Lessons in Creativity 1: Little Puffy Clouds

I’ve spent a lot of time here talking about the way creativity is, for want of a better term, about mashing things up and seeing what you get. But what I haven’t done yet is talk about how to develop the skill of the interesting collision. Skill, maybe, is the wrong word, because that takes us back to that misleading notion of “success”. The real thing that we can train is to make lots of fascinating idea-collisions, and not just to plop things together as if to say “Ooh, look, it’s a lake where the waves are made of JCBs” for example (though there’s much value – and fun – in that), but to explore what a lake whose waves of JCBs would actually be like. It’s about training to take yourself fully kitted all the way down the rabbit hole.

This is a first step of a 7 part journey in pursuit of the white rabbit.

All these were taken on a walk along the Thames Path. See what you can see in each.

At some time in our lives most of us will have played the clouds game. The one where we look up at skyborne packages of condensed water vapour and go “look, that one’s a bit like a camel with a bong.”

Maybe it’s a game you played as a kid. Maybe it’s a game you play with your own children. But maybe it’s not a game you play at many other times aside from with an occasional whiff of nostalgia as you gaze from a train window on a slightly melancholic late afternoon in autumn.

If you want to be more creative, the very best way to start is to rediscover the game of clouds. And not just clouds.

The first exercise is simple. I want you to make a conscious effort, as many times a day as you can, to stop yourself in your tracks, look around you, focus on something. And then list all the things it reminds you of. Ideally, you would do this with a camera, attached note to a photograph. That way you can look back later and see what you did, and maybe let your brain start recovering the other similarities it had been working on subconsciously.

But if you don’t have any technology, or even a notebook, don’t let that stop you. In fact, if I had to give one single piece of advice and then remain forever silent on the subject, it would be this:

“Whatever the doubt you’re raising right now – don’t let that stop you!”

It’s the simplest game in the world but don’t be surprised if at first you find it almost impossible. That’s not surprising – and I don’t just mean for those with a neurodivergence that interferes with the way they construct analogies.

The reasons we struggle to point at a cloud and see something else will vary from person to person. In some cases, as I have hinted, it will result from a neurodivergence that throws up a block to the formation of this kind of metaphorical connection. I would not want anyone to whom this applies to try and try and be left feeling disappointed and confused at their failure. But for most people the crux of the problem will be twofold:

Lack of practice – as I have hinted, “clouds” is a game most of us associate only with childhood – our own, or that of others. But whilst we may think of that link to childhood as having to do with occupying otherwise overly noisy youngsters on long journeys, the truth is rather that it is a superlative workout tool for training young (and old) minds.

Self-censorship that comes from a twofold fear.

  • Fear, on the one hand, of being ridiculous. Even though the only person who will ever know the true extent of what we perceive as the weirdness flowing through our minds. It would be easy to be glib, but the truth is this kind of fear runs very deep ad can be extremely intransigent. If you find yourself falling prey to it then the best place you can focus your energy is on overcoming it. Some tips for this are
    • Simply do these exercises. Allow yourself to be sceptical but do them anyway.
    • Watch documentaries online about some of the world’s great artists and innovators. Many of them are what you would think of as incredibly weird. But they did great things, and part of that was because they didn’t feel self-conscious – even doing this in public, and you’re only being asked (for now) to do it with an audience of just you.
    • Maybe stop judging “weird” and start embracing it. Or even celebrating it as an idea. Make a list of weird people and weird stuff. Bookmark things and go back to them.
    • Play Cards Against Humanity.
    • Again – just do the exercises. And if you can’t bring yourself by any duress to point, mentally, at a cloud and say to yourself, “that looks like a puppy” because your inner self-censor just won’t let you, don’t worry. At the bottom of this article is a list. Print it out and take it with you in your wallet and three times a day – morning, lunchtime, and late afternoon or, indeed, whenever – and pick an object in the vicinity – not necessarily a cloud, maybe a puddle or a building or a hill or a window or a crack in the pavement – and read through the list making yourself say, “this looks like a …”
  • And fear of being not very good. The same fear that stops us starting most things in life, hence the reason why the single most important tip for becoming an expert at anything is, simply, “start doing it.”

A day or a week of doing this will not make you Thomas Edison or Margaret Attwood. Sorry. But don’t worry about that. What you can do, as you find it easier to say “that looks like a puppy” is to start elaborating, just a bit at a time. What kind of puppy is it? What might the puppy be doing?

At first, you will find you think of puppies doing puppyish things – chewing a bone or fetching a stick or waiting for a walk. And that’s great. After a while, once you’re used to that try making the things the puppy does un-puppyish or try making the tree be covered with something that’s not Christmas decorations or leaves. Make these as outrageous as you like.

And just as I have left a list of nouns at the bottom of this post that you can come back to as prompts, start making your own list of verbs and use them the same way.

And once you are comfortable looking at a crack in a wall and saying to yourself “that looks like a rhinoceros learning to play the bugle” elaborate further. What might motivate a rhino to play the bugle? What mayhem might a bugle-playing rhino cause if, say, it were to take a shopping trip to Macey’s or climb the Eiffel Tower, or stand for President, or announce to a disbelieving world with a tear in its eye that after years of careful consideration it had decided that in good conscience it could no longer continue playing the bugle but was leaving it for the nose flute?

A new chapter in the life of a bugling rhino is as good a place as any to leave this first lesson, save for the consoling thought that I am only asking you to be, in utter privacy, a fraction as ridiculous as a so-called advisor explaining, with a straight face, the moving musical history of a pachyderm.

10 things that clouds (and sometimes walls) sometimes look like

  • A cat
  • A shark
  • A unicorn
  • A frying pan
  • An ice cream
  • A rubber duck
  • A spoon
  • A sports car
  • A fire extinguisher
  • A duvet

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