Lesson One: No Straitjackets, No Vacuums
The first rule of creativity is: create the right conditions for the creative process.
Now that has little to do with the room you are in or the mood you are in. The right condition for the creative process is all about giving yourself the right parameters.
The novelist, the non-fiction writer, the graphic artist, the painter and everyone who accesses their creativity, all have similar requirements. One of these is what I call the “no straitjackets, no vacuums rule”.
It is almost impossible to be creative when there are too many requirements placed on a project. What do I mean? Imagine someone asks you to write an article but they begin to tell you what needs to be written, how long, what vocabulary to use, how many words per paragraph, which authors to cite, what essential points to make. I call that “overbriefing”. You are now attempting to be creative, where there exists no room to do so. You are in a straitjacket. Sometimes, we even limit our own creativity by attempting to develop a project with too many personally imposed limitations.
However, the opposite is true, too. Creativity cannot exist in a formless vacuum. This happens in applied arts and advertising. Let’s say someone hands you an assignment and they don’t tell you what they want to accomplish, or with whom they want to communicate, or in what medium you are working. They have handed you a blank canvas, so to speak. So you proceed without any clear definition. For an artist or creative person this can be extremely stressful. You are being compelled to fill in blanks without any sense of where you are headed. Some people mistakenly think that the creative process is ‘do whatever you want in the moment’. It is not. The creative process has structure and an order of its own.
In his brief essay “The Figure a Poem Makes”, Robert Frost alluded to this:
The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic.
Without structure, the product of the creative person becomes a slave to arbitrariness. Let me explain. Some years ago I was contracted to develop the name of an employee newsletter for a Canadian trust company. I got the thinnest briefing: “come up with a name”. With no parameters and only guesswork as my guide, I ended up developing a whopping 46 names (only two or three of which I preferred). The client saw the names and reacted as non-briefing types typically do: “It doesn’t hit me.” Argggh! Of course it doesn’t hit you, you didn’t give me a proper briefing!
So I prevailed upon them to articulate what they were looking for that they could not find in my list. Now we started to make progress. I’ll explain how it turned out…next time.
Richard M. Landau is a multiple award-winning TV producer, screenwriter, author, columnist and published poet.