Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Creative Alchemy: 6 Practices to Generate Ideas

There are creativity questions we often get asked or we ask ourselves:

  • Where do you get your ideas?
  • How did you get so creative?
  • How can I increase my creativity?

These are both easy and difficult questions to answer.  Philosophically speaking, I would find it challenging, but fun, to discuss the origins of creativity.  It’s kind of fascinating, ya know?

On a more practical level, it’s a matter of alchemy.


  • 1:  a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life
  • 2:  a power or process of transforming something common into something special
  • 3:  an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting
Definition number 2 is the key.  You take something common, the everyday, the things that surround you, and you transform them into something special.  Much of creativity is seeing something special in the common things around you.  That’s the practical part.  The transformation, well, that’s the inexplicable mysterious part!

Here are 6 things that I do that help me generate ideas.  Part collection, and part encouragement of “magic”....

1. Collect writing samples.
Keep a notebook that contains favorite passages and phrases from your favorite authors. One author’s writing and ideas will bump against another's writing and ideas and will then bump into your own writing and ideas. This can help inspire new depths of thought, new ideas, and new writing.

Remember good writing can be found anywhere and be open to finding it in unusual places like menus, graffiti, greeting cards, a letter or email from a friend, a text, a tweet, tabloids...  Keep your mind open to new inspiration wherever you may find it. Nothing expressed with the written word is irrelevant to the beginning or learning writer - and no matter how experienced a writer you might be, aren't you still learning?

2.  Collect images.
Keep a notebook - physical or digital - that contains images that inspire you.  Collect images that are funny, beautiful, informative, awe-inspiring.  Collect images where you liked the color scheme or shapes, the layout of a graphic, a font or font combination that is super cool.

Images can trigger thoughts, emotions, and ideas. Just like with writing samples, be open to finding them in unusual places.  

If you see an image you really like on a menu, brochure, poster, billboard… whip out that ever handy camera / camera phone.  You keep one handy, right?  This post discusses using your camera as a writing tool, but really your camera can capture information and inspiration for just about any creative endeavor.

3. Observe. Really, really observe.
Keep your sense alive wherever you are.  Be in the moment.  Experience it.  Really look at that flower.  Watch those children play on the monkey bars.  Listen the conversations you hear in the line at the store.  Smell the delicious aromas of your meal.  Feel the way the raindrops land on your arm and roll towards your hand.  Taste the tart sweetness of the glass of lemonade.

When you really pay attention to the world around you, you will notice things you hadn’t before.  This will help to spark new ideas and also lend depth and inspiration to whatever projects you are already working on.

4.  Listen to or watch the news.
The news?  Really?  It’s so depressing.  It makes me sad and angry to watch the news.  But it can be a great source of ideas.  But it’s not so simple a correlation as translating a news piece into a creative idea.  

I’ll take the disturbing news about the suicide bombers in Istanbul yesterday. My first inclination is to close my eyes, cover my ears, and start singing loudly “la la la la la I can’t hear you!”  Seriously.  I want to live in denial sometimes of the evil in our world.  

I can tap into the deep wells of emotion that this triggers.  I can look into the motivations that the suicide bombers may have had.  I can embrace the compassion that I feel towards the victims.  I can remember my own fear when I had to take my first flight weeks after 9/11.

News, good or bad, can help us to be in touch with our human side and our emotions - a necessary piece to creating ideas that are fresh and relevant to what others may also be feeling.  The ideas generated here will reverberate with others around us and create a sense of connection that is sometimes missing from a creative piece.

5.  Play.
After thinking about news, especially bad or disturbing news, it is good to think about play, isn’t it?  Everyone likes to play.  Play is essential to growth, learning, creativity… It is so important that Rhode Island signed a bill yesterday requiring 20 consecutive minutes of recess every day.  As a former school teacher, I am not surprised that the word consecutive had to be included.

So, why is play so important?  Books have been written about it, but I won’t write a book here, just share a few ideas.  Promise.

Play.  Daily.  Write a rule for yourself.  20 consecutive minutes of play.  Play with your kids or your pet.  Play with your food.  Play a game (the less digital, the better!)  Try something new.  Play with art supplies.  Just play.  If you can’t do it daily, at least try to do it weekly - a la Julia Cameron style - artist dates!  There are tons of ways to play!  Get the creative juices flowing!

6.  Care deeply.
We all have things that we feel passionate about.  Tapping into that passion will go a long way in sparking ideas.  For example, I am passionate about children, I am passionate about chronic illness, and I am passionate about writing.  These passions have led to two different manuscripts for children’s picture books about a child who has a parent with a chronic illness.  It also lead to the creation of a health journal.  A few more examples?  My passion for writing and photography led to a blog post about how to use your camera as a writing tool.  My passion for children and photography has led to children and family photo shoots and photography lessons for children.  

Think about your passions.  Care deeply about the people you hope to reach with your final products.  This will help immensely with coming up with ideas.

Don’t Stop!
I’ve only listed 6 here, but there are more, like reading or exploring or trying new things or.….  

Please share below what you do to generate ideas.  I’m always looking for new things to try, and if you’re reading this, you probably are too!

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