Has it really been nearly a month since part 4? Man, I need to suck less.
Quick recap: I’m using this article: Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking as a springboard to talk about my own creative processes. What’s more, I’ve decided to wrap it up in this last post, since 9 & 10 are pretty thin.
9. There is no such thing as failure.
I hate this one because it’s bullshit and it has nothing to do with creativity. Yeah, you can learn from failure, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t failed. The trick is to not be afraid of failing, not to spackle over it as though it never happened and never will.
10. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.
I’d have to say that asserting our own experiences as neutral until we give them meaning is pretty silly, but it’s a clumsy way to make a half-decent point. Every individual has unique experiences and those experiences create filters that profoundly affect our creative choices. Should we write a fight scene as a rousing show of strength or as a tragic outcome of human folly? Our own experiences directs those decisions and helps us create work that’s uniquely our own.
11. Always approach a problem on its own terms.
This part of the article is a little incoherent, but let’s gloss that over.
When I face a problem that needs a creative solution, I will often try to imagine how a more successful writer would fix it. How would a best-seller set up this scene? How would a pro handle this dialog? (I did the same thing with my social life for many years–how would a self-confident person behave? was my inner dialog on many a Saturday night.)
The article writer talks about this in general terms but gets it wrong. Don’t try to imagine the work being done by random people or amateurs. Imagine it being done by skillful pros capable of surprising choices.
12. Learn to think unconventionally
The subject header here is okay but the text in the article is wrong. Yes, we will need to push beyond the so-called “normal” thinking that will lead people to the usual solutions to basic problems. No we do not have to teach ourselves to make random associations or whatever. That’s now how it works.
This one is important: Creative solutions come from going beyond the normal, but that can be done in a methodical way. Many folks think writing jokes is about a lightning-in-a-bottle talent for inspiration, but in fact joke writers will often start with long lists of possible subjects, potential angles, and likely punchlines. They’re constructed like furniture.
For me, creativity works the same way. I don’t solve creative problems (and that’s what books are–narratives that can only be advanced through creative solutions) through some mystical skill of pulling together random things. In fact, I make long lists of possible choices, including the boring, stale ideas that have become cliche. I cross off the dull ones, then I cross off the ones that don’t work, then I keep adding to the list.
Telling me I should look for useful patterns in unrelated work is like telling me I should crave salty foods: I do that all the time anyway. What I need to be reminded to do is consume information from a wide variety of sources.
The basic point is that creative solutions don’t come from a different channel than the boring, cliche ones: they come after you’ve gone beyond the cliche.
And that’s the end of this particular blog project. I’m a little disappointed in it, mainly because the original article didn’t spur me to genuinely interesting insights. Besides, there’s been a sudden flux of new pop-non-fic about creativity and I feel as though I’m stuck in the mud while others are going farther and seeing new things. Hopefully, I can revisit the subject at another time.
It’s been a while since part 3. Sorry about that, if you care. Truthfully, I’m behind on my WIP and I’m having trouble prioritizing this. Quick recap: I’m using this article: Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking as a springboard to talk about my own creative processes.
7. Expect the experts to be negative.
This section of the article is more for office workers than it is for creative people. Wait, I take that back. It’s not an issue for me because I don’t really have someone telling me that I can’t do something before I do it.
For example, when I was planning my story for the Don’t Rest Your Head anthology, I told editor Chuck Wendig that I was planning to center the story around the death of a child. Chuck wasn’t happy with that at first, because it’s a touchy subject that turns people off (and too often he’s right). Still, I told him I thought I could make it work and he told me to go ahead.
Chuck was the expert in this situation, and rather than put his foot down, he said: I bet you can prove me wrong. In the end, he accepted the story pretty much as written.
This is what it’s like when an editor–especially a really really good one–is “negative” about creative choices. As I said down in comments, it really was ego-less arguing. She wanted me to save a couple of the Game of Cages characters for a future book, and she wanted me to cut The Sentence (for those who’ve read it, it’s the long murder scene that’s written as a 500+ word single run-on sentence). Cutting that violent scene could have given the book a more upbeat adventurous ending.
Of course, I didn’t cut that scene. I did change the book substantially to make The Sentence work–including saving one of the characters–but for me that scene was the whole point of the book, and I had to have it.
Now, only one reader has ever told me they disliked it. Several really loved it, but people who don’t like GoC rarely mention The Sentence. Was my editor wrong? I don’t think so. I’m betting that, with a more upbeat adventurous ending, it would have gotten better word of mouth. Maybe it would have sold better. Maybe the series would have survived.
I still wouldn’t go back and change it, though.
So, the most a writer like me has to worry about isn’t that my idea might get shot down, the way a bright-eyed ad exec with a crazy new concept might be. It’s that no one will want to buy it, and you can’t really tell that until it’s too late.
8. Trust your instincts.
I’m not going to respond to this part of the article, except to say that the only sensible response to “They laughed at the Wright Brothers!” is “They laughed at the Marx Brothers, too.” It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s okay to give up on writing.
Seriously, I honestly believe this. I’m not one of those people who tell people to never stop trying; who’s to say what’s the best use of your time? Not me. Maybe someone who stops writing would go to work in a soup kitchen with that free time. Maybe they would spend more time with their friends, or edit Wikipedia in a useful way, or do any number of genuinely helpful things.
Write if you want to and if you think you have a chance to find the success you’re hoping for. Just be aware that you may never get it (I may never get it) and even if you do it won’t make you happy.
However, I should point out that I’d already quit writing when I’d signed with my agent. I was not going to start a new novel; I planned to go back to school to get a graduate degree in hopes of finding a career. All my writing time was spent studying for a GRE. Then my query letters started getting positive responses.
So who am I to say that people shouldn’t be discouraged? Creativity doesn’t have anything to do with success. You can be extremely creative but never find an audience for a host of reasons: Maybe your creative ideas are too far outside the mainstream. Maybe you’re creative but don’t have the writing skills to put together a sensible paragraph. Maybe you have other uses for that time, or new priorities. Who knows?
Quit if you want. Live your life. That’s what I say. Maybe, someday, I’ll do that myself. But in the mean time, I intend to write the stories I want to write, the way I want to write them. Anything else would take the joy out of things.
For the next post I’ll talk about failure. Jeez, this just gets more cheerful all the time, doesn’t it?
Continuing my examination of my own creative process through an examination of this article: Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking, I’ll touch on points 4-6 here and get to the halfway point.
4. Your brain is not a computer.
This is probably the most confusing part of the article. It’s starts with the truism above then starts talking about imagining things and synthesizing experience?
The first thing I’ll say is that comparing a brain to a computer is not a very interesting way to think about this. No, your brain is not a computer. Other things your brain is not: a loaf of bread, a set of dishes, an FBI file on a U.S. peace activist, a package of Alka-Seltzer.
A good rule for brains and computers both is Garbage In, Garbage Out, but I covered that in my last post. But let me address the little point that the article writer covers: Our brains can create false experiences and treat them as real.
To which I say: yes, that is the whole point of writing a novel. You create a false experience in the mind of the reader. The entire art and craft of creating a novel involves a) imagining this experience yourself and b) recording it effectively through text.
But it’s important not to make the experience solely a visual/auditory one. Personally (and these posts are about my own processes, remember) I do imagine scenes visually but there isn’t a lot of detail in them. I certainly don’t see faces as such. If you’ve ever read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, (and you should) you’ll know what I mean when I say that the faces are “iconic.”
But I also experience the story in a different way that’s hard to describe. I also experience the character’s feelings as though they were tidal forces, pulling me one way or another. If there’s one thing that slows down my productivity, it’s translating those feelings into text without using cliche.
And it has nothing to do with my brain being a computer.
5. There is no one right answer
This one’s sort of important. You can make bad choices, creatively speaking. You can choose cliches, or story beats that ruin the tone, or that don’t make sense for the characters, or that open the story setting to questions/implications you aren’t ready or willing to address.
But there can also be numerous “correct” choices that will work within the story on one level or another. The important thing is to look at them and judge their effect on the story’s tone, the questions it raises about the setting, etc etc.
So, while you can have several correct choices, each should still be evaluated in terms of the effect it will have.
(I’m ignoring the article for this point for fear of annoying people with lay-physicist woo woo about creativity.
6. Never stop with your first good idea.
The temptation to do this is powerful–really really powerful, especially if you’ve been struggling with a particular question for a while–but don’t do it. If you do, you miss out on the chance to do the evaluations I talked about in number 5 above.
More in part four, including allowing other people to influence you in a negative way.