Writing and the Creative Life: 18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently

Are you creative? Chances are you do some things differently.

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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 daydream.

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 people-watch.

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?”
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.

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:


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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.

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For more articles in the Writing and the Creative Life series, go here.

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