Creativity and coloured pens

A few weeks back, I encountered Maryann’s Society of the Secret Play Date. Instead of sitting down with a list and a laptop and a serious expression, you spend some time just playing with your current project. Or even with something unrelated.

Of course, play can be serious, in the sense of ‘important’. But it’s also non-serious. It’s joyous. It’s even indulgent — settling down on the floor with a five-quid packet of felt tips and a notebook had me feeling more pleasantly self-indulgent than I have in ages. That alone would have been worth the time; but it turned out that spending half an hour with coloured felt-tips, drawing pictures and mind-maps, threw up a huge stack of inspiring ideas for several things that I’m working on right now.

After I put the pens away, I grabbed the laptop and had a look for what science there might be behind felt tips and creativity. One study found that playing before making a collage enhanced creativity in children — so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise if it does the same for adults. Another study found that bright colours can support creativity, which may explain why I find doodling in primary colours quite so freeing. Although that study also suggests that complicated visual detail can help, something which is sadly lacking from my doodles. For strongly analytic types, a little doodling may also help balance up the involvement of the left and right sides of the brain in what you’re doing — perhaps also helping to get past the inner critic that can sabotage your efforts?

For me, as well as the bright colours and doodling, some of the positive effect is from doing different things in small blocks. Ten minutes of knitting and thinking can be a great precursor to fifteen minutes of writing. The busy part of my brain occupies itself with my hands, while the calmer part works out what I want to say, getting me past straight the Blank Page Problem once I start writing.

It’s also another way of trying my offline experiments. If I’m doing the playdate thing, I can be down there on the floor with paper and pens and no. damn. internet. Don’t get me wrong; I love the internet. But — as Leonie pointed out just recently — it can also keep you away from your own best work. There’s always something else out there to read, and it’s always easier, safer, and a quicker dopamine hit, compared with settling down to create something of your own.

What I need? More play dates; more felt-tip pens; more fun.

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