Practicing the creativity habit

 Posted by (Visited 5241 times)  Art, Game talk, Music, Writing  Tagged with: ,
Dec 032014

In the wake of posting up the video of my talk on “Practical Creativity,” I got this:

What a great question.

First, I have to admit I slack off a lot. 🙂 But, here are some ways in which I practice, or have practiced it. You might notice some commonalities across media.

Hope you’ll bear with me, because I will get to games last.


My current list of musical instruments within ten feet of me, clockwise order:

mountain dulcimer



baritone ukulele



slide guitar

acoustic guitar

electric guitar


MIDI guitar





metal flute


bamboo flute

kalimbaOh, and there’s a saxophone in the closet. Now, a few of these aren’t mine (I can’t play the flute, or the sax!). The point being, just like I have game tools within close reach, I have music tools within close reach.

When I sit down to write a piece of music, I try to avoid linking together two chords that I have used in a progression before. That’s near impossible, if you stick to standard tuning and standard chords. But I don’t. I try to explore new tunings, new instruments, putting capos and partial capos on with abandon. It leads me to new places and new harmonies.

The other day I was fiddling around with this piece. It’s in DADGAD, which is itself an alternate tuning, but then I put a partial capo on just three of the strings, up at the fourth fret. Why? Mostly to force myself to use fingerings I don’t use. Pairings of notes that I wouldn’t play when I am trapped in the muscle memory of the standard chords.

Similarly, I decided a week or so ago to learn jazz chords. Probably long overdue, since as soon as I started, I found that I had been using several of them in my standard chord vocabulary for a long time now. But there’s a new sonic palette there, and also now a new rhythmic palette, since it kind of begs for bossa nova rhythms or the like. (Now I want a nylon-string guitar, too).

In learning new compositional tools, doing covers is a fantastic approach. Or writing “in the style of” someone else. Taking their same chord progression, moving it to a new key, changing some of the chords just enough to land somewhere new.

Now, I am not a “sounds” person, just like I am not a visuals person. I have learned the absolute basics of audio engineering, and that’s it. I am much more interested in the writing of music — the notes, the melodies, the harmonies — than in the sounds of it, which puts me somewhat out of step with the way in which modern music works, to a large degree. For me, it’s about seeing the systems behind the surface of the production.


There was a period when I went absolutely everywhere with a notebook. (Today, it’s an iPad with a stylus). I would try to observe deeply, to look closely at whatever was around me and actually notice it. And I would try to put together a few words that went well together but were also an unusual pairing. I’d keep these piled up in my notebook, to pillage later. I no longer have the habit — being “a writer” is not how I define myself anymore, though it used to be. Perhaps one day it will be again.

I usually write best to deadline, actually. So participating regularly in a writer’s workshop was a great way to spur creativity for me. I had to come up with something, and it had to be something decent enough to be ripped apart by a pretty good crew of writers. (Back when I lived in Austin, my writer’s workshop was Turkey City; this meant some very good writers indeed).

poetryhandbookI don’t have a writer’s workshop here in San Diego, so the lack of deadlines has been an issue in terms of practicing the habit. I self-imposed a Sunday Poem routine, which I unfortunately fell out of the habit of a while back. When writing poetry, especially back when I was in college, my greatest ally was Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms. I worked my way through that book trying to use every single technique in a poem. These things served as constraints, and as the gradual accumulation of tools for the workbench. I wrote concrete poetry too, where the typographical layout of the letters on the page matters. I even wrote a sonnet redoublé, and you know what, it wasn’t great but it functioned.

Blogging itself has gotten more sporadic for me — in 2006 and 2007, I posted twice a day, just about! Twitter has had a huge impact on that (a very large amount of the posts on the blog used to be just “keeping up with the news” so to speak, with a dash of commentary). What would have been longer-form pieces instead have become shorter ones. So usually, to write I need a prompt that calls for a long-form answer, and the best prompt is a question. Like the one that prompted this post, actually.

On the other hand, speaking regularly has been a real prompt to create non-fictional material, even if not in the form of prose. My habit here is simple: No Repeats. I try to generate a new talk, with a new point to it, for every speaking invitation. (I get asked to repeat talks sometimes, though).

You cannot write if you do not read. As a teenager in Barbados, I kept a journal of everything I read. I stopped after a few months, because I had filled two notebooks. I read thousands of words a day. My book reading has diminished as the Internet has slaked my thirst for words and other hobbies have risen to the fore, but I still go through many books a month, many many dozens a year. Try to be indiscriminate and Catholic in your tastes; I fail at it, gravitating towards favorites, of course. But particularly with non-fiction, I find that there is something interesting in basically everything.


refshelvesI practice art far less than I do the other creative things I do. A long time ago I came to the conclusion that the artists around me saw the world in terms of visual art, and I didn’t. This meant that they effectively “practiced” all the time. I knew this meant I wasn’t a visual artist the same way they were; it wasn’t where my muse led me. So I practiced up to the level of competence, but not further, really.

That said, some of the things I do on this front include an openness to new media and tools. For example, lately I have been downloading font creation software and trying it out. That’s basically a new discipline for me, but I am enjoying messing around with it. Long ago I used to hand-set type for letterpress printers, and this reminds me powerfully of that.

I also keep the tools around and at close hand. Within five feet of my chair I have pastels, oil paints, bristol paper, colored pencils, stumps, illustrator’s pens, drawing pencils from 7H to 7B, colored inks, and calligraphy and artist nibs for my collection of art pens. The fact that my drafting table is underused has much to do with the graphics tablet monitor I now use instead — once upon a time, I actually used to prefer to freehand draw tiling terrain tiles and scan them.

One place where I try to exercise my graphic design skills is when preparing PowerPoint slides. For me, a key part of the process is to use a new graphic design with every presentation. Sometimes they work really well. Other times they are real misses. I even give myself the constraint of not repeating fonts from the past.

Either way, I find it helpful to have my reference library. This is just a part of it, showing some of the art books towards the bottom. Even tracing stuff is a great way to get the shapes of things into your finger muscles. Copying a photo is a great way to learn to flatten space so you can draw it, because it pre-flattens it for you.

This is going to sound weird, but I have consistently found that part of the secret to being able to pull off something I have never done before is to just have the guts to go out there and persuade myself that I already know how. Studying books like this and then just doing it rather than over-thinking it or talking myself into the (utterly true) notion that I don’t have a clue.


So, games.

trimockReally, it’s all the things that I mentioned already in the talk, and that keep recurring in this post.

  • Trace over what has ben done. Copy, clone, imitate, then twist it, to learn how it works.
  • Assemble a library of small parts you can go back to, that are tools on the workbench.
  • Work in the materials, not in the abstract.
  • Force yourself to the unfamiliar.
  • Be observant and diligent about gathering the observations.
  • Keep lots of notes.
For me, the inspirations for games often come from real-world systems. I have notes here on an aquarium simulation, for example. Most aquarium software is all about the pretty fishies swimming about. But as I tend my aquaria, or try to get fruit trees to grow, I am struck by the fact that they are rich and complicated systems with few exposed rules, massive tomes of cheat guides, and really bad feedback design. What about an aquarium game that actually went full sim? That had the stats for each fish’s generation of waste? That could model the rise of nitrates and nitrites? An advanced level could deal with each plant’s needs for phosphorous. There’s a game system there that just needs a good interface.

The same goes for code; I am often translating board games into code, or coded games into boards. It switches the context up. I got started as a game designer by doing ports of arcade games that I played in the States but that weren’t available in Peru. With scissors, paper, markers, and my collection of Video Games magazine, I made turn-based versions of Q*Bert and Pengo. It was an early lesson in rules deconstruction and analysis.

The reading portion, the studying need, is not only met by having a MAME cabinet and a dozen emulators and way way too many videogames and boardgames. It’s also met by bothering to investigate history, by maintaining documents like these. To be a serious creator in a craft is also to be a serious student of it.

I have loose materials everywhere! I’ve written before about my prototyping materials, which are basically a curated section of a craft store aisle. Colored cardstock paper, an assortment of different color Sharpies, wood bits in widely varied shapes, high-quality paper scissors, tons of dice, tokens and mats… I’ll often grab a random selection of these, and simply give myself the challenge to come up with something.

Right now, I am finishing up the graphic design on a trifle of a game I am calling Thicket, a little exercise in the classic tile-laying-path-connecting genre (like Entanglement, Tsuro, or Trax). It uses triangles. Why? Because The Game Crafter made triangle tiles available. That’s all. That plus exploring the Internet (this page especially) plus a lot of spreadsheeting to allow for multiple colors, and five days of mostly background cogitation, gave me a cross between standard pathing games and a territory battle.

smallthicketWhy territory battle? Well, I am cheerfully re-using a mechanic that worked out successfully in a hex-grid tile game I finished a couple of months ago. It’s a tool on the workbench, and it feels very different here, so why not? Remix away! I shouldn’t be ashamed of that any more than I should be of using Photoshop’s default butterflies and flower brushes.  🙂

Why this game? Because it is giving me a mental break from thinking about a different one, a small card game called Coalition that is about political networks. It has multiple unsettled rules still and doesn’t play as well as it should. These are the two games I designed this month, out of the dozen or so this year.

A few final thoughts

I think of my creative practice as a braid. It likely drives my family nuts, but I weave back and forth between music and art and writing and board games and code and other enthusiasms (fish, redoing a room, whatever!). Usually two or so are active “at a time.” As I lose energy on one, another surfaces, like monsters from the deep dark sea, like dolphins taking turns arcing over the subconscious.

I can’t imagine, personally, being stuck with just one medium or mode of expression, but that’s just me. It likely means that I’ll never get good enough at any given one of them, certainly not as good as a specialist.

But I like games because in games I can do all of them. I can observe systems, bring them into the unfamiliar, craft the visuals, write the music, develop the storyline, do some writing. So for me, games are where I can really use the braid.

It also means that sometimes an enthusiasm ends before a project does; I have a song cycle that sits at eight of ten, and has for six months now. There’s nothing to be done about it; I have to wait until the other songs show up. I have a game that stopped literally two pieces of artwork away from shipping (well, that and a control bug). Really should get that out the door. I always manage to find excuses.

One thing that I don’t have is a lot of patience for: the 90% of the work that is the polish. That’s what I really ought to have collaborators for: those people who do see the world in terms of visual arts, who think of the sonic experience as a whole, not just the song; those people who are the deep specialists who can do the things I can only fake my way through.

In the end, I touch one of the above creative endeavors, in some way, every single day. Usually, more than one, every single day. That means: I might play guitar for two hours. I might read for two hours. I might code for two hours. I might draw for two hours. I might work in a spreadsheet calculating odds. I might just rewrite the rules of a game from memory on separate pages in my iPad notebook, so that I can figure out what the parts that matter really are (it’ll be the parts that I always remember to include; the parts I forget are good candidates to cut). Even when I relax by watching some mindless TV, I’m liable to comment on where the story beats are falling and how a scene was directed.

A thought on privilege: you’re looking here at 30 years of accumulated tools, books, instruments, etc. But I didn’t start out with all these. My first guitar was a cheap Yamaha I basically stole from my brother. One of the boxes of colored pencils is a set of Caran D’Ache I think was given to me as a gift when I lived in South America. I’m a packrat and I still have my early writing fumblings from when I was ten, my drawings from when I was a teen — and the tools with which I made them.

Back when I was carrying that notebook with snatches of writing around, I was a grad student and my wife and I lived on $7000 a year. Don’t let the accumulation of stuff here fool you into thinking that you need everything I have gathered, and don’t let your lack of stuff fool you into thinking that you can therefore skip past the work of deconstructing, experimenting, paying dues, cloning, copying, tracing, reading endlessly.

The stuff that actually matters is the basic tools of your craft, and the stuff in your head. All the rest are props for the stuff in your head. And enough ego to put that stuff out there (or write posts like these).

So… that’s how I practice creativity. There are many ways, but that way is mine.

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