing the dog often allows the brain to connect thoughts in new and perhaps unusual ways.

When I told chiropractor, Alicia Steele, that I frequently find solutions to writing problems while walking, she explained that the bilateral movement of arms and legs promotes activity in both sides of the brain.

Taking a break and doing something relatively mindless can enhance creativity. The trick is to not think about the problem you’re trying to solve.

As for stress, I’ve always found writing an escape from the worries my brain chooses to ruminate on and suspect many creative folks feel the same.

No one explains it better than Graham Greene in Ways of Escape: Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

Photo by Rick James