Creative Solutions

How to get your brain going in all kinds of artistic directions.

Illustration by Minna.

Illustration by Minna.

During my first day of high school, my new English teacher had everybody get to know one another by sharing a couple of facts about themselves to the room. The first girl who went— well, I can’t remember what she said, beyond, “I hate math.” The teacher responded by saying, “That’s OK. I find people who hate math tend to do really well with English.”

This was news to me. Math and English had always been my two favorite subjects. I found numbers and logic problems to be reassuring, almost soothing. (Like Cady says in Mean Girls about math: “It’s the same in every country.”) My teacher probably only said that to make my math-averse classmate feel better, but it added to my mini-identity crisis that had begun the year before, when my portfolio application to the writing program at an arts’ high school was rejected for not being “creative” enough. I wanted nothing more than to be a writer when I grew up. I had this romantic belief that I was born to be a writer, but pop psychology seemed to be telling me that “left-brained” people (i.e., people who tend to be more logical and analytical) are less suited to creative, “right brained” endeavors. The whole right-brained vs. left-brained duality has no grounding in actual fact, I later learned, but having fully believed this myth at the time, it seemed to support I was doomed to a life of being an unimaginative bore.

I am 25 now, and I work full time as a professional freelance writer. I publish all sorts of things: essays, reviews, criticisms, but my favorite things to publish are creative humor pieces. I don’t think I was born to be a writer, but I don’t think anyone is really born to be anything. Creativity is a skill that can be learned and strengthened. And because I am a person that thrives under structure, of course I had to dissect why and how I work the way I do.

1. Rethink the whole idea of “creativity.”

I. Recognize that creativity is not limited to the arts. Being a creative person doesn’t mean you have to be an artist living La Vie Boheme in Paris wearing a beret (though if you do decide that’s your style direction, more power to you). No matter what you want to be when you grow up, it is a helpful skill to be able to make something out of nothing, or to approach topics from unpredictable angles. I am reading a book with the best title right now: It’s called The Joy of X, and it’s all about how some of the most essential mathematical formulas were developed by people who stretched their brain powers like Silly Putty to work out solutions to equations. A lot of the math that I learned in high school—like the Pythagorean theorem or the value of pi—was initially discovered by people who looked at regular triangles and circles once upon a time and were able to think outside the box (or the “regular hexahedron” if you will—just some geometry humor for you!!).

I think a lot about Rookie writer Hazel’s interview with tbe astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson—specifically, the part where he says:

In the history of science, there are three kinds of discoveries you can make. One of them is what you expected to be there—confirming your understanding of nature. Another one is, you don’t find what you expect to be there, so you have to go back and rethink everything. And sometimes when you’re forced to go back and rethink things you end up making discoveries you had not previously anticipated.

The sciences, obviously, involve a lot of analysis and and adhering to rules, but it also involves constantly restructuring the way you think about the world and finding new ways to approach old matter in order to better understand it. (It doesn’t hurt that the universe is endlessly fascinating as well, which Tyson also gets into in the end of that interview.)

This is true for other careers as well! Last year, I interviewed a taxidermist at a natural history museum named Allis Markham. Her job combines sculpture, craft, and biology. She spoke of styles unique to iconic taxidermists that she admires, and says about her work, “If you look at a Venn diagram of science and art, taxidermy is where they meet.”

These jobs are just two examples out of many, but I love them because they prove that the different skills and interests don’t have to be mutually exclusive. When science and math work together with art, magic happens (but not MAGIC magic. Logic magic).

II. Recognize that being analytical can fuel creativity.

The arts are filled with math geeks. Sometimes this manifests itself in obvious ways, like when an episode of Futurama created a functioning mathematical theorem to make a wacky plot work. Going back a few more years, Leonardo da Vinci (you know, the guy who painted the Mona Lisa?) was a mathematician who filled his visual art with references to math and science. Even if you are the type of person who is constantly falling asleep during your first period calculus class, how neat is it that this (not-so) secret language of numbers permeates cartoons and other lauded works of fine art?


1 2 3


  • therandomone May 7th, 2015 3:34 PM

    The notebook thing really works for me, even though it seemd ridiculous at times…Anyways, English and Math are also my favourite and thank you for telling me that the whole brain thing isn’t true…I know it’s obvious, but I still believed it for a while…

  • HannahS May 7th, 2015 3:58 PM

    Cool that you mentioned The Bachelor! That’s always been my favourite painting at AGO :) I love the colours! Also such a great article! Something to think about. I like the concept

  • ra99ch May 7th, 2015 5:20 PM

    this is INCREDIBLE. especially as someone who loves math and art and writing, but has a very hard time getting stuff done, this is great advice and a wonderful article.
    fun fact: people who are good at art tend to be good at music as well!! so the “left and right brain” really can work in tandem.

  • LaurenMichele May 7th, 2015 6:25 PM

    YES this is exactly what I needed to read today!!! (thank u fate) I’ve just finished classes for the semester, and it’s always a big struggle getting my brain into writing-mode while I’m on summer break. (Last summer I wrote nothing – bad idea) This article is a fantastic launching point for me, and I’ll definitely be referring back to this article again when I get into a rut.

    Yet another reason why I will never stop reading Rookie!

  • Wenryrose May 7th, 2015 6:43 PM

    All of this is super great advice!!! I’m gonna bookmark this. And for me, blank notebooks are fun. I like to do a variety of things in them like taking notes, writing down ideas, doodling… The result is really cool, like a personal mind museum. I also have a lined paper notepad for less “artistic” and more practical things: schedules, plans for projects, evil schemes…

    There are a multitude of great posts about this type of journal (and other fun stuff) on rookie, and i’m sure elsewhere on the web. One of my favourites is this one:

    (One more thing- it’s nice to have extra materials like art supplies, an adhesive of some kind, and random stuff like pressed flowers to prettify your journal,if you like. And its fun to carry it around in case inspiration strikes or you get bored.)

    Thank you so very much for writing this edifying and entertaining post, and I really liked Minna’s illustration too! :)

  • sophbloger16 May 7th, 2015 8:05 PM

    As a writer and blogger, I love this whole article. I have a notebook full of notes and collages of picturrs from magazine clippings. I also have a tumblr and pinterest I update all the time. Although after watching “Don’t hug me,I’m scared” i thought we agreed to never be creative again! Lol.

  • lemerrier May 7th, 2015 9:00 PM

    Hey so I checked out the New York Times article and it looks like that quote is from the author Adam Gidwitz, not John Green…

  • TessAnnesley May 7th, 2015 9:10 PM

    “On my dashboard right now, I can find an in-depth discussion on the merits of the One Direction fandom and high quality screencaps of an old art film right next to each other. ”

    …and sometimes by the exact same people. Why I love the internet. <3

  • She Yoshi May 7th, 2015 9:42 PM

    YES let’s debunk that left/right brain myth! I am a creative mathematician :)

  • queensb May 7th, 2015 9:50 PM

    This might be one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on Rookie! you have no idea how much I needed this. I’m going to start writing more stuff down starting tomorrow. I’ve really been struggling lately with how to extend myself creatively in both my writing and other artistic endeavors. Thank you so, so much.

  • NerdyGal May 7th, 2015 10:28 PM

    This is what I needed, I’ve been confused, in a rut, and wondering if I have the skills to create ANYTHING. This has shown me the skills to keep plugging away at my creative side.

  • TSwizzle May 7th, 2015 10:41 PM

    Like you, my two absolute favorite subjects have been Maths and English ever since I was a child. I tend to feel out of touch with friends I’ve made through writing programs since whenever I’ve mentioned Maths most of them respond negatively, so I really loved your take on the whole debate about whether or not creativity and logic can combine. Also, one time my Geometry teacher told me that creativity, for him, is putting together all the knowledge you have in order to create something new. It came up when I solved a problem in class in a way no one had done before; however, I believe it applies to most things in life.

  • Elliot89 May 8th, 2015 3:24 AM

    A fantastic example of how, as a dude, I love reading this site. Just all around great writing. I love to learn.

  • sandrine123 May 8th, 2015 4:50 AM

    How creative, love it :)

    Bisous from France,

  • Ellen May 8th, 2015 5:31 AM

    This article is great! I had so many “omg so me” moments… I am very logical by nature but my favourite thing in the world is doing creative stuff. I also totally get the notebook thing – I have 3 or 4 notebooks/sketchbooks in use at any one time, kind of ranked in order of how ‘nice’ my sketches/notes/writings are supposed to be.

    ~create every day~ is such a great mantra to live by too.

    Faith In Fools

  • Moldy Mabel May 8th, 2015 8:09 AM

    Yes. Thank you for writing this.

  • Lillylately May 8th, 2015 8:14 AM

    Such an inspiration, glad to know I’m not the only one who has writing related identity crisis

  • Erin. May 8th, 2015 1:06 PM

    Ah, Anna, this is so excellent! Really useful advice – I was gonna try to point out something that is particular helpful, but then I’d end up summarizing the entire piece. So, so good!

    Total side-note, I was the same way with Canadian art – I didn’t like it, didn’t get it at all – until I saw a documentary about Tom Thomson and visited his artist’s shack at the McMichael Art Gallery (not it’s original location, but still very cool to see where he lived and worked). It could be because I’m a fan of the Romanticism, and TT is a fairly Romantic figure, but also, as you saw, when you learn a bit more about something, when you learn to see the details and context of a work of art, you may begin to appreciate it more.

  • diyana May 9th, 2015 2:52 AM

    I attended a Walrus talk on creativity at the University of Western Ontario that I think you all might be interested in – I wrote about it here: and you can watch it here Your very first point reminded me of Blackberry industrial design leader Brian Pasche’s bit; without creativity, there is no way we could have progressed so much technologically, scientifically and medically. Also, your point in 3 III ties in perfectly with what Pakistani actor, model, and television host Juggun Kazim who spoke of in her Walrus talk “Creativity and Constraint”. Constraints definitely simplify the creative process in that you aren’t faced with this looming ocean of possibilities; your task requirements become more streamlined, but you’ve still got more than enough room for creative flexibility.
    1. II – I’ve always despised actually doing math, but I’m so fascinated by how it can be incorporated into art. I find that I’m partial to cubism and the golden ratio, and symmetry in cinematography (think Wes Anderson, of course).
    2. I. – SO important!!! oh my gosh, I can’t tell you how much time I wasted as a younger teen trying to digest Faulkner and other writers considered to be at the core of the Western canon when I truly was not enjoying myself.

    • diyana May 9th, 2015 2:52 AM

      II. I usually skip the Canadian art at the AGO as well, but I might have to reconsider. Especially now that the Group of Seven exhibit is on! Like you said, though, most of my friends are far from interested in talking about art let alone accompanying me to a gallery so I’m content with perusing them alone and of course letting out my 1D feelings on Tumblr.
      2. II – I also usually kinda ignore Canadian art (is that unpatriotic of me), but I definitely need to take a closer look next time I’m at the AGO especially considering the Group of Seven exhibit is open. I wish I had more friends who are interested in talking about art, but for now I’ll content myself with perusing galleries solo and of course letting out my 1D feelings via Tumblr. The internet is an incredible place for finding communities of people who you can connect with on a pretty deep level purely because you all enjoy the same amazing art.
      2. III – reading about art is the BEST. I always find myself lost in researching music history; my obsession of the moment has been absorbing tales about The Rolling Stones, which in turn has taught me a lot about the blues. All my research turned out being useful when my world cultures teacher assigned my class a project on world art, and I was able to create a seminar on how the blues have influenced the Stones’ music. I call this kind of reading “productive procrastination”; we think we’re being indulgent when we get off track and teach ourselves about art, but you never know where that knowledge can take you.

      • diyana May 9th, 2015 2:56 AM

        2. IV – Makes me think I should re-read The Catcher in the Rye. I hated it so much when I was 14, but maybe I’ve had a change of heart….. after all, it is an “iconic classic” hahaa

        This was a great piece to read after just being snapped out of a six hour photo editing haze. Thank you for such an interesting and inspiring post, Anna :)

  • elektraheart May 26th, 2015 11:47 PM

    just what i needed to read!!!!