|Sinatra-Fighting, Jellybean-Hating Old Cuss|
But of course, the very question misunderstands how the brain works: ideas don't just descend from nowhere, there is no store of them sitting out there, untouched, just awaiting discovery. Ideas are forced into existence by sheer necessity. Whenever you wonder how someone 'became so creative', it might be beneficial to sit back and ask yourself what 'creativity' actually means. To say that someone is creative means that they are capable of coming up with novel solutions to problems. When they are confronted with something that needs to be done, they find a workaround. This means that, in order for us to be creative, there must be some sort of conflict staring us in the face: there must be some conundrum that needs solving.
One of the reasons it can be so hard to write is because a blank page doesn't offer us a straightforward problem to be overcome. Yes, it's blank, and we want there to be a story there, but that's the most nebulous type of problem to have, because you could fill that page with almost anything--in fact, it's quite easy to just start typing words--but sadly that isn't going to result in a good story. The much-maligned 'writer's block' that stops us at the first word isn't a physical inability to type, it's the fact that we aren't even sure what specific thing we're trying to achieve in the first place.
|Soup Cans by Warhol|
You have to narrow it down.
One reason that people stick to certain genres and literary movements is because it gives them a basic sense of direction: it presents a structure. Structure is a limitation that you place on yourself as a writer, but it can also be a limitation that spurs you on--the grain from which you will build your pearl. It's like making something out of Legos: they can only be combined in certain ways, which means that to make the thing you want to make, you are going to have to think up some creative solutions to get around the limitations you've been presented with.
|Yellow Man by Sawaya|
It's the same with writing: there is a built-in challenge to trying to write a sonnet, because it has built-in structure. You're going to have to think very carefully about what words to use, make sure that they rhyme in the proper places, and count syllables. You'll have to get creative in order to get your point across, and you'll run into all kinds of little challenges along the way. In the end, what you come up with will almost certainly be more interesting and complex and unusual than if you just wrote it out in unadorned language.
This is because when you are looking at a blank sheet or a piece of clay, the only limitation on you is yourself, and that's not a good position for an artist to find themselves. What brings the best out of an artist, what forces them to evolve and rethink is having a challenge before them.
I often think about the example of George Lucas and Star Wars: in the beginning, when the world was against him and he was struggling to get anything done, when everyone was second-guessing him and he had to rely on the expertise of hundreds of artists and writers and other directors and actors to support him, he managed to produce something pretty impressive.
|Visas Marr of KOTOR 2|
What is an Olympic fencer without his opponents? Without his training partners? His coach? How can a person become a master unless there is some challenge in front of them that needs must be overcome? How can we better ourselves unless we have some difficulty to test us? That's why I tend to think that free verse is the hardest poetic form to do well: because there is nothing intrinsic to the form forcing the author to be creative--it all has to come from within.
Now, it is possible to do this--just as it's possible for a skilled artist to sit down and do something in clay that simply couldn't be done in Lego--but those people spent years and years of their life building up internal conflicts that force them to develop creative solutions. They aren't just laboring under their own limitations, they're basing their work on a knowledge of certain modes and movements in art, and comparing themselves to specific artists who have done similar things. Every time an artist throws down their work and says 'it's no use, it's just not good enough', that's their internal limitations forcing them to work harder.
That's one reason that most artists specialize: because the longer you work in one area, the better you get to know the limitations and the solutions to them. But this is also why many artists stagnate, because they get better and better at solving the specific set of challenges put before them by their genre or their medium--until eventually, it stops being a challenge and becomes an automated process.
|Theseus and the Minotaur by Campana|
A lot of young authors will claim that their books 'don't really fit in any genre'--and one reason for that is that young authors don't know their genre well and don't have control over their own writing yet--but another reason is that, in an attempt to avoid cliche, they take on two or more genres at once, and then pack on a bunch of different mismatched cliches from both in an attempt to be original. Needless to say, this is not effective, anymore than it would be to combine equal parts clay and Legos every time you had a problem you weren't sure how to solve, or just breaking off your sonnet in the middle of a difficult rhyme and finishing with prose.
So, what's the most effective way to do creative work? Get yourself a good strong conceptual basis, and decide what you want to do. Put some limitations in place--like theme and genre--then sit down and try to figure out how to actually make this thing come to life. 'But wait,' I hear you say, 'how do I decide on themes and genre and stuff like that?' Well, mostly you steal it. If you read an interesting book or article, have an experience in life, learn a new fact, then take something from that. Don't take the whole thing, of course, that would be pointless--never use an idea without making it your own. Make sure each character draws on several different influences--in my novel, I have a character who draws on aspects of Captain Nemo, Ahab, and the real life of author Joseph Conrad.
|Copyright Jacob Borshard 2009|
If you're still not sure, then let me give you an exercise: if you're a fiction writer on the internet, you probably already love TV Tropes, but even if you do, I wonder if you've ever played with their Story Generator. It sets up a series of limitations for a story, and then you can practice working through them, yourself. Sometimes, due to problems with the categorization, you might get a response that doesn't make sense, but I usually just refresh until I get something that works.
Back when I was running a little writer's workshop, we used to use this as a tool: one of us would generate an outline, then send it to all the others, and then we would all have to write a story that matched it, and then compare them at the end and look at how our interpretations differed. I'll probably start doing it again once I need a break from my novel, and at that point, maybe I'll start posting it here, and we can get a fiction writing group going. Let me know if there's any interest in that.
Next time, we'll talk about what 'originality' means