My friend Greg is a naturally entertaining and creative guy who has spent his life working primarily for corporations of one kind or another. He’s currently employed by a healthcare firm in Rhode Island doing something with training software. I think. When he’s explained what he does to me I don’t fully understand it. Either way, his work is not what would traditionally be called creative: he’s not writing songs or advertising copy nor even software code. Still, his job presents him with problems, and solve them he must.
One such problem, he told me recently, had absolutely vexed him. The project was due the first of the year, and here it was the middle of February and still, the solution remained a mystery. Maybe there was no solution? Or maybe there was one and he wasn’t capable of finding it. That unhappy thought had crossed his mind. He was still relatively new to this position, having gotten it after losing his last one because of COVID. He liked the job, he felt he was good at it, but there was still the pressure to prove those who had chosen to hire him right.
The day was coming when he was to give a presentation to his superiors on this project. What would he do? He’d have to tell them the truth. He’d tried and tried, thought and thought, experimented, noodled, thought again, and nothing. He gave up. Those were his exact words to me: I gave up. Later that night he found himself perusing an online manual for Photoshop just, as he explained it, “out of curiosity,” when he noticed a tool in that software that reminded him of a tool in the training software. This, he thought, might be what he could use to solve his problem. Turns out, it was, and in a couple hours, he’d found his solution.
He described this moment to me the way I’ve heard writers describe finding the end of their novels, the way I’ve heard mathematicians describe seeing the solution to complicated equations, the way musicians hear melodies. I interviewed a novelist recently who said the answer to her plot problems always come when she’s driving or in the shower, and usually when she’s thinking about something else.
The overlap between novelists and composers and my friend Greg is reassuring to me. It’s good to remember that life’s creative engine is always running, whoever I am and whatever I’m doing. The worst thing I can do as a writer–as a person who, in theory, is supposed to keep coming up with new things to write about–is to believe I am solely and wholly responsible for those ideas. The moment I see myself as a self-contained idea factory, the ideas stop coming.
Interestingly, a factory is not really the best metaphor for what I was just trying to describe. Factories are filled with men and women each in their own way responsible for whatever is produced. The factory doesn’t generate the raw materials needed to turn out cars or brooms, nor the design upon which the products are based. What comes out of any factory is the result of a large group effort. It’s true of everything that’s ever been created. Even trees need water, sun, and soil to bear their fruit.
But as a person who needs to write a new essay or finish an overdue a project, who has no one he can call partner, who sits alone at his desk to do his work, it’s easy to believe it’s all on me. Oh, what a lonely and uncreative thought. How inadequate it can leave me feeling. I’ve got nothing, I think. I’m as useless here as a block of wood.
Like Greg, I too must give up. I give up every day. Every time I sit down to work, I give up the notion that I can do it alone. My job is to get into the frame of mind that allows ideas to come. I can’t try, I can’t strain, I can’t demand. I have to be relaxed, curious, open, patient, and trusting. It’s why Greg’s solution came when it did. He wasn’t trying to solve anything. He was just relaxed and curious and open. It’s why the novelist gets ideas while driving or showering.
Patience and trust, however, is needed when you want to be creative on purpose, when you’ve learned how the process works and must surrender to its mysterious nature. I can’t see where the ideas come from. I can’t pick up my phone and order one. I can’t file a petition and require one. I can only make myself available for one’s arrival. If I doubt it will come, it won’t. If I demand it come, it won’t. I simply have to trust that it will, and then it does.
What has made trusting easier for me is the knowledge that I am not special. I am not somehow uniquely connected to the font of ideas. Everyone’s connected, it’s just that many people don’t know they’re connected, or don’t know how the connection functions.
I do this for a living and I forget I’m connected. Fortunately, forgetting is not a permanent condition. It’s a problem solved by the simple act of remembering who and what I am, and giving up trying to be something I am not.
This post is republished on Medium.