Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Creative Barriers: Where Good Ideas Come From

Sinatra-Fighting, Jellybean-Hating Old Cuss
All writers get asked the question "where do you get your ideas?" Even nobodies like me hear it. It's become a cliche among authors, to the point that Harlan Ellison started telling people that he writes to a 'fine Idea Service' in Schenectady, New York, which, for a modest fee, provides him with new ideas upon request.

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
Human beings don't do well when we have a huge number of options--we just tend to freeze up. If we're at the store and have a choice between two cans of soup, it's pretty easy to decide which one you want to eat. But start looking at twenty cans of soup, and now you have to factor in style and brand, price and volume--in short, you have to figure out all the ways in which these objects are different from one another so you can actually compare them and determine which is best for you.

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
Working with clay, on the other hand, you have a lot more freedom. Technically, you could make any shape--but that also means that you don't have any direction; you don't have anything specific to overcome, and so you're more likely to feel unsure how to proceed. Ask the average person to make one spaceship out of Lego and one out of clay, and the Lego one is probably going to turn out better, because there are guidelines to work with.

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
But go and watch parts of the 'making of' documentaries of the new movies, and you'll see a completely different situation: everyone is doing whatever George says, everyone is beholden to him; whatever falls blessed from his pen goes in, no questions asked. And because it was so easy, it sucked. While there was a lot of vague external pressure on him to 'do it right' (like our blank page), there was nothing internal to the process that actually forced him to make the hard decisions--his only limitation was himself.

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
And then there's the fact that sometimes, taking on limitations just means limiting yourself. A limitation is only useful if it challenges you, if it forces you to think about things in new ways and look for creative solutions. Taking on those limitations isn't going to be very useful if all you do is stick to them. If an author starts writing in a certain subgenre and just ends up pulling out all the cliches--that is, they crib the most common solutions from other authors--then they aren't challenging themselves, they're using the limitation to tell them what to write, and how to write. There's a difference between a labyrinth and a maze.

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
But for me, and for all the good writers I know, you have to keep reading in order to feed your writing. You need to take in ideas and experiences from everywhere--challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone, seek out something that you find difficult. That's what's going to supply you with ideas. More than that, just sit down and write. Whatever else you do, if you aren't writing, then you're not getting better (plus you aren't actually 'a writer').

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


  1. I agree that better art comes from tweaking existing formats, rather than working from a blank slate. The example I use is the Beatles: their wrote their best music in 65-67 when they were pushing the boundaries of conventional pop music in albums like the Beatle's 65 and Rubber Soul. When they abandoned traditional limiations altogether, they came up with weaker, undisciplined material like Magical Mystery Tour. And let's not get into Revolution Number 9.

    In fact, that goes for pop culture in the 60s altogether - to my mind the best stuff came out of the early to mid 60s, when artists were challenging the status quo, but still working within established formats. Once they had discarded limitations altogether, and could create whatever the wanted, their efforts yielded self-indulgent, shapeless movies and music. Dr. Strangelove is superior to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Easy Rider has not aged well, while the Apartment remains subversive in its subtlety. Jules et Jim is a more moving depiction of female defiance than Belle de Jour.

    And count me as interested in the outline exercise.

    1. Cool, I'll have to start getting on that, then.

      As for the Beatles, I'm afraid I can't add anything, as (horror of horrors) they have never held appeal for me. But then, they are singular in music in that they've always been forced upon me, by family, friends, and society in general. I never had a chance to come to them on my own, they were always the catchy jingle of dominant baby boomer culture that was repeatedly pounded into my ears since birth.

      When you talk about creativity in the 60's, I think of the greatest television show of all time: The Prisoner, which came in the late sixties. But that show is actually one of the only examples I can think of where the creative minds behind it really did discard the limitations of genre and tradition and managed to create something unprecedented. But then, looking at all the other shows like LOST, Twin Peaks, and the X-Files that tried to follow it, and every one ended up completely losing steam and direction as it went on.

  2. The fiction group thing does sound interesting.

    1. I'm afraid I haven't gotten too much response about it, but I may try it anyways and see who shows up.

  3. I hope this isn't flogging a dead horse or anything, but I'm really interested in that writing group. If that's still on the table.

    1. I haven't started it up yet, but I may try to put something together soon, a sort of test-run. I'll let you know when that's happening, and probably post something up about it here, for good measure.

  4. A fiction-writing group -- yes, I'm aware that I'm more than a little behind -- sounds fantastic. I need something to help me shake off the ongoing lack of output in my writing, and some more practice with fantasy.

    1. Yeah, I've had a few responses to it--I even started putting something together, but haven't actually gotten it up and running yet. I'll let you know.

  5. Can't finish a novel, but are so quick to criticize a man with over 100 publications under his belt. Psuedo intellect!

    1. Wow, so your incoherent anger at my criticism of Chomsky is so extreme that it caused you to post a nonsensical comment on an unrelated post? Get a hold of yourself, man.

  6. I just came across your blog. But did you ever start that group? I am vaguely interested in the concept. Another reason I'm interested is the fact that I haven't really written much of fiction. Actually haven't written anything except poetry. Could you let me know if something is there, or if something comes up?

    1. I did a little of the groundwork for the group, but never actually started it up in earnest. I'll let you know if I do get something together. If you do want to discuss writing at all, I can be contacted at hapaxgr@gmail.com.