During his down time at work, a Minnesota surgeon often browses the New Yorker in the hospital library. One day he spotted its famed cartoon caption contest—a captionless cartoon that calls on readers to submit captions and then vote on their favorites, to be published in the following issue of the magazine.
The fun is trying to explain an oddity or the juxtaposition of two disparate elements in a single sentence. The contest generates some 5,000 to 10,000 entries a week. And this doctor was intrigued by the cartoon he saw: a husband and wife lying in bed behind prison bars.
“I stared at the cartoon for several minutes and typed a few duds,” he wrote. “Then I was called to start a surgery and, literally, in those few seconds before I logged off, the caption came to me.”
He typed: “How about we just stay in tonight?”
The caption won the contest.
What happened in the span of those three or four seconds? Inspiration struck.
As a Catholic journalist, I have always been fascinated by that Eureka moment. I often ask people to describe the scene in detail: room, time of day, beverage at hand, music in the background. There’s something satisfying about painting a picture, pinning down all the elements in place when the elusive experience occurred.
A criminal prosecutor told me he sets his alarm for 4 a.m. and makes Cuban coffee so he can write fiction before his kids wake up. His preferred method: paper and pen.
“This morning, right after my prayer, this story I’ve been thinking about for 18 months just kind of came together,” he said.
What made it click?
“Who knows?” he said. “I like to think it was grace and a bit of the Holy Spirit.”
The late novelist John Hassler found it helpful to read his old journals. “Between novels,” he said, “I will browse through my 30 years of journal entries looking for topics to write about, and this, together with my memory and imagination, produces the fiction.” If he needed an extra boost “to get the language rolling,” he’d craft a letter to a friend.
A chemist described the central role of his Catholic faith when he’s stuck in a science experiment. “Then I turn to God for guidance and I am amazed,” he said. “Things start to click in my head and problems are solved. I am very appreciative and I thank God—sometimes out loud.”
Movement can shake out a new idea, getting outside your head or your office.
“I get some of my best ideas in the morning when I’m thinking in the shower, rubbing my scalp,” the artistic director of an acclaimed theater told me. “Maybe it’s a scene I’m not satisfied with and I’ll rub my scalp really hard and something will pop up.”
Unloading the dishwasher helps me. My fingers are free from the keyboard, but my mind keeps turning an idea.
Undertaking a different creative endeavor, especially one that doesn’t involve a deadline or any degree of mastery, can get the juices flowing. Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play”—the act of opening up one mental channel by experimenting in another. That’s why he’d play the violin when he was struggling to solve a mathematical puzzle. It worked.
This underscores the Catholic belief that the body, mind and soul are intimately connected. We can spark one by tapping into another. And the health of one dimension often leads to the health of another. A long walk, a clearer mind. An active prayer life, lower blood pressure.
Reflecting on creativity fills me with hope. We are creative beings, made in the image and likeness of the Creator. We are capable of beautiful things. A brilliant new idea may arrive any second.