Where do you get your ideas?
Writers are asked that question so often by fans that it has turned into a standing joke. I have a dream that someday I’ll be asked that question in a panel or at a book signing. My answer will be to get the fan to list three words. Then I’ll take those three words and turn them into a one-paragraph story idea, which will be both coherent and interesting.
I can do that. Everyone writer has a superpower, and generative creative thinking happens to be mine. So why, if I’m so creative, have I spent the last month trying and failing to come up with an idea for my next novel?
Because a fixation on creativity is as likely to kill ideas as it is to germinate them. If you are a pathologically original writer you understand what I am.
Someone saying they are too creative for their own good might sound like an intolerably good-looking man complaining that he just gets too many sultry looks from sexy ladies, but it’s true. The problem isn’t that I can’t come up with ideas. The problem is that I always reject them.
They’re not original enough. Or they feel really interesting when I come up with them in the shower, but when I write them down I realize they’re not that interesting. Or I worry that someone has already done that before. Didn’t I run into a story about a psychic dog who set up a dream-based real estate company inside the collective unconscious of the world’s redwood trees? In a Russian weird tales magazine from the 70s? I’d better spend the next four hours hunting that down, instead of writing. Yes, that is definitely what I need to do.
Even if you aren’t quite this bad, many writers fall prey to this dangerous illusion. You don’t want to write something derivative, so you reject your ideas before they can blossom.
The fact is that your most original, fascinating, or out-there ideas won’t necessarily be the ones that will make the best stories. I love China Mieville and Phillip K. Dick, but when I think about most of my favorite stories, very few of them are terribly original.
A story is more than the sum of its ideas. 90% of the success of a story is in the execution. Characters, theme, relatability, and emotional impact are all—as difficult as it is for me to admit that—even more important that a pure measurement of absolute creativity. Don’t reject potentially good ideas as unoriginal before you’ve had a chance to develop them and see what they can turn into.
On the other hand, a story without characters, theme, relatability, or emotional impact would be really cool, wouldn’t it? Damn. How creative.
We talked about how and why performing automatic activities such as writing and showering lead to creative thinking. Now we discuss specific ways to put this into practice. Many writers suggest that if you struggling to find ideas and not finding them you should go for a walk. That’s a great place to start. But once you understand the mechanisms that underlie why going for a walk launches you into a creative space, you can take some extra steps to make it work even better.
Here are a few good ones.
1. Prime the Pump Before Activity
The problem with letting your mind wander freely is that it wanders freely. Maybe you go for a walk hoping for a breakthrough on how your characters can overcome a specific obstacle, but instead you find yourself brainstorming about how to remodel your kitchen. So before you go, put yourself into the right head space. Read the last few pages of what you have written. Or spend 10 minutes brainstorming, no matter how unproductive it is. Then immediately go for that walk. Make sure to put your shoes on first.
2. Perform Automatic Writing Every Single Day
Automatic writing is another oft-prescribed trick for generating ideas. If you have tried it and it hasn’t worked for you it is probably for a very simple reason: it isn’t automatic enough. If you don’t write very often, or you are in a slump where you haven’t been writing lately (it happens to all of us!) you might be struggling just to force yourself to move forward. This makes the activity deliberate rather than automatic, and so it isn’t nearly so creative. Try doing 10 minutes of automatic writing every day. Because it is such a simple and natural activity (after all, you are a writer), it likely won’t take more than a few days to become automatic. Then you can just sit back and watch the creativity pour out of you.
3. Do Writing Drills
Writing prompts can be great, but they are the opposite of automatic. If you struggle with generating ideas writing prompts can often cause the worst kind of mental freeze-ups, because they start you from an absolutely blank canvas. A better way to use them is to flip the entire concept of writing prompts around. Instead of doing a new prompt when you need a creative boost, trying practicing the same prompt over and over again. It should be a fairly open-ended prompt with a lot of creative space, but not too much. It should also be fairly short. Here is an example:
4. Write one page of dialogue between two characters that hate each other.
At first it will be difficult. But once you do it 10 or 20 or 50 times, you’ll be amazed at how automatic the activity will become. Not only will you start to develop your own patterns and formulas for this specific task, it will lead to a place of automaticity where your mind can work on other, related things. You might find on your 50th repeat of this prompt that it leads to insight into an entirely different piece of dialogue you’ve been struggling with.
5. Try Structured Automatic Writing
This is a strange technique, so bear with me. Write a detailed outline of a very short story. Make sure that you know exactly how the story will play so that when you write it there will be no surprises or difficulty. Once you have done this, go ahead and write the story as quickly as possible, without taking your fingers off of the keyboard. Don’t worry if the story is any good!
When you do this a few times you will find that the act of writing the story becomes rather automatic. It is a lot like going for a walk, only you are writing. It will free up your creative mind in a similar way, and as soon as you are finished the automatic writing task you can jump straight into whatever piece of writing you were originally working on.
6. Combined Automaticity With Association
I find it even easier to be creative when the physical space or conditions are the same as they were last time I was creative. Walking is good, but walking the same path can be even better. You can enhance this effect by adding other sense. Start your creative activity by listening to a specific song, or eating an apple. Then, next time, when you listen to that song or taste that apple your brain will go to the same creative place it did before. When you want to go for a walk to think creatively about a different subject, listen to a different song or eat a different fruit. One theory about creativity is that it is associative memory that works quickly. Use your brains strong links between association and sensation to supercharge this effect.
When do you come with your most interesting and creative ideas? If you are like most people, you say “in the shower,” “while driving,” or “while out for a walk.” Or, if you are a particularly pessimistic person, “right before I go to sleep so I have no possibility of writing it down before it’s sucked up into my inevitable nightmares.”
Let’s ignore that last one for a moment and focus on the first three. What do showering, driving, and walking all have in common? If it’s raining and your car has a moon-roof that won’t close, the answer might be “it’s wet.” But assuming none of that is true, the important answer is that these are all physical activities that are easy for you. Your body and the automated parts of your brain on focused on an activity, but they don’t have to try too hard. You don’t have to think about how to lather up your hair or put one foot in front of the other.
It’s true that lots of things are easy. Sitting in front of your computer with your fingers on the keyboard is easy. Lying in bed on a Saturday morning is easy. But often those are the worst situations for coming up with ideas. So what else do showering, walking, and driving have that makes them such fertile soil for ideas?
They’re easy, but they aren’t effortless. They take actual activity, but you perform that activity automatically. That, it turns out, is the key. When you perform a simple activity that you have practiced so thoroughly it has turned into an automatic, mechanical action, something pretty amazing happens. Part of your brain is busy and part of your brain is free.
The part that is busy is the part that fiddles with coins in your pocket or tears up the corners of paper menus into tiny shreds that the waitress will have to deal with later. It’s the part that compulsively checks Facebook, not because you want to check Facebook three minutes after you checked it when all of your friends were asleep and there was nothing going on to make it worth checking the first time let alone again, but because it has nothing else to do. In other words, automatic activity occupies the part of your brain that is easily distracted.
Meanwhile, your higher functions are unburdened. On the one hand, they are not distracted by stupid things like Facebook and paper menus. On the other hand, they are not engaged by legitimately difficult tasks like math equations or character dialogue. This leaves your mind free to wander and free associate under the purest and best possible conditions. In other words, it is supercharged for creativity.
Daniel Coyle discusses the link between automaticity and creative thinking in The Talent Code. In his research into why Brazillian soccer players are so creative while they play, he discovered that the secret is, contrary to what intuition would suggest, rote practice.
The Brazillians practice the basic skills so thoroughly and under such ideal conditions that those skills become automatic. When the players are in the middle of the game the motor programs in their brain take control of the task of moving the ball, and their higher functions are free to analyze the field and the other players and devise with creative solutions to obstacles. If you’ve ever performed a high-intensity task that you knew so well that the world seemed to slow down in front of you, you’ve experienced this effect for yourself.
Automaticity has the powerful ability to shut down the parts of your brain that inhibit the creative process, and allow the awesome, creative part of you to go to town. In the next post we’ll talk about some specific ways to put all of this into practice.