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Ah, creativity, that special magic powder. So valuable and so elusive! Where do we find its essence and what do we do when it eludes us?

There's something almost supernatural about the word itself. When we are writing, painting or composing, we are echoing the sacred stories about the creation of the world that we were taught as children.

The creative genius, then, has something of an eccentric reputation: the half-mad genius who is brilliantly inspired to create a masterpiece.

Research, however, is beginning to suggest that creativity is not a special gift bestowed upon a lucky few. Rather, it is a skill that can be cultivated by everyone. One study found that the only difference between the so-called "creative" people and the others was that the creative people THOUGHT that they were creative, while the others didn't.

Of course there has to be something of real value that you want to say, or make a statement about. Originality for its own sake is tacky.

There are some things that can, however, be said about the creative process, and I hope you find at least one of the following ideas helpful.

Perhaps it is high school which squashed our beliefs about our own creative potential. What are the barriers to creativity, and how do we overcome them?

It's at school that we are taught that there is one "right answer". When we are being creative, though, we should be asking ourselves: "Are there any other answers to that question?" or "What other answers COULD there be?" We dip our toes into the rivers of possibility.

The thinking skills we practised at school were mainly analytical or "left brain". Mainly, our teachers wanted us to be LOGICAL. Unfortunately, logical thinking sometimes eliminates alternative possibilities. We should be asking: "How could I turn that into a metaphor?" or "What would happen if...?" When we're being creative, we can't always be practical.

At school, we were blasted if we made a mistake. If we want to be creative, we have to give ourselves permission to make copious mistakes.

At school we had to follow rules. When we're being creative, we sometimes have to break them.

So many people in the world are absolutely terrified of appearing foolish. If we want to be creative, we have to take that risk.

It seems that creativity is partly about trying to think like a child again. The Zen Buddhist idea of seeing things with the fresh eyes of a beginner or a child can help. Indeed, once you start getting this right, then the more you begin to observe the world around you , the more it begins to delight you. You begin to relish every valuable little detail.

In academic institutions and in the harsh world of business, plagiarism is one of the worst vices. Now I'm not suggesting that plagiarism is a good thing, but how many new ideas are there in the world? Sometimes, if we are sufficiently aware of the historical context of the field in which we are working, we may find a new combination of old ideas, or an interesting slant on an old problem. We have to know the rules before we can break them.

At school, the teacher gave us hell if we laughed at a joke in class. It seems that humour and creativity are linked, and that the puns, ambiguities and absurd meanings that make jokes funny somehow come from the same source as creativity. The punchline of a joke usually injects an clever, unusual twist, and that is often what the artist seeks.

So much for the so-called "right brain" methods. Let's not ignore our more logical side; and there are some valuable ideas from the "left brain" too.

Creativity is also about pure old-fashioned slogging away. Very few people wake up in the morning with that "Eureka" feeling. The Muse is only going to come and visit you if you are already working; if you're watching television, she'll probably visit elsewhere. The perspiration is before the inspiration. There's still nothing like meticulous work. I learned from author Hanif Kureishi not to start working until my work-station looked organised. Creativity is sometimes not about "inspiration" at all, but about refining the same ideas over and over again until you have something that sparks that magic flame.

Some people link creativity to problem-solving. Your enquiring mind has a logical problem, and through your exploration of alternative answers, you aim to solve it.

It seems, then, that it's something of a balancing act. Finding the perfect tension between possibility and reality, innovation and precision.

You'd like some exercises? Try listing every possible use of a paper-clip. Or making a random list of ten items, then matching them up in absurd ways. All the time, observe, listen, smell. Your raw material unfolds before you in a wonderful panorama each day. You should live every second in awe of the thousands of creative possibilities it offers you as a gift.

I thought I'd think of some affirmations for you to chant every morning, but on reflection, I'd hate you to waste the time when you could already be working.

The bottom line? The most important, I think, is to create copiously. Later, you can go back and judge and criticize.

For now, just begin, then keep working. The more you do it, the better you get.

Now Go Forth and Be Productive!