Creativity, by its nature, cannot be easily defined. An attempt at it can be an exercise in futility and often seems to bely the unproductive, inherent craving to define parameters and formulas for creativity that can be then passed along to those waiting to understand it. Creativity itself is by no means linear and therefore defining it in a logical way betrays the very essence of creativity.

There could therefore be no end-all definition of how to be a creative person. As a matter of fact, creative people often strive to dispel any definition and actively thwart attempts to be pigeonholed. Thus, we often look with a good bit of justified cynicism, if not out right contempt for any “system” of creativity. The very notion that someone can concoct a recipe to follow on how to become creative is paradoxical.

But, in my years of working as a commercial artist (and my habitual habit of carrying a sketchbook and baggy full of pencils with me) I have concocted a set of rules that work for me. And very likely could work for you. At the very least, you could pick and choose elements to try.

First, set a schedule

There are those who like to wait for creative inspiration. But that’s not often productive. It becomes too easy to slip into laziness and creative atrophy. Inspiration does strike, no doubt; but too often haphazardly so. Exercising your brain in uninspired times helps generate new ideas that may never have developed otherwise.

Setting a scheduled hour of the day (or day of the week) to actively work on a creative project seems to some too linear. The part of the brain that deals with schedules and time is not the creative side. But sitting down at a set time does force you work. It doesn’t take long for the right side of your brain to kick in. Even if every scheduled session doesn’t produce excellent work, it does get you working.

Find a hero, emulate

Bob Dylan had Woody Guthrie. Robert Crumb had Charles Crumb. Michelangelo studied Donatello. Every great artist had someone who inspired them. You’re no different. There must have been something that inspired you. Figure out who inspired you and do research. What is their creative process like? How do they go about producing their art? What or who inspired them? Found out why they were inspired.

This shouldn’t apply only to music and painting. Even if your creative outlet is cross-stitching, find out who the best cross-stitcher to ever live was. What did that person do to become so good? Emulate them.

Learn the skills and the techniques of the media

The Beatles are universally accepted as being one of the best rock-n-roll bands of all time, yet the lead song writers couldn’t read or write music. Trivia like this is often cited to support the false notion that technique cancels out creativity.

Even if you are doing something as analytical as designing websites, your creativity can only be enhanced by learning techniques (or programming). Picasso made himself famous with cubism, a form of art that is often criticized as being too primitive. The fact of the matter is: Picasso was one of the best drawers of all time. He could draw incredibly representative (realistic) drawings like no one else, and the incredible skill that he possessed in no way hampered his creativity (or his success).

If your weapon of choice is guitar, learn how to play well. Study Chet Adkins and Van Halen. Even if you never intend to play like Chet Adkins or Van Halen, the diversity of skills that you learn will only help you. If you’re an abstract painter, learn to paint realistically, even if you never show anyone your realistic paintings.

Sleep

The mind needs sleep. You can think more clearly if you feel rested. Good ideas come.

Stay up late

Sleep deprivation helps too. Some of my best ideas came to me when I stayed up late.

Keep notes

Keep a notebook handy, at all times. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. But you never know when an idea may strike, and you need to keep a record of it. Most likely you don’t have time to pursue your idea right at this moment, but if you keep a record of it you can return to it when you do have time. If there’s no record, you run the risk of forgetting it.

Don’t do drugs

Obviously, this one will not work for everyone. Hunter S. Thompson, possibly Edgar Allan Poe, and the before-mentioned Beatles all hit creative peaks while soaking their brains in drugs. But they are exceptions to the rule. And there are many more exceptions.

I’ve known a lot of druggies, and been around a lot of “high” people. I’ve yet to actually see any of them do something creative. They mostly stare at their hands and imagine dancing purple elephants, which they then misinterpret as a creative act. It’s also hard to draw if you’re constantly distracted by the floor. Don’t worship your equipment

I’ve seen many beautiful houses in my drives through the neighborhoods and streets of Knoxville, but not once was I impressed by the carpenter’s hammer. I have been impressed by the craftsmanship and skill involved, but I could care less about the tools used to build it.

People think the same thing about your work. Your audience doesn’t care about your new camera or your fancy keyboard that “feels like a piano” when you play it. Yes, it does help to have good tools (especially good musical instruments and cameras), but don’t expect them to do the work for you. Your talent is what should be on display and your hard work is what is notable.

Create

The most important rule of all is to quite simply create. Work. Never stop. Once you finish a project, don’t take a rest. Jump headlong into the next. Don’t be sloppy; but don’t be obsessed with perfection, as it can cause paralysis.

The main thing to remember about being a creative person is: a creative person creates things. Be it quilts, musical compositions, paintings, short-stories or carved ducks to sit on the mantle, the creative person creates things. And if you’re not creating, then you’re not creative.

Don’t expect every work to be a masterpiece. For every photo that Ansel Adams printed he snapped the shutter hundreds of times. That’s just the process. A great idea may as well not exist if it’s not acted upon. Now, go create.