Writing and the Creative Life: 18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently
Are you creative? Chances are you do some things differently.
No, I’m not doing this just because my wife’s (Rebecca McMillan) work on daydreaming is cited in the article. I’m also posting it in reference to my lifelong fascination with why creative people are the way they are… and frankly, why I am the way I am. Here are the 18 things:
They observe everything.
They work the hours that work for them.
They take time for solitude.
They turn life’s obstacles around.
They seek out new experiences.
They “fail up.”
They ask the big questions.
They take risks.
They view all of life as an opportunity for self-expression.
They follow their true passions.
They get out of their own heads.
They lose track of the time.
They surround themselves with beauty.
They connect the dots.
They constantly shake things up.
They make time for mindfulness.
The article by Carolyn Gregoire has links to supporting articles and studies as well as commentary for each of the 18 things. For example, here is section on daydreaming:
Creative types know, despite what their third-grade teachers may have said, that daydreaming is anything but a waste of time.
According to Kaufman and psychologist Rebecca L. McMillan, who co-authored a paper titled “Ode To Positive Constructive Daydreaming,” mind-wandering can aid in the process of “creative incubation.” And of course, many of us know from experience that our best ideas come seemingly out of the blue when our minds are elsewhere.
Although daydreaming may seem mindless, a 2012 study suggested it could actually involve a highly engaged brain state — daydreaming can lead to sudden connections and insights because it’s related to our ability to recall information in the face of distractions. Neuroscientists have also found that daydreaming involves the same brain processes associated with imagination and creativity.
It’s an interesting article and honestly, as I consider this list, it occurs to me there’s not one item I can’t relate to.
For example, when I graduated from Yale with an M.Div. degree, I was on a path toward a safe, secure life in academics… get a doctorate, then teach at the university level for the duration of my life, tweedy coats, pipe smoking, faculty meetings and all the rest. Except for one thing.
During my last year at Yale, I developed a gnawing pang in my gut — literally a physical sensation — that eventually compelled me to take a year off to pursue my interest in music. That year became the rest of my life — playing music professionally for 7 years, then stand-up comedy for 2 years, then screenwriting, and everything that has followed.
If you look at the broad strokes of that narrative, it entails several of the 18 things cited above:
- They ask the big questions: I have always pondered big questions, even as a child. That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the study of religion and spirituality. But while at Yale that last year, my 7th consecutive year of higher education, I would constantly ask myself: “Is this what I want to be doing? Will I be happy as an academic? Will I be satisfied with my life if I do not pursue my music? What am I supposed to do with my life?”
- They get out of their own heads: I have a powerful instinct to live in the conceptual realm. I sometimes joke, “I like the concept of people more than people.” And yet, my instinct toward songwriting and performing on stage pulled me out of theoretical living, and into direct contact with actual people. The experience of singing original material for an audience, the self-belief and trust required to do that, felt more real in a way than spending all day dissecting 3rd century theological treatises.
- They view all of life as an opportunity for self-expression: I was quite good at academic studies. Indeed, I graduated from Yale cum laude and likely could have gotten into any of the top doctoral programs in the United States. But at the time, I concluded that research and analysis did not satisfy me emotionally, spiritually and existentially as did writing songs, then stand-up comedy routines and eventually screenplays.
- They follow their true passions: Fortunately as I was struggling that last year at Yale to make what would be one of the most fateful choices of my entire life, I had professors and good friends who listened to me, assuring me of one fact: I was passionate about my creative aspirations. Buttressing those affirmations were the words of a scholar I had studied as an undergraduate: Joseph Campbell. He said the central message of the Hero’s Journey is this: “Follow your bliss.” If I was truly passionate about my creative interests, then that had to be an expression of my authentic self, an expression of my bliss. That pointed me toward a different life path than the one I was on pursuing academics.
- They take risks: So I left Yale and academics behind, and took off West with little more than a guitar, my songs, and my dreams. In hindsight, that was a huge risk, turning my back on a secure future for something completely unknown. However at the time, it was the only choice I could make.
- They lose track of the time: I spent nearly a decade wandering around following my creativity. Music, then comedy, then screenwriting. Unlike many young turks who break into Hollywood fresh out of college or film school, early to mid-20s, I was 33 years old when I sold my first spec script, halfway to Old Fart status by Hollywood standards. I try to gaze back through the haze of my past at those 10 years and wonder what happened? I guess that was my time in the wilderness, preparing me for what was to come.
- They connect the dots: During that decade, I kept on asking the Big Questions, but when through utter serendipity I discovered screenwriting, that was it: I connected the dots in a huge way. This particular form of narrative expression was everything I ever wanted or needed creatively, and dovetailed directly into my lifelong love of movies.
- They surround themselves with beauty: So it was when I sold K-9, I was shepherded around town, the proverbial flavor-of-the-week, but the reality was I knew very little about the craft of screenwriting. So I immersed myself in the world of cinema. I read every script. I watched every movie. I did dozens and dozens of scene-by-scene breakdowns. Attended every presentation by filmmakers I could find. Picked the brains of screenwriters, producers, executives, even script readers to learn everything possible. Certainly that process fed my intellectual understanding of how to write a screenplay, but more important, those several years of intensive exposure to stories fed my soul in a way only movies can. That experience of the beauty of movies took my avocational affection for cinema and transformed it into vocare: A calling.
- They seek out new experiences: As a writer, I worked with one partner. Then another. Then solo. I wrote comedy, action, drama, family, thriller. Movies. TV. And then — again something arising from a gut instinct — I started to teach screenwriting. Through that, I found I had in an odd way come full circle: Being forced to communicate how I went about writing pulled me back to my academic roots. Not just Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, but looking at all aspects of the craft — Plot, Character, Concept, Style, Scene, Dialogue, Theme, Time, Subplot, Conflict — and applying a kind of scholarly diligence to it. To this day, I continue to learn new things about the craft, both in how I write and how I teach.
- They constantly shake things up: During the strange sojourn of my life, I found myself working as a producer for a TV production company. Nothing wrong with that… except it didn’t involve movies. So I asked myself: What can I do to give me a way to connect with my passion for movies? And that led to this humble blog. I had no idea how that choice would shake up my life, but it has. And it continues to do so on an almost daily basis through the creative opportunities that arise from it and most of all through the connections I have with thousands of fellow writers in the online community of creative souls. In other words… you!
Here’s the thing: In comparison to the Universe, this thing we call a Life amounts to little more than a split second. If this is what we’ve been given and we feel the call of Creativity, we are beholden to accept that invitation. It is the only authentic choice we can make. Sure, it’s different than being a banker. Or a claims adjuster. Or some other ‘traditional’ job. [No disrespect intended. Each of us has our own unique set of interests and skills, that’s all I’m saying.] I suppose it’s only natural the creative life will pull us toward different things. I mean, my God, as I type this, it’s 4:15AM which is prime time for me to write (see: They work the hours that work for them). Sometimes in the deep, dark middle of the night, it feels like no one else in the world is awake but me… and I kinda like that. Just me… and my creativity.
So here’s to embracing the things we do differently… because those things feed and support our creative expression.
How about you? Which of these 18 things reflect your own experience as a creative?
And to round this off, I think we have to end with a big honking wave of creative juju for everyone who happens by this post today:
For the rest of the Huffington Post article, go here.
Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.
For more articles in the Writing and the Creative Life series, go here.