In Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, Gregory Berns suggests that:
“Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception. The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with.”
In other words, engaging in discovery is the very essence of creativity.
This type of new place challenge and engaged discovery is the WOW factor of thinking. Unfortunately, in our media- and technology-soaked world where we are constantly drowning in insights, information and disruptions, getting to WOW is harder than it has ever been.
Getting unplugged from that barrage is a start. Once unplugged, we need to get engaged in the wonder of the world around us. This is relatively easy if you are three years old and your parents have just taken you to the ocean for the first time. It’s not so easy if you’re grown up and your phone is ringing and you’re checking your emails or your watch because you’ve been to the ocean before and even crossed it once or twice and you’re really more engaged in getting something done rather than just wandering around. Who has time for wandering and wondering?
What does wonder have to do with writing?
The best advice Julia Cameron offers in her book, The Artist’s Way, is that you should schedule time once a week to take yourself on an artist date. Artist dates are one of the key components to her program of tapping into your inner artist, or, as she describes it, your inner child.
An artist date is something you do alone. You don’t take anyone along. This is time for just you. You don’t need anyone distracting you or making demands on your time or attention. Your inner child needs attention.
Alone, by the way, is a really good thing. Solitude is essential for self-nurturing. Julia Cameron suggests you program a two-hour artist date every week. I think it’s a great idea, but I know two hours sounds nearly impossible given the demands of work/family/life. If two hours a week feels overwhelming, imagine a life where you would take a half an hour every day just to sit quietly by yourself and think! Wow. Alone gives you time to recharge and to nurture your spirit and your creativity.
An artist’s/writer’s date could be a walk around a different block, a trip to the library to look at books about motorcycles (but only if you don’t know anything about motorcycles – the point is to think new thoughts and do new things!), a visit to a junk store, a walk in an unfamiliar park, a two-hour trip to a museum, or, even, going grocery shopping in a different store outside of your comfort zone. Imagine doing your grocery shopping at an Asian market (only if you’re not Asian) or a Latino grocery (only if you’re not Latino). Do something, anything, that takes you out of your routine and stretches your imagination.
When you go on your artist’s/writer’s date, try to imagine what your characters would do, think, say if they were along on the date. Take some notes about the setting. How does it feel? Smell? Look? How do you feel in this new place?
What about this new experience is intriguing? Challenging? Stimulating? Sit down when you get home, or better yet, when you are on your date, and write an opening paragraph to a story that comes from this experience.
Notice the people around you. Are they just like you? Are they different? How? Does time fly? Does it drag? Write down a list of adjectives that describe both the place and your experience. Play a little with this experience in your mind and see what stories come bubbling up.
My book, Ashoan’s Rug, grew out of an artist’s date. I decided to take two hours one evening and do something I had never done before: I went to a bankruptcy auction. The owners of an odd, high-end decorator- type shop down the street from our house had failed to pay their taxes for a number of years. The Feds decided to auction the contents of the shop as past payment.
I had never been into the shop, although I had looked into the windows nearly every day for ten years when I walked our kids to school. It wasn’t the kind of shop you could just walk into unless you were a decorator or had an appointment.
It was a very hot summer evening and there was no AC in the building. In fact, all the electricity had already been turned off, and they had rigged up a small generator to supply enough power to run a couple of large fans and a few bright lights.
The place was crawling with decorators and old customers looking for bargains. It was fascinating. I got a number and went along with the crowd. Before I knew it, I was swept away with the moment and decided to bid on a ratty square of rug kicked off in a corner. When I left, I had an old prayer rug in hand and a book to write about how objects change our lives.