By Malaika Cheney-Coker
My four-year-old son and I indulge in flights of fancy. Together we imagine flying cars that journey into the clouds to get washed; a bloodless human race that causes food shortages for vampires; what would happen if the world shrunk to the size of a pinhead. Older brother used to disapprove of these mental cartwheels. He would allow himself to alight on each "what if" for only a moment, quickly following up with the rejoinder, “that’s not real.” At seven, he has learned – too soon – that reality is the legal tender of the grown-up world. To be the big kid he so desperately wants to be, he must equate the frivolity of make-believe with childishness and cast it aside. But the imagination is irresistible—as visceral, as intoxicating as the scent of rain on dry earth. Older brother can’t help but join us in our romps through the ridiculous.
As adults, having long surrendered (or having had stolen from us) our creative birthright to the forces of socialization and education, we treat creativity (and the muscle of make-believe required to exercise it) with suspicion, disdain, defeatism, or a certain resignation that we either are or aren’t creative. I ascribe to the school of thought that all are born amply creative – perhaps some, more so than others – but all with a baseline of plenitude in creativity.
Spurred by ubiquitous calls to innovate, to be thought leaders, and increasingly aware of the broken ideas of our tired world, we start to realize the value of the imaginative play left behind so long ago. But when we try to reclaim our creative birthright, sometimes we are led astray. Having been inculcated in the wisdom of rules and multi-step processes, we don’t realize that the imagination is a wild creature. It may come up and eat food from your hand if you talk to it softly and repeatedly, but if leashed, it will riot and growl. This is why artists have always waited on the good pleasure of the muse, not the other way around.
There is certainly a time and place for multi-step processes to creativity and innovation, to adapting the scientific method to a generative process of prototyping, testing and iteration. But these must not be understood to be the only way. In fact, there’s no one-size-fits all approach to reclaiming a more creative self. That is because, much as our professional orientations have taught us to be efficient and orderly, that mindset is antithetical to the nature of the imaginative mind. Says Jeff Vandermeer in Wonderbook, “Inherent in this idea of ‘play’ being immature and frivolous is the idea that just like all business processes, all creative processes should be efficient, timely, linear, organized, and easily summarized.”
Think of it rather as a whispering door in the mind, beckoning you towards the imagination and the bending of reality. In some cases, the door is undiscernible from the rest of the wall, hidden by the ivy of rational thought or coated with the dust of time. And yet, it whispers subtly, if you listen for it, if you ask yourself the question, “How can I be more creative? How can I dream?”
To some, the answer is first a matter of reclaiming creative confidence or a better understanding of one’s life purpose. To others, it is getting into a habitual practice of asking “what if” questions. Many times, it takes the form of simple practices – taking walks to let the mind breathe; listening to music that puts one in a flow state; breaking the routine and changing scenery; reading books that inspire or hanging around artists, entrepreneurs or inventive scientists. While the means to open the door of creativity are highly individual, what is consistent is giving respect and attention to the powers of the imagination and honoring the gifts it brings.
This last point is worth repeating. Says Vandermeer, “if you reward your imagination by writing down your ideas and exploring them, even the slightest little fragment, your imagination will reward you with a more or less continuous stream of ideas.” And that’s something worth dreaming about.