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New Series: How To Be More Creative

In October of 2009 I went to a librarian conference in Monterey, California. The morning after the horrors of Life, Death, and Kettlebells in Monterey, I walked down the street and through the front doors of the hotel where I would attend Internet Librarian 2009.

A lot of it was just what I expected. Redundant chatter about customer service, technology worship, lots of jaunty scarves, lots of glasses, and a whole lot of Powerpoint.

It was also where I heard the greatest thing ever: there is an opera based on Strunk and White’s grammar book, The Elements of Style.

After that sunk in, I thought: “That’s the most creative thing I’ve ever heard. How did anyone possibly come up with that idea?” I smiled all day. That smile faded as soon as I got back to my hotel room and voluntarily turned on the Internet and the TV.


I’ve begun spending significantly less time on the web. I’m watching fewer movies. I’m watching less television. I’m withdrawing from many of the things that turn me into a pure spectator.

It isn’t easy. I’m used to my routines where I turn off and watch and click.  But the other day I got out of my truck after a 40 minute drive and realized that I had no memory of the journey.

But more and more often, that’s how I feel when I surface from a session on the web or a couple of hours spent in front of the television. As if I had not even been conscious. Where did the time go? I have no idea. I have no lasting memories of what just happened, only an awareness that I just spent X amount of time doing Y without much to show for it.

Nobody has held a gun to my head and forced me to participate. And I don’t worry about the times when I “waste” time doing something I truly enjoy. But I hate the fact that I spend so much time doing things that I know I would rather not be doing.

While my actions often suggest otherwise, what I truly enjoy is originality and demonstrations of creative thinking and nimble minds.

A copy of a copy of a copy

Hollywood is the land of remakes and sequels. The Internet is endlessly derivative. Television is the same. There is so little originality, and what is often called original is merely what is popular. Not always, but too often, I believe.

There are too many blogs about blogging. There are too many movies where someone in the preview runs into a glass door or gets hit in the crotch. There are too many TV shows about why it sucks to be married.

It continues because it is profitable. I can’t fault anyone for wanting to make a profit. I want it myself. But something precious gets lost when we quit creating just for the joy of creating.


I don’t consider myself an artist–especially not a tortured artist–but I do love to make things. It isn’t a need, but something I look forward to and love to lose myself in. Whether my writing or songs or performances are horrible or wonderful isn’t even the point. Certainly, I’d rather be liked than hated. But if I knew that everything I ever produced would be absolutely reviled, I’d still do it.

Because I get a giddy, childish joy out of seeing something I did and knowing that it wasn’t here before me. Maybe it sucks, but it couldn’t have existed without me. I thought of that.

And while I’ve participated in and created my fair share of redundancy and noise online, I’m trying to get back to what I love:

Creating for the sheer joy of it, with no motivation other than that it feels good and it makes me happy.  Making something that someone sees and that shocks them just as much as it shocked me when I heard about the Grammar Opera.

An attempt

This weekly series will be my attempt to explore where the creative impulses originate, what happens to them if they are ignored, and to pick your brilliant brain about how we can all break away from the sameness. The only reason the sameness persists is because we pay attention to it. We send the message that it is good enough, and that we will continue to pay for it.

I’ve definitely been part of the problem through my tacit support.

There is good reason to celebrate our individuality. You can do and make and think things that nobody else can. So can I.

I’m going to try my best to follow my instincts in this series and tune out all other motivations. I hope you’ll do the same and work to find something that only you are capable of. Something that makes you think, produce, and then smile and say:

I thought of that.

I’d love any suggestions for topics you would enjoy exploring.


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • cinderkeys June 23, 2010, 1:24 am

    Oooh, this sounds like fun!

    Here’s a question to pose to your readers: What do you consider the source of your ideas? Do they feel like they come from you, or from something external like God or a muse?

    • Josh Hanagarne June 23, 2010, 11:32 am

      Good one. I’ll answer this one for myself a bit early. I attribute my ideas to the amount of quiet, reflective time I’m able to get and the amount of creative thinking I expose myself to. If I’m reading a lot, I get more ideas. If I’m playing the guitar a lot, I feel more creative. I would simply call my ideas associations that seem to come out of nowhere. And the more active my mind is, the more associations I find myself making.

  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave June 23, 2010, 5:12 am

    Perfect timing! Whenever I’m about to start teaching an arts class, especially to young people, I shift mental gears by remembering to play. I put a moratorium on good business practices (economies of time, motion & profitability) and wander. I take detours off my normal routes, listen to music I haven’t heard ever–or in years, and open my eyes. I shop (not necessarily buying) for supplies in unorthodox places. The nuts & bolts aisle is wonderful for this, and because the staff thinks I’m a responsible adult, I’m allowed in the “designer” room of the fabric store.

    One of my favorite exercises when teaching adults is to give each of them a pile of “stuff.” Pieces of cloth or paper, buttons, cotter pins and nuts, and the assorted plastic innards from milk jugs or OJ cartons. I make available drawing paper, glues and other assorted art-making tools. I explain that they are free to use whatever is offered, and may negotiate trades with fellow students–but at least three “things” must be used. I then give them the direction to create a portrait or self portrait.

    I do love watching retired colonels and active CEO’s tackling “stuff.” After the initial awkwardness, it’s always wonderful to see the playfulness emerge.

  • Todd June 23, 2010, 6:38 am

    Josh, you nailed it. I’ve had those moments where I think about something that I just did, like drive home, and really don’t remember any details.
    The comments about TV, the ‘net, and movies are 100%. I haven’t seen an original movie in years. The same can be said for many newer books as well.
    It does drain the creative soul.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 23, 2010, 11:38 am

      A lot of the most original movies I’ve seen lately are disasters at the box office, I suspect because they are trying to do something that isn’t a formula.

  • ami June 23, 2010, 6:53 am

    idea: call for random objects (via comments). Use your favorite 5, 7, 10 (or however many you like) to create a short story.

    idea: explore how crazy ideas begin and take hold. what was the tipping point?

    idea: stereotypes – real or myth?

  • Lisa June 23, 2010, 9:12 am

    We see edges and motion, right? We go numb to sameness. But that deep thrilling pleasure of seeing something newly. Nothing better than that.

    I look forward to your exploration.

  • jean sampson June 23, 2010, 9:17 am

    I love to write words on pieces of paper and then throw them up in the air and then arrange them to make a sort of poem—-one rule could be that it can’t make sense. This is a fun group activity, everyone contributing words to the pot.

    One thing I have been doing lately is stopping myself at any moment and just looking around at all the things I wouldn’t ordinarily notice. I have been looking up at buildings and seeing some really cool stuff on the older ones that I have never seen in 63 years of walking by them. It really opens up the monent and gives you an appreciation for what is there that you have not seen or heard. You can tune in to all the senses and have a great and fulfilling time doing nothing but stopping and noticing.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 23, 2010, 11:39 am

      Thanks Jean, you made my day. How many pieces of paper? I’d love to see one of the poems that comes out of that.

  • Daniel O'Connor June 23, 2010, 9:23 am


    This is really at the heart of my thinking right now.
    40,000 to 50,000 years ago modern humans experienced a creative “revolution”. It is this revolution that has driven us ever since.

    You are right. Too much passivity destroys this creativity and makes us slaves to those that produce it. We cannot really blame the people that are giving us pablum in books, TV and movies because that is what we as a group are asking for.

    If there is a huge market for passive, entertaining crap, then by golly a lot of people will make crap. Sure some will buck the trend to stay true to their art but for the most part they are poor and hungry or supplement their income in some way.

    You are heading down the right track. Each one of us can create in our own way.

    a beautiful tune on a guitar
    a poem
    a chair
    a book
    a remarkable child/adult

    I look forward to this!

    • Josh Hanagarne June 23, 2010, 11:40 am

      Thanks Daniel. I’m looking forward to it too. This is an inexhaustible subject with fascinating questions. Curiosity feeds itself. I suspect we’ll all get something out of this venture.

  • Jenn June 23, 2010, 9:38 am

    Seriously, I think this is my favorite post ever probably because I can sadly relate. Just last night I spent and hour on the internet and really had no idea what I just ingested. It was like mindlessly eating a bag of chips. Ick. For me, self-discipline and creativity go hand in hand. When I make a conscious effort to listen and get outside of myself ideas start to flicker. My biggest challenge is finding the discipline to sit down and let those ideas take shape. I get so easily distracted by the “chips” and the ideas remain just that ideas. 🙁 But on those (unfortunately) rare occasions that I find the discipline to shape the ideas, i.e., intentionally create something it feels magical.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 23, 2010, 11:42 am

      I love chips and I get the metaphor. Steven Pressfield said “writers know that the writing isn’t the hard part. Sitting down to write (and abandoning the chips!) is the hard part.”

      The amount of distractions certainly isn’t diminishing is it?

  • Fallen Monkey June 23, 2010, 9:56 am

    *clap* *clap* *clap* Yes, please inspire. Because we’re actually experiencing the most beautiful summer weather I’ve ever encountered in England and, instead of it moving me to feel energized and create, I find myself hunched here at my freaking computer again, getting nothing worthwhile done (with the exception of reading your blog, of course). ACTUALLY, what I need to do is park myself somewhere out in the sunshine and resume my reading of The Knot, which I’m now half-way through and enjoying a ridiculous amount. Seriously, what vividly conjured characters–couldn’t be more original–and it’s the first time in a while I’ve been so reluctant to put a book down. So I would certainly say you are not suffering a creative deficiency, sir.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 23, 2010, 11:42 am

      Thanks! I reread The Knot again recently, and it gets stranger every time I open it. I barely recognize the mind that wrote it. that’s the most fascinating thing about it to me.

      I’m well into part two, fyi:)

      • cinderkeys June 23, 2010, 12:57 pm

        It’s funny how that works, isn’t it? Sometimes I feel as though the songs I wrote didn’t come from me, even though I can remember what I had to do to craft them and it felt like it was coming from me at the time.

        • Fallen Monkey June 25, 2010, 12:32 pm

          That happens to me, too! I’ll read something I wrote a week ago with fresh eyes and marvel over how it sometimes feels like I’m reading it for the first time–feels very out-of-body. We must really tap into something special when we achieve that…that, or the occasional dementia 🙂

          And Josh, I’m about 30 pages into part two and royally pissed off at Kylie Jo (evidently, I find Stoker to be a sympathetic character). I will give her benefit of the doubt, though, as I read on. I also tend to get Aggie’s theme song caught in me noggin…

  • Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire June 23, 2010, 10:36 am

    I challenge you to create a peep scuplture. They may be hard to find this time of year, but you could create the first leaning tower of peeps, or perhaps the Berlin Wall of peep… or even the stage for the Elements of Style Play, entirely miniaturized in true peep fashion.

    I can see the yellow, pink and blue stains on your fingers now….

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  • Lisa June 23, 2010, 11:46 am

    Interesting post on psyblog yesterday about how to increase your creative approach to a problem. Can I post a link here?


    • Josh Hanagarne June 23, 2010, 5:37 pm

      Sure. I’ve got no problem with a useful link here and there. If you post that link when commenting on tomorrow’s post, I’ll probably take it out:)

  • Boris Bachmann June 23, 2010, 12:58 pm

    Good piece Josh. I agree completely – when we start doing things out of habit, creativity dies. Long drives are a perfect opportunity to practice being in the moment – hard to do, because most of us would rather be somewhere else, but you can’t so why waste your time and risk your safety?

    I keep a notebook. I jot down everything in it; grocery lists, quotes to sketches, meeting notes, and ideas for writing pieces.

    Reading (books & magazines) – my favorites for ideas tend to be in the business genre, art/design, sports non-fiction, pop science, philosophy or zen.

    One book I really liked on ideas and creativity that I bought when I started grad school was “Jump Start Your Brain” by Doug Hall – the ideas in it, looking back on it now, are basic, but it helped me a lot at the time. http://www.amazon.com/Jump-Start-Your-Brain-Doug/dp/0446671037

    • Josh Hanagarne June 23, 2010, 5:32 pm

      Thanks Boris. We should do a coffee table book of our notebook doodles and make our fortunes.

  • Ry June 23, 2010, 4:14 pm

    There’s room for a whole discussion of seed content – starting from somewhere concrete and then extrapolating outward. Here’s an example of some seed content:


  • Cat June 23, 2010, 11:43 pm

    I like to set creative goals on the “back-burner” and let them simmer for a while. I don’t know if the “muse” works on them there but often, especially for writing projects, good stuff pours out right before my deadline. (whether self-imposed or other)
    Other times, especially for songs but sometimes for blog posts, things just pour out unexpectedly. With the songs, it does almost feel as if I am tapped into some source and simply serving as a conduit. I heard Pete Seeger say he felt like there is a river of songs that is constantly flowing and he just dips in his cup occasionally.
    Recently, I decided to adapt a children’s book as a play for my daughter’s kindergarten. I read and reread the book several times and let it simmer for about a week. I then sat down to work on my visual art for three solid hours one day (I never get to do that, it was a treat) as a way of quieting my thoughts. After that, I decided to ‘start’ writing the play. It poured out in two hours and it became a musical before my eyes. (or ears, if you will) Clearly, some portion of my brain was working hard on that. It’s actually quite good! The biggest hurdle, as you say, is sitting down to do it. The second biggest is showing it to anyone else. Fear of failure is where most people stop I think. The children loved it and did a great job of performing it! Writing for kindergartners is so easy; they love everything with any energy.

  • Deb (SmoothieGirlEatsToo) June 25, 2010, 8:22 pm

    Hi Josh- first time commenter here- this is a really insightful post.

    When I started my blog about a year ago the ideas were coming fast and furious- I couldn’t WAIT to find the time to write my posts. Yet I was afraid that the magic would be fleeting. 🙂 After about 6 months, the ideas were not coming so easily and I found myself getting stuck in what I called the Blortex (reading a zillion blogs- hanging on the laptop for hours- no bueno). I knew something had to give. Well, sadly I did not make that decision: My Dad got very ill and over the course of a couple of months, he passed away.

    I tossed almost all things blog during that time, including my own. The exception: I would give short updates on my blog about what was going on in my life- my Dad’s story basically.

    It was so liberating to step back from the Blortex, yet sad that it took my Dad dying for it to happen. Now that things are starting to get back to normal, I am approaching the blogosphere at arm’s length…I plan to read blogs and post on mine, but only sporatically and when it tickles my fancy. (I don’t watch any TV, so that’s a nice time-freer).

    Anyway, sorry for the ramble and thanks for the post! 🙂


    • Josh Hanagarne June 26, 2010, 10:22 am

      Deb, I’m sorry for your loss. I’m trying to commit to the break from TV, but am still too chicken.

      Your before and after pictures are wonderful. Good work. Let me know if you ever need anything.

  • Deb (SmoothieGirlEatsToo) June 25, 2010, 8:23 pm

    Oops I spelled sporadically wrong- how embarrassing on this particular blog- hahah!

  • Dave Doolin June 26, 2010, 10:34 pm

    Having not watched TV since ’78, I recommend watching something every couple of years, or at least keeping up with the fashion/gossip column in the news once a week. While it’s fashionable to peer down our ever-lengthening noses (it’s a cartilage thing) at the great unwashed and their ‘mindless’ entertainment, the truth is a little more complex: we live in this culture, like it or not. Having shared cultural reference points is important.

    Otherwise you face an accelerating number of conversations along the lines of “Excuse me, spice who?” or “Pardon, who was it that got lost, again?”

    So, don’t give the TV completely.


    ps: I’ve found that a season or two of Project Runway (or equivalent) sprinkled with a few SATC reruns and the latest Star Trek movie covers a lot of ground.

  • Jesse July 2, 2010, 8:46 am

    I found this right before I was forced off the internet by my own poor judgment in purchasing a mifi. We surpassed our budget of 5Gb by 2Gb in 10 days. Apparently we download a lot of cartoons and hulu stuff.

    For 8 days, my kids and I have been laying in the grass looking at cloud formations, hitting golf balls, taking long walks, looking at the stars and reading complete books.

    The internet ban seems to have uncorked a barrel of creativity. Between sketches, songs, stories, new Barbie fashions, sidewalk chalk paintings and interesting new menus, we re-connected with the thing that brings us the most joy in life – creativity.

    Our internet snafu is corrected now.

    Our goal is to dip into the internet stream enough to encourage the creativity stream, without choking it off altogether.

  • Elizabeth August 3, 2010, 10:18 am

    Since reading this post, I actually looked for the opera you mentioned and have learned that, unfortunately, a recording of it has not been produced. As a musician and grammar/writing geek, I was sad. I did learn that there is an illustrated version of it as well and may actually get that. The main reason I’m commenting, though, is to share an article a friend posted on twitter today adapting, or applying, the Elements of Style to twitter posts. 🙂


  • Josh Arnold May 28, 2011, 8:01 pm

    Ironically I thought my opinions on creativity were “original” bc I had not really told anyone or heard much. When I read this blog though I realize there are so many people with the same idea of it as I do.
    Here’s another idea: how school and their 5 par. essays mostly stunt creativity.
    Thanks for listening…
    other Josh

  • mark mitchell July 3, 2011, 9:43 pm

    Hi, creative post. I would like to ask you something.

    Is it a good thing to be a mediocre? I feel like I’m a mediocre and don’t feel good about this as I always being reminded by my teacher to be really good when you do something (I think most people will talk to you like this). Is it true that you really have to be good in something in order for you to be successful? I read Anthony Robbins book, The Unlimited Power. It states something like this “you don’t need to understand everything to become successful”

    Now I’m in a great confusion. Thanks.