Questions stimulate the imagination. According to Dr. Robert Maurer, author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life, the award-winning fiction writer Michael Ondaatje always starts his novels with an image, say a plane crash. Then he asks small questions: Who is the man in the plane? How did he get there? Maurer says asking small questions breaks down fear and allows the reader to bypass the fight or flight response and find an answer. “The answers to [Ondaatje’s] small questions eventually lead him to remarkably round, realistic characters and prize-winning novels,” Maurer writes.
Perhaps even more stimulating to creativity than questions is their answers. Author/illustrator and creativity coach Jill Badonsky says that answers to some of the imagination’s most creative questions can come from a surprising place: #sleep.
“I have been asking questions before I go to sleep for years, and on a regular basis I receive images, answers, and ideas in the first few moments I wake up,” Badonsky says.
Like Thomas Edison, well-known for relying on naps for solutions, and Einstein, known for his micro naps, Badonsky has made sleep part of her creative ritual, and recommends the same for anyone looking to solve a problem. “Our dreams are filled with imaginative scenarios that defy reality and take us to places beyond logic,” she says.
Badonsky says sometimes when she asks questions she wakes up with answers to something else, but that’s a good result too. “The asking allows my brain to practice creative inquiry,” she says. Rather than focusing on worry and judgment, her practice of asking questions before going to sleep hones the skill of searching for answers.
Another fertile time for receiving ideas is in the transitional state between sleep and awake known as hypnagogia. Badonsky recommends writing down ideas from that liminal space, because the ideas that emerge are fleeting. “They may seem like they will be there later in the day but they evaporate if I don’t write them down or repeat them over and over to myself.”
It is only later in the creative process that we benefit from evaluation and critical thinking, according to clinical psychologist Carrie Nassif, whose PhD research delved into the creative personality. The conscious mind puts things into categories, evaluates which options are worthy of pursuing, and ensures our innovative idea has traction. For creativity to flourish the mind needs to be free from judgment and censorship and the unconscious mind or dream state is most likely to release us from those everyday habits. “In defining the problem, incubating, and generating ideas, freer thinking is needed,” she says.