The phone's ringing, your email is pinging and there are only 10 precious minutes until your next meeting. Is it any wonder that you can't come up with even a small coherent thought--much less a big creative idea?
Maybe it's time for an intervention. That's why I'd like you spend the next few moments listening to Lynda Barry. Last month Barry was one of 26 people chosen as a 2019 fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. As The New York Times reported, "Known colloquially as the 'genius' grant (to the annoyance of the foundation), the fellowship honors 'extraordinary originality' and comes with a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000, to be distributed over five years."
The secret sauce of MacArthur grants? "We are looking for people who have demonstrated what I would call big-C creativity," said Cecilia Conrad, a managing director of the foundation.
Barry definitely fits big-C criteria. Best known for the alternative comic "Ernie Pook's Comeek," Barry has spent decades teaching creativity, both to students (including at the University of Wisconsin and to professionals like you.
Her big conclusion is that most adults have lost touch with creativity, just as they stopped drawing because they're not "good" artists.
"The side effects are profound once we abandon a certain activity like drawing because we are bad at it," writes Barry in her book Syllabus: Notes from An Accidental Professor. "A certain state of mind is also lost. A certain capacity of the mind is shuttered. And for most people, it stays that way for life."
What can you do to get back in touch with your inner (creative) child? Barry offers these 5 suggestions:
1. Rediscover Dr. Seuss. In her book, Blabber Blabber Blabber, Barry writes, "When people ask who my influences are, I always say the main one is Dr. Seuss." She has vivid memories of how the 1960 children's book, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, connected pictures and words to unlock language and art.
Dr. Seuss was unique because "he carried many of us over the bridge of not being able to read without abandoning the other part of us. He left in strangeness and staring and trouble." And you can't have creativity without at least a little bit of trouble.
2. Start drawing again. You may not have artistic ability, but as Barry writes in Syllabus, the process of drawing unlocks a part of your brain that's usually dormant. "Music and drawing go together. They use the same back roads. They change our sense of time and transform our experience of time. And they don't involve talking . . . the talking part of us came after we could already use the languages of music and dancing and pictures."
In her book, What It Is, Barry writes "At the center of everything we call 'the arts' and children call 'play' is something which seems somehow alive, she writes. "Alive in the way thinking is NOT, but experiencing IS, made up of both memory and imagination. . .
"There is a state of mind which is not accessible by thinking. It seems to require a participation with something--something physical we move like a pen, like a pencil. Something which is in motion . . ."
Yes, drawing may seem intimidating, but there's a safe way to start: by doodling.
"Doodles can be called mindless drawing," writes Barry. "It's one of the last places drawing still exists in a person who gave up on art long ago. A place where one line can still follow another without plan.
"When kids draw they make sound effects or start talking out a story that seems to be happening live, as they draw," Barry explains. "There is a change of place and time."
Drawing helps you step out of the controlled, analytical part of your brain and let loose. (You can even use drawing to improve a meeting.)
3. Ask a child to help you draw. Still feeling self-conscious about drawing?
When Barry got to the University of Wisconsin, "one thing that struck me was how miserable the grad students were. I thought, I wonder if I could pair them up with four-year-olds?" she explains in a Boston University interview.
Barry started a program that did just that. "What I hoped would happen was my students would learn to borrow the kids' state of mind and learn to approach problems in a way that was less tight and focused, a way that was happier and set the conditions for discovery."
Drawing by yourself may seem strange, but it's natural to sit down with a child and create something fun.
4. Step away from the screen. When is the last time you wrote a draft--of an email, a report or a presentation--on a pad? Barry is an advocate of taking your hands away from the keyboard.
"I have found that writing by hand slowly is faster than a computer-way of doing it, though I know it's not easy. Tapping a finger is not as complicated as making an original line of the shape of an S," Barry writes in What It Is.
"Different parts of the brain are used when we make an S by hand and more of the body than a finger tap. Images seem to come to from this kind of being in motion."
The result? Creativity.
5. Take the slow route. This is the most difficult piece of advice: to take your time instead of rushing the process.
Barry tells the story of giving a class a coloring assignment: "using crayon to color three pages from a variety of coloring pages pinned to the wall." The instructions are to pick three pages, then color them densely, "trying to get as much of the crayon on the paper as possible."
The assignment comes with a degree of difficulty: "Students find it frustrating because crayons are surprisingly hard to work with. Getting solid color takes work. The crayons break easily, the wax won't lay on the paper evenly, and fingers, hand and arm get sore." But despite the obstacles students usually then have some fun doing it.
Until . . . one semester when Barry's students hated the assignment.
They completed the pages. But when the finished work was pinned to the wall, even though all of the pages were colored just the way Barry assigned . . . "all the joy was gone. Something was wrong." Barry wondered: "What happened? What changed this assignment into drudgery?"
This: Barry provided very specific directions. "I told them to color hard in order to do it right. And go straight to using force-;thinking I was showing them a shortcut."
The mistake? Giving her students the answer "took away the way of coloring they would have found on their own.
"By telling them just how to do it, I took the playing-around away, the gradual figuring out that brings something alive to the activity, makes it worthwhile, and is transferrable to other activities."
As Barry writes, "I realize now the best results came when I gave no instructions except 'spend time on the assignment.'"
And then she reminds us about the fairy tale about the two clever brothers and the youngest who is simpleton. "The brothers take shortcuts, but the simpleton wanders, gets lost, encounters other worldly beings. He treats them fairly, takes them seriously, and, by his very nature, he gains the kingdom in the end."
Barry's sage advice? "The fastest way to do it, the most efficient way to do it . . . is the slowest way."