Embrace your Messy Creativity

Proforma Blog

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The creative process is both fascinating and infuriating. Most of us work at the mercy of creative inspiration, thriving on days when ideas flow naturally and everything is clicking while scuffling on days when ideas border on extinction and everything is a struggle. While we’ve provided lots of helpful advice on this blog for overcoming creative brick walls and defeating writer’s block, I’ve become more interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the complex creative process so I can work with it more and fight against it less.

Of course, we are all wired uniquely, with our own distinct creative triggers and suppressants. And yet, talk to anyone in a creative field – a writer, a designer, a web developer, a painter, an illustrator, a chef, an entrepreneur in search of his or her next great innovation – and you’ll find plenty of people whose struggles mirror your own.

My biggest hurdle as a designer (and writer) is efficiency. There are glorious times when lightning strikes instantly and forcefully, the design process is fluid and unfettered, and I’m off to the next project. More often than not, though, it’s not a lightning storm but a weak, sporadic drizzle that mostly leaves me soggy and grumpy. I may have a hazy idea of what I’d like to do at the start of a project, but only after several false starts, plenty of experimentation and an onslaught of self-doubt will I finally land on something that works, a final product that feels right.

Christie Aschwanden from FiveThirtyEight wrote a fascinating article about this kind of messy, nonlinear creative process. In “Stop Trying to Be Creative,” Aschwanden shares about a story she obsessed over for several months, and how most of that time was spent arduously compiling information and gathering data without any clear vision of what exactly she wanted to do with it all. With a non-negotiable deadline approaching, she finally put together “something resembling a story…. The first draft that I puked out was no masterpiece, but it was finally something. All those scribbles and stacks of paper were necessary steps, but only in retrospect can I see where they were pointing me.”

Aschwanden later met artificial intelligence researcher Kenneth Stanley and scientist Scott Barry Kaufman, whose research suggested that her “chaotic, unstructured writing process” was an ideal creative vehicle. Their findings are fascinating and I highly suggest reading through Aschwanden’s entire article for the full scope of their work, but here is the most useful snippet:

“…the kind of blind searching that Stanley observed in his experiments is at the root of many creative innovations. Most creative geniuses don’t start with a specific goal and follow it through with deliberate practice… Instead, they maintain an openness to discovering whatever arises… Rather than beginning with a specific goal, most creative people ‘start out with a hazy intuition or vision,’ Kaufman told me. ‘After a lot of trial and error they get closer and closer to discovering what their idea is and then they become really, really gritty to flesh it out.’”

When you’re stuck in a creative project, does it ever feel like the harder you try, the deeper the rut becomes? You’re not alone. The good news is the struggle may in fact be part of your creative process.

Aschwanden’s article suggests that if we loosen our grip the next time we find ourselves in hand-to-hand combat with our own creativity and insecurities, we’ll organically end up where we were trying to go all along.

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