Black Socks

June 20, 2012

A creative project can seem like an amorphous glob of Jell-o in a vat of vegetable oil— difficult to get a handle on with no obvious place to start.

When I have a creativity Jell-o mess, I apply one of my creativity maxims:



Today I was doing a dark load of laundry, folding the jeans and t-shirts, when I came to the Dreaded Knot of Socks—a mass of mismatched confusion bonded by a systemic hair-raising charge of static.

After reprimanding myself for forgetting to add a drier sheet to the load, I began applying today’s maxim, thereby reducing inaction and confusion.  I picked out the most obvious socks— four navy blue ones— from the black ball.  Separating the blue socks from the black was an easy and obvious first step.  With those out of the way, I was able to see the subtle distinctions between the nine remaining black socks.

By DOING WHAT YOU KNOW you clear away the creative decision-making fog one layer at a time.  You can see the details of the next phase more clearly if you take care of the obvious ones first.

Let’s move from the sock pile to creating.  How does this work in a project?


These two steps clear away a LOT of fog.  While they won’t eliminate every creative block, they are extremely useful when you aren’t able to proceed because you are overwhelmed with the enormity of the project.

DEFINE known parameters.  Write down, or make a mental list of everything you DO know about the project: size, medium, materials, function, time constraints, color, etc; and any ideas you already have no matter how seemingly unrelated or trivial.

ACT on what you know.  The size of the finished painting will be 45×62—cut the canvas and begin stretching.  The palate will be pastel—go buy a big tube of white paint.  The article will include an interview—call the subject up to make and appointment.  The grant is due in two weeks—fill out everything you can on the application.

The magic of Doing What You Know is that while you are acting on what you know, the next steps become clearer.

The reason for this is two fold.  First, Mary Poppins’ wisdom, “Well-begun is half done,” is creative wisdom.   By starting the creative process (sometimes that is simply the mundane prep) ideas and next steps begin to emerge.  Doing the tasks and making the decisions you recognize builds a kind of ladder with each idea building on the previous one.

The second reason is found within the Four Stages of Creativity (look for a future post).  By DOING WHAT YOU KNOW and letting the tougher decisions incubate while your hands are occupied, your unconscious thinking continues, often resulting in an “AHA!” moment, seemingly from out of nowhere.

The secret to finishing an overwhelming project is to continue repeating these two steps.  The creative process is a series of decisions with moments (flashes) of inspiration.  Continue DEFINING and ACTING— DOING WHAT YOU KNOW— until the next decision comes into focus, giving space and life for inspiration, and eventually your project will be finished!

Now if I could just figure out a maxim to find the tenth black sock.


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