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Writers Fest: How to reignite your creative spark

By Chrissy Steinbock on April 22, 2015

The Ottawa International Writers Festival is taking place from April 22-28.  Apartment613 will be previewing some of the authors who will be speaking at the festival in a series of special posts.

David Usher is coming to the Ottawa International Writers Festival!  Wait.  The Writers Festival?

You may know him as David Usher, the musician, who’s become a household name both as a solo artist and as the front man of Moist, the recently reunited Can-rock favourite.

But these days he’s busy promoting his first book, Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything.  Luckily for us, he found time for an interview as he headed on a train to Quebec City.

Usher believes that everyone holds creative potential and challenges all of us who have felt “uncreative” to reconnect with that inborn creative spark.  In Let the Elephants Run, he sets out to demystify creativity for the masses, replacing the mythology of the creative genius with the methodology they use to get it done.

So how did he come up with the idea of writing a book on creativity?

“I do a lot of speaking at conferences to companies about how they can integrate creativity into their process and into their structures,” replies Usher.  “I found at the conferences, a lot of people were coming up to me and saying that they really wanted to be more creative but they didn’t know where to start.  So I thought it might be valuable to write a much more in-depth look at the creative process itself and demystifying some of the things about the process.”

What makes this book special is that it’s a guide to creativity as a transferable skill.

Usher practices what he preaches, bringing what he has learned about the creative process in music to technology, public speaking, creative consulting and now, to writing a book.  Whereas some writers write books built on research, Usher writes from experience, actively practicing creativity and surrounding himself with people who devoted to creative work.

When I ask him how writing a book compares with working in other fields, he replies that the writing process is very similar. “I find that if you can divorce yourself from the genre you’re working in and isolate your creative process to be a process that works separately from genre, then you can superimpose that same process on many different things,” he says.

This idea of creativity as a transferable skill set is a liberating one.  It means that developing creativity really can, like the title says, change everything.

“Creative thinking is an integral part of everything we make, but also every relationship we have and every interaction in our lives,” says Usher.  “It’s not just about the world of things.  It exists in the connections we make, how we formulate sentences, the way we negotiate with our bosses, and how we choose to look at the world.”

Suddenly, even things like a tough conversation with your partner become an opportunity to be creative.

Photo of David Usher courtesy of Sabrina Reeves

Photo of David Usher courtesy of Sabrina Reeves

Usher sees this as a book anyone can use whether they’re starting out in the creative process or are already working as a creative in any field.  Even if you don’t agree with everything there’s sure to be something fresh and inspiring waiting in the pages for you to discover.  That being said, it’s not a perfect book.  There are some ideas that feel underdeveloped and others that don’t feel essential but these don’t take too much away from the overall message.

Usher also uses an unconventional structure, abandoning a traditional chapter format for a series-of-insights approach.  It doesn’t strike me as a through-read and it makes me wonder how he sees people using it.

“In many ways it’s like a work book,” he says, “I really want people to use it in that way where they’re using it but at the same time thinking about their own creative process and how in small ways it can affect what they’re doing.”

Throughout the book there are action pages with exercises designed to get you reconnecting with your creativity as you go.

My favourite section is where he walks us through his creative process and supports the ideas with anecdotes from his life as a songwriter.  It’s these examples from working in music that pack the most power in driving home his points.  One of the highlights is the story of how he wrote his hit song Black, Black Heart.  As I read David’s stories of how messy and chaotic creative work can be I was struck by how great this would have been to read before I started writing my master’s thesis.

While it’s a very accessible read, Usher doesn’t sugarcoat his message: Creativity is a lot of fun but you have to commit to it, invest in it and ultimately, you have to work it.

“Determination and grit means as much, if not more, than natural talent,” he writes.  In the book he also gently takes down all the common excuses we present for not working our creativity muscle – like imperfect conditions – and gives us tools to get past them.

One of these tools is the half-hour habit which is just as it sounds, carving out 30 minutes when you feel most creative and holding that time sacred for creative thought and work.  He’s been holding to it for 20 years.

wf-2015-spring-inddUsher’s message also offers an antidote to the plague of multitasking and the breadth-over-depth attitude that comes out of it.

Rather than settle for just coming up with all kinds of wild ideas, he encourages readers to do that but go further, to commit to the process that will see these ideas developed and, as he puts it, “shipped off.”.

Even having read the book, I expect to learn new things at his Writers Festival talk.  It’s obvious that for him exploring creativity is so much more than a topic for a book, it’s a lifelong pursuit.

David Usher will be speaking at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Saturday, April 25.  The event starts at 8:30 pm and will take place at Christ Church Cathedral (414 Sparks Street).  Tickets can be purchased online and are $15 in advance ($10 reduced) or $20 at the door ($15 reduced). Writers Festival members can get in for free.