“The best time to plan a book is while you’re washing the dishes.”
You don’t have to wander too far across the wild plains of the internet to discover this quote from acclaimed mystery writer Agatha Christie, and it’s one I’ve used myself in author talks for many years – mostly because I agree with Ms Christie that doing something incredibly mundane is the best way to spark your creativity.
But did she actually say it? No matter how many pithy inspirational quote squares might exist saying that she did, the question bore investigation.
Fortunately, Quote Investigator has done the work for me, following the evolution of the quote in this post and finding it reiterated over many years and interviews.
This is probably the fullest iteration, from the NY Times in 1966:
How do you concoct whodunits that have rolled up world sales of 300-million copies? Ask Agatha Christie.
“Walking or just washing up, a tedious process,” replied the Queen of Mystery. “Years ago I got my plots in the tub, the old-fashioned, rim kind — just sitting there thinking, undisturbed, and lining the rim with apple cores.”
I’m glad I looked because the quote reinforces many of my favourite activities when writing a novel – walking, washing up, water – and I’d add weeding, mopping, sweeping and pretty much any other repetitive everyday activity you care to name.
Allow your thoughts to roam
It’s easy to imagine that creativity must burst from the clouds in a shower of tinsel and rainbows and that one must be lounging about appropriately to capture it. But the truth is that, for many, creativity is sparked when the thinking part of your brain is fully occupied with the mundane, allowing your restless subconscious the freedom to roam.
The link between walking and creativity, for instance, was proven in a landmark study from Stanford University, which showed that the act of walking stimulated creativity in a way that sitting did not.
The report cites examples such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, both fans of the ‘walking meeting’, and Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Henry David Thoreau were known to be avid walkers as well.
Creativity isn’t pretty
Bestselling US author Martin Lindstrom wrote in a LinkedIn post that he believes the key to creativity is to build a ‘creative pause’ into your day. Given so many of us find it difficult to break free from our phones or headphones or screens, he suggests creating those pauses with tasks that are ‘familiar and isolated’.
“Tasks that require constant involvement without making you think too hard about them,” says Lindstrom. “Things like running, mowing the lawn, going for a walk or, my favourite, swimming.”
Repetitive household chores are perfect for this – and you have the added benefit of building some useful productivity into your day at the same time.
So next time someone accuses you of ‘procrasticleaning’ instead of writing, feel free to explain the ‘creative pause’ theory. And remember that a huge amount of the writing process is done far from your keyboard or notebook.
Creativity can be clean
For Valerie Khoo, author, artist and CEO of the Australian Writers’ Centre, it’s not so much scrubbing the dishes that sparks creativity, but a different use of water.
“I get my best ideas in the shower,” she says. “Sometimes, I think I should shower all day! Because that's where my brain seems to unravel problems, writing-related or otherwise. If I'm stuck on the structure of a piece of writing, I seem to work it out in the shower.”
Many artists would agree, and there’s science behind why the shower sluices out some of our best ideas.
Dr. Alice W. Flaherty, a neurologist and professor at Harvard Medical School researching creativity, discovered that an important ingredient for creativity is dopamine – the more dopamine that’s released, the more creative we are. Dopamine flow increases when we’re doing things that make us feel good and relaxed.
Things like exercising, taking a warm shower, driving home…
But it takes more than just dopamine. Another important factor, according to Harvard University researcher and psychologist Shelley H. Carson, is distraction. She told the Boston Globe that if you are stuck on a problem, an interruption can force an “incubation period”. She said: “In other words, a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.” Valerie Khoo could not agree more. “I don't want to sound all deep about it, but I think there is something about getting into the shower and closing the door on everything that has gone on in the day, and washing away the debris that's in my brain,” she says.
“For me, it's not about helping me to write individual sentences. But that meditative process really helps me arrange my thoughts and order information. I can be muddled about a certain situation but then, like those magic eye pictures, everything becomes suddenly clear!”
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al’s new middle-grade novel The First Summer of Callie McGee is out now. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.