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.”


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



The Dark Sources of Creativity – guest blog by Susan Ketchen

Readers of my novels often shake their heads when they finally meet me and say, “Where do you get your crazy ideas?”

 I usually brush them off with jokes about my over-active imagination, and about how ideas come easily when I’m lost in thought (something that happens more and more these days) in the shower or in the pasture with my horses, though of course never while house cleaning.

These responses are diversions from a darker truth.

I am inspired by mistakes, misdeeds and transgressions.

Sometimes the mistakes are my own. I seem to feel that I can redeem myself by disguising my own ridiculous behaviour in the deeds of a character. For example, in a piece about the perils of self-delusion, I fictionalized an interaction I had with a neighbour. His lovely garden was being decimated by deer so he installed an ultra-sonic deer repeller.

Unfortunately I could hear it. I was reluctant to complain, but found I could not ignore the noise and after a few days tromped next-door for a chat. Perhaps he could turn it down? He thought he might try, or he would just return it to the store.

Two nights later I was again at my bedroom window, steamingly indignant because I could still hear that awful high-pitched noise. I really didn’t want to complain again, but that night I needed earplugs to sleep, and how fair was that?

The source of creativity – and all the twisted turns it takes – will forever remain a mystery. Photo by Susan Ketchen

So the next day I returned to my neighbour. I wasn’t sure what to say. What if he didn’t believe me? Or thought I was being a pest? I muttered something nonsensical to him. And he told me he’d returned the unit two days before, generously adding that I must have been kept awake by something else.

This dark event has so inspired my creativity that not only did I devote several chapters of my novel to the puzzle of self-delusion, but I am still writing about it here. I fear I may never sort it out.

I have also used the transgressions of others to inspire my writing. And it seems that my memory is very long when someone wrongs me. From grade one through three, I was socially secure at school. In fourth grade two new girls arrived. They were exotic because they were twins. They had lovely clothes, were smart and socially gregarious, and one of them pushed me down in fun on the playfield and hurt my back! I also toppled from the social scene. I felt as though I’d become invisible overnight.

Several decades passed before my wounded pride was repaired by creating Amber and Topaz in my novel Born That Way. I made the twins into a couple of stuck-up little girls who bullied my protagonist, Sylvia, but never really got her down. Through Sylvia I experienced success managing a more difficult situation than I had faced originally. Apparently it’s never too late to grow up.

For my next project I am considering writing about how we rationalize our treatment and training of animals. Controversy is everywhere: there are trainers and whisperers and behavior modifiers all over the place, and mostly they disagree with each other. Plus they all have loyal followings, and people get quite heated when it comes to defending their pets:  advising someone that their dog needs better training is never met with gratitude. Bad behavior abounds. Indeed, there are mistakes, misdeeds and transgressions everywhere. It is a goldmine of creative inspiration.

All I need is a decent pseudonym.

Susan Ketchen is the author of the novels Born That Way (2009), Made That Way (2010) and Grows That Way (2012), all published by Oolichan Books. Find out more about Susan on her website