There’s a towering man with a cane walking in front of me. Amidst the hustle of every other person around, his progress is slow, but sure. He doesn’t seem distracted like everyone else. It’s almost as if the massive skyscrapers around us all point downward to him. I slow my own pace and walk behind him, studying the motion. As an animator, unique “walk cycles” fascinate me. I wonder who he is, what caused the limp, and where he’s headed. I wonder if he’s even headed anywhere, or merely walking for the sake of being able, like me. It begins a story in my own mind that I dive into with the reckless abandon of childlike curiosity.
I am not a huge fan of New York City. It’s big, crowded, and ridiculously noisy. Everyone seems to be in such a hurry, too. As someone who finds great joy in the stillness of a canyon or serenity of the forest, the sprawling mass of concrete and humanity that is The Big Apple tends to overwhelm me.
It’s also a place where I happen to be my most creative self.
I’ve often strolled down 3rd Avenue wondering why this city gets my mind whirring. It’s almost impossible for me to even think, with everything and everyone buzzing around me. Perhaps that’s the reason: The city overwhelms me and gets “me” out of the way. Ideas spring to mind like popcorn shooting out of a hot oiled pan on the stove, leaving me little time for anything but writing them all down before the next round of thoughts invade. There’s no time to judge the ideas, and judgment is the enemy of creativity.
The noise of the city is unrelenting. People shout from second story windows to friends waiting on the sidewalk below. Taxis create their own personal symphony of horns, rising and falling in time with the stoplights that never seem to last quite long enough for their drivers’ liking. I soak it all in, going slowly and deliberately in contrast to the gushing speed that seems to be standard to the natives.
In those brief moments I can almost understand why someone would want to live in such a place. (Then I remember the cost of real estate and am nearly run over by a taxi, and quickly come to my senses.)
Creativity is a fascinating thing. I continue to study and write about it, and one of the discoveries I keep returning to is just how important being “out of your element” is to the creative process. There’s certainly a time and place for being comfortable, but when we stay too long in the “known” there’s nothing to push us towards the new and unique.
For me, New York City is a place that pushes me. But it’s not the only place that does. I find my brain firing on all cylinders in many unfamiliar environments, whether it’s a rocky cliff along the ocean or a hole-in-the-wall pizza shop I’ve never been in before. Close to home or far away, places I’m unfamiliar with make me wake up from the sleep-walking routine of daily life, and really take a look at the world around me.
Between the rush of people and the constant noise, there only seems to be time for reaction. Dodge a woman with her face buried in her phone while skirting an open set of metal doors in the sidewalk as cases of beer descend to basement storage. Notice the flashing neon sign of a camera shop only to be distracted by the gleaming golden statue outside a towering office building. You get lost in a place like this, and if you don’t keep on your toes you’re liable to lose one. Still, streams of ideas flow from the din and fly right into a trusty notebook on hand for that very purpose.
I wouldn’t want to work through the creative process in such places; that’s where returning to a quiet, well-known environment helps. It terms of sparking that fire in my head, though, nothing beats places unknown and unfamiliar. If you’re looking for something to jumpstart your creativity, you might do well to take a right turn where you normally veer left. See what lies down the road uncharted. No matter if it’s as epic as The Grand Canyon, or mundane like the street two blocks away that you never have any good reason to stroll down, unknown places have a way of unlocking our minds to possibilities we never before considered. It certainly works for me, as I return to the overwhelming streets of New York City with both reluctance and anticipation.
“Unknown Places” was written by J.K. Riki, an author and animator from Pittsburgh PA. When not lost in the deepest corners of thought, J.K. tries to appreciate every aspect of this journey of life we’re all temporarily on. You can find more writing by J.K. – both in blog and book form – at JKRiki.com which is updated every Monday at 12:01 on the dot. He also shares daily creative insights on Twitter @Creative_Go.