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How Creativity Works: Neil Gaiman on Where Ideas Come From

The power of desperation, deadlines, and daydreaming.

Beneath the eternal question of what creativity is lies the mystery of where good ideas come from and how we can coax them into manifesting. It’s a conundrum that has occupied artists, inventors, and philosophers alike since the dawn of human thought, but especially so since the dawn of psychology. We have Graham Wallace’s model of the four stages of the creative process from 1926, a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939, Arthur Koestler’s famous “bisociation” theory of how creativity works from 1964, and a number of derivative modern ideas. The best answer, however, often comes from those who summon and wrangle ideas for a living, rather than merely contemplating the mechanics of the creative process.

In this wonderful excerpt from the Q&A after his December 2011 Wheeler Center interview, the ever-brilliant, ever-witty Neil Gaimanchampion of the creative life, disciplined writer, wiseman of literature, one romantic bachelor — answers every creative person’s most dreaded question: Where do ideas come from? At the heart of his answer is the recognition that creativity is combinatorial and that, like Koestler proposed, it relies on intersecting two seemingly unrelated ideas:

For me, inspiration comes from a bunch of places: desperation, deadlines… A lot of times ideas will turn up when you’re doing something else. And, most of all, ideas come from confluence — they come from two things flowing together. They come, essentially, from daydreaming. . . . And I suspect that’s something every human being does. Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea — it’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anything else; we just notice when it happens a little bit more.

Complement with Gaiman on creative doggedness, the secret of genius, and his 8 rules of writing.

Photograph by Kimberly Butler

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Gorgeous Vintage Posters from the Golden Age of Skiing

A rare marriage of sports and fashion through mid-century graphic design.

As a devotee of winter sports, both as a lifelong practitioner and an Olympic spectator, and lover of vintage graphic design, especially mid-century travel posters, I was delighted to chance upon The Art of Skiing: Vintage Posters from the Golden Age of Winter Sport (public library) — a remarkable collection of 800 vintage posters and paintings from the first half of the twentieth century when skiing, a sport that immigrant Scandinavian gold miners had introduced to America during the Gold Rush a century earlier, first took the world by blizzard as a fashionable modern sport. Curated by vintage ephemera enthusiast Jenny de Gex, these gorgeous and graphically striking posters were obsessively and lovingly amassed over a lifetime by Mason Beekley, owner of the world’s largest private collection of ski art. They are currently housed at the Mammoth Ski Museum in — surprisingly — California.

For a wholly different application of a similar vintage aesthetic, pair The Art of Skiing with these lovely vintage posters for libraries and reading.

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A Simple Exercise to Increase Well-Being and Lower Depression from Martin Seligman, Founding Father of Positive Psychology

You’ll need pen, paper, and a silencer for cynicism.

A Simple Exercise to Increase Well-Being and Lower Depression from Martin Seligman, Founding Father of Positive Psychology

“When [a man] has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives,” Henry James wrote in his diary, “I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.” More than a mere philosophical contemplation, however, James’s observation presages the findings of modern psychology in the quest to reverse-engineer the art-science of happiness. No one has addressed the eternal question of what begets happiness with more rigor and empirical dedication than Dr. Martin Seligman, founding father of Positive Psychology — a movement premised on countering the traditional “disease model” of psychology, which focuses on how to relieve suffering rather than how to amplify well-being. Seligman, whom I first had the pleasure of encountering at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and who was once elected President of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in the organization’s history, remains one of the most influential psychologists in the study of happiness. In his excellent and highly revisitable book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (public library), Seligman offers a simple practice that promises to enhance your well-being and lower your depression — the “Gratitude Visit.” Though to the cynical eye the exercise might appear both old-fashioned and overly self-helpy, it is rooted in decades of Seligman’s acclaimed research and brings to practical life some of modern psychology’s most important findings. Seligman takes us through the practice:

Close your eyes. Call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you never properly thanked; someone you could meet face-to-face next week. Got a face?

Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our thank you is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless. In this exercise … you will have the opportunity to experience what it is like to express your gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful manner.

Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words: be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing! Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you’d like to visit her, but be vague about the purpose of the meeting; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet her, take your time reading your letter.

This somewhat self-consciousness-inducing exercise, Seligman promises, will make you happier and less depressed a mere month from now.

He then suggests a complementary second practice — the “What-Went-Well Exercise,” also known as “Three Blessings” — based on the interventions he and his team at the Positive Psychology Center and the University of Pennsylvania have validated in the random-assignment, placebo-controlled experiments they have been conducting since 2001 to study changes in life-satisfaction and depression levels. He contextualizes the value of this exercise amidst our worry-culture and age of anxiety:

We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.

For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.

He then offers his empirically tested antidote:

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause … “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”

Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier.

For those of us able to quiet our inner culturally-conditioned cynic who judges and dismisses such practices, Seligman promises that we’ll be “less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”

Flourish offers an invaluable existential boost in its entirety. Complement it with Seligman on happiness, depression, and the meaningful life, then revisit these seven superb reads on the art-science of happiness.

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