Production 212: Exercising Your Creative Muscle

Prod212-Logo 2014 webBy Dave Foxx

I came across a quote the other day that reached up off the page and slapped me in the face:

You can’t use up CREATIVITY. The more you use, the more you have.

That blindingly simple statement from American Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, autobiographer and poet, Maya Angelou, stopped my heart for seconds as I took in all the meaning. It was a validation of everything I have preached for years on these pages. Creativity is NOT something you’re born with; it’s something you learn. It’s something you cultivate, nurture and grow.

When you’re at the gym, gazing at an Adonis or Persephone, you might envy their body with all its graceful curves and definition. You might shake your head in wonder at how effortlessly they toss weights or move their body, but you know that they weren’t born that way. They worked long and hard to achieve their strength and grace. You ALSO know that if you applied yourself, you could have the same kind of physical prowess.

Creativity works exactly the same way. If you listen to someone’s work and marvel at how delightfully clever and creative it is, that producer does NOT have that certain gene in his or her DNA. That creativity has been worked on, long and hard. Anyone can be creative, even wildly creative, if he or she simply works at it.

You might think that creativity seems to bloom faster in some, but I think that is just rationalizing on your part or making excuses. The Adonis at the gym has probably been working on his physique since childhood… not lifting weights or doing complicated exercise routines, but playing baseball or soccer, riding a bike or hiking through the woods ALL through his childhood. That fat guy on the treadmill in the gym probably spent most his youth glued to the TV, seldom playing any organized sports. Don’t get me wrong, I admire that fat guy for trying to make a change, but his road to physical greatness is going to be very difficult and for most people, even daunting.

If you think you’re not very creative, you are that fat guy on the treadmill, except the hard work you need to do is on your creative muscle. If you grew up not needing to be creative, if you played with the bicycle instead of the box it came in, your creativity has lain dormant up to now. Chances are you are creatively obese. You need to exercise your creative muscle if you want it to grow. Will it be difficult? Of course! Nothing worth doing in life is ever easy. The easy things in life are their own reward. It’s the hard things in life that pay the truly magnificent bonus dividends.

Science tells us habits are formed by doing something repeatedly and that once you’ve done that something enough times, your brain shifts into an ‘automatic’ mode. When one says “habits” people think smoking or biting your nails, but there are good habits too. Eating right, walking or riding a bike instead of taking a car and speaking to others with respect are all good habits. My High School sweetheart had an amazing habit of smiling all the time, even when she was feeling miserable. When I asked her about it, she quoted a saying her mother had passed along, “Smiling is contagious. Let’s start an epidemic.” For her, smiling was a habit… for everyone around her she was simply a bubble of happiness. You couldn’t help but feel happy around her.

I believe that being creative is a habit as well. If you can get into the habit of thinking creatively, it will begin to be your main personality trait. The question is, “How do you do that?”

The spark of creativity happens when you take two or more unrelated ideas and combine them. In the fashion world, every piece of clothing has already been invented, yet every year, the world goes a little crazy for “the latest designs” at the big shows in Milan, Paris and down the street here in Manhattan. There are a finite number of notes in the musical scale, yet every day we celebrate all the “new” music we play on the air. The very best promos and commercials you hear are always the result of taking two or more disparate ideas and combining them into one new thought or concept.

So what I am going to set down for you is an exercise routine for your creativity. In some ways, you might start feeling like you’re ON a treadmill with that fat guy at the gym. The first few times you work out, it’ll feel weird and almost nonsensical. Just remember, “wax on… wax off” and how pointless it seemed to The Karate Kid until the first time he actually started to protect himself from his opponent’s jabs and punches. This little routine will help you get in the habit of thinking creatively.

Open a dictionary to a random page. Find a word that you don’t know. Learn it, figure out how to pronounce it, and definitely understand what it means. Close the dictionary and do it again. Once you’ve learned two new words, use them both in a single sentence. Unless you already have an extraordinarily large vocabulary (more than 35-thousand words), it shouldn’t take more than a minute. Spend 15 minutes a day doing this, every day, for a week and quite quickly you will start to develop your creative muscle. As you sit down at your console, you can start applying a bit of “muscle memory” to your creative process. It will be slow to develop, but I guarantee it will happen.

Reading the dictionary will expand your vocabulary, which in our business is a plus, but you need to expand your “creative vocabulary” as well. I’ve written many times about the studio rat, but for those who are new to this publication, let me say it again: get out of the studio! Your audience does not care one bit about radio. To them you’re just some voice in the air that can keep them company when they’re feeling lonely. They need you to talk about stuff they care about or they will NOT listen. Every chance you get, do whatever your audience is doing. Your experiences are where your ideas come from. Your experiences are your Creative Well and you need to fill it all the time, so when you’re trying to be creative, you have two or more ideas to rub together. Watch TV, go to the movies, take cooking classes, visit local museums, read newspapers and READ MORE BOOKS.

I had an intern once who told me that she hated to read and always had. I told her she was finished as a creative producer. I meant it too. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do everything my audience does, so I gain a great deal of my experience through my reading. I read at least one newspaper every day and at least two books every month. If you don’t like to read, you’re in the wrong business.

Our first job in radio is to communicate clearly and effectively, launching ideas and emotions into the ether, hoping that people can and are willing to receive them. We have the means to get the message out. You need to apply every ounce of creativity you can to make them willing listeners. To paraphrase the old Doritos ad campaign; use all you want… we’ll make more.

My sound on this month’s CD uses one of my least favorite genres of music. I can listen to pop, rock, hip-hop, jazz and country and really enjoy any of them, but freestyle makes me crazy. However, I adore putting freestyle promos together for my Rhythmic CHR station, WKTU. Mark Maurer, Vanessa James and Wendy Wild do the voices while I mix the beats for the KTU Old School Weekend. I hope you like the result.

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