Creativity Cross-Pollinates

yves saint laurent vmfa
From now through August 27, 2017, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is featuring an exhibition of the work of Yves Saint Laurent, a trend-setting couturier who built a body of work unique in creativity and originality.


A whole section of the exhibit pays homage to Saint Laurent’s artistic influences, including Piet Mondrian (far right in photo above), ancient Greek vases, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Tom Wessellmann (far left in photo).


Artistic cross-pollination is everywhere. A prime example of art to music is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann. Viktor Hartmann was an artist, architect, and designer.
Using photos as story starters for writers is a classic technique. Whole books have been based on that premise.


I’ve found the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts a fertile ground for launching stories. Several of my published stories began with VMFA exhibits: Buddha Remote, Not Mechanically Inclined, The Naked Truthand Love Me Tender.
Bottom line: Attend to non-written art and often inspiration strikes. Look at photos, art exhibits, paintings and pottery. Listen to the lyrics of songs and the emotions evoked by music. Think cross-pollination!

Considering Creativity

What do these five carved wooden Santas have in common? 

All were carved by James Haddon! I’ve had the trio for awhile. Last Christmas season, I noticed that all were by the same carver. So this year, I searched on-line and found the Santa on a rocking cow and the Santa riding a trout. I believe James Haddon is creative. Synonyms for creative include clever, ingenious, innovative, inventive, and original. Perhaps most importantly, he seems to me to be a divergent thinker.


Creativity and Divergent Thinking

Veering into psychology for a moment: a convergent thinker draws everything together to come up with the one perfect solution; a divergent thinker starts at point A and goes any number of places. There are approximately a gazillion definitions of creativity (forgive the high degree of technicality and precision) depending upon whether you are a visual artist, a mathematician, a musician, a chef, or an educator—or a researcher in any number of other fields.  But the requirement for divergent thinking comes up again and again.


Ancient cultures—including Greece, China, and India–had no concept of creativity. They saw art as a form of discovery or imitation, not creation. In Judaeo-Christian tradition, creation was the sole province of God, and anyone creating something was assumed to be acting as a conduit from God. The modern concept of creativity began in the Renaissance, when the idea that creation might originate from the individual, not God—so I read. Think Leonardo da Vinci. The idea gradually took hold, really digging in during the Enlightenment.


It wasn’t until 1927 that Alfred North Whitehead coined the term “creativity.”


Have you ever thought, “If only. . .”? If so, you are imagining alternatives to reality, and such counterfactual thinking is one example of everyday creativity.


In 1967, J.P. Guilford and his associates constructed several tests to measure creativity. How would you do?
  • Plot Titles: participants are give a story plot and instructed to write original titles
  • Quick Responses: a word-association test scored for uncommonness
  • Figure Concepts: participants get simple drawings of objects and individuals and are asked to find commonalities in two or more drawings
  • Remote Association: participants are asked to find a word between two given words (e.g., Hand           Call)
  • Remote Consequences: participants generate a list of consequences of unexpected events (e.g., loss of gravity)
  • Unusual Uses is finding unusual uses for common objects, such as bricks.
If you check out books on Amazon, you can find Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things, 101 Uses for a Dead Cat, and other books on uses for everything from baking soda, coconut oil, and vinegar to duct tape. Who knew we could reap the benefits of all that creative thinking!


101 Uses for a Dead Cat by Simon Bond
101 Uses for a Dead Cat by Simon Bond
Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things by Cy Tymony
Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things by Cy Tymony

Gregory Feist did a meta-analysis of data on creative people and found the strongest related traits were openness to new experience, conscientiousness, self-acceptance, hostility and impulsivity. Besides these traits, other research has identified additional traits associated with creativity: self-confident, ambitious, impulsive, driven, dominant, and hostile.


And what about mental health? Many people equate creativity with genius—and traditional wisdom says genius is akin to insanity. A Swedish study involving more than a million people reported a number of correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses—do remember that correlations mean a relationship, not in any way causation. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. Dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder. However, as a group, people in creative professions were not more likely to suffer psychiatric disorders that the population at large, though they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and autism.


So, I started with jolly Santas and ended up with mental illness. Is this divergent thinking??

Writing Life: Exercise Improves Creativity


My frequent mentions of walking before breakfast while at Nimrod may have led people to believe that I enjoy exercise. Not so. Walking at Nimrod is necessary because so many hours of the day are spent butt-in-chair. Fortunately, it was also lovely.

view of Cowpasture River near Nimrod Hall during walk
Cowpasture River near Nimrod Hall during my morning exercise
I have a neighbor who walks every day and works out at the fitness center several times a week. My guess is that he is somewhere north of 85. Another neighbor asked, “Do you exercise so much in order to live a long time?” His answer was, “I exercise so much in case I live a long time!” That is my attitude toward exercise: I do it because it’s good for me. True confession: I should exercise more. Although I do some stretching and some strength training, my favorite form of exercise is walking, most frequently in the park near my house. There is a spacious paved loop that is very popular, but I hit the pavement only after heavy rains.
Paved walking loop through the woods where exercise sparks creativity
Paved walking loop through the woods
Usually I take a path through the woods. There are several of them, often running parallel to the paved loop, but also criss-crossing the ridge, following the fence line, and veering down to the creek.
trail or path through woods
Path through the woods where I feed my creativity
One thing I enjoy about the park is following the seasons there. In spring there are dogwoods and lady slippers. Right now I can enjoy the remains of the lady slippers (i.e., the leaves) and crows foot. The partridge berries are just starting, and I’ll be able to track them as the come on. And always there are ferns.
lady slipper and crows foot
Lady slipper and crows foot
partridge berries during exercise to improve creativity
Partridge berries
ferns during exercise to improve creativity
The main intersection of my writing life and exercise is thinking of story starters. For example, last January, walking in a nature preserve, I noticed my shadow on the snow, and thought of the Grim Reaper in winter.
shadow on snow looks like grim reaper in winter, morning exercise
Grim Reaper in winter
This led to the story starter on how what the Grim Reaper does in winter might differ from summer.


There is a ton of research (ton being a precise quantitative term!) indicating that both sleep and exercise increase creativity. Some of us are more adept at the former than the latter—but try to get enough of both. I won’t cite specific studies because this blog can’t go on forever and because the information is so readily available in psychology textbooks and on-line.

Writers who exercise.

I do not know of writers who directly attribute their writing success/productivity to exercise. If you know such examples, please post a comment. But I do know successful writers who exercise. Stephen King is one example.
book cover of On Writing by Stephen King
Stephen King is one writer who exercises
But as a case in point, I’ll cite Sue Grafton. Grafton was born in 1940 and has now completed A through X in her highly successful alphabet mystery series.  She has a very regular routine: up at 6:00, walk 3 miles, shower and breakfast by 9:00, write 2 pages, break at 11:30 for lunch, done by 1:30, and exercise again (either more walking or weights, jogging and/or swimming). She has a home gym which she calls a “Jill” because it is composed of 15 Lady Paramounts machines, constructed specifically for women. She eats dinner at 6:00 and is asleep at 9:00, hoping to get in touch with her Shadow side during sleep. You can see many photos of Sue Grafton and her living/working spaces on her website, including a picture of her Jill.
book cover of
E is for Exercise? Sue Grafton exercises several hours every day

Back to exercise.

The evidence says exercise is beneficial for everything from weight loss to memory loss, energy to mood enhancement, heart health to maintaining hearing, cancer to strong bones. . . . And then there’s creativity! In short, exercise seems to be a silver bullet for quality of life. I’ve almost talked myself into getting serious here!

Does exercise improve your creativity?

Do you know writers who directly attribute their writing success/productivity to exercise?