As a reminder, these posts are a response to this article in Psychology Today: Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking. Not that I think it needs a response, but because it provides a decent jumping off point.
I’m bundling points 2 and 3 together and dispensing with them quickly. Not because they aren’t important, but because they’re easy.
2. Creative thinking is work
What’s this? Coming out in favor of working hard? What a bold position to take!
Not that hard work isn’t important. Of course it is. The author of the article is correct when he says that being creative isn’t a matter of simply having great ideas fall into your lap like flakes of dandruff. So it’s true and it’s easy to say; creativity takes focussed effort.
But what kind? It’s one thing to say: “You must work hard.” That is the easiest thing in the world to type out, because it confirms so many of our own prejudices. It’s the kind of thinking that runs neatly inside the cultural groove and it quickly becomes a “My Favorite Argument” (quick def: an assertion someone feels so comfortable with that they use it to redirect new or unusual discussions toward a dispute where they already feel they have a solid argument).
But how can we manage our creative work so it’s effective and productive?
I don’t have a list of tried and true techniques. Given the vagaries of the human brain, I don’t think a hard and fast list would be all that useful. However I do have a few exercises.
I think the best thing a person can do is make a quick list of all the usual tropes and story beats of books in your genre and make them off limits. The most common ideas are going to come first, and if it’s common, it’s not creative.
— Question every choice. What does this person look like? What will they do with the secret once they discover it? What job do they do?
Not every question will need a unique and wholly-original answer, partly because that’s not possible and partly because you will often find yourself writing some trope or story beat because you love it so much you want to play with it. But there should be some situations where you go beyond the quick, initial idea.
— Make a list of possibilities. The best part is that, having made a few decisions about what I’m not going to do, that list already has a few entries on it. Put down the things you don’t want to do, then write down a few ideas that come to you off the top of your head. Once the easy choices have been written, stretch for more ideas.
It turns out that this is how a lot of joke writers work, too: they take a topic, make a list of concepts around that topic, and search for a way in until they get a joke. It’s not all inspiration. Also I think the physical act of writing the list really helps, because it takes the process out of the amorphous world inside my head and forces me to come up with discreet concepts.
— Talk to people. Most times, you won’t get anything useful out of them, but something they say may spark an original idea. The truth is, creativity works best when you are in a sharing, cooperative environment. Stressful deadlines and intense competition may spur us to settle on a choice more quickly, but that’s no guarantee we’ll get a truly creative idea.
— Research. Actually, any type of useful input will spur creativity, but research will help direct your choices toward/away from implausible, time-wasting ideas. Other useful input would be real-world interactions, any kind of art, non-fiction unrelated to art, and so on.
Input that isn’t useful would be any sort of consumer-oriented entertainment designed to appeal to the largest group possible–mainly Hollywood movies, lots of TV shows, many video games, mediocre best sellers. Note that I’m not saying we should avoid those things; I myself am taking my boy to see JOHN CARTER later today. It’s just that they are so full of common creative choices. Worse, movies turn fresh ideas into common ones because they reach so many people. So, I’m not saying we should shun consumer entertainment, just that we should be sure to stoke our creativity with more idiosyncratic stuff.
— Mix up odd things. Everyone makes fun of those lame movie pitches (“It’s like THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING meets JAWS!”) but there’s something to be said for finding ways to make disparate elements work together. Even simply bending your mind to the problem of, say, combining a locked room mystery with sword and sorcery is an opportunity to examine what makes each type of story work and what could break them.
— Finally, go back to those ideas you discarded at the beginning. It’s possible that they can be altered in interesting ways, turning common ideas into more interesting ones.
— I know there are more things, but I can’t think of them at the moment.
3. You must go through the motions of being creative.
In this point, the article writer basically says that working hard at being creative makes it easier to be creative. I guess that’s true, for people who are not in the habit of being creative. For people who do this stuff all the time, I’m not sure how much benefit you get from practice.
Huh. I didn’t dispense with those as quickly as I expected to.