Creative Free-fall

Anxiety is the hand-maiden of creativity - Chuck Jones, creator of Bugs Bunny

My son was recently on a team of kids in the program Odyssey of the Mind. They struggled to come up with a workable idea for their competition. As his coach described to me their uncertainty, I nodded and said, "Ah. They're in free-fall." He laughed. "Yeah, you know," he said, "that's a good word for it."

There comes a time in the creative process when we really don't know if we're going to come up with the answer we're seeking. That's what I call "free-fall". You wonder if you were an idiot to take the plunge into the open air of a problem and trust in the parachute of your ingenuity. You start to wonder if your creative mind will open before you run smack into a deadline. It can be quite nerve-wracking.

Studies have shown that creative people can live more comfortably with uncertainty than non-creative people. They understand that part of a creative lifestyle is that things aren't settled. Life is open-ended. It's like living in a house with no walls. And sometimes, with no floor. But that's good. Just like the fight-or-flight surge of anxiety from adrenaline can keep us alive, the controlled panic that comes in free-fall can drive us to capture an elusive idea, hiding in the folds of our gray matter. It's part of the process.

If your school-age child has an open-ended project that calls for a creative idea (which are sadly becoming rare these days), I hope you’ll get to see what I mean. If he doesn’t have a period of uncertainty, then he hasn’t moved outside his comfort zone. Most children settle for the first or second idea that pops into their brains; they never experience free-fall and thereby never find the exhilaration of finding a novel idea.

Don’t be too quick to solve creative problems for your kids. Just help them brainstorm, give them encouragement, then step back. It’s fun to watch the chutes open.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter