Creativity happens when we make unusual connections…making what is familiar “strange.” We presume that certain things automatically go together—boat, duck, and water, for example. When we put unusual things together, we are in “creative” terrain. (As a silly example, ham sandwich and hair jell don’t go together…it’s a creative combination.)
When we put two paradoxical words like ham sandwich and hair jell together, the tension between the two creates a third space. Pairing two paradoxical things is also the closest way that we can express ineffable things of any sort. In his book Beauty, the poet John O’Donohue writes about the limitation of rational thought and linear language:
It is impossible for language to
express this nearness for in the end every thought is an act of distance, a
separation with the Divine. Even words like “nearness,” “intimacy” or “love”
still indicate separation. Only the strained language of paradox can suggest
the breathtaking surprise of Divine closeness. God is breath-near, skin-touch,
mind-home, heart-nest, thought-forest, otherness-river, night-well, time-salt,
In my Psychology of Creativity courses, I go even further. I
want my students to leave their rational minds behind and let their
imaginations take over. The only way to do that is to intentionally give them
something confusing. One of my favorite and most powerful exercises is to have
the students speak gibberish to one another. The mind can’t comprehend what is
being said, so they’re forced to step into a “third space,” an “imaginal”
space, where a new language comes to them through mental images, story and
My goal is take them out of their element in whatever way
that I can. When we’re confronted with something that our very smart
left-brains cannot even begin to figure out—that’s when the magic happens.
That’s the moment we have a space for the imaginal.
Creating is about questioning our conventional way of seeing
the world—seeing the world as if it could be otherwise…and connecting the
unconnected. Making impossible juxtapositions highlights distinctions and
alerts us to things we would have missed otherwise. Pull out the things that are surprising or paradoxical.
What doesn’t make
sense to you? Start there.