On Creativity

Audio version
Posted / Last update: 29-11-2010
Publication: Petroleum Equipment & Technology Archive
Issued: February 2002
Author: Upton Howard

The best time for planning a book
is while you are doing dishes.

-- Agatha Christie

BILL MOYERS, who was born in Oklahoma, conducted a scholarly study some years ago in which he attempted to identify the conditions conducive to creativity.

Unfortunately, Bill Moyers tends to become a little tedious when he discourses on the subject of his research. For that reason, I usually avoid the presentations he offers on public television. I am not aware, then, what he learned about creativity. The chances are, however, he failed to discover that perhaps the most profound statement ever uttered on the subject was made 50 years earlier by another Oklahoman, a high school classmate of mine named Elwyn Walters.

Elwyn was a farm boy, and in those long-ago days farm boys were obliged to spend a portion of each spring steering a mule-drawn plow through what was to become a corn patch. One afternoon I found myself sitting with Elwyn on the front steps of Tahlequah High. We were talking idly about first one thing and then another, as school boys are privileged to do, when, for no special reason, Elwyn was moved to unburden himself of a penetrating apothegm. "The best time to think," he said, "is when you're plowin'. That's when I do my good thinkin'. When I'm behind that plow, I just thin-n-k and thin-n-k and thin-n-k."

Therein, as Bill Moyers might have subsequently confirmed, lies the key to high creativity. The ideal conditions for creative thought occur when one is engaged in some humdrum activity--washing dishes, polishing silver, shelling peas, plowing a field--which requires a minimal degree of attention but which is not, of itself, intellectually demanding. It is precisely when one is engaged in such an activity that he or she is truly moved to think and think and think.

A total absence of physical activity is counter-productive to creativity. The poet who stretches himself out on a grassy knoll, to gaze at the sky and reflect on the mysteries of the universe, soon finds sleep nibbling at the edges of his mind. In a contest between a nap and creative thought the nap always wins. Nor is it enough for the physical activity to be merely boring. Guiding a plow, Lord knows, is boring work, but then so is the job of collecting money in a turnpike tollbooth. The plowman, however, does not have his reveries periodically interrupted by other persons, as does the turnpike attendant. Creative thought cannot effectively be sustained when the thinker knows that at any moment he may be asked to make change for a ten.

The artist Grant Wood put it this way: "All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow."

Anton Bruckner was once asked how he thought of the motif for his Ninth Symphony. His response: "Well, it was like this. I walked up the Kahlenberg, and when it got hot and I got hungry, I sat down by a little brook and unpacked my Swiss cheese. And just as I open the greasy paper, that darn tune pops into my head."

In an earlier day, driving to and from work provided an ideal environment for creative reflection. The thinker was alone with his thoughts. Steering the vehicle along a familiar route required almost no mental attention. As the number of cars has terrifyingly increased, however, driving no longer provides a context for thought. Creativity cannot flourish amid five lanes of heavy traffic on an expressway.

Mowing the lawn and raking leaves are two activities ideally conducive to creative thought. (Many of the little essays in this collection have been conceived during periods when I had a leaf rake in my hands.) A reasonably brisk walk is also good for creative thinking. Jogging, however, is not. The jogger tends largely to be preoccupied with a single fixation: to get his running over and done with for still another day. Genuine creativity cannot coexist with shin splints and a burning sensation in the lungs.

Movie Script
A little dance,
A little song--
We'll make up the rest
As we go along.

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