Want to Be More Creative? Then Quit Thinking

I n an old public television interview from the 1970s posted on Brain Pickings, Ray Bradbury captures one of the great mysteries of the creative process, and in doing so summarizes why I have trouble creating:

I never went to college — I don’t believe in college for writers. The thing is very dangerous. I believe too many professors are too opinionated and too snobbish and too intellectual, and the intellect is a great danger to creativity … because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth — who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.

University life certainly screwed up my ambition to be a writer. In high school, I’d enjoyed the gift of an English teacher who understood the art of writing. She had so turned me on to writing that it had completely shaped my ambition. But then I went to college and met an English professor who taught me that to write I must criticize, analyze, employ literary techniques, and so on. Totally screwed me up. After a semester I moved to communication – again because of a great teacher. (That communication instructor, Dr. Sandra Harper, is now the president of my alma mater.)

The screw up happened when I fell into the trap that I had to think about what I was writing, rather than feel it. Bradbury captures that perfectly, above. Why? He goes on:

The worst thing you do when you think is lie — you can make up reasons that are not true for the things that you did, and what you’re trying to do as a creative person is surprise yourself — find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself — making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely. When it’s over, then you can think about it; then you can look, it works or it doesn’t work, something is missing here. And, if something is missing, then you go back and reemotionalize that part, so it’s all of a piece. But thinking is to be a corrective in our life — it’s not supposed to be a center of our life. Living is supposed to be the center of our life…

All creative work must come not from thinking but from living, not from the corrective that I seem to want to constantly apply to myself, but from the original, authentic expression.

I lose my creativity when I lose track of the difference between thinking and feeling in my work. When I fret that every thought must be “correct,” according to whatever standards and rules hold sway over my life, I don’t let a single thought escape without thinking about it. Correcting it. I need a version of Bradbury’s sign, so I can constantly remind myself to not think as I write, but to just write.

If I want to tap into my  creativity, I must destroy the thinker inside that strangles all of my best ideas.

This is the emotional thing, you see — you must galvanize people, so they want to be completely alive and live forever, or the next thing to it. And out of that comes art, then, and survival through emotion.

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).