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Why You Need to Be Disorganised to Be Creative

Magnetic Poetry

Photo by Mami

I ruffled a few feathers over on Business of Design Online when I wrote about Why You Need to Be Organised to Be Creative. In the comments I was accused of writing ‘LIES!!! ALL LIES!!’ and ‘rubbish!’ because ‘Organisation and routine destroy creativity’ and ‘if you are organized you are probably not very creative’. It’s true that organisation and discipline are probably not the first thing that spring to mind when we think of creativity, but if you look at the actual working habits of highly creative people you’ll usually find these qualities in abundance. Hugh MacLeod puts it more pithily (and poetically) than I can:

Like making a fire from rubbing sticks together, creativity’s heat comes from work. Work requires dedication.

So I wrote that post (which became the first chapter of my e-book on Time Management for Creative People) to highlight the often-overlooked factor of organisation in the creative process – and I stand by it. But now I’m going to follow Roger von Oech’s advice to look at things in reverse and argue the opposite point of view.

Inspiration – the magic 1%

It’s all very well being organised and disciplined, but there comes a point where you have to let go of your carefully crafted structures. Creativity may be 99% perspiration, but without the magic 1% of inspiration, all your hard work will count for nothing. Just ask Salieri. And by definition it comes as a surprise, even a shock – we’re working away on a project or problem, and something unexpected pops into our minds: a line of poetry; a vivid image; a new idea; a catchy riff or rhythm.

Creativity is difficult, unpredictable and often frustrating – but once you’ve experience that ‘Eureka!’ moment of inspiration, it’s hard to imagine why you would devote yourself to anything else. That 1% makes the other 99% a worthwhile investment of effort.

Creative disruption

When I interviewed the poet Paul Farley about his writing process for Magma Poetry, he told me how difficult he finds it to write at set times, so that a poem usually has to barge into his life as an interruption while he’s supposed to be doing something else:

I don’t have any set routines or ‘poem traps’ … Wim Wenders said something that rings true: he was able to do all kinds of thinking on journeys or while he was out in the world, but once he sat himself down at a desk … nothing. It all dried up. A large part of writing poetry for me has been skiving, wriggling out of things that needed doing, carving out time in an already busy day.

I love the idea of writing as ‘skiving off’. I can definitely recognise the experience Farley is describing here. Maybe we poets are particularly prone to this feeling – compared to writing poetry, there’s nearly always something else more useful to do. But I’m sure all creatives can relate to the idea of creativity as a transgression, of crossing bounds into a more playful, even irresponsible zone.

Farley also talked about being ‘mugged’ by the urge to write. All writers recognise the experience of a line or phrase suddenly popping into the mind fully formed, while they are walking down the street or making a cup of tea. The French poet Paul Valéry called these ‘les vers données’ (the given lines) as opposed to ‘les vers calculés’ which the poet has to work at.

It’s wonderful to be handed a gift like that, but what can you do on the days when the Muse doesn’t mug you? How can you break through your self-imposed structures and surprise yourself with the magic 1%?

Games of chance and skill

One of my favourite ways of avoiding writing and just playing around with words instead is to get out my Magnetic Poetry. The childish game of pushing magnetic words around on a board is about as far as you can get from the serious business of writing great poetry. Which is why I love it. By putting down my pen and playing with words like bits of Lego, I’m instantly reduced to the status of an amateur pottering around with gibberish on the fridge door. Sometimes I close my eyes and string lines of words together by touch, before looking at the random combinations. But mostly I just like playing around with the magnetic pieces, letting my mind drift while I try out new combinations and pull them apart, like watching waves forming and breaking or a crowd of people crisscrossing to and fro.

Usually it’s just good fun, a way of relaxing or limbering up before I pick up the notebook again, and I find that the words flow a bit easier afterwards. Sometimes I find a half-formed phrase I can use, or an odd juxtaposition of word sparks something in my imagination and I find myself writing again. Occasionally, there’s something about a cluster of magnetic words that makes me leave them on the board, and come back to them next time, toying and tinkering with the little constellation. A few years ago, this process produced this odd little rhyming quatrain:

Magnetic poem?

Photo by Mami

Obviously it was nonsense. But somehow I didn’t like to dismantle it. It wasn’t doing any harm, so I let it be. A few months later, my friend Paul, a very talented poet, popped round and noticed the little stanza. ‘It does work then’, he said. Now I respect Paul’s opinion on poetry, so I was pleased he liked it, even though I didn’t feel I could take much credit for it. I hadn’t exactly ‘written’ it, after all.

That was several years ago. In the end I tidied the magnets away, but the four-line stanza stayed in my mind. It was as if that random combination of words had opened a door, to a place I could never have found without stumbling upon it. Over Christmas a few weeks ago, I took the stanza as a starting point and started playing around with variations on the theme. Now I’ve developed it into a poem which is almost finished. The trick is to allow myself to be carried along by the fragment’s strange logic and let the poem go where it wants to. I’m nearly there, but not quite.

How can you create creative disruption?

In one sense, you can’t. Disruption, chaos and inspiration aren’t susceptible to conscious control. But if we can’t approach them directly, we can at least be open to their promptings, or maybe offer them an invitation.

Be alert
This is what Paul Farley does. He could easily ignore the urge to write and get back on with the task in hand, but he doesn’t. He stops and listens, makes time for his Muse ‘in an already busy day’. Thomas Hardy was another poet who described himself as ‘a man who used to notice such things’ – and wrote them down.

So the next time an idea arrives in your life unannounced, pay attention. Write it down, make a sketch or take a few minutes to think it through. The Muse is like anyone else who wants to be a part of your life – the more encouragement you give her, the more often you will see her.

Its no accident that Archimedes’ Eureka! moment came while relaxing in the bath. There are numerous stories of creative discoveries being made when the creator took a much needed break after working hard on a project. Remember: hard work + a break = creative incubation.

Creativity is like sport – a game enabled by rules and conventions, but remember that the spirit of play is more important than the letter of the law. Don’t take your work so seriously. Remember why you started creating things in the first place – chances are it was for fun. Find a way of playing around with the tools of your trade – whether words, images, shapes, sounds or whatever.

It’s hard to take myself seriously as a poet while playing with Magnetic Poetry. But it’s a lot easier to enjoy words for their own sake and get lost in the game of trying new combinations. And the serious poet should know that ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin ‘amare’ – ‘to love’.

Use a ‘randomizer’
I like Magnetic Poetry. Burroughs and Bowie used the cut up technique – cutting up a text and rearranging the lines to produce odd combinations and trigger inspiration. It’s also a favourite of e-mail spammers trying to get their missives past automatic filters – I once closed the circle and cobbled together a poem made of spam.

Other artists use automatic writing or drawing. Actors play improvisation games, musicians ‘jam’. Notice how these are not completely random activities – most of them are games with simple rules that generate random elements.

Find a device or game that acts as a randomizer, throwing up new combinations that can spark your imagination into life.

These days you also have plenty of digital oracles at your fingertips:

  • If you’re stuck for an idea, think of your project or problem and put the first three words that come into your mind into Google and see what comes out.
  • Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards for random inspiration are now available as a Mac dashboard widget and various software versions for PC and Mac.
  • If you visit Roger von Oech’s home page and click on Roger’s picture at the top, you’ll be presented with a random ‘whack’ from his Creative Whack Pack.
  • Stumbleupon is a great way to discover new websites by ‘stumbling’ through the recommendations of its users.
  • Burroughs had to laboriously cut up his texts with a pair of scissors – save yourself the trouble with this online cut-up engine.

Notice patterns

Good writers need to be good readers – noticing patterns and potential in a first draft, which they can then work up in the next draft. Sometimes a friend or collaborator can help you train your eye. I took that snippet of magnetic verse a little more seriously after Paul had spotted it too. I read an interview with the surviving members of Joy Division recently – one of the band said that although Ian Curtis rarely played along in jamming sessions, he was very good at listening and picking out the good bits, which the band then worked up into a finished song.

Next time you’re drafting, jamming, sketching or improvising, be alert for catchy patterns or points where the work comes alive and excites you. Be careful not to impose structures or order on the work – just notice the patterns and structures that emerge from the chaos, as if out of thin air.

Over to you

What role does chance and chaos play in your creative process?

How do you invite inspiration? How do you respond to it?

Do you use any randomizing games or techniques?


  1. some of my favorite “randomizers”:
    random word: http://www.zokutou.co.uk/randomword/
    random flickr pic: http://www.krazydad.com/gustavog/FlickRandom.pl
    random dream: http://www.gregorwright.com/memes/dream
    random Big Lebowski quote: http://www.dymphna.net/randomquotage/lebowski.html

  2. Thanks Ranen! Great collection. I especially like the dream one. And the random word one is hilariously simple. Looks like the Lebowski one has been discontinued now.

  3. MArk, that’s a wonderful post… and although poetry is way beyond my abilities, I enjoy writing – specifically, blogging.

    I write a couple of different sites and often I start usign the same ideas for each one… and as I write / edit and review, I find different threads coming out for each different audience.
    When I write on my own site, I feel freer to be oblique and to use swear words and associations that aren’t strictly “business”. And yet when I write for others, I am constrained by their mode of operation and try to deliver something appropriate for the context and audience.

    I wrote two posts this afternoon…. they started out the same but somehow one is diving into discussing the “Ideal Customer” (for a client site) and the other (my own) is really about taking a funny test about whether your client is an assh***…!


  4. Reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has a couple of books that relate to a formal study he did of creatives.
    He has several books derived from the study that I’m sure many of you know about.
    Creativity is excellent and speaks much of the subject of hard work + a break = creative incubation.

    Every time I swing by this blog I get good stuff. Thanks again, Mark.

  5. Thanks Rex, yes I’m a fan of Csikszentmihalyi, I’ve blogged Creative Flow here: http://www.wishfulthinking.co.uk/blog/2006/04/24/creative-flow/ He’s inspired a lot of posts on this blog, glad you like it.