One of my most enduring insights into creativity came many years ago during a research methods course in graduate school at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. By now I have forgotten the exact content of the course, although given the era it must have involved going to the library and searching through card catalogs.
I do recall that we took notes on index cards (anyone remember those?) and grouped the cards into categories. The instructor then advised us to go home, toss the index cards into the air, and pick them up in whatever random order they landed on the floor.
That suggestion was the instructor’s way of making the point that creativity is not a linear process. Sometimes the most fertile ideas grow out of absurd juxtapositions, out of letting the mind wander, or from thinking hard about a difficult problem and then forgetting it and going out for a beer.
I don’t use index cards any more, but all these years later I have internalized this approach. For example, before sitting down to write this morning I decided to vacuum the kitchen. While pushing the vacuum brush over the floor I suddenly realized that a major plot angle I am developing will require that I rethink (and inevitably rewrite) one of the chapters I have already written. This annoying insight might not have arisen had I been sitting at my desk reading over the chapter.
One does have to be careful, of course, not to devote the entire day to housework (or beer drinking) in the supposed service of creativity. But a few minutes or hours away from the keyboard, taken judiciously, often yield a flash of insight that might never have come simply from staring at the screen.
For the writers out there, what creative techniques work for you?
Me, I’m off to wash the dishes…