January 29th, 2011

Building a Better Brainstorm

Van Gogh's Starry Night

Have you ever needed an idea to come together right now? Do you wonder how tremendously creative people keep generating new ideas? Is it some innate talent that only a few get? Is it something they’ve learned and practiced? Are some people just more gifted than others?

Creativity isn’t some elusive spark that descends upon us, unbidden or after an appropriate amount of begging. The creative process can be honed, cultivated and nurtured. It’s worth doing.

It all begins with a good ’ol productive brainstorm.

A brain wandering into creative spaces

In the middle of a dream I often think “wow, that’s amazing, I wish I would’ve thought of that.” It isn’t until I wake up that I realize I am thinking all of it. But it’s a different kind of thinking. It’s all in there – in amazing detail – when the mind is allowed to wander on its own. I wake and marvel at it as if an entity other than my own mind created it. My conscious mind is divided from my unconscious. They each seem to take turns observing the other.

A waking state where the mind behaves a little like this is in the bath or shower, in the car, or in bed just before sleep. Ideas flow, linked one after another in a random chain wherever a pen – or any other means of recording the idea – is out of reach. Creative ideas are so much more likely to play with one another and to dance in a playful mind than they are to line up and appear on demand.

Another place where the mind gets charged up is around other creative people and ideas. If one idea spawns another, playing in the ideas of others is a place to get your own ideas bouncing around. Recently I was at a lecture about photography when a slurry of ideas for my children’s book came to me during my lunch break. None of the ideas were connected to what I was learning in my class. But my mind had been marinated in a creative soup – the right environment brings about the creative flow. It happens watching a movie (if you view a movie as the creative collaboration of the writers, directors, actors, cinematographers). It happens in a museum. It happens at lunch with a friend who’s talking about their own creative endeavors.

The ON switch

How do we get the creative brain turned on, fired up and ready to perform when we want it to? When we’re sitting at the keys of our computer and an article is due? When we’re looking at a blank screen that needs to be an illustration in an hour? When our camera is in our hand and we’re feeling less than inspired? When we have to entertain an audience with a story and a presentation and we’re drawing a blank?

At a certain age children do really cute things that their parents would like them to repeat for others. And they’ll repeat these adorable performances. This stage of life seems to last about 15 minutes in most kids and then they get wise to what’s going on and refuse to perform. Sometimes our minds are like that. Our grey matter will go all out, building fantastical things, putting together ideas and scenarios and the moment it senses we’re asking it to perform, it siezes up.

So how do we trick it into doing what we need it to do without tipping it off that we really need it to perform? We let it all be play.

Learn to carry an idea long enough to grab a pencil and record it. Then riff on that idea (attaching all related information or ideas) seeing where that takes you or set it aside and let a new idea appear. Set the pencil down each time if you need to take the pressure off. Let your brain wander where it wants to go. When it gets tired and wants to stop, give it a break. Take a walk, change the environment.

There are some important components that create the best environment for a good brain flurry:

Feel safe enough to generate bad ideas

Your brain is free when it’s not worried about the quality of the ideas it’s generating. Silly is embraced. Crazy is okay. Stupid is written down. Just get an idea. Then get another and another. This is a place where quantity is the only way to get to quality. Evaluating the quality of every idea as it comes in is a sure way to stop the quantity from flowing. Don’t fall in love with an idea and don’t criticize them, either. Yet.

You’re not going to evaluate these ideas – just get them and write everything down. It could just be a phrase that’s interesting, a doodle, a diagram, an outline, a concept, a bit of dialogue, a visual description. The moment we say “Hey! That was interesting!” we may never arrive at other (even more) interesting ideas.

Write it down and let it go. Wait for the next one. Don’t place any huge importance on one thing over another. Allow your brain to keep going with more ideas. You’ll start to feel like dreaming, attaching one image to the next. Associate things that don’t relate, break things apart, put them together. Dig into the well of your experiences, passions, childhood memories, cultural knowledge and past conversations. The well is endless.

Set some constraints

What’s the size of our sandbox to play in?

An art teacher in college would give us limitations to work within on each project. Some days she’d tell us to bring trash to class without telling us what our assignment would be. Whatever we brought with us would become our limitation. Then she’d tell us to make compositions that have a vertical emphasis, a horizontal emphasis and a diagonal emphasis. Another constraint. Whether we were going to work in two dimensions or three was another boundary. We wouldn’t simply be let go and allowed make anything. But we would be allowed to make anything as long as it was within the perimeter she’d drawn.

A completely unfettered brain allowed to think and make and do anything is often overwhelmed with choices. Our brains often seek to be reigned in before they will start producing. So give yourself even an arbitrary limitation to get going.

Go outside the boundaries and let your mind “play”

Especially when you’re brainstorming with someone else — it’s important to throw out the occasional completely rebellious, ridiculous, atrocious idea. It likely doesn’t address the task at hand, it’s merely comic relief, it derails the train and sets the other minds at play in a potentially new, rich direction that will yield fruit. Let the crazy ideas flow.

See beyond the boundaries of your canvas, your page, the current technology, what your character is likely to do or say.

Embrace the unexpected

The opening scene of Monsters, Inc. shows a child afraid of everything in the dark, believing the sleeve draped over the chair is a monster’s tentacles. Meanwhile, the monster looms scarily above the child (behind his back, of course). As soon as the child sees him, he screams and that’s where the fun begins. There’s a twist: it’s actually the monster that’s scared, falls on a pile of tacks and tries desperately to get them unstuck from his backside. And then it twists again – the lights come on and warning buzzers sound and it’s all revealed to be a training situation with a mechanical kid. It’s Monster Training School. It’s in the twists away from a common experience (being afraid of what’s lurking in the dark) that the humor is found, and it’s in the unexpected and unique ideas that we’re delighted. Someone allowed their brain to wander to get to those ideas.

Ask “What if?”

The inception of so many stories seem to have evolved from this question: “What if?”

  • What if there were a Monster training school? (see above)
  • What if the poor and rich traded places?
  • What if reality were a dream?
  • What if the opposite of ______ were true?
  • What if we really believed anything was possible?
  • What if I had three wishes?
  • What if I lost everything?
  • What if having less made me happy?
  • What if I put myself in ______’s shoes?

There are so many directions to go, by creating a “what if?” with a dynamic leading question and following it with whatever may pop into your mind.

» Brainstorm Reading List