creating without trying

Not TryingThe world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

—Robert Louis Stevenson

Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.

—Homer Simpson

There are stacks of useful tips on the web about writing and creativity in general, but I find coming up with original ideas is still a struggle. This is a technique that sometimes works for me.


Some of the things that fill the world are recorded in our memories—there are sights and sounds and other senses, spoken words and music, text and shapes, colours and sensations—and bits and pieces of our memories reemerge in our dreams at night.

I visualise dreaming as a flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos in my brain snipping twigs off my memory tree to sharpen their beaks. Other cockatoos on the ground pick up the pieces and put them together into vaguely coherent dream nests.*

When we wake up we remember some of our dreams, and I think they give us access to the subconscious scrambler which helps us to create, even if some filtering and interpretation is required. So how can we improve our access?

Before answering that question, here’s a bit more about dreams.

the other kind of dreams

When we’re awake through the day, we have the other kind of dreams—goals that we strive for, hopes that we long to fulfill. We might work towards them, or they might be fantasies that we daydream about.

There is a strong element of imagination in this kind of dream, but it’s vastly different to a dream at night, because it’s controlled by the conscious mind, which we like to think of as the rational and stable “us,” a person who is not out of our control like the cockatoos. I like to think of the conscious mind a little differently, as it’s described in Buddhist texts—a tribe of mad monkeys in a tree. The monkeys forever clamber up and down the branches, snatching pieces of fruit here and there, then discarding them half eaten to set off after something else, the next goal.

The cockatoos in the subconscious do have an influence on the monkeys of the conscious mind, in daily life and especially with creative stuff, but the monkeys like to think they’re in control.

dreams and traumas

These English words come from the same root in the Proto-Indo-European language, for example in German, dream is traum. The root verb means both ‘to deceive’ and ‘to injure’ which makes sense, because if we’re deceived it’s a kind of injury. A dream made by the cockatoos is a deception, not literally true or real, but it can still reveal a kind of truth.


Problem solving is creative, and solutions to difficult problems sometimes present themselves for no apparent reason after a night’s sleep. I suspect it’s because the cockatoos prune and tidy the tree, and that allows the monkeys to see the solution through the foliage.

not trying

We don’t usually recall our dreams, and when we do it’s mostly from rem sleep. But in the borderland between sleep and wakefulness, there is a change of shift between the monkeys and the cockatoos, and sometimes there are mind states in grey areas. The same grey areas arise in states of deep relaxation, in meditation, when the nests of the cockatoos become visible at the top of the tree.

These mental states are not really grey at all, they’re a chaotic mixture of colours and shapes, feelings and impressions, and they can be useful raw material for creativity. The catch is that if you try to hold on to the passing sensations and follow them, it will be the monkeys who do the grasping, and the cockatoos will fly away.

To stay in the grey area, you have to follow Homer’s advice and never try, just be an impartial observer of what arises in your mind. There’s also a fringe benefit, even if the cockatoos don’t impress. When the monkeys return, they’re calmer than usual, not occupied with wondering what there is to eat, and inspiration’s light globe might switch on before the light in fridge does.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that to do something creative you shouldn’t try. In fact, I find trying very hard is usually the way to go. And I’m not saying that the cockatoos are the only place to find inspiration—the world is filled with a number of inspiring things.

I am suggesting that when you’re right at the beginning of creating something in the realms of fantasy, the exotic or the surreal, it might be worth letting the cockatoos do their thing, through whatever form of meditation or deep relaxation you prefer, and giving not trying a try.

*I’m not a bird watcher.

4 thoughts on “creating without trying

  1. Thanks for the Blog. As an artist I definately create my best work when I’m not thinking, and ruin it as soon as I realise, and try to improve it.

    • You’re welcome. I find ‘improving’ my fiction can be tricky, because every time I look at it a different monkey decides they’re in charge of the editing. I read somewhere that once you change something then change it back, it’s time to stop.

  2. you remind me that sleep-dreams would be a rich source of material for writing – I’ve always had a vivid dreamlife – but haven’t really written from it – something to explore 🙂

    • I’ve used a few bits and pieces from dreams in my stories. I try to avoid the common recurrent ones that everyone has, like when you’re locked in a block of ice in the frozen food aisle at the local supermarket wearing nothing but a Chokwe death mask and a 500g packet of baby carrots.

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