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