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A guide to creative thinking


Various writing tools like pens, pencils, coloured paper, etc in a box

I worked in a bank once. Writing the day’s debits and credits into the account sheets, my job title was ‘waste clerk’; I think because so much time was wasted by the rest of the staff hunting down my 5p errors before we could all go home. I was useless, but those more numerate than me (everyone else) enjoyed poring over those spreadsheets. I learned two valuable lessons: banking was not for me and, more importantly, things are much more fun if they feel like a game. Even accounting errors.

Puppies, kittens, mammals in general use play to rehearse the skills they need as adults. Humans do too but, whereas other mammals retain playfulness, it seems that one of the first lessons we learn is that play is for babies. For all sorts of reasons, we lose a lot of our natural curiosity, creativity and fearlessness. Play becomes organised into sport, creativity into arts, curiosity into – well, who knows where that goes. It all seems to get separated from the serious adult world of work.

I left the serious world of work and went into the creative industries. But guess what? They’re very serious: before the pandemic, their contribution to the UK economy was almost £13million per hour. How? By being creative, curious, fearless. By knowing how to play.

How to be creative through play

So how do you loosen the imagination so that it can soar and carry you to where you need to be without crashing into a heap? I’ve been writing and teaching screenwriting for the best part of 20 years and here are some of the things I’ve learned about how to be creative through play.

  1. Play allows you to make mistakes. Children are natural anarchists: there are no rules yet. That means in the beginning, every idea is a good one. Be kind to yourself. It’s too easy to judge or condemn your creative abilities. If you are prone to saying, ‘I can’t…’ finish your sentence with ‘yet’. That way, you give yourself permission to try, to fail, to learn, to succeed.
  2. Be kind to yourself. Instead of staring at a blank screen, go for a walk, a bath, mow the lawn, chop some carrots: something physical, simple and repetitive that diverts your mind and gives you pleasure. I don’t know why it works, but it’s like when you can only see an object in the dark if you look out the corner of your eye. Ideas are a bit like that – if you stare straight at them, you can’t see them. Sidle up to your imagination by doing something else.
  3. Indulge your senses. Touch, taste, smell, sound, sight. Roughly in that order. Touch and taste don’t evoke learned behaviour in the way that smell, sound and sight do. But whichever it is, be open to where a good pudding or piece of music takes your thoughts.
  4. Be imaginative with words. Another way to open up your thought processes: get some paper, pens, scissors. Cut the paper into strips and then, without thinking about it, write the first word that comes into your head on the first strip. Write random words on random strips. Jumble them up. Spread them out so you can see them all at once. And see what word combinations jump out at you. ‘munificent handbag’, ’grunt slippers’: where do your words take your imagination? Go with them.
  5. Do not edit. This is really important. Think how children create their games, excitedly adding to each other’s ideas with ‘and then, and then, and then…’ You might say, ‘Yes, but…’ Well don’t, because it shuts things down. This is important if you’re working in a team. At this stage, there is no such thing as a stupid idea.
  6. There’s no such thing as a stupid question. What’s the best question in the world? ‘What if…?’ There’s that playful curiosity. As long as you’re not messing with actual explosive substances, asking ‘what if?’ is a great question. Where does it lead you?

Once your creative juices are flowing, jot your ideas on paper – no need to fuss with things like grammar or even straight lines. None of that matters yet. In fact, it may be that you prefer to draw rather than write your ideas. Whatever works for you.

Using creative thinking to find your idea

Only after you’ve splurged all your ideas down and celebrated with another treat, do you begin to think about any kind of editing. And by editing, I don’t mean squirming over spelling or grammar. I mean choosing the idea that you instinctively feel drawn to and putting the rest to one side.

In terms of developing a story – this edit is all about looking for the skeleton, the story’s structure and strengthening it. The strongest stories, whatever their format, will be built around a character who wants something, but who can’t get it because of the obstacles in the way. That’s the skeleton. What we love to read, watch or hear is how that’s fleshed out by the way the character overcomes those obstacles and what they learn along the way.

How to develop your creative ideas

Give a character a goal, add some obstacles, like someone with an opposing goal, and you create… all ball sports! And great movies, TV box sets, novels, stage shows, each with their own set of rules – which of course, your wonderful idea will not quite fit into without some gentle adjustments… And you’re back to square one. Only you’re not. Because you have a great idea that, rather than being discarded, needs some imaginative, playful development. So, start playing again:

  • Ask the ‘what-if’ question.
  • Indulge yourself. I once had to cut a musical by a third. It broke my heart, but a delicious Rioja with friends definitely helped me do the deed.
  • Cut up more strips of paper.
  • And my particular favourite – go to sleep. That’s truly sidling up on your subconscious. In that little moment when you’re not quite fully awake, the solution to a problem is often snuggled in there. Make sure you write it down before your consciousness hides it again.

If this sort of playfulness seems alien, give yourself permission to give it a go and learn how to be more creative. It gets easier with practice and your creative thought processes will begin to blossom. Knowing how to improve creative thinking makes working in a team easier, especially if all of you have this sense of playfulness and can bounce ideas off each other with ‘and then, and then, and then’. I can’t guarantee that your work will immediately become your industry’s equivalent of an OSCAR winner, but you’ll have had a jolly lovely time being kind to yourself and empowered to do it all again.

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Jayne Kirkham is a writer and part of the Hoxby community.