Creativity's Workshop

Taming and Training Your Creativity to Write Abundantly


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Where Do Ideas Come From?

A photograph of a dictionary page defining the term 'idea'

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

This post is inspired by the first chapter of Scott Berkun’s book The Myths of Innovation. Why not get yourself a copy and join in the discussion?

We all love stories of how ideas started – about that great moment when the solution to a problem just popped into existence as if a lightbulb had turned on above someone’s head.

But, as Scott Berkun brings out in his first chapter, entitled ‘The Myth of Epiphany’, stories of innovation are often either:

  • Over-simplifications of events (such as in the case of Archimedes and his ‘eureka’ moment) or
  • Fabrications created to sensationalize the event (as happened with Newton and the apple).

Yet we crave the romanticized stories of how these epiphanies came about, believing that ideas are all about being in the right place at the right time.

Well, prepare to have your bubble burst.

The Reality of Epiphanies

Epiphanies don’t just happen to a random passerby who knows little or nothing about the subject in question. Epiphanies come to people who have an in-depth knowledge of their subject. Often they’ve studied their subject for years before they happen upon their great ‘ah ha’ moment.

Why?

Berkun uses the illustration of a jigsaw puzzle and the elation of putting in the last piece.

The last piece of the puzzle is no more special than any other piece of the puzzle. You don’t know which one it will be until the very end. It’s special because of all the pieces that have gone before it.

As Berkun says:

Epiphany works the same way: it’s not the apple or the magic moment that matters much, it’s the work before and after.

There are two causes for the elation felt at the moment of epiphany:

  • The hours of work that went before, and
  • The surprise of ‘reaching the summit’.

When working on a jigsaw, we can see our progress. We know how many pieces are left before we finish – and we know for sure when we only have one more piece to go. However, when dealing with epiphanies, we usually don’t know when we’re holding the metaphorical last piece until the moment it clicks into place. It’s like we’ve been scaling a mountain and the clouds suddenly pull back to reveal the summit.

But you cannot reach the summit if you haven’t been scaling the mountain in the first place.

The Difference Between Epiphanies and Ideas

Before we go on further to learn where ideas come from, I would like to diverge on a personal tangent for a minute to define some terms.

When we refer to an epiphany, we think of the ultimate, life changing ‘ah ha’ moment which neatly provides the all encompassing solution to our problem (as happens at the end of every detective television show, right?). It’s followed by a snap of the fingers, a squeal of excitement and/or a dash down the streets of the city in your birthday suit screaming ‘I have found it!’

Ideas, on the other hand, come in many shapes and forms. While you could describe all epiphanies as ideas, not all ideas are epiphanies. Many of them are simple, small and may only fix part of a problem. However, you’re guaranteed to have far more small ideas than epiphanies in your lifetime.

Berkun makes a good point under the heading ‘Ideas never stand alone’ when he says:

Any seemingly grand idea can be divided into an infinite series of smaller, previously known ideas.

Where do these ideas come from? And how does an epiphany come about?

So, Where Do Ideas Come From?

Drawing from my own experience, and from consideration of Berkun’s first chapter, here is my summary of how ideas (and occasional epiphanies) actually come about.

Step 1: Understand Your Subject (also known as Hard Work)

First of all you need to immerse yourself in your subject. Learn everything you can about it. See what other people have tried (their successes and failures). Learn about their ‘previously known’ ideas.

To truly provide a useful ‘innovation’ (defined by Berkun as ‘significant positive change’) you have to first understand what needs to be changed.

Step 2: Get Creative With Your Subject

Conduct experiments to learn more, specifically in areas other people may not have branched into before.

Look for connections, especially the unusual ones. See how what you are now learning links with what you already know. Find similarities between what you’re working on and other unrelated subjects – art, farming, biology, metal smelting etc.

These are all your puzzle pieces. The more you fit together, the closer you get to your last piece.

Step 3: Walk Away From Your Workspace

At some point you need to take a break. Walk away from your workbench, or notebook, or computer. Take a shower. Make a cup of coffee. Go for a walk. Switch off for the weekend. Leave on a holiday. Relax and think about something completely different.

Often the last piece of the puzzle will fall into place once you’ve stopped forcing it – thus the eureka moment in an unexpected place.

What happens next may not be what you call an ‘epiphany’. Maybe it’s a realisation of a connection or a possibility that will send you off in a new direction or drive you forward with new enthusiasm – a humble idea. These moments are just as good as, if not better than, an ‘epiphany’.

Why?

Epiphanies Are Not Essential

As Berkun points out:

Nearly every major innovation of the 20th century took place without claims of epiphany.

Everyone wants a ‘eureka’ moment, but those aren’t what actually matter in the long run. After all, an idea alone is seldom useful. It needs application, further hard work, before it can have it’s true impact on the world.

Berkun says:

To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point. The goal isn’t the magic moment: it’s the end result of a useful innovation.

Epiphany is not essential. Most things are created without them.

For example, Peter Drucker, in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, says:

Successful entrepreneurs do not wait until “the Muse kisses them” and gives them a “bright idea”: they go to work.

The moral here is, don’t wait for an epiphany to find you. You cannot control when, how or even if an epiphany will strike.

Instead, start working. Find a subject you have a passion for. Learn it well. Experiment. Look for those moments when you find connections and are filled with new enthusiasm. Value those humble ideas and continue fitting them into your bigger jigsaw.

The world is not divided into those who have epiphanies and those who don’t. It’s divided into those who do the hard work and those who don’t. If you’re doing the work, you’re a success – with or without the epiphany.

Have you read the first chapter of The Myths of Innovation? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you haven’t read it yet, let us know your thoughts on this post.

P.S. This post barely even scratches the surface of the insightful information in Berkun’s first chapter. I highly recommend you get your own copy and start reading.


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4 Ways Song Lyrics Can Boost Creativity

Redheaded girl listening to music through headphones

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Hi, I’m Jessica’s Creativity and I’m here to talk to you about music!

There are many different opinions on whether music is helpful or harmful to the creative process. To a certain extent, it depends on what you and your Creativity feel comfortable with.

In my experience, whether music helps or harms your process depends on the day, the weather, the project, your socks and what’s in the oven at the time.

We’ve previously discussed how instrumental music can help your Creativity. Now allow me to wander through some ways I have found song lyrics to be inspiring.

The Influence of Cadence

Whether you are writing lyrics, poetry or prose, cadence plays a big part in the composition and structure of your sentences. Words have a music all their own, created by syllables and word stress. Great prose lilts to a melody in your mind as your read. (We’ll talk more about the details of this in another post.)

Listening to lyrics can inspire you to experiment with different and creative combinations of words to form unique cadence.

For example, Poisoning Pigeon in the Park by Tom Lehrer (a comedic song not at all to be taken literally) has these gems:

When they see us coming, the birdies all try an’ hide,

But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide.

…..

My pulse will be quickenin’

With each drop of strychnine

We feed to a pigeon.

It just takes a smidgen!

To poison a pigeon in the park.

The jaunty tightness to these words is further enhanced by the brilliance of rhyming ‘try an’ hide’ with ‘cyanide’ and many others. Just listening to this makes one want to rush headlong into a piece of paper and follow suit!

Other Songs With Addictive Cadence

  • Private Investigations – Dire Straits
  • Taylor (On and On album, track 4) – Jack Johnson

Exposure to New Words

While we are often exposed to new words in books, there’s something special about coming across a new word in a song.

The first advantage is that you immediately know how to pronounce it. Anyone who has first stumbled across a word in written form, and had to decipher dictionary squiggles in order to sound intelligent when using it, will appreciate this.

Another plus is that music lends new words magic – the swelling strings or gentle piano behind them become like a soundtrack to your very own discovery.

My favourite example of this is Tim Finn’s Winter Light which led to my discovery of the word Fantasmagoria. Listen to the song and see if you don’t fall in love with the word too!

Of course, the ultimate plus is that songs help you remember your new words, which is essential if these words are going to do your creative work any good. Usually you can hum it back into your memory or at least remember what it rhymes with.

Other Songs With Interesting Words or Phrases

  • Gossip Calypso – Bernard Cribbins (you have to love a song that can work in ‘oxy-acetylene welder’)
  • The Tip of the Iceberg (track 10) – Owl City (there’s something about the phrase ‘sub-zero tundra’ which transports me every time)

Playing With Connections

Often we come across song writers who are fantastic at using analogies or creating connections between everyday things.

A perfect example of this is Owl City. Among my favourites is this verse from Dental Care (track 6):

Golf and alcohol don’t mix

And that’s why I don’t drink and drive

Because good grief, I’d knock out my teeth

And have to kiss my smile goodbye

Start listening more closely to your favourite songs. You’re bound to find amusing and inspiring connections hidden (or not so hidden) in the lyrics.

Then start making clever connections of your own.

Other Songs with Interesting Connections

Envisioning a Story

Music elicits emotion, which makes it a brilliant storytelling device. The storytelling becomes even more incredible when your get a lyricist like Billy Joel on the job. The Downeaster Alexa (about a fisherman who is struggling to make ends meet) is one of my all-time favourite songs, because of lyrics like these:

And I go where the ocean is deep

There are giants out there in the canyons

And a good captain can’t fall asleep

….

So if you see my Downeaster “Alexa”

And if you work with the rod and the reel

Tell my wife I am trawling Atlantis

And I still have my hands on the wheel

Just listening to that song conjures up clear images of the sea, the boat, the birds, the waves. Take that picture and write about it.

Look for the stories other songs conjure up and let them grow inside your imagination. Perhaps your next novel is waiting between the lines of a song.

Other Stories in Song

  • Sailing to Philadelphia – Mark Knopfler
  • The Best Day – Taylor Swift

What song lyrics do you find inspiring? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

A practical note from Jessica: You may notice that not all the songs mentioned here have links. For the older songs we linked to the YouTube versions (as there may not be too many easy ways to find that music anymore), but with the newer songs we’ve either tried to direct you to the performer’s own website or to an official music video. Where that hasn’t been possible, we leave you to find your own way to the music rather than send you through to a copied version.


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What You Take For Granted Defines You

An aerial view of a man walking in the snow.

The view from our window. (Image credit: Jessica Baverstock)

On Friday 2nd December, 2011 I saw snow fall for the first time in my life.

How is that possible? some of you may ask. You really haven’t seen snow fall before?

I’m Australian. Where I grew up the weather never got cold enough to snow. I’ve seen snow on the ground when visiting other places (three times in my life) but I’d never ever seen it fall from the sky. Now I live in China, and here it definitely gets cold enough to snow.

So for those of you who take snow for granted, let me take you on a quick journey.

“I Do Not Believe in Snow”

In the movie The King and I with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, there is a classic scene where Mrs. Anna is teaching the King’s children. She mentions snow. The children, who have grown up in Burma, have never seen snow so she must explain what it is. Then the young prince stands up and defiantly says, ‘I do not believe in snow!’

We all get a good laugh out of the concept…but sometimes it’s not so far from the truth.

I was once talking to a 6-year-old Australian boy who proclaimed the same disbelief. I pointed to a picture of a snow-covered mountain.

‘See?’ I said. ‘The top of the mountain is covered in snow.’

He looked at me, sighing at my gullibility. ‘It’s white sand.’

And then I realised something. He had grown up in a city built on sand, where the local beach was blindingly pale. To him white sand was a reality. Snow was inconceivable (and that word does mean what I think it means).

Even at Christmas time, the average temperature in Australia is well over 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit). The closest a shop windows gets to frost is the tiny pieces of styrofoam strewn over the window dressing and white paint sprayed into the corners of the glass. Santa never sets foot out of the air-conditioned interior of the shopping centre because he’d overheat before he made it to the car park.

First Impressions

Now imagine seeing snow through those eyes.

The falling flakes conjuring up the idea of cloud dandruff.

Everything covered as if dusted with desiccated coconut.

The first crunch as you put your foot out the door, like you’d just walked into a slushy machine.

All that surrounds you is new, white, entrancing.

A Wider Context

Now think bigger. What in your life do you take for granted?

  • Where you live.
  • Your family.
  • Your job.
  • Your pets.
  • Your experiences.

These are all things which you may view as boring. Yet, to other people, they are new, special, intriguing – perhaps something they’ve always wondered about but never actually experienced.

Stop and think for a moment. Look at yourself and your life.

Why?

Because these things give you your writing voice.

________

P.S. Don’t forget to participate in the Creativity’s Workshop survey and get your personalised copy of my e-book. The offer is only available until Sunday 18th! Click here to see the original post.


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What is Your Theme Song?

Girl listening to musicI’m off travelling this week – another visa exit to Hong Kong.

In the mean time, I’d like to give you a question to think about: What is your theme song?

I’m not talking about your favourite song. I’m talking about the song you feel sums you up, that expresses your personality in musical form. The song you’d like playing behind you as you walk down the street.

Mine is ‘Jessica’ by The Allman Brothers Band, for obvious reasons.

What about yours? Have a think about it and let us know.


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The Musical Tints of Your World

Woman listening to headphones

Music changes the way we view things. It can wake you up in the morning or slow you down in the evening. It can bring sunshine to a rainy afternoon or intensify a scorching day. It can transport you to far off places, or reveal intricacies in familiar surroundings.

I especially love experimenting with different types of music as I walk the streets of China. One rainy evening I was walking past bright malls while playing cool jazz. For a moment I truly believed I was in New York.

A quick change to the Bourne Supremacy soundtrack (by John Powell) and I’m being chased through the streets of Moscow.

Another change to Bluehouse and I could swear I was in Sydney Chinatown.

My point?

Music enhances or highlights nuances of your surroundings, even embellishing them in places to fit the tone. This gives you a surprising amount of control over your perceptions.

So why not give some thought to your choice of music? Experiment with changing the style of music you listen to in certain places or at certain times. You may be surprised by the results. Ideas often come from new ways of looking at ordinary things.

You can put this to work in your writing as well. Compile a playlist of tracks for scenes, moods or characters you are working on. Sometimes just the lilt of a tune can help you put your finger on the phrasing you’re looking for.

Have you had any interesting experiences with the power of music?

For more suggestions on how to use music while writing, jump over to Copywrite and read The soundtrack of my muse.

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art


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How Music Can Boost Creativity

Little girl listening to music through headphones.

Silence is golden.

But the right music is platinum.

While I’m the first to admit to the necessity of silence at certain times in the creative process (sometimes having to insist on it when Jessica’s not paying attention), I’m also heavily addicted to music. The right music at the right time provides the catalyst for new ideas and the bridge to overcome creative blocks.

The trick is to find the right music for the right time.

Instrumental

For times when absolute silence only helps you hear the whistle of the wind blowing across the arctic tundra of your mind, soft instrumental music can provide just enough noise to help you along – the same way that the first few words on a blank page suddenly make the page far less imposing.

Baroque music (a style from around 1600 to 1750) is supposed to be very good for concentration. More modern equivalents could include Enya and Ottmar Liebert.

Movie Scores

When searching for the pacing or emotion in a scene, movie scores can provide a template or musical shorthand to build on. After all, their purpose is to tell a story.

Some of our favourites include Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, How To Train Your Dragon, the latest Star Trek movie and National Treasure.

Jazz

Recently Jessica and I discovered that jazz also has an influence on our creative endeavours. A lot of jazz is improvised, and this encourages independent thinking. Each musician makes the song their own, creating a unique interpretation of it, while still keeping the tune identifiable.

When you write, you’re using the same words as everyone else uses – just as musicians are using the same notes as everyone else. What matters is the way you use them.

What tune are you playing with your words? Are you sticking to the notes exactly as written on the page, or are you improvising, exploring and enjoying the act of playing?

When it comes to jazz, like listening to Manhattan Transfer, Katherine Whalen, Billie Holiday, Natalie Cole and, of course, Ella Fitzgerald.

Now, over to you. What kind of music do you like listening to? How/why does it influence your Creativity?


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Why ‘Childish’ is the Greatest Complement You Can Pay Your Creativity

Baby with sunglasses

Sometimes Jessica and I have disagreements/discussions on my behaviour.

I don’t like vegetables. She calls me childish.

My concentration flits from subject to subject. She calls me childish.

My hair is rainbow-coloured.  She calls me childish.

And each time I take it as a complement.

Why?

Because children are creative. Here, I’ll give you some examples.

Children Ask Questions

‘Why?’ Sure, it may be one of the most annoying words in the English language (especially if you’re a parent), but with that one word children learn to unravel the intricacies of their world.

Children are learning machines, and it’s because they ask questions. Even before they are able to formulate words, they are asking questions in their mind. ‘What happens if I do this?’ ‘How can I get your attention?’ ‘Can I fit banana up my nose?’

Those questions lead to experiments, sometimes with conclusive answers (‘Yes, squished banana does fit up my nose’), sometimes with new questions (‘What about apples?’).

Being creative is about asking questions, especially the questions other people haven’t thought of or are afraid to ask. There are plenty of people working on the obvious questions. To find unique answers, often you need to ask the uncomfortable or obscure questions.

Children Test Out Their Theories

Once a child has a question, they find way to answer it.

‘What does dirt taste like?’ Simple, taste it.

‘What does a caterpillar feel like?’ Touch it and see.

‘What does a saucepan sound like?’ That’s a no brainer.

And yet if an adult were to ask those questions, they may hypothesize an answer in their heads, but would they ever reach a definite conclusion?

Questions are extremely useful, but only if you act to find the answers. There is such a thing as too much theorizing. Eventually you have to stick your hand in and try. Why not start with an experiment, instead of musing.

Children Make Mess

‘This I know,’ you may say. ‘I clean my kid’s mess up every evening.’

There has to be a level of ‘mess’ in creative endeavours. If everything is too clean, too tidy, too perfect, then there’s no opportunity for the unexpected.

Creativeness happens when two unexpected things connect. If you have everything compartmentalized, when will the unexpected connect? Only during mental earthquakes, and at that point you’re too distracted by other things.

To be truly creative, you need to be prepared to get messy – embrace it, cause it, revel in it – because this is what it means to be creative.

Children Are Fascinated By Simple Things

‘Small things amuse small minds.’ How often is this term used in a derogatory manner?

It’s a beautiful thing to watch a child fascinated by something as simple as a bottle top or a gumnut. They turn the object over in their hands. They test it in many different situations. They learn all the ins and outs of that one little thing.

And when they’re done, their brain has a detailed understanding of that object. An understanding which will last a lifetime. But how many more little objects are our there to learn about?

Small things, or ‘simple things’ can reveal the answers to universal questions and provide life changing ideas.

Don’t shun the simple just because it’s not ‘adult’ enough for your attention. The answer to your question might be right under your nose.

Children Are Humble

Children make mistakes. They fall. They burn themselves. They embarrass themselves. It’s all part of the process. With a little help they pick themselves up, and continue – usually no worse for wear and definitely a little wiser.

Children realise they have much to learn. So they ask questions. They test things out. They make mess. They are constantly curious about their world.

Is being childish such a bad thing? It definitely has advantages from a creative standpoint, if not from other standpoints too.

So why not drop your guard for a little while, hang out with your Creativity and be childish together? Recapture the wonder and see what you discover.

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art


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Teaching Your Creativity to Eat Vegetables

Happy girl eating salad and tomato soup.

See? Eating vegetables can be fun!

Last week Creativity wrote a post about riding your creative wave, in which she mentioned our experience writing a particularly challenging blog post. She pointed out that if your Creativity is finding your current project boring, you should move to a project he or she is more interested in.

While I realise there is a lot of merit in this (and I have seen the benefit countless times) I do feel I should expand upon the subject further. We cannot always drop a project just because our Creativity refuses to play ball, or wants to play backgammon instead.

Tiv likened the situation to getting a child to eat vegetables. The analogy is apt because, although we all love to eat sweets, we cannot live a life without vegetables, however enticing that prospect is to a five-year-old. There are times when you just have to sit your Creativity down and make him or her eat the vegetables, just to prove that icky greens aren’t so bad after all.

How? Here are some of my tips. (You may notice the points suggested work equally well on children. Need I say more?)

  • Don’t be afraid of inactivity. I think it’s worth saying first off that if your Creativity doesn’t begin spouting ideas as soon as you sit down, don’t be too perturbed. Often your head, and your Creativity’s surroundings, needs to be completely blank before the idea hits, almost like the calm before the storm or the blank canvas before the painting. The poet William Stafford likens this moment to fishing. Your Creativity may not necessarily be turning up her nose at the greens, but simply examining them for caterpillars before she begins munching.
  • Set a timer. If your Creativity really is sticking her tongue out at you every time you try to get serious work done, then this may just be a matter of habit forming. Your Creativity might not like being tied down the same project over and over, but if you make it apparent that you’re going to sit there and stare at that project for a set amount of time every day, eventually he or she may take the course of least resistance and join in.
  • Have a reward system. I know we say this often, but it’s a truism; sometimes the best way to get work out of someone (especially a reluctant someone) is to provide an irresistible reward at the end. It can be anything from chocolate to spending time on a different fun project. Check with your Creativity what would work best for them, and then carry through on your promise.
  • Mix it up a little. As Tiv mentioned in her post, by making your vegetables more interesting, or by changing the way you present them, the greens become more appealing and exciting. So why not change something about your environment? Go to a cafe, or sit in a park. Or perhaps change your expectations. Maybe you need to inject a little more fun into the project to bring Creativity’s attention back. Does your project need some visuals to stir the ideas? Perhaps write in a different voice, change the setting of a scene, dream up a new character, add something unexpected. What can you change to make it fresh again?

I add as a reluctant addendum that there are times when you should allow nature to take its course, realize your child may have a lifelong hate of cauliflower and leave it at that. The same is true on a creative front. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m sure Creativity would agree with me when I say that some ideas, projects and posts should be left to fade away. If the spark is gone and shows no sign of returning, then let the thing die a dignified death. Nothing is ever a total waste. Often what you were working on helped you to find your way to the next idea or at least define what you are not looking for.

But don’t give up on your projects right away, even if your Creativity is uncooperative. It’s possible that with a little change to your routine, you can bring him or her back into line and have them chompin’ their veggies with vigour.

Have you come across this problem with your Creativity? What solutions do you find helpful?


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Cooking for the Mind

How do you like your food? And what does that have to do with Creativity?

Recently Jessica read a great post by Elizabeth King entitled You Cannot Sing If You Cannot Cook.

Needless to say, this tickled my fancy – and I’m willing to bet it will tickle your Creativity’s fancy as well.

Just about everyone values organization, and a big part of organization is compartmentalizing. In other words, setting aside time to walk the dog, clean the house, take the kids to school, work, pluck your eyebrows etc. This kind of scheduling and focus is important. And it has its uses in a creative setting too. Scheduling time to just create is essential.

But sometimes compartmentalizing is taken too far, especially when it comes to learning and expressing ourselves creatively.

As mentioned in Elizabeth King’s post, education tends to put subjects into their own little boxes and very rarely allow the subjects to interact – as if they’re afraid that intersecting subjects will turn on each other like Siamese fighting fish.

But I ask you, which kind of meal do you prefer? One where each ingredient (from the garlic, salt and sauces through to the individual vegetables and meat) is presented on its own? Or one where the ingredients are mixed tastefully together to create a well seasoned dish?

You picked the latter, right?

The same often works in your mind. Allowing information, subjects, experiences and skills to infuse each other results in a sensation of flavours, some of which may never have been experienced before. (And unusual flavour combinations really do work. I’m a big fan of chocolate beetroot muffins for this precise reason.)

So, when learning about a subject, do you make an effort to discover obscure connections to other things you already know? Do you allow these new points to flow into other areas of your learning and life?

A trip to a museum can reveal a significant moment in your story’s history. A better understanding of music theory can unlock a character’s hidden quirks. An introduction to the Japanese Tea Ceremony may give you the final act to your novel.

When you get an idea, do you always express it in the same way? Perhaps painting your poetry or turning your plot into music will allow your idea to ferment into something even more powerful.

Compartmentalizing your Creativity only limits what he/she is able to achieve. The best results come when you steep your Creativity in a rich and varied mixture of sensations, allowing random moments and connections to flow through his/her space. Then the possibilities become spectacular.

What about you? Have you experienced this in your life?