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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *