The Creative Process

Tom Easton

“The self-interest of mankind calls for a general effort to foster the invention of life. And that effort can be guided intelligently only by insight into the nature of the creative process.”

—Brewster Ghiselin, ed., The Creative Process

 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952)

Back in the 1980s, I wrote a computer program that would choose—at random—one of several sentence templates constructed with blanks rather like the sentences in the Mad Libs game. It would then fill in the blanks with nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs chosen—again at random—from user-supplied word lists. I called it a brainstorming program, but I used it to write poetry.

In fact, poetry was the spark that started me off. Or poets. At the time, I belonged to a writers’ group in Maine. One of the members, already a well-known science fiction writer, applied to be a “Writer in the Schools.” This state program was run by the Maine Arts Commission, which was dominated by poets. They denied the application on the grounds that the applicant was a (cue sneering noises) commercial writer.

The group was upset. My response was to start coding. In my innocence, and arrogance, I wanted to demonstrate how easy poetry was, compared to “commercial” writing. The group found the initial results highly amusing.

But I didn’t stop there. I kept using my program to write poems. In the process, I learned a great deal about the creative process and even stimulated my own ability to write. The program was published in 1989 by R. K. Consulting as Thunder Thought, but has been unavailable for years. This essay is drawn from Think Thunder, the manual for the program (with thanks to Jim Paradis for recovering the text files). I’ve removed everything about how to use the program. A second essay will deal with editing as an essential component of creation.

Since you ask, yes, 65 (of 120 written) poems did get published. One even made semi-finalist in a contest at Brigham Young University. Another appeared in Scientific American, in a piece on computer-generated poetry.


You are creative. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

You are human, and creativity is an essential part of being human. In fact, creativity has more to do with distinguishing us from other animals than tool-using, or play, or laughter, or communication.

Many animals–chimps, blue jays, even ants–use tools. Lions and dogs play. Monkeys laugh. All animals communicate, and chimpanzees and gorillas have been taught to “talk” using sign language. But only humans constantly invent new tools, new political and social systems, new jokes, new languages. We cannot stop creating.

Do we say that some people are creative, and some aren’t? We oversimplify, for every human being is at least a little bit creative.

Some–the Rachmaninoffs and Einsteins and Picassos and Stephen Kings—are very creative. Some seem just creative enough to decorate a cake. Most fall somewhere between the two extremes. We say that some are and some aren’t because we recognize a vast gulf between ourselves and the Picasso and Einstein giants of creativity. We look at them, and we feel that our own inventions hardly deserve the name of creativity. But they do. The difference is one of degree, not kind.

Our sense of the gulf between the “creative” and the “uncreative” is what fuels the creativity industry. We resent our shortage of creativity. We want to join the ranks of the artists, inventors, and innovative business people whom society admires and rewards. Or we wish simply to come up with ideas for, and then to write, school papers as easily as some of our fellows. And in school and out, our desire is strong enough to support an industry of books and courses and seminars that promise to make us more creative.

Differences in creativity may strike us as unfortunate in an age that likes to insist that all people are created equal, but these differences are real. It is no myth that many people are indeed less creative than the favored few. Many people are less creative than they might be because their creative powers have been inhibited or leashed, often by ridicule and discouragement in childhood (and later).

 Still, though you may think yourself uncreative, and though you may in fact be less creative than the famous artists and inventors, you are creative. You have to be, not only because you are human, but also because some degree of creativity is essential in almost every human activity.

 Most animals do the things they do by little more than instinctive rote. There are exceptions, but most birds build nests, court mates, and sing songs in nearly the same way every time, generation after generation. Bees and wasps are even more mechanical. But human beings–we cannot dig a ditch without stacking rocks in attractive patterns. We cannot mow a lawn without making designs in the grass with the mower. We cannot pick up a pen without doodling. We cannot cook a meal without adding little touches of spice and herbs to the instructions in the recipe, and without arranging the food just so on the plate. We cannot invent new technologies such as cars and computers without finding unintended uses—such as ways to use them in courting (much to the horror of older generations).

 Do we think that creative touches such as stacking rocks, mowing paths, and doodling have nothing to do with the job at hand? Do we think they even interfere with that job? Then think again, for they give us freedom of self-expression and maintain our sanity and our interest in mindless, self-denying jobs. And then look in the kitchen: There we see how the creative touch becomes essential, for a restaurant with an uncreative cook quickly goes out of business (or should; one sometimes thinks).

 Why don’t we see these simple things as creative? They are, for creativity is no more than a matter of coming up with new ways–necessary or not–to do things. But we don’t think they are. They are too trivial, too simple, too ordinary, too much the sorts of things anyone can do, and we have built up a mythology of creativity based on the arts: The truly creative people are painters, sculptors, musicians, composers, poets, and novelists. They do not merely add trimmings to normal activities. They create new things from whole cloth–songs, stories, symphonies, and statues–and they are different from ordinary people, smarter, more independent, and even a little crazier.

Creativity is also easy to see in scientists, physicians, scholars, lawyers, teachers, hobbyists, and many more. Creativity is indeed something for everyone! It is simply the ability to come up with ideas, and then to develop those ideas as appropriate. And this ability is essential, at least to some extent, for everyone, even for cooks, students writing papers, and ditch diggers.

 Furthermore, everyone has at least a little of it.

 They do. You do. And as soon as you recognize that you are in fact a creative individual, you have opened the door to expanding that creativity, to letting your mind bloom in the gardens of the arts or in the fields of business or industry or academia. There are literally thousands of careers–in the arts, science, publishing, advertising, education, business, and industry– open to those who are creative enough to earn the “creative” label, and many of these careers pay their most creative performers very well. These people all use their creativity to support themselves and their families, and sometimes to earn a measure of wealth or lasting fame as well. Unleash your creativity, and you will be able to join their ranks. If you are already in such a career, you will improve your performance, your professional stature, and your rewards.

 But bear in mind that creativity is never enough all by itself. Even the most creative of individuals needs something to be creative about. That is, he or she must be trained (or self-trained) in painting, music, literature, physics, marketing, advertising, product development, or any of a thousand other things. Given a body of knowledge and the skills to use that knowledge, the creative individual can then produce wonders.

The Creative Mind

 We know so little about the kind of mind that is most creative that we simply call it–whatever it is–the “creative mind.” Intelligence is not necessarily a factor. Nor is education, or even sanity.

 What is it then? All we can say is that it has certain important features. According to some researchers [See S. Weisburd, “The Spark: Personal Testimonies of Creativity,” Science News, November 7, 1987 (report on a Smithsonian Institution symposium on creativity held September 11, 1987, at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC)], creative people:

–Have a drive to uncover beauty or to create order out of chaos (think of those artists who build collages).

 –Grow as excited when they find a new or unusual problem as when they solve one (think of scientists and other intellectuals).

 –Are at home with metaphor and have a huge ability to make unexpected connections (think of scientists, poets, and comedians).

 –Are able to test their creations for sense (see the section on “The Critical Mind,” below).

 –Are risk-takers who thrive on novelty, tolerate ambiguity, and operate on the borders of their competence (think of entrepreneurs).

 –Are not motivated by the same things that drive the rest of us; they care less for money, grades, recognition, or awards than for the satisfactions of creation.

Yes, high intelligence does seem to help, for intelligent people often seem to be more creative, but we have seen creative geniuses with entirely unremarkable IQs. Education seems to help, too, for a well-stocked mind has more of the raw material that feeds the creative process. Indeed, many creative people find it essential that they prepare for creation by, first, immersing themselves in books on the topic they wish to address, music they wish to interpret or arrange, landscapes they wish to paint, or forms they wish to sculpt. Then they must let what they have absorbed settle into their minds, or incubate, until finally, in a moment of illumination, they cry “Aha!” and bring forth their newly created idea. But it is a mistake to think that stocking a mind needs schooling. Rather, it requires experience of life and work, reading, thinking, feeling, sensing. Creative geniuses–poets, painters, inventors, and so on–abound who never graduated from high school. They had no need to.

 What about sanity? Creative people have a reputation for craziness, but that may be simply because the creative mind has to be a little loose in the joints, and therefore prone to more free-wheeling behavior than most people accept as normal. If it is not a little loose, it cannot see beyond the conventional, and it then cannot have new ideas, or ideas that are new in any nontrivial way. And after all, the “crazy” label is applied by conventional, noncreative people, who have trouble accepting that new ways of doing things, or seeing the world, or behaving, can be as good as or better than the normal, conventional ways. To them, different is abnormal, and abnormal means crazy!

 Abnormal may also mean dangerous, and when “normal” people decide that that word applies, creative people can wind up tied to a stake, with bundles of burning branches at their feet. This may be the sentiment that lay behind the medieval witchhunts and heresy trials that made the Spanish Inquisition so infamous. It may even be a justified sentiment, for creative people have a way of refusing to accept tradition and other orthodoxies without asking awkward questions. And it is creative people who come up with new ideologies and systems of government and urge them upon their compatriots, often with bloody rebellions.

 It would be nice if we knew precisely what creativity is. We know it best by its effects, the springing forth of novel ideas, plans, and devices. This means that we can recognize it when we see it in action.

 We also know a little about the process, for many creative people have shared their reflections on how they went about being creative.

 Creative people have a great many different ideas about how creativity works. Fortunately, every one of their ideas works, at least for one individual. Anyone who wishes to enhance his or her creativity can therefore learn a great deal by reading collections of reports from creative people {such as The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin and published by the University of California Press in 1952).

 Also fortunately, many creative people describe creative processes that share certain elements, and we can extract from their reflections useful descriptions of creativity. One such description appeared above. Another, and one more useful to anyone trying to understand how to encourage creativity, breaks the creative mind into two distinct functions, the “popcorn” mind and the critical mind.

The Popcorn Mind

 Many creative people claim that their creativity is unconscious. Things come to them out of the blue, in dreams, in fits of inspiration. Things they have seen, thought, and learned combine with each other below the level of consciousness. The combinations are triggered by cues, accidental (as the sight of a swallow in the air) or deliberate (going to bed with the thought, “I need a topic for a paper”). They may be guided by the individual’s concerns or worries. And in due time–minutes, hours, days–answers to problems, inventions, topics for papers suddenly appear. People have even been known to awaken in the middle of the night with a complete poem or a story just waiting to be written down.

 The process is hardly unique. Everyone has ideas pop into their heads, at least occasionally. Creative people have it happen all the time, and we can therefore say that creativity begins with the “popcorn mind.” The most creative individuals are those who throw off ideas the way a popcorn popper (with its lid off) sends popcorn flying into the air. The mind’s stock of knowledge froths, and puns, questions, insights, and images tumble forth, combining and recombining into more elaborate ideas. The same thing happens with writers, artists, inventors, business people, and scientists. It even happens with mathematicians, such as Henri Poincare, who described the process very aptly in 1908: “Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.  I had only to write out the results.”

 The popcorn mind functions entirely automatically. It needs no starting and no tending, for it is in its nature constantly to pop. It needs little more than due care not to interfere. Interruptions can too easily prove fatal, as when the “man from Porlock” knocked on Coleridge’s door and thereby brought the pleasure domes of Kubla Khan to abortive ruin.

 The popcorn mind is also irrepressible. A “man from Porlock” can knock it irretrievably off a particular track, but only by knocking it onto another; Coleridge’s visitor ended only a poem, not the poet’s creative career! The creative mind is impossible to stop, even for its owner, even when its effusions become annoying to friends and family members. The best anyone can hope for is to manage its popping, to direct it into useful channels, and, with luck, to keep it there.

 Does the popcorn mind sound familiar? It should, for it is the mind of any child, seething with irrepressible freshness, and it has often been said that creative people are those who retain the outlook of a child into adulthood. They see things new every time they open their eyes. Their minds are not hobbled by preconceived notions of what ideas can reasonably fit together. What they have that children lack is discipline; they can, with luck, stay on track.

 Ghiselin stresses that management is a crucial part of the creative process: “the mind in creation and in preparation for it nearly always requires some management. Avoiding fatal interruptions is a minor difficulty. The larger objects of management are two: discovering the clue that suggests the development to be sought, that intimates the creative end to be reached, and assuring a certain and economical movement toward that end” (p. 21).

 Discovering clues is only sometimes a problem. Most popcorn minds have little trouble in generating ideas, on request, about whatever topic you put before them. When they occasionally stall, as in writer’s block, it is not generally because of any shortage of clues. Most often, there is a distraction, such as anxiety about success, love, or family. And the block is not total: The novelist who freezes when facing a blank page of paper can still drive her friends crazy with her puns. The popcorn mind never quits, though it may resist control.

 Keeping control–assuring that “certain and economical movement” in the direction desired–tends to be more difficult than finding clues. And the problem is not the direction. Creative people seem consistently to be able to move toward particular ends unconsciously. They “sleep on it” to solve a problem, awaken in the middle of the night with a puzzle solved or a new idea clamoring for attention, shout “Aha!” in the middle of a shower, a meal, or a lecture, and rush off to work. They need only focus on a problem to set their unconscious machinery in motion.

 But creative people can be distracted. They find the clues they need for creativity everywhere, and it doesn’t need a “man from Porlock” to distract them. The creative mind is perfectly capable of distracting itself by finding something to worry about or another clue to pursue and something else to create. Many creative people therefore find isolation–a quiet room, a desk facing a wall instead of a window, an office far from the racket of the home, an island hideaway–essential for creation.

 Can “uncreative,” or less creative, people learn to froth with ideas, entirely automatically, in the same way as the creative popcorn mind? Probably not. The mental looseness that makes mental popcorn possible is something you must have from birth, or retain from childhood. But many “uncreative” people can learn to generate ideas almost as freely as the most creative of popcorn minds. This is, in fact, the thrust of most creativity-enhancing seminars, courses, books, and software. They can and do teach people how to pop, not constantly, perhaps, but whenever they wish to turn on their newly gained talent. Unfortunately, no one program works for everyone.

The Critical Mind

 Popping is not all there is to creativity. Think of the child, coining elephant or grape or turtle jokes as fast as possible, ringing changes, popping irrepressibly, and doing it all out loud. Most of the jokes are abominable. A very few are–perhaps–genuinely funny.

 Now think of a creative adult with the same task. He or she may create the jokes just as quickly, just as steadily, but only the funny ones get spoken aloud. The rest are recognized as stinkers before they ever reach the mouth. They get squelched.

 Popcorn minds are not very efficient, for only a small minority of the raw corn kernels that go into the hopper ever pop. Most by far remain “old maids.”

 And the most creative minds are not just popcorn minds. They filter their output, often before it gets out. They don’t just generate ideas. They sort out the good ones, the popped corn kernels, from the old maids. To quote Poincare once more, “To create consists precisely in not making useless combinations and in making those which are useful and which are only a small minority. Invention is discernment, choice.” Or, as chemist and Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling once told a student, the trick in coming up with good ideas is to think up a great many ideas–and then to get rid of the bad ones (cited in Weisburd, op. cit.).

 An essential part of the creative ability is thus the critical ability, the ability to tell gold from garbage. Most people can do this easily enough when they are appraising someone else’s ideas. We call this kibitzing, and in this form few would say that it had much to do with creativity. It is in fact often more destructive than creative. But if you can look at your own ideas in the same way that you look at the ideas of others, and appraise them with the same brutal honesty, you have the other half of creativity, the half that recognizes and discards that vast majority of useless garbage the popcorn mind hurls into view.

 Unfortunately, those who claim to teach creativity only deliver on half their promise. Very few people–even those with popcorn minds–can view their own ideas as honestly as they can those of others. And this honesty is much, much harder to teach than is generating ideas. The problem is that when people look at their own ideas, they are looking at their selves, and they feel–more subconsciously than consciously–that rejecting any one of those ideas is rejecting their selves. Those ideas are them, and they are all good, by definition, and therefore not rejectable.

 The problem becomes worse when the individual is trying to come up with ideas somewhat more significant than paths in the lawn, doodles, or arrangements on a platter. This may explain why for many people creativity is limited to the trivial. When they try to go beyond the trivial, they find that the necessary destruction of their ideas, their selves, is literally painful. Self-criticism hurts.

 My computer program offered a way around this problem. It automated the popcorn mind by making it a function of one’s personal computer. The resulting ideas were then less parts of one’s self, and they could be criticized and winnowed more honestly, more brutally, and more effectively. With practice, one then came to rely less and less on the computer and the criticism became more truly self-criticism. In a sense, the computer program served as training wheels for the creative mind. Many other brainstorming tools have the same effect (see below).


Now that we know a bit about how the creative mind works as a combination of idea generator and filter or editor, we need to consider what can get in its way. The “popcorn mind” is somehow retained from childhood. Its complement, the critical mind that winnows the few good ideas from the multitude tossed into view by the popcorn mind, is developed later on.

 Psychologists and others who study creativity do not use the “popcorn mind” term. They do, however, agree that childhood is the time of raw creativity, when everything is new, questions abound, and children are constantly inventing new combinations of what they know, see, and are told and testing them for sense and value. They bubble with questions, suggestions, and verbal novelties. The pattern is so universal that children who do not fit it are generally–and rightly–suspected of mental or emotional disturbance and may be referred to child psychologists.

 If the pattern is so universal, an important question is why similarly vigorous creativity is so rare in adults. The creativity of children seems to fade out, to die. Often it is gone before they reach the age of ten. If it survives until then, it dies in adolescence. Very rarely does it last longer still, to make an artist, scientist, inventor or other creative adult. And still more rarely does it both last and remain strong enough to give the world its few giants of creativity.

 Why does the popcorn mind stop popping? There are many possible answers. The simplest is that after a few years the creative child has, by creating numerous combinations or patterns and testing them against the world, discovered a reliable framework for knowledge about the world and can then get on with filling in the details. Creativity has served its purpose as a way of learning about the world and organizing the resulting knowledge.

 This answer may even have some truth to it. We know that in rhesus monkeys it is the young who are inquisitive, who test new foods. If they are not poisoned by the new food, their mothers may try it, and then other adults. If they are poisoned, well, the young are expendable. It only takes a year or two to grow a new one, while it may take a decade or more to grow a new adult.

This biological calculus makes evolutionary sense, even for humans. Back in the mists of time, people whose kids tried out new ideas to see if they killed them may have survived better. But most humans do not consider their children expendable. With them, the decline of creativity may be due more to:

 “What are you, stupid? Of course giraffes don’t eat hot-dogs!”

 “Why don’t you draw things the way they REALLY are?”


 “Joey wears an earring. He’s weird!”

 “No, no, no! Horses are never blue!”

 “You have to be careful around Aunt Mary, you know. She’s an inventor/ poet/ writer/ painter/ dancer/ musician!”

 “Don’t play with April. She has weird ideas, and you never know.”

 “You don’t want to grow up like Uncle Mike, do you? Poets/Painters/Novelists/Musicians never make any money.”

 “Don’t be silly!”

That is, it gets stepped on by parents, friends, teachers, relatives, and neighbors. Originality is strange, foreign, alien, abnormal. It is a threat to the established order, and therefore something to be discouraged in the natural process of growing up. Certainly, it is not something that will ever do you any good. It might even grow hair on your palms!

 By the time most people have escaped from childhood, they have been thoroughly brainwashed against having new ideas, except about such trivial matters as whether to add a touch of oregano to the salad. They have been programmed to think that creativity is dangerous, or a behavior that can earn only disapproval. They have been taught to fear the murderous laughter of ridicule. And they have been taught that creativity, which makes you weird, is as sure a magnet for that laughter as honey is for flies.

 It is so easy to block the flow of creativity that it is no wonder that the popcorn mind of childhood so often stops popping. It is no wonder that the child’s eagerness to learn new things and think new thoughts is so scarce in adults.

 The wonder is that creativity and inquisitiveness ever survive at all. But they do, and not even the more rational discouragements of adults can stop them. Throughout history, those who have proposed novel, nontraditional ways of doing or seeing things, in religion, politics, science, art, and literature, have met with discouragement, persecution, and even death. And still we have heretics, revolutionaries, and visionaries, as well as painters, sculptors, writers, and so on.

 The most important question in the natural history of creativity is why or how some people manage to remain creative despite all the inhibiting influences that surround them. Are they perhaps a little crazy–or loose–from the start? Do they have minds that just won’t quit? Is it in their genes? Or do they enjoy the advantages of parents who encourage and even demonstrate creativity?

 Research has indeed shown that creative minds tend to run in families, but this does not tell us whether creativity is a product of heredity or of parental encouragement and demonstration. Both influences can produce the pattern. I, as a biologist by training, am inclined to think that heredity plays an important role, but that the family environment is also crucial, and that with suitable encouragement most children could retain much more of their native creativity into adulthood.

 This encouragement must begin with stopping the too-common practice of squashing childhood creativity by ridiculing or otherwise rejecting nonconventional ideas, dismissing creative role models, and saying that only conventional goals (such as money) have value. Then, perhaps, we could move on to programs that explicitly encourage and strengthen creativity by:

–openly admiring and supporting people who are creative, even if they are not celebrities;

 –allowing children to think that nonstandard values can be legitimate; and 

–giving free rein to children’s attempts at painting, poetry, sculpture, invention, music, and so on.

We see such efforts now in schools that offer special attention to the gifted and talented, and in other schools that can afford “enrichment” programs for all their students. Unfortunately, these efforts are useless as long as we leave undisturbed all the influences that inhibit creativity. And they are less useful than they should be whenever we fail to open them to all the children in a school.

 But what can we do with you, my readers? You are past the point where such encouragement efforts could act. How to help children remain creative is beside the point. What we need to discuss is how to restore your creativity. And that must involve understanding the blocks to that creativity that your childhood and later experiences have laid upon you.

 These blocks are four:

–Fear of ridicule

–Fear of failure

–Fear of success

–Fear of self-destruction

The first three of these fears can be summed up in the term “performance anxiety,” or self-doubt. That is, they are the fears that one cannot perform adequately, that one cannot produce the new ideas one needs. They are the fears that block the popcorn mind, and they may be the most common inhibitors of creativity. Certainly, they are the factors that most often interfere with students’ ability to come up with and develop ideas for papers. They also seem to account for most cases of adult, professional “writer’s block.”

 The fourth of these fears, fear of self-destruction, has more to do with the critical mind. It blocks the separation of good ideas from bad. It is therefore just as serious a block as performance anxiety; someone who thinks all his or her ideas are golden can never get anywhere.

Fear of Ridicule

The first of the performance anxiety fears, fear of ridicule, may be the most easily understandable. It is the fear that people will not say that your new idea is neat and nifty. It is the fear that they will laugh, not at the idea, but at you for being so silly as to think, even for a moment, that the idea was worth having. It is the reaction received too often by the child who offers a bite of hot-dog to the giraffe at the zoo.

 One answer to this fear is to recall that people, like turtles, never get anywhere unless they stick their necks out. Realize that most of your ideas are indeed worthless, but don’t let that stop you from saying them out loud. Yes, an important part of creativity is recognizing those lousy ideas and discarding them. This is the function of the critical mind. But if your own critical mind is not up to the job, and it often isn’t, you must expect your friends and family to fill in for it, at least in part.

 The trouble with relying on friends and family is that they are more likely to pat you on the back than to say your idea stinks. They are reluctant to hurt your feelings, whether you deserve it or not.

 As a writer, I long ago realized that praise for my work may feel marvelous, but it is useless. Criticism–pinched noses, raucous laughter, wisecracks, kibitzing suggestions–hurts. But only criticism–honest criticism–can be helpful, for only honest criticism tells me how to improve. And in due time, one develops calluses on one’s creative soul that are thick enough to bear the pain of the criticism.

 Is there an easier answer to this fear than developing calluses? Yes, for if you can somehow distance yourself from your ideas, so that they become less intensively your ideas, ridicule becomes less threatening. You gain this distance by setting rough drafts of term papers, poems, or short stories aside for a few days before beginning the process of revising. The point is to forget just how much you first loved your ideas; with this added objectivity, you can then criticize your ideas, not yourself, and discard whatever needs discarding. You also gain this distance by using any “system” for coming up with ideas, for then the ideas are largely a product of the system, not you. And it is all right to laugh at or criticize the system and its products.

 What kinds of systems are available? Some people throw dice, or consult horoscopes or the I Ching. Some use brainstorming, in one of its many variants. You could even use my computer program, when it was available.

  Fear of Failure

This fear is closely related to fear of ridicule, for failure is often indicated by the reactions of the people around you. They may even laugh, though other reactions–pity, sympathy, rejection, censure–may be as common, and as much to be feared. But many people fear even the failure that only they know, either because they never revealed their attempt to others or because they call the result failure when others don’t.

 It does not matter what sort of failure we choose to talk about. Secret failures, public failures, self-defined failures, other-defined failures, all hurt, all invite one not to risk another shot, all inhibit creativity.

 No one likes to blow it. Especially, no one likes to blow it again and again and again. Yet, as we have said already, most of a creative person’s attempts at new ideas are garbage. Why do these people persist? Why don’t they give up and settle into a quiet, conventional, trivially creative life, just like the rest of us?

 Yes, they have calluses. They also have confidence. They know that they can come up with good ideas, and that it is the good ideas that matter. The bad ones will be forgotten. Their attitude resembles in all but sheer nerve that of the psychic who utters thousands of predictions. If one or two pan out, he or she trumpets that “success” to the tabloids while sweeping the rest under the rug, confident that the world will never notice [see my “Psychics, Computers, and Psychic Computers,” The Skeptical Inquirer, Summer 1987, pp. 383-388].

 Writer’s block strikes when the confidence fails. Professional writers can, even after dozens of articles or books, suddenly become convinced that they can no longer generate good ideas, or that ridicule or rejection awaits their next sortie into the marketplace. It takes thick calluses indeed to carry on regardless. Many writers who come down with this crisis of confidence block or freeze. They cannot resume their careers until they somehow loosen the logjam in their heads.

 If you lack–or have lost–your confidence in your ability to create, then here is another reason to use a “system.” The I Ching, brainstorming, and other techniques have long provided ways for writers to resolve their blocks. All give you a way to say that the garbage you generate is not your failure, but the system’s. Your task becomes sorting through it for the gems, and when you find them, turning them into successes.

 Fear of Success

Is it difficult to imagine that fear of success can inhibit the idea-generating popcorn mind as thoroughly as can fear of failure or ridicule? It seems to happen less often, but some people can face a task and ask themselves, “What if I succeed? People will expect more of me, and I will have to come through, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to.”

 In this sense, then, fear of success is the same as fear of failure, though failure at a higher level and at a later date. It is the fear of not being able to live up to the expectations you create by your success, and it has but one answer. For most people, the confidence that comes with repeated success diminishes the fear of further success; some fear may remain, but it is incapacitating only in pathological cases.

 But there is another kind of fear of success. We might express it in an interior monologue like so: “I have had some success already. I know that I will have more, for I am good at what I do. Eventually, I may even become well known. But then, my God!, what will my relatives and friends and strangers think of me?”

 We hinted at this in the list of reasons for the decline of childhood creativity near the beginning of this chapter: “You have to be careful around Aunt Mary, you know. She’s an inventor/ poet/ writer/ painter/ dancer/ musician!” Creative people, says our mythology, are immoral, disreputable, crazy, and if they are sensitive to the opinions of others, this mythology, when turned full upon them, can be paralyzing.

There is also “impostor syndrome,” where a creative person doubts the worth of their accomplishments and fears being exposed as a fraud. There is more than one reason why creative people may need calluses, or some “system” upon which they can blame their creativity.

 Fear of Self-Destruction

Even when the popcorn mind is popping right along, generating scores and hundreds of ideas, all is not necessarily well. In fact, it is not unreasonable to say that all is not well anyway. Although one of your ideas in a hundred may be worth developing, you will probably pursue ten. And the end result was expressed admirably by the late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon. He was once asked by a journalist why 90 percent of science fiction was such utter crap. His reply–“But 90 percent of everything is crap!”–has come to be known as Sturgeon’s Law, and it indeed suggests that most creative people waste a lot of their effort (even if they are getting paid). Their critical minds are less critical than they should be.

 Why? I said earlier that the criticisms of others are painful. So is self-criticism.

 If you hold any good opinion of yourself at all, you think that your ideas are just fine, thank you. They do not deserve ridicule, rejection, or neglect, and the niftiest thing about being a writer, poet, painter, or inventor is that you can dress up the least of ideas in such a way that other people will pay attention and say, “Aahhh!”

 Remember Sturgeon’s Law. It says that you are fooling yourself. Nine ideas out of ten–of those that reach the marketplace–are baloney. Ninety-nine out of a hundred–of those that pop into your head–are worthless. Only one is a really good idea.

 But many creative people have trouble stopping with that one. They develop the nine in a hundred half-good ideas. Often enough, they work on some of the 90 no-good ideas too, which has led some people to say that Sturgeon was an optimist, even before the current age of indie self-publishing.

 Why do creative people have trouble discarding most of their ideas? Perhaps it has something to do with the way we are taught as infants that every least one of our productions is valuable. But I suspect that creative people in other cultures, which have other attitudes toward toilet-training, also have trouble getting their critical minds to be brutal enough with the effusions of their popcorn minds. The trouble may have its strongest roots in educational practices that encourage raw creativity–the popcorn stage–over the discipline of the critical mind. Or it may simply be that throwing away one’s own ideas is a form of self-destruction in any culture, and the human ego will not ordinarily permit such behavior.

 We see another form of the same problem with the feeling of many creative people that their words, artwork, or designs are sacred. Let someone else, such as a teacher, editor, or art director, suggest changes, and they get huffy. They cannot see that the changes may actually improve the product, whatever it is. They see only that they are being criticized, and if they do not refuse to allow the changes, they certainly feel hurt. They may also fail to cooperate fully in the revision process. Every editor is familiar with such prima donnas and dreads meeting the next one.

 Is there an answer? We might imagine a society of orchardists whose every member is intimately familiar with the way that pruning excess branches from a fruit tree strengthens the remaining branches and increases the yield of fruit. Such people might have no difficulty at all in accepting the self-destruction inherent in the activities of the creative person’s critical mind. But we do not live in such a society. For us, self-destruction is painful, even when done in a good cause. What we need is some way to redefine creative self-criticism in such a way that we can see it as self-destruction no longer.

 If you use a “system” that generates ideas for you, the ideas are not so thoroughly yours. You need not feel so attached to them or view them as sacred. You can butcher them mercilessly, and no one feels pain. You can allow your critical mind to function at peak efficiency, and then you can focus your efforts on the one good idea in a hundred. If you fear that using such a system is in some sense fraudulent or deceptive, bear in mind that at least fifty percent of writing is revision. Raw ideas are only the starting point.


What can you do about distractions? They can be a real problem for the creative person. The answer is the ability to hold a chain of thought in mind. Some people can resume work on a piece of writing at the end of a paragraph, scene, or chapter weeks or months after dropping it to take a trip to Hawaii or visit their in-laws. Others have trouble picking up the thread after a coffee break. Some can write poetry or short stories in the midst of chaos, such as on a rocking, roaring subway car. Others can be distracted by a whisper.

 There are some helpful tactics for those to whom distractions mean disaster. Some writers always quit for the day in the middle of a sentence, in order to take advantage of the momentum they gain by completing the sentence later. Others take notes on their plans for the next day’s work, or outline the next page or two. Some pray.


  Everyone is creative, to some extent, but very few have enough of this distinctively human talent to base their careers on it. Very few can be novelists, painters, sculptors, inventors, and scientists. The reason is in part that most people don’t dare to exercise what creativity they have. They are blocked by fear of ridicule, fear of failure, fear of success, and ego.

Yet there are ways around these blocks, and an industry has grown up to tell people how to find and use these paths to freeing their creativity. This creativity industry peddles books, software, seminars, and courses to students, writers, business people, and others. They even have some success at teaching creativity, but unfortunately, no one solution to the creativity problem works for everyone.

Most of the solutions to blocked creativity involve varieties of brainstorming.  

What Is Brainstorming?

  The term “brainstorm” is a metaphor that evokes the image of inspiration striking like lightning. It is especially apt for people who do not have vigorous popcorn minds. For such people, novel ideas come only occasionally, and when they do the sensation can be downright electrifying, much as we imagine a lightning bolt would be.

For people with vigorous popcorn minds, “brainstorming” is what we have called “popping.” This is what most naturally creative people do very easily. The link between their conscious and subconscious minds is loose, and they are continually stirring and mixing the stock of raw material in their brains. New combinations of words, images, and ideas–jokes, stories, poems, insights, inventions, and theories–pour forth unstoppably.

This is why the creativity industry relies on the various forms of brainstorming for its product. Brainstorming–or popping–is the raw stuff of creativity. It is also a way to help yourself come up with ideas for absolutely any purpose whatsoever. It is a classic technique for making lightning strike. To those who teach brainstorming, it is a jump start for the less creative or blocked brain. The problem is coming up with ways to make brainstorming a teachable process.

How Does Brainstorming Work?

  Most of those who peddle brainstorming techniques believe that absolutely everyone is capable of developing a full-blast popcorn mind. They offer two major reasons why most people are not creative. The first is that they become too mired in conventionality to break free, to be unconventional, to be creative. They need, the brainstorm peddlers say, a whack on the side of the head to shake up their ideas and get them to see the world in a new light.

The second reason, say the brainstorm peddlers, is that people’s critical minds suppress almost everything their popcorn minds produce, dismissing it as laughable or worthless. The key to teaching popping or brainstorming must therefore lie in showing people how to turn off their critical minds, at least temporarily. Once they can do that, the flow of novel combinations of words and ideas will be free to well up from the unconscious to consciousness. The “nonsense” inevitably generated by the popcorn mind will become visible, and they will be able to examine it, and then to find things the critical mind was unjustly suppressing. The point is first to collect the popcorn, and only then to sort out and discard the old maids.

Both of these reasons amount to the same thing. A hyperactive critical mind is hyperactive because of childhood-based fears of ridicule, failure, and success. Being stuck in conventionality amounts to being afraid to be seen as unconventional, and therefore ridiculed, disapproved of, or even persecuted. Habit may play a role, but habits that are not reinforced by one’s value system are relatively easy to break.

You escape both reasons when you use a system. It aids both the popcorn and the critical minds by diminishing your self-involvement in your creativity. At the same time, it strengthens the skill of unconventional, creative thought, even until you can do without the system.

 Brainstorming Techniques

 There are a great many ways to brainstorm, and they all work, for someone. For each of them, the key is the same: You write down one thing, and then, as spontaneously and uncritically as possible, you write down everything else that pops into your head, in response to your starting point or to your later responses to that starting point, or in response to something in the street outside your room. You can use legal pads, sheets of poster paper, or even index cards. You may or may not try to steer the process by insisting that the second stage be in some way linked to the first. The point is the spontaneity, the uncritical lack of restraint. It is, in short, what the psychiatrists call free association.

Let’s see how it works. You are a student who must write a paper on Beowulf. That is all you know, though you have read that ancient epic. In addition, it has occurred to you that the National Enquirer would have had a field day if it had existed at the time of the saga.

One approach to finding the idea for your paper is “free writing.” You sit down and begin to write, starting wherever you like, even with something that seems to have nothing to do with Beowulf. You then follow your mind as it wanders. Inevitably, because Beowulf is on your mind, in time you find yourself in useful territory, and with a nice chunk of the paper written, to boot.

I prefer true brainstorming, which also relies on trusting the subconscious to generate and recognize useful ideas. Its advantage, to my mind, is that it is less formless and more efficient and wastes less time in the groping stage. Where free writing may occupy a person for an hour or so, brainstorming can be finished in five minutes.

In one form, brainstorming works like so: Take a sheet of paper and write “Beowulf” in the center. Then, scattered on the page around that word, write down whatever pops into your head about it: “heroic,” “epic,” “classic,” “adventure,” “monsters,” “a bore,” “mother-love,” “science fiction,” “I wanta go see a movie,” “fantasy,” “fairies,” “Was Grendel a Fairy?” “Was Beowulf Science Fiction?” “Was It Fantasy?” “Was Grendel a Space-Alien?” “Tabloid scandals.”

When you run out of steam, lean back and stare at your sheet of paper. Look at what you have written, and ask yourself: “What makes sense?” Before long, you find yourself putting several of your words or phrases together. If you wrote everything on index cards, shuffle and deal. Lightning strikes, and–Surprise!–you are beginning to scribble the first draft of your A paper, “The Epic Tradition in Science Fiction,” or “Fairies Make Bad Neighbors,” or “The National Enquirer as Modern Epic.” Or perhaps even a mock tabloid story: “Barbarian Kills Child. Mother Vows Vengeance!”

The result is a novel combination of ideas that existed before in your head. What you have done is draw those ideas–or some of them–out where you can see them. Then you have let them combine, with each other and with ideas still buried in the murk within your skull, until some combination has stimulated you to think, “This makes sense.”

Let’s look at another, more focused approach. This time you are a product developer in a major corporation. Your R&D (research and development) people have come up with a brilliantly colored dye that also kills bacteria. Your job is to figure out what to do with it, preferably in a way that will make your company several gazillion dollars.

This time you write in the center of your paper, or on a whiteboard, “Dye, bright, bactericidal. Uses ???” Then, as in the case of the student, you free-associate, but you do not do so entirely freely. You don’t want just anything that pops into your head. You want uses for a specific product.

But, really, you shouldn’t ignore everything that pops into your head. As you write down uses–“Paint insides of toilets,” “Dye washcloths so they don’t smell,” “Colored bandages”–you glance at the next desk over, where someone has left the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. And suddenly you think, “Aha! Add fragrance! And we’ve got armpit paint that adds decorative, colorful flash and also serves as a deodorant!”

That’s some brainstorm. And it has been a long time since anyone came up with a truly new cosmetic. Deodorant armpit paint might actually fly as a product.

 Brainstorming Teams

  Brainstorming need not be a one-person activity, and in fact it is a great deal more fun when done in a group. Imagine a typical bull-session: There is an ebullience of mutual inspiration that makes the ideas flourish, and an outside observer must think that “popcorn mind” is a very apt description of what is going on. Now restrict the bull-session participants to a single topic, ask them a specific question, and watch them pop. When this group process is working well, it makes the single brainstormer look timid and unimaginative. It generates more and wilder ideas than you would think possible.

This is the principle behind the approach used by a number of professional think tanks that sell brainstorming, on a contract basis, to corporations in search of ideas. I learned about the approach when, several years ago, I received a phone call from Innotech. This company, my caller explained, was a think tank in the commercial brainstorming business. Its client had, as in the above example, come up with a substance (the secrecy agreement I signed prevents greater specificity) that needed uses in order to turn it into a salable product. Innotech’s task was to gather several experts in various areas, only some of which were related to the client’s interests; it called me because I was both a biologist and a science fiction writer, and thus someone they could count on–they hoped–to furnish a wilder imagination than usual.

Once it had the experts together in one room, Innotech explained the nature of its client’s substance. Then it asked us what such a thing might be good for, encouraging us to come up with ideas as wild as possible. It gave us Tinker Toys and other gadgets to inspire us to flights of fancy. It covered easel pages with our suggestions and pinned them to the wall. (And every idea that anyone in the group mentioned stayed on the wall, in order to stimulate more ideas.) It organized our suggestions into categories and narrowed in on various specific categories.

Never did it throw an idea out, for fear of dampening our creative enthusiasm. Only when we had left for home did the Innotech personnel turn their own critical minds loose to wade through the vast bulk of our ideas in hope of finding a gem or two among all the garbage. And they did. They found a number of product ideas that seemed sound, including at least one that I have noticed since on the market.

Storms of Ignorance

(Adapted from T. A. Easton, “The Value of Ignorance–For Writing Students and ‘Pros,'” The Writing Teacher, Fall 1985.)

We said above that brainstorming makes ideas that are already within your mind more available for your inspection, evaluation, and use. Still earlier we said that creativity requires a stock of knowledge. The clear implication here is that you must have something in your head before you can brainstorm or be creative.

This is why some people feel they cannot create. They think of themselves as lacking both ideas and knowledge, as beyond the help of brainstorming or any other creativity-enhancing “system.”

They may be right. But it is possible to brainstorm without ideas of your own, or at least without many. It helps to be able to tell whether a topic is important or significant or interesting, whether there is likely to be enough material in the library or on the Internet for further development, and whether you can hope to say anything original or useful. Still, detailed knowledge is not necessary for at least one kind of brainstorming.

Consider the thoughts of a writer who has just been asked by a magazine to write an article on, say, consultants. She knows nothing about consultants, other than that they exist and that they are used by business, government agencies, and educational (and other) institutions. This much she has gathered from all the newspaper articles she has read, which frequently report that some organization has called upon a consultant for the sake of his or her special expertise and the advice she can supply to help with some problem. Since the magazine is, let us suppose, a business magazine aimed at small business people, she knows immediately that she should focus her discussion on business consultants.

But now what? Our writer is ignorant. All she can do is scratch her head and ask herself:

–What are consultants?

–What, exactly, do they do?

–How many of them are there?

–What kind of people are they?

–What’s their training?

–What good do they do a business?

–Come to think of it, I’ve heard they make lots of money. Just how much do they charge?

–Whatever they do, are they worth it?

–How does a business pay and evaluate them?

–And so on.

  As she looks at her list of questions, our writer realizes that she has before her the outline of a whole book on consultants (and an outline very like the one I prepared, in much the same way, for my and Ralph Conant’s Using Consultants: A Consumer’s Guide for Managers [Chicago: Probus, 1985]). The questions flow from one to the next in a very free-associational way, and all the writer need do is answer them in turn. Each question becomes the title of a chapter, and its detailed answer becomes the body of that chapter. Our writer has organized–outlined–a book entirely on the basis of her ignorance, letting her questions shape the void, dividing the unknown into a series of little boxes that need only be filled in.

But perhaps turning ignorance into a book is easy. After all, ignorance is infinite. We were talking about a magazine article, and it is clear that our writer’s list of questions covers far too much ground for such a small piece of writing. She must narrow her focus–a common necessity for students as well–and she can do this very effectively by picking just one of her questions. Any of them will do, so let’s look at the seventh: How much do they charge?

Her first step, once more, is to define her ignorance by asking questions:

–Do all consultants charge the same prices?

–If not (and they probably don’t), then how can I break “all consultants” into subgroups?

–What do the various subgroups charge?

–Do their charges vary with context?

–What are the contexts?

  And here is an outline for a magazine article. All our writer now need do is find the necessary answers to fill in her blanks. She will then have precisely the information she needs to write her article.

You don’t have to be a professional writer to use this technique. It is useful for students, executives, scientists, and all others who must deal with topics about which they know too little. You–whoever you are–should begin, once you have picked or been assigned a general topic area, by defining your ignorance as specifically as possible. “Exactly what do you want to know about, or within, your topic?” is the first question. If you already know a great deal, rephrase that as “What does your audience want to know about it?”

If you are writing a paper or report, the ideal answer will be a second question whose answer will work out to a paper of just the right length. Length is in part a function of the scope of the question and in part a function of the level of detail that will satisfy your appetite for information. Scope may be best defined as the number of subsidiary questions you can ask in the next stage; “level of detail” is the length of your answers to these questions.

The resulting list of questions serves as two things: a guide to research in the library (or with Google), and a rough outline of the report or paper. Your ignorance is thus an extremely valuable tool. It defines a body of knowledge to be acquired. Through a chain of free-associational questions, each one prompting the next, it also defines the components of that body of knowledge. Your task is then to learn the answers to the questions, and then to record those answers in your report. In essence, your ignorance provides a set of instructions for you to follow.

And yes, we are talking here about a form of brainstorming. There are the same free association and the same list of everything you can think of. What is missing, perhaps, is the need for lightning to strike. Outlining from ignorance is well suited to dealing with creative tasks that require some body of knowledge. You may not have that knowledge, but you know it exists, and you can ask questions about it. And those questions inevitably produce the outline–the instructions to follow–that you are seeking.

If you use this technique to write a report or paper, and if you use it effectively, the result can be a delightfully clear and readable piece of writing. One of the most important aspects of writing clearly is to anticipate the reader’s questions, never to give the reader a chance to say, “Hah? I don’t get it!” The best writers seem consistently to ask of themselves the same questions their readers will later ask of their writing, and in much the same sequence. As they answer these questions for themselves, they also answer them for their readers. They thus constantly satisfy their readers’ curiosity, forestalling from moment to moment their readers’ wish to know more than they are about to provide.

The Need for Lightning

  Can questions help you be creative in other ways? Can they help you write poetry or short stories, invent new products, or make scientific discoveries?

Of course they can. Every creative person must always begin by generating possibilities, new combinations of the words and ideas and concepts and images that stock their minds. They must pop, or brainstorm, until they come up with the one possibility—such as deodorant armpit paint–that makes them say “Aha!” Then they must begin to ask themselves how to make that possibility real.

Yet the process does not work in quite the way it does for writing papers on assigned topics. With art, science, invention, and product development, you may have only a vague idea of what you want to do. You know, perhaps, that you have a colorful bactericide and that you want to find a profitable way to use it. You can ask a single perplexed question, but that question amounts to little more than “Huh?” Once you find an answer to this puzzlement, you can ask more questions.

With deodorant armpit paint, those questions would have to address whether another industry (swimsuit makers or fashion designers) would get on board, whether anyone would buy the product, whether it might have undesirable side-effects such as indelibility or allergies, how best to advertise it, and dozens of other topics. But you can take it from here.

Scientists must be creative in much the same way as product developers. They are curious about some aspect of nature, and they ask, “How does this work?” or “Why?” If they think they know the answer, they ask, “Does it check out?” Questions guide their work, but those questions are asked in the form of what we usually call experiments. The answers, at ascending levels of certainty, are hypotheses, theories and laws, and principles.

What about the artists? The poets, novelists, painters, sculptors? They too need the new combinations of words, ideas, concepts, and images that flow from the popcorn mind, and they too must pop, or brainstorm, until they come up with some insight or other idea that makes them say “Aha!” Once they have such a lightning bolt of inspiration, they can ask some questions–What images, characters, plots, or media best express the insight? What will the characters do now? But the best way to describe what happens in the post-inspirational creative phase may be to say that it is a matter of free association guided by a sense of fit. The artist must pop constantly, and he or she must ask of every idea, “Does this, somehow, somewhere, fit into what I am doing?”

The questions must always be asked by the individual creative person. There is so far no way to automate the process. But we can automate the popping or brainstorming that precedes the questioning, as with computer software.


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