Tag Archives: the creative process

The Science of Play

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.

Diane Ackerman

If you mention you’re going to play people tend to think you’re going to sign up for softball, push a kid on a playground swing, or join in a shuffleboard match.  We’re so serious we exercise like it’s a board meeting–no smiles, no silliness allowed. Yet there is a science that backs play. Play is practice for dealing with the future or the unexpected and teaches us how to adapt  (like a kid playing house, or fake battles) Play allows us to explore possibilities without committing to just one.  Play frees our brain. You can’t be in full play mode and worry, plot, or analyze. Play absorbs the body and the mind.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, play is my word of the year. I’m studying play but more importantly, I’m playing. You can’t (0r shouldn’t) be too serious about play. It would defeat the purpose. I’m also collecting play items: balls, kaleidoscopes, bubble paraphernalia, kazoos, silly hats–figuring out what attracts me and how exactly I like to play. My plan is to then draw a correlation between the way I play and the way I create. I guess I’m my own lab rat. I want to see if I can increase my creativity, my joy, my health and outlook by play–but I don’t want it to be that linear. I don’t want demand play to perform for me like a trained elephant that has no choice but to join my circus.

All of us have a history of play. How we play, who we play with, what we consider the best kind of play, what play doesn’t interest us, whether we’re “team” players or would rather putz and play on our own. Some of us play by building, others by imagining/role play. How we played as a child greatly determines how we play as an adult. Our bodies hold memories of play.

Dr. Stuart Brown,  co-author of  Play — How it Shapes Our Brains, Opens the Imagination, and Shapes the Soul, is also the  founder of the National Institute for Play  explains the science behind play:

“The evidence is broad. It starts objectively by watching animals at play and seeing what it does for them — it improves their performance, immune system, their capacity to remember things. And if you follow that through to a human system, those same benefits appear to us — particularly in fertile imagination, in a sense of optimism, in capacity to persevere and to do things that you enjoy — are all by-products of play. And if you then hook someone up to a brain imaging machine you’ll find out that when they’re at play, the brain lights up more from that than virtually anything else they can do.”

When it comes to being (and staying) a creative person, whether your creativity is expressed in writing, visual art, the performing arts, inventions, or even in the sciences, society isn’t likely to encourage you to play at work. You have to know and believe how crucial play is for yourself. You have to carve out (and guard) your play time. You have to incorporate an element of play into your work. That means to stop analyzing and start exploring. That means to figure out how you get into the flow where you brain and body are on the same wave length (literally). That means imagining, saying “what if,” turning your idea inside out and upside down. That means going for a walk, or a skip, or turning on some music and dancing, even at the office. That means honoring that play is ironically, serious and necessary “work” and crucial to your process.

When I’m writing I often have to stop and go for a walk. I take my characters with me. I talk in their voice (out loud). I argue with them, ask them what they’d never do and then I make them do it (the human contradiction), I play with my basket of balls (some spiky, some gushy) while I’m bouncing on my exercise ball. There’s something about all that roundness that makes me think. And sometimes I take a nap. Play is exhausting and often asks for its complement: rest. Some problems can only be solved by the subconscious. by not forcing the solution.

How do you play?

Does play spark your creative process?


Think back at ages 4-6–what did you like to play? (include organized sports, what you played with your siblings or parents, what you played alone, classes and free play)

Ages 7-10?

Ages 11-14?

Ages 15-20?

How have you played as an adult? (Classes, workouts, free-time, etc.)

Name those who have been your best play buddies (throughout all the time periods).

Fill in this blanks:  If I had all the time and money in the world I’d play by _______________.

The most playful person I know today is ___________________.

I play the longest when I’m ___________.

I’ve never sculpted a bust before, so the only way I know how to enter new territory is play–commit to nothing. Explore, ditch, and start again.


Filed under art, creativity, writing

Artists, Writers, Are You Searching for Your Voice and Style?

Voice and style, an artist’s signature. To become so defined that our art, our words are so recognizable that they somehow embody who we are. What is your voice or style? Artists and writers know we need it, but it’s rather elusive. It’s not formulaic and it can’t be forced. It comes with hard work, exploration, and yet it’s much more than that–it’s part of our magic.  

I call it paying the million word god. Remember the Incas and how they’d sacrifice their babies–toss them right over a cliff?

That gruesome image is what it feels like to toss our your ‘little darlin’s–your rough drafts, whole novels that just didn’t work in first person, the painting that no matter what you tried it still turned to muck, your shattered glass or botched sculpture. We have to go through this process of creating shite or what feels like shite before we create something of worth.

It’s likely that until you work in your field for years–5, 7 years–and write millions of works, go through thousands of tubes of paint, wear out many a chisel, burn or cut your fingers and curse rejection after rejection before you meet with real success. Why? It’s a cocktail of getting through your learning curve, making connections, and finding your stride. Until you put in the time you won’t find your source of strength. Confidence only comes with time and effort. Much time. Much effort. But this time isn’t wasted and it’ s not just for you to pay your dues.

You learn so much in this formative time. You learn patience, perseverance, muscle, grit, craft and technique. You learn to handle your own doubt, your own ego, when you’re fooling yourself and when you really need to push on through. You learn just how much you love the wee hours–when everyone’s gone and you’ve worked all night and how cleansing those first few rays of sun feel on your skin. You learn what it feels like when you get one inch, just one inch or three words, just three words–right. Really right.

At first, you won’t know your own style.You won’t recognize your own beauty. It’s hit and miss.  You’ll figure out your voice or style when others begin to recognize it–and/or you’ll have created enough work to stand back and look at it and see where your power is. You’ll begin to recognize themes. And then one day you’ll step back and you’ll see it–something undescribably and absolutely you.

Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes.

                                                                                  Only when I fall do I get up again.
                                                                                                                                Vincent Van Gogh

~Carol O’Dell



Filed under art, authenticity, creativity, happiness, painting, travel, Uncategorized, writing

Artists and Writers, Are You a Slacker? When Work Doesn’t Look Like Work

I don’t know about you, but I waste a lot of time–and I consider it part of my job as a writer and artist.

Some of the time I’m just wasting–no real merit–but other times my wandering, getting lost, falling down rabbit holes and all my navel gazing is actually part of the process. The creative process is neither linear or predictable. When you love what you do work doesn’t look or feel like work.

Now that I earn a living as a writer people ask me how much I write every day.

“Do you want to know how much I type or how much I think? Writing is thinking, and thinking is creating, ” I reply.

I’ve learned to value creativity and I’ve found that how I gather new thoughts and ideas rather haphazardly.

I need to surf the ‘net a lot.

I need magazines. I need to go to the library for a four-hour stint.

I need to take two baths and go for three walks in one day.

I need to download movies and then only watch snippets of them.

I need to spend lots of time in galleries, bookstores, junk stores, the zoo and botanical gardens, the hardware store, day trips to hang out with other artists or just to bum around and get lost.

I need to journal, sketch, buy extra supplies because my first ten prototypes are bound to fail.

I need to call a friend, then another, clean out a closet, shave the dog–all in an attempt to avoid doing what I say I want to do more than anything in the world–create.

I vascilate with needing to find a place to be–where I can think, mull, examine, and circle this new idea until I figure it out–and finding the nearest gathering of humans so I can bat ideas off them and soak up their energy for new inspiration.

I need a crazy amount of books–next to my bed, in every bathroom, piled up on the arm of my couch, in my computer bag, on-around-under my desk–and my books are dog-eared, highlighted, and occasionally left on a lawnchair and gets a good dousing of sprinkler water–but it doesn’t mean it isn’t loved.

Your friends and family may envy your life and even think you’re a slacker–but this is what I know about artists:

Once we hit our zone we can work for hours without taking even so much as a bathroom break. We can work for days on end with laser-like focus. We can pull all nighters. We can live off popcorn and ramien noodles. We get jazzed when we get lost. We can spend crazy amounts of money on supplies and tolerate a couch with the stuffing protruding out of multiple points. We’ll sculpt till our knuckles bleed, glass blow with blisters on our forearms, play guitar until our fingertips swell, and risk serious sleep deprivation to finish a project. Well take a trip to participate in a new exhibit and live off pittance while our souls are being filled to the brim. Nothing is worse for an artist than a life without controversy and conflict–even when we strive to keep our own lives in balance we are intrigued by the ambiguities and incongruities of life.

I don’t think this kind of dedication is worthy of a slacker label.

Art might not look like work, but it can require our bodies, minds and souls–and take us to the edge of endurance. Sounds grueling, but most of us live for such moments–when creating is bigger than we are.


Filed under art, authenticity, creativity, happiness, painting, travel, writing