Creativity is like Chinese Checkers

You may read this article on Medium if you wish.

The creative process is innately unpredictable. Many a creator can relate to the simultaneous frustration, elation, and “zany fun” that this produces. I have used many analogies to describe this: an archaeologist, a city, and a cat among them. I believe I have found another analogy that is aptly suited.

Creativity is like Chinese Checkers. If you are not familiar with the game, then I will briefly outline its rules (it is very simple).

For the sake of simplicity, let us suppose that there are two players (though the game can accommodate up to six). Each player begins with a set of small pieces, and the object of the game is to move one’s pieces into his opponent’s territory. The opponent, of course, will attempt to do the same, and will also attempt to block the other player’s movements.

There are two ways to move around the board. The simplest way is to move a piece one space over in any direction. This is reliable, but slow and predictable. The second way involves jumping over an existing piece (whether it is one’s own piece or his opponent’s). If multiple pieces are lined up in a particular way, then multiple jumps can occur in the same turn. Using this technique, experienced players may set up their pieces to form “bridges” that allow fluid and quick movement into their opponent’s territory. The game becomes quite interesting as both players attempt to build their own bridges, use their opponent’s pieces as parts of the bridge, and block each other from doing the same. This simple ruleset results in fascinating exchanges of moves and countermoves.

These “bridges” are not always apparent. Sometimes, one must simply make a first jump before realizing the rest of the path. Other times, several moves must be made in advance to set up a future bridge. In many instances, the process cannot be planned beyond several moves ahead, as the configuration of the game pieces is constantly changing.

As I played one such game, it occurred to me that this resembled the creative process. To visualize an entire bridge at once would be akin to “sudden inspiration.” Many such paths are only apparent once a bridge has already been set up (or nearly set up). Many pieces must often be set up before a bridge is possible, and a player does not always know which pieces these will be. The longer the game continues, the more possibilities for bridges exist, and therefore, the higher the likelihood of such an inspiration. Sometimes, the creator starts the process (such as by sketching a random idea). Other times, the “muse” begins the process (an idea randomly “pops into a creator’s head” as he performs a household chore). If one’s muse does not begin the game, then the creator must.

Many creators make the mistake of waiting until they are “inspired,” or can create a complete project all at once. They wait; they do not act. This is akin to predicting the exact moves that will occur over the course of an entire game; it is, of course, impossible! Rare is the creator who can rely on random inspiration alone, and these astonishing stories often give rise to the myth that one must possess so special a gift. The truth is far simpler, and far easier to execute. There is but one thing that a creator must accomplish: the first move. He need not have completed the game in his mind. He need only begin it in the real world.

Some creators make this first move, abandoning the project when there is no counter-move. They believe that this means they lack a muse, and therefore, lack a “creative gift.” In reality, it does not mean this at all! It simply means that one’s muse is stubborn. It may not wish to “play” at this time. You have not formed a friendship with it. The solution is simple: keep creating. Continue to make moves. Return the next day (preferably at the same time) and make another attempt. One may need to make several moves, or even set up an entire bridge, before his muse makes a single move. Many creators simply give up before this happens. If inspiration is not forthcoming, it is usually better to keep creating anyway. As others have said, “Inspiration comes in the eighth hour of labor,” and one’s muse can be notoriously particular. If one continues this, the muse eventually “gets the message” and sits down for a game. Creative professionals can make inspiration appear on command because they have forged a lifelong kinship with their muse; the two know each other well. Get to know yours! You may find him a formidable and entertaining game partner.

Other creators make the first move and continue for a time, only to be discouraged later. They set up a bridge, only for their opponent to block it. If this happens, do not despair! One does not quit the game at this point, does he? No, he simply devises and executes a countermove. After all, an unexpected move by one’s opponent does not instantly result in a loss, and an unexpected alteration to the creative process does not mean the project has failed. These frustrations of the initial plan often create other possibilities. A player does not cede the match when his bridge fails; he simply uses his opponent’s move as an opportunity. One should embrace this; it is part of the game! A bridge that was initially straight may now possess a sharp curve, or even cause some pieces to move backwards. These sorts of changes may occur until the very final move. Like Chinese Checkers, creativity is not controlled by only one party, but by many. Chinese Checkers is controlled by two or more players; creativity is controlled by two or more aspects of our personalities.

To overthink, over-analyze, or “force,” this process is akin to cheating (for example, by rearranging an opponent’s pieces). This, of course, produces no joy in the game and increases the chance that one’s opponent will simply leave. This, in turn, destroys the creativity and produces a “manufactured” result. The best creators do not manufacture; they “play the game.” They may begin with a rough plan, but it is always flexible. They, like their opponents, are masters of adaptation.

And creativity, like Chinese Checkers, is fun. At its core, it is a game. The best creativity occurs when the creator freely enjoys the process. Though it may be our job, we must retain the child-like joy of it. We must not treat it like a chore, but like the never-ending game that it truly is.

However, creativity is better than a mere game. With creativity, there are no winners or losers; there are only creators, audiences, and the imagination. With a sincerely-felt, well-crafted project, everyone wins.

Have you ever wished you could create something? Perhaps you have an idea already? Or perhaps you are “stuck”? Maybe you are still looking for your muse?

What are you waiting for? Make that first move!

Creativity: How to Put in the Time

You may also read this article on Medium if you wish.

In the music profession, advice related to the amount of practicing one must do each day abounds. One may have heard that it requires 10,000 hours of practice with an instrument to acquire a “virtuoso” level of skill with it. One may have also heard that several hours of practice per day are required; advice ranges from three to six hours, or even up to eight, depending upon the instrument in question.

There is no doubt that much practice is required to achieve mastery, and that few are willing to invest this much time in learning such a craft. It puzzles me, however, that I have rarely heard this advice given to composers. If one does not speak in these terms, then in what terms does one speak in? How does one achieve creative mastery without thinking in this way? Why is this so, and what might it imply for other aspiring creative professionals?

The language of composers and those in several other professions appears to be different. Composers often speak of the projects over which they currently labor, as well as the projects that they complete. Visual artists speak in the same terms. Authors may speak of their daily word count, though there seems to be no universal agreement regarding what it ought to be; rather, most authors speak in terms of their latest completed work.

The commonality between these professionals is the language of completion. Each creative project is a specific goal that may be broken into simple steps. Each step becomes a sub-project, and the sub-projects are completed before they are brought together to form a coherent whole. My composition teacher never recommended a number of hours for a student to “practice composition”; he simply set deadlines for completion of the projects, and the student had to invest whatever time was necessary to meet these deadlines. Some projects were simple, taking less than an hour to complete. Others were longer-term projects, requiring hours of time invested every day for several months. In many cases, a student worked on multiple projects at a time that varied in length and difficulty. “Putting in the hours” was a means to an end, but was not, itself, the goal.

I have always thought and worked more effectively on these terms. I find simply “putting in the hours” to stifle creativity, as it becomes a directionless, aimless exercise in maintenance. Maintenance of skills is, of course, vital, but it appears that it may be more effectively achieved in service of a greater goal. After all, would one send a ship on a long journey without a destination?

In fact, as I work to complete various projects, I find that I end up investing ample time in the practice of my craft. The time investment is a by-product, or simply a necessary step, rather than the goal. Completing my latest work required several hours of composition daily, which, in turn, required the use of melody, counterpoint, harmony, form, knowledge of instrumentation, editing and engraving, and other aspects of the craft. My skills were maintained and strengthened, and I received for my efforts a completed, saleable project.

To conclude, “putting in the time” seems to be only half of the equation. The other half, and perhaps the more important half, would appear to be the achievement of goals. After all, no one speaks of Beethoven thus: “Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time; he spent more hours composing than any of his contemporaries.” Rather, we speak of his ingenious piano sonatas, his epic symphonies, and his innovative use of musical structure. The focus is on his accomplishments, rather than on his processes.

Perhaps this is how a creator should approach all of his work. As one of my trumpet teachers was fond of saying, “Think product, not process.” And, as one of my composition teachers said, “It doesn’t matter how long it took him; all that matters is if it’s any good or not!”