In The Key to Creativity (Greystone, Apr.), Østby investigates the myths and mysteries of this little-understood skill.

As you wrote the book and learned more about creativity, did your own creative philosophy change?

I decided to write the book as a series of “aha” moments. But toward the end of the book, I started to realize where my need to create it came from: [a close writer friend’s] death was the heart of the book; I had to write to tell everyone about this creative person I’d known. Then I began writing about my own grief and grieving experience. The creative process became much more existential, and I realized how existential all creative work is, because we do it to create memories of the things and people we love. I wanted to share with others how creativity is creating a legacy.

You talk about the myth of the “lonely male genius.” What other misconceptions about creativity does society buy into?

There’s this idea that you need depression or mental illness to think outside the box and be creative. And that’s a notion I really want to kill, as research shows this won’t lead to good creative work; you need to have stamina and a kind of discipline to make the work happen. I struggle with depression myself, and I know for sure that it stops my creativity. The stereotype blurs the fact that mental illness is horrific for people—it’s not a doorway into a magical world. To me, this book is also about good mental health: what will make us happy will also make us creative. Spending time outdoors, sleeping properly, being with friends—all that is the way to take care of your brain, to be as creative as you want to be.

What was the most surprising discovery you made while conducting your research?

My most surprising discovery was learning about the DMN [a neural network that is active when the mind isn’t engaged in a task] and its role in creativity. I started off interviewing creative people, and a lot of them talked about feeling ashamed for sitting around, doing nothing for long periods of time. But then I started to think, what if this nothingness is something? What if it’s the key to creativity? And I realized it’s very important to have this emptiness, and to allow yourself to feel totally confused, even to feel stupid. It’s the liberty to be lost for a while without feeling ashamed of being lost.