How to Boost Your Creativity: An Author's Guide
Updated: Sep 10, 2022
I’ve recently found myself in a writing slump… and this rare spate of inactivity got me wondering – when your creativity packs its metaphorical bags and heads off to warmer climes, is it possible to coax it back?
Perhaps, you’re seeking to improve your creativity because you’re searching for inspiration for a new project, or perhaps you simply wish to be more productive. Maybe, you’re searching for that ‘great idea’ for the novel you’ve always longed to write. Whatever the cause, if you’re asking yourself, ‘How can I improve my creativity skills?’ then read on!
Here are five techniques to aid your imagination and improve your creativity – and they work.
The Semi-Lucid Dream Trick
Developing creative thinking is about finding new ways to think about, approach, and solve a problem, and many great thinkers have embraced the ‘semi-lucid dream trick’ to do this. The technique involves interrupting a stage of sleep (hypnagogia) to boost creativity and it has been employed by many of history’s most creative people (Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison to name but two).
This creativity-boosting technique is almost a hundred years old and involves a person deliberately waking up before they enter a deep sleep. Scientific studies (Paris Brain Institute) have shown that by waking at the point before REM sleep kicks in (N1), people are better able to solve problems. N1 sleep is characterized by “vivid, semi-lucid mind wandering”, according to The Guardians’ recent article on the technique. By waking while the brain is in this ‘mode’, as it were, people are able to make unexpected associations – almost like they transport this freer creative thought process of sleep into the waking world so they can approach a problem in a new, creative way.
So how do you wake yourself at N1 sleep if you want to give this a go?
The Guardian suggests (in a rather tongue in cheek way) that you hold a drink in your hand as you take a nap. When your body approaches this stage, you’ll relax enough that your grip will loosen on the cup, and the possibility of dropping it will wake you up.
It occurs to me that if you’re a mum to young children you may be woken at this time frequently. When my son was small, I used to keep a note pad by my bed because my little one had a gift for sensing when I was just about to enter deep sleep and would thoughtfully cry out to stop me. Looking back, I realize I got some great ideas in those years!
Think on it like John Cleese.
For those of you unfamiliar with John Cleese, he is a British comedy legend who is best known for Monty Python, Faulty Towers and A Fish Called Wander. The man is nothing if not a creative genius!
John Cleese said of his recent book, Creativity, “Many people have written about creativity, but although they were very, very clever, they weren’t actually creative. I like to think I’m writing about it from the inside.”
The man has a point. Theory is all very well, but it has to work in practice.
I heard John Cleese talk about Creativity on Radio Two this year when his book was released. While he gave many insights into the creative mind and how his own works, one idea from the interview stuck with me. He said that when he had a creative problem he slept on it, and in that blank space between bedtime and the search for morning coffee, the solution would present itself.
While linked to sleep again – sleep really does seem to be the answer to everything! – what he seems to be suggesting is different to the deliberate waking mentioned above. Cleese is arguing that to be creative, and effectively creative, a person needs to allow their unconscious mind to work freely; letting the problem roll around your subconscious while you are asleep lets your brain toy with the idea and allows your unconscious to present a solution to you in the morning.
This technique certainly works for me. I tend to approach a novel’s plot like a jigsaw with pieces that won’t quite fit. I don’t force the pieces (why would you? The puzzle would break), instead I let the pieces shift about in the back of my mind until the image takes shape. When a piece of the puzzle has me stumped in the evening, I find that by morning I will usually have a now obvious solution. My unconscious has been working on the problem while I slept – thank you brain!
Allocation of Time and Allocation of Space.
These are the two central messages explored in John Cleese’s book, but they are creative themes echoed across many texts I’ve read.
Richard Powers wrote: “Her breakthrough comes as breakthroughs often do: by long and prepared accident.”
In short, being effectively creative doesn’t just happen. To be creative you need a safe creative space and you need to give yourself the time in which to use it. Ideas come and go, some good, some not so good, but you have to go through the process (which takes time) to stumble across that great idea.
For Roald Dahl, his creative space was a wooden caravan in his garden, an almost sacred space reserved for writing. In an interview before his death Dahl explained that by settling into his tatty writing armchair in his caravan, he gave himself permission to sit and write without distraction; time to mentally play and create in a space designed by him, that suited him.
It is that caravan that features as the home of Danny Champion of the World and the peach tree in the garden inspired James and the Giant Peach.
If you want to develop your creativity, you need to commit to it and that means time and space.
But what if you’re a busy working mum or dad?
I have an office. A lovely space of light and plants, with a desk and PC all set for creativity. My issue is that I’m a mother as well as a writer. While I do carve out time to sit and write in my office, it isn’t enough. My solution is to take my space with me. It is not unusual for me to write in my car as I wait to pick my son up from an activity or event, so I have developed my car into a writing space. I keep a blanket in the boot for my lap so I’m snug, and I take a travel mug of coffee with me. I’ve learned that if I sit in the passenger seat and push the chair all the way back, I have ample space for my laptop and protruding elbows as I type. It really works for me.
Play & Leave Your Analytical Brain Behind
Wherever your creative space is, you should allow yourself to ‘play’ once there. You need to be curious and take risks. Writing, or other creative endeavors, should be fun. Write every idea down without worrying if it any good or not.
It is okay to make mistakes.
Your analytical, critical brain can wait until the editing process. Besides, ideas have a way of snowballing… an idea might not be suitable for you now, but it might be worth its weight in gold later.
John Cleese likens his creative process to the play of a child; play that is free of self-doubt and self-consciousness. In short, you need to give yourself permission to creatively be free. The idea of ‘play’ may sound silly or even frustrating (if it were that simple wouldn’t we all be doing it?), but this piece of advice should reassure you because it means that being creative is a learnable skill that you can improve with practice.
You need to give yourself permission to leave the analytical brain behind. It is a choice. I’m not saying it’s easy, but your creative self-confidence should grow over time.
If you are having trouble relaxing into this play state, technique one might be a useful starting place to freeing your mind.
Listen to Your Creative Brain
Perhaps, I should feel panic at my wilful-brain’s recent rebellion, but I don’t. Instead, I’ve listened to my imagination’s request for a break and rolled with it. For the past month my laptop has stayed closed, as my fingers haven’t itched to continue with my WIP; rather than fight myself, I’ve let my brain take the rest it’s needed.
And that’s my philosophy – listen to your creative brain. If it needs downtime, don’t force it to cooperate. Instead, slouch on the couch, read. Recharge those batteries and Ms. Creativity will unpack her suitcases when she’s darn well ready!
And here’s the proof. Instead of panicking at my creative slump, I’ve taken a break. After a month off, my creative subconscious finally yawned and stretched as she woke from a well-earned nap, and when she was ready, the idea for this blog swam to the front of my consciousness…
So, here I am, in my writing space at 7.43AM, dusting off my keys and typing about the return of creativity. 😊
Here are a few links to posts that might help you hone your craft:
You can find further ways to develop your creativity here: 17 Ways to Develop Your Creativity (verywellmind.com)