Becoming A Creative Genius With Phil South

Creativity fascinates us as writers.

I am creative. I am an author. Creativity. We seek it and study it, and yet it often appears when we just stop and are silent with our thoughts. As authors we strive to turn our creativity into a finished product that will surprise and delight readers, but it all starts with an idea. In today’s podcast, I talk to the author of the Creative Genius Program, Phil South, about how we can improve our creativity.

In the intro, I talk about my holiday in the Languedoc, south of France and my big aha moment. I also discuss what I learned from the book Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.

Phil South Creative Genius ProgramPhil South is a British writer, film-maker and coach. His new Creative Genius Program (CGP) helps people develop the creative side of their brains and generate more ideas, as well as stimulate productivity and the craft of writing . You can find the course at WritingFit.com and Phil’s blog at Going Down Writing.

  • Phil has been a writer for over 30 years with a career spanning gaming magazines, music journalism and creative uses for technology. He became an expert in creative software which led him to make multimedia CD-ROMs, as well as an animator with the Disney channel. After a traumatic period in his life which ended with divorce and being a single parent Dad, he became fascinated by how the creative process worked. This sparked his own journey into how the brain works and how to stimulate creativity within people as well as the mystical side of things. Basically, his search for the seeds of creativity started with trauma.

“The brains of bestselling authors and creatives are different.”

  • Creative people become like this because they develop their brains in a certain way, even though that development might be accidental. Repetition helps develop these pathways in the brain. Writing regularly helps the process. The practice is critical – it’s not just about theory.
  • There is also a brain state that people who are creative get into. The alpha state helps generate creativity and there are ways we can access this state. Scientists have done experiments on this using functional MRI with improvisation. See Charles Limb TED talk for more info. People turn off their conscious mind to a certain degree. This explains the good ideas in the shower or the treadmill when we separate from actual ‘doing’. Practice at this will encourage the generation of creative ideas. But always approach this in a non-judgmental way and without expectation of specific results.
  • If you use the creative muscle it will improve. I found this in my own life. I used to believe that I wasn’t creative but as I expressed creativity in my life, the ideas increased. See my article – From affirmation to reality. Physical processes are supply and demand, so if you demand stamina, you get it. If you demand more ideas, you get them. Once you use those parts of your brain, it becomes a lot easier over time.
  • Some ideas just need to be expressed in order to free up other ideas that may be more productive. Don’t get stuck on the first idea. Focus on being non-judgmental. Understanding creative flow as a plant growing in a garden. Plant the seed and water it and let nature take its course. You can’t force the growth. It takes time. You can’t graft on other ideas immediately in order to bulk it up. The impulse is to force the issue but give it time and let it grow. Personally, a lot of my ideas come from non-fiction research from places, so you also need some fertile soil. So fill yourself up in order to create.
  • But you still need perseverance and discipline. Stephen King calls it ‘bum glue’. Don’t wait for the muse. Sit down and do your work and the muse will come in time. Phil suggests there is a distinction between writing and typing. Sometimes you will find yourself in a flow state with many ideas but sometimes you do need the discipline. I admit that I have a lot of ideas but getting that into words on the page is the hard part.

How to become more creative

  • (1) Get rid of the noise and input. Reduce media consumption, e.g. don’t turn the TV on when you have nothing to do. [I got rid of the TV 4 years ago and my creativity definitely improved.] Don’t always be listening to music or reading the scary news. Everything can wait. Give yourself space and time to think.
  • (2) Meditation can help. Clear your mind of junk. Your thoughts and ideas are easier to hear when the world is quieter. There are iPhone apps for this if you are struggling with the actual practice!
  • (3) Learn stuff. Fill your mind with the things you are fascinated with and this will come through into your work. Phil recommends language learning which freshens the areas of your mind that you haven’t used for a while.

What do you think is the best way to generate creative ideas? Please do leave your comments below.

writing fit creative geniusYou can find all the details of the Creative Genius Program at WritingFit.com.

You can also find Phil at his writing blog, Going Down Writing and on twitter @Phil_South

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Comments

  1. says

    I find that some of my best ideas come when I am travelling as a passenger in a car – in silence, of course. The passing landscape seems to support the flow of creativity and steer it in a proper direction instead of having it meander all over the place.

    • says

      I find travelling in general fosters creativity – in so many ways – for the time and space for thinking as well as the new experiences and the expansion of the comfort zone.My favorite author on this is Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines and other works.

    • says

      Hi Leanne,

      Actually I used to find that and that was one of the things I was initially curious about when I started researching how the mind works. The passing landscape is repetitive, and all repetition bores the conscious mind and turns it off, this lowers your brain waves to a useful state and boom, any ideas you have floating about will be allowed out.

      Creativity is not about forcing ideas, its about letting them out :)

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

      Phil

  2. says

    I know this may contradict what’s in the post, but I actually get some of my best (at least, I think they’re my best!) ideas from watching t.v. and movies! Usually these are kids movies, which helps free up the judgmental space in my brain (the movies don’t have or need as much “logic” as the adult world). I do agree, though, that watching lots of *mindless* t.v. is a surefire way to kill your brain cells. ;-)

    • says

      I still watch TV and agree with you on getting ideas there, but I don’t have a TV device. I watch on a laptop so I have to specifically choose what to watch. There’s still downtime, but not hours of mindless consumption :)

    • says

      I agree totally with Jo’s approach, I watch a ton of movies and TV but all “timed” that is to say not open ended. I watch iPlayer and movies but never open ended TV.

      Be choosy about what you fill your brain with.

  3. Thomas Desmond says

    Very interesting and informative article (and podcast). In this day and age I feel we’re being besieged by media corporations to a degree not even imagined by earlier generations. The ironic thing is, a lot of it is the creative output (good or bad) of other writers!

    Have a slow internet connection, no cable tv, and a great collection of DVDs. Listen to jazz/electronica while working. Am a 100 pages into my second novel, with ideas for 5 more.

    A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

    • says

      I too am very resistant to being bamboozled by large media businesses to watch more TV. It’s not for my benefit but for theirs, after all. Don’t watch TV it only encourages them! Haha

      And yes, it seems to me you have a perfect creative environment. :) glad to see you’re taking full advantage of it.

  4. says

    I love that phrase from Stephen King “bum glue”. That is the truth. I figure sometimes if I sit long enough, the words, phrases, jokes, dialogue will come. And it does.

    • says

      Yeah when Jo said it to me I was amused, never heard it before but now I can’t stop saying it.

      As I said at the time, it’s thinking time that writing time that most of us need, and we can do that while doing other things. I wrote most of my best stuff driving back and forth to work when I couldn’t actually write anything down. Just going over it time after time in my head refined it to a finely honed point, so when I did finally get to sit down I was merely typing what I had already written in my mind.

    • says

      I would add to that, it’s pointless sitting at the keyboard when you have no ideas. That’s forcing the issue. You need to let your subconscious process your thoughts, inspirations, and the millions of other subconscious connections in your mind. And that takes thinking time, and not conscious thinking but subconscious thinking.

      Also productivity and distraction are different issues. You might think that the reason you are not being productive is because you don’t have time to write. But really it’s because you don’t have time to think. It’s like saying you are not building a house unless you are putting bricks together, but you can’t really get started and be productive until you have a carefully specified blueprint.

  5. Ron says

    Limitations and believe it or not Rules,can bring out creativity
    as T.S. Eliot remarked “When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost… and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom,the work is likely to sprawl.”
    On the other hand the singer Paul Simon in an interview,his way of writing is to let his
    mind wander.

    • says

      One of the things I say in my course is that limitations give your brain something to rub up against. Sometimes if you can go in any of a million directions you go in none. And sometimes working within limitations or arbitrary rules you just made up (like writing sentences that contain exactly 10 words) can be amazing training for your brain. But this is a conscious mind activity. This is what you do once you have enough ideas with enough weight to work on.

      To get great ideas the subconscious mind has to wander. It’s not so much about letting your mind randomly flit from random topic to random topic. It doesn’t actually do that anyway, but I like to think of it as like water divining. Let your mind drift and follow it without pushing it one way or the other. Just see where it goes and you’ll be surprised how good the ideas are if you wait long enough without distraction.

  6. says

    I love how this is broken down here! One of my versions on creativity was actually a guest post on Author Scott Bury’s page here. Check out Creativity Can Kill to see what kind of trouble my muse gets me in, lol! Thank you for posting this great creativity explanation! :)

  7. says

    Great article and podcast. I’ve always been fascinated by creativity and I’ve been blessed with being creative. I put this down to the fact that I watched a TV series by Tony Buzan in 1974 (that ages me…) called “Use your head” and I bought the book. One episode was about mindmaps and I have been using them ever since. I draw mindmaps when I am in meetings, when I was at university in lectures, when I am plotting and solving problems both professionally and in writing. I believe this constant use has stimulated my creativity.

    My favourite place for being creative is walking. I try to avoid walking near roads because it is distracting and can be dangerous if I have to cross them when my mind is elsewhere. There is nothing better than a walk for an hour in a large park for inventing ideas. I always take a notebook because as creative as I believe myself to be I can’t always remember the ideas later.

    One way I use TV, not overtly, is that I watch with a critical eye and come up with my own ideas for endings or character development.

    Great topic.

    • says

      Walking is brilliant because there is nothing really for your conscious mind to “do” so it tunes out, great for getting in touch with your thoughts and those useful coded messages from your subconscious. I also find staring out of a window is good too, and where I live there is a river and lots of people walking by, activity but nothing too distracting, and it’s a kind of continuous movement. Same with walking, the repetition of your feet planting down one after the other lowers your brain waves to useful states.

  8. says

    My ideas come from people – from observing them, listening to them, interacting with them, thinking and wondering about them. I call this “unconscious research”. I’ve investigated many different New Age groups, philosophies and lifestyles over the years, and attended numerous classes, workshops and retreats. I’m fascinated by group dynamics; all these activities give me endless opportunities not just to study the subject of the course or workshop but to observe and learn from the people doing it.

    • says

      I totally agree, and I did a fair amount of new age research too. :) My teaching is drawn from a variety of disciplines both Eastern and Western, from NLP and Ericksonian hypnosis to Tai Chi and yoga. I learned something important from everything I studied.

      Unconscious research is the best kind, especially if you allow your subconscious mind to process it without getting in its way too much. And as I said learning things is really good for your creativity. Learning languages is great but also learning any kind of discipline, especially a mental or spiritual one, conditions your mind for creative work.

  9. says

    I like the general idea expressed here, because it makes me believe that – with practice- I can actually become a more creative person. I am so hoping this is true. If it is- the concept is pretty exciting!

    I also love what you wrote about not pushing the process too much. “You can’t force the growth.” Those are beautiful words. Sometimes you have to just do what you can and step back, let things happen naturally.

    Thank you for sharing this, I loved reading it.

    • says

      You are so welcome, Katie. And you are 100% right. The brains of creative people may be different, but the good news is they didn’t start out that way. They made the new pathways in their brain with unconscious brain work. Talk to a neurologist and they’ll describe the process of neuroplasticity, which means that the brain can make new pathways and can do so for your whole life. As you practise a skill, like tossing words around in your mind, the pathways in your brain to do with that are connected and wrapped with a kind of tape, called myelin, binding them together. The more you write the better you get, guaranteed. But that’s just the physical skill of typing your words without restriction. There is also creative skill to do with accessing your subconscious freely. In my experience the feeling most people have of trying to be more creative and “failing” comes right before a breakthrough (the connections are wrapped). Trouble is most people give up before they get that far. Never doubt that you can become more creative, or at least as creative as you would love to be. It’s totally possible, and believing that is the first step.

  10. says

    Loved the ‘bum glue’ and loved the idea that it’s the subconscious mind that is the creative genius. I also practice meditation and getting into that alpha state in order to make, or release, the best work makes complete sense. My best writing comes when I dip down below my normal, rational mind, and hit something deeper — at which point it flows of its own power. But sometimes, to get to that place, we need to sit at the keys and tap our way there. I worked as a full time arts writer in a magazine for several years, and on mornings when I wasn’t in the mood but a deadline loomed, I would put on massive headphones and plug in some mad techno or Philip Glass and just type rubbish… and magically by about the third paragraph, the shape of the story would start to appear. When I tried to write it, it wouldn’t work. When I let go, and allowed the fingers to just move, it appeared — I think this was the idea of allowing the deeper states of mind to take over. Finally, I love how Joann introduced the podcast, saying that when she nailed down the one line about what she does — creating a body of work — that unlocked something for me.
    Thank you! Clare
    (…and my recent run-in with the painful wall of perfectionism here:
    http://www.claremorin.com/1/post/2012/06/on-headless-men-and-the-creative-process.html

    • says

      Hi Clare, There are two separate states, the drifty alpha state where you turn ideas over in your mind and work them out (or let you subconscious fill in the blanks) and a state of what I call flow, where you are half in and half out of that state and able to work and improvise around the stuff you worked out to start with. You need both to get the ideas out.

      The process goes something like this: you have a desire for ideas, you sit and think about what you want to write and your inspirations whatever they might be, and if you sit long enough (or get tired of sitting and go for a walk, have a bath, do some gardening or yoga) your desire is validated with an idea that perfectly matches your intent. Then you sit again in that state of relaxed awareness and another idea pops up to match the first. Then more and more until they have weight, their own momentum. Then you work on them in a state of flow, a slightly different state of relaxed awareness where you are half in and half out of alpha and can dip into your subconscious but you are able to write and improvise using your writing skills.

      I go into a lot more detail in my teaching but that’s the basic path. It does seem to work by magic but it is possible to get control of the process.

      I love your thoughts on perfectionism. :) I advocate making as many mistakes as possible, in fact do what you can to make more mistakes and faster. Nothing kills creativity like putting it off till you can get it “right”.

  11. says

    I have taught creative writing for years. I find that it helps students to come to the same room, week after week (and for many of my students, year after year). In that way, the setting doesn’t distract and they are ready to just GO with my creative exercises. One of the most successful ones is to present them with 5-7 random words (dandelion, cabin, esoteric, etc.) and then say GO. The creativity blossoms.

    • says

      You raise and interesting point, Pamela, and that is returning to the same places to work time after time is another interesting way to program yourself for creative thought. Being in interesting new places inspires and stirs up your conscious mind and senses. Like Jo’s recent holiday in France, new sights new sounds, etc. But being somewhere familiar does the opposite, bores your visual cortex a bit, letting your conscious mind tune out a bit and letting your subconscious have a bit more play time.

  12. says

    Butt in chair, definitely. But I wonder what Phil in particular would think of my tip–which is to picture the scene you are writing as a movie. Write it the way you see it. All of a sudden you will be immersed…and so should your reader.

    • says

      Hi Jenny, haha of course I would heartily endorse visualization as a creativity tool. What you are trying to get to is a state where you are not controlling the flow of ideas. You need to let go, seed your subconscious with feelings and visuals, then wait for it to process those and send you ideas.

      Try this exercise: sit in a chair free from distractions. That part alone could take days to arrange. Then once you have your peace and quiet, sit in silence and think about your story. By all means have a pen and paper handy to write notes, but do the work in your mind. Sit and turn the idea over, what kind of story is it? Who would you like to be in it? What kind of situations would they get into? The trick here is not imagine verbally, don’t think in words like Mexico or espionage, think in sense impressions; Think sunny, think exotic, think danger, think secrecy, think action or romance. Immerse yourself in all the mental images those feelings conjure up rather than the specifics. Start by dealing with pure emotions. The ideas will attach to these emotions.

      Why is this important? You do this because your subconscious speaks visuals and sense impressions, not words. You need to speak its language. And don’t tell it what to think. It really hates that :) The longer you can sit and not steer, the more sensual details you can feed your subconscious, the more readily it will start sending you connected and workable ideas.

      Hope that helps!

      Phil

    • says

      I saw this but I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Jonah Lehrer wrote a lot of great stuff in that book. He made a mistake and his book is still valid in many ways. So I stand by my lessons learned from his book, and hope he will be able to resurrect his writing career, but maybe under a pseudonym.

    • says

      Thanks for the kind words, Waheed. It was enormous fun to do, and I’ve had lots of people say how much they enjoyed it. And all credit goes to Jo for being such a great host. :)

      As for the Lehrer thing, I think Jo’s right. He may have made a serious error of judgement and just plain made stuff up (as a former journalist this sticks in my gullet for sure) but that doesn’t invalidate all the true things he said, and I understand those were many. We all make mistakes and it’s a shame but true that we are more often judged on the basis of those mistakes rather than for all the things we do right. That’s life I guess.

      Lehrer in German means “teacher”. Maybe as Jo says he’ll learn something from this and come back better than before. I hope so.

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