How to Discover the Ideas You Never Knew You Were Searching For

“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Most of us, I believe, are raised to respect order. To value the importance of ensuring everything is found in its right place.

But creativity doesn’t work like that. I remember Bob Ross used to call them “happy little accidents”, those unpredictable moments when something doesn’t go the way you wanted it to, but you find a way to make the most of it, often for the better.

When you resist these moments of creative chaos, you resist that which makes creativity important: disorder, experimentation, challenge, and uncertainty.

Order is clean. It is convenient. But order is only helpful when it takes the form of discipline. Order thrusts us into the creative process and keeps us there, but does not impact upon the process itself.

Austin Kleon is the author of Steal Like an Artist, and Show Your Work!, two innovative books on developing creative talent. He’s also a regular blogger, and recently he posted a new piece on this very topic.

In it, Kleon quotes a group of artists who at one point or another revealed how clutter drives their ability to generate and explore ideas.

Here are a few key takeaways:

Don’t Rely on Digital Comforts

Multi-Academy Award winning editor Walter Murch has been cutting films for 40 years, and has watched digital technology change radically over that time.

In his book In the Blink of an Eye, he explains why not every advancement has been as beneficial as it seems. Specifically, the ability to bring up any shot instantly with a keystroke has made his work quicker, but not necessarily better.

“…in the mechanical, linear search for what I wanted, I would find instead what I needed—something different, better, more quirky, more accidental, more ‘true’ than my first impression. I could recognize it when I saw it, but I couldn’t have articulated it in advance.”

“The real issue with speed is not just how fast can you go, but where are you going so fast? It doesn’t help to arrive quickly if you wind up in the wrong place.”

Of course, shooting digitally makes it more difficult to work in a linear fashion, but the message is clear: have patience, and take the time to explore options.

Keep a Journal, and Scribble Away

“…if I had kept all these things neatly sorted and filed and labelled, it would save me a lot of trouble. However, it is a pleasure sometimes, when looking vaguely through a pile of old note-books to find something scribbled down, as: Possible plot—do it yourself—girl and not really sister—August— with a kind of sketch of a plot. What it’s all about I can’t remember now; but it often stimulates me, if not to write that identical plot, at least to write something else” – Agatha Christie.

A more modern version of this is what writer Steven Johnson calls his ‘spark file’ – a single document on his computer in which he writes a range of ideas, before returning every three to four months to read it in full in case something sparks.

A spark file isn’t so different from a regular journal, but at least you won’t have to work to translate your messy scrawl.

Let Feeling Guide You

Irving Welsh never arranged his record collection in some kind of traditional order. “Having it all haphazard means I can never find what I want, but the benefit is that I always find something else, which is cool. I believe that art is as much about diversion as focus and planning.”

Sure, the mechanics of creativity require precise operation at times, but if we allow ourselves to be driven not by expectation, but by feeling, it becomes easier to tap into alternatives.

The process of creation is a wholly emotional one. There are moments of ups and downs, moments of hope, and moments of despair. Accept them, flow with them, and let them take you to new places.

These tips aren’t just relative to artists, of course. They can be put to use by anyone who dares create, and just needs to accept the happy little accidents that pop up along the way.

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