What writing teaches us about creativity

Albert Einstein was a prolific writer, of course. So were Edison, Darwin, Picasso, the Wright brothers, da Vinci, and Marie Curie.

If we were to skip over all the creative geniuses in history who were writers by profession, we would still find that many of the most creative minds worked like theirs: writing has been invaluable for working through ideas.

What makes writing such an powerful part of the creative process? The act of writing enables us to do things no other method of expression can.

Have you ever written something—as an assignment, in a journal, as a scribbled idea, or as a letter or email—only to look back at it and find some part of yourself unable to recognize what was written?

The reason is that ideas are fluid in the mind. When we recall an idea we rely on a vast network of synapses to active in just the right order as they did when we first had the idea. As neuroscientist Paul King once stated: “A ‘thought’ could be viewed as a chaotic attractor of neural activity in the brain – a semi-stable transitional state that is sufficiently organized to have some associational structure.”

This is why memories change over time, possibly becoming more and more inaccurate the more we recall them.

It’s only when we capture ideas in writing that we can more accurately recall and interact with them.

Writing also allows us to evaluate how our minds and creative processes evolve over time, allowing us to have more concrete representations of our thoughts or thinking processes.

Author and artist Austin Kleon:

Documenting your process helps your progress. Keeping track of what you’ve done helps you better see where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re headed.

When it comes to creative thought, ideas are even more susceptible to being forgotten or otherwise uncontrollably altered in the mind. And whatever novel connections between neurons sparked a worthwhile idea in the first place are likely to be weak (since the brain develops strong synaptic connections only after ideas have sufficiently been repeatedly bonded).

Truly creative ideas are remarkably fragile in the mind. It’s likely that Einstein, Curie, and Picasso, et al. would occasionally dismiss an idea without giving much thought to it, even subconsciously. It’s only by being open to receiving ideas, and then by capturing them as they occur in some form, that we give our full capacity for creativity the attention it deserves.

How do we make more time to capture ideas before they’re forgotten, re-written, or ignored?

Carry a notebook or stack of cards with you, or use a smartphone app (I made one exactly for building a habit of free-writing), and try to write a little bit every single day. It doesn’t even matter exactly what you write, gibberish or otherwise, what matters is that you start to build a habit of writing things down.

If you can build a habit of capturing ideas, or even writing your thoughts down in a hourly or on a blog, you give your creative ideas more of a chance to flourish or, if anything, merely exist in a more concrete form.