Last week I watched a thrillingly inventive film called Holy Motors. It follows a day in the life of an actor as he’s driven to various jobs, but when he’s working the cameras are hidden and nothing is as it seems. From the strange bearded character who ate fingers, to Kylie Minogue singing a song before doing something a tad destructive, to the actor driving his daughter home, you’re never sure what’s real and what’s just another acting job. Now, I realise some people may find this lack of plot and randomness of events frustrating, but I was immersed in its visually striking scenes and unpredictability, and by the end I was left wondering about the writer/director Leos Carax. He clearly has a mind that pushes the boundaries of creativity, and I’d love to sit him down with a cappuccino (and probably a slice of cake) and ask him about the way he works, how he conceives his ideas and then allows them to grow in such unexpected directions.
I’ve always had a fascination with the creative process, not just the way we build stories, create characters and structure, but also how our mind works in order to make up these stories in the first place. The general view is that our subconscious is a mysterious and intangible creature, often linked to the ethereal ‘muse’ and a sense that we are not in control of what happens within the deep pockets of our brain.
However. Anyone who has been working as a creative person over a long period of time will know this isn’t entirely true. There are practical ways to harness your thoughts, things people do every day that engage with creativity without being aware it is even happening. For me personally, if I have a scene I need to work out or a character that is being evasive, my subconscious will figure it out while I’m driving the car (but it has to be a journey that takes at least 30 minutes), or a long bath (again, 30 minutes). These activities for that length of time work a treat. For others it is smoking (not recommended), walking, ironing, train journeys, gardening, vacuuming… the list is pretty endless. The common thread is that the body is either doing very little, or a repetitive task that requires little thought. Alarming, especially when driving, but heck, whatever works.
And the result of all this latent brain activity? For some reason, this is the way we make connections between ideas that are already in our subconscious. These connections, between a problem and a solution, are what creates bright ideas. An example of this is how themes can develop in a novel — in the first draft you are just writing the story, figuring out the plot and characters, but once that first messy draft is written, if you allow your mind to wander, to step back and let it do its own hunting, the right side of your brain, the creative side, will bring strands together you didn’t notice before, allowing you to go back and make the connections stronger, build the themes in a more purposeful way.
This may sound fanciful, mooning around all day letting my mind drift off into the ether hoping it will do random acts of kindness, and my students do look at me like I’m bonkers when I talk to them about it. But then I’ll get a student who has tried it out and comes back so excited with the new direction it has taken her that I can see it will change the way she works.
And there is actual science behind this, honest. Anyone who isn’t convinced should read Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer. This book starts with a quote from T.S. Eliot, in his introduction to Dante’s Inferno, ‘Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing’. According to Lehrer, the brain has ‘flutterings of neurons in the prefrontal cortex’, and he talks about how this can be harnessed in the pursuit of creativity.
This isn’t just relevant to people working alone like hermits, scavaging for any bit of inspiration they can find. He also explores the benefits of working collaboratively to create original ideas, not just in the arts, but also scientific research, business and industry too. How do you think Apple got to be so successful? In their headquarters they’ve created spaces where staff from different areas of the business get to bump into each other, chat and mull over problems and ideas, and other spaces where they can go off and moon around when they feel like it. This is one of the ideal scenarios for making connections in the brain and solving problems, creating solutions and coming up with inventive and exciting new products (I’m an Apple fan in case you didn’t notice).
The real mystery for me though is why everyone is so different in their methods of discovery. Long walks don’t work for me (except as a way of turning my back on a character and hoping he gets annoyed enough to tap me on the shoulder and tell me who he is), but they might be a revelation for someone else. You have to try things out to find out what works. And practice too, because life has a rude way of interfering with the process, such as prodding you with a list of what you need to get at the shops for dinner, and don’t forget that brake light that needs replacing on the car.
Creativity is like any other activity – if you want to do it well, you need discipline and determination over a long period of time.
Watch Holy Motors and you’ll see exactly what I mean.