Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘creativity

Quote of the Day

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Creative individuals are often considered odd—or even arrogant, selfish, and ruthless. It is important to keep in mind that these are not traits of creative people, but traits that the rest of us attribute to them on the basis of our perceptions. When we meet a person who focuses all of his attention on physics or music and ignores us and forgets our names, we call that person “arrogant,” even though he may be extremely humble and friendly if he could only spare attention from his pursuit…It is practically impossible to learn a domain deeply enough to make a change in it without dedicating all of one’s attention to it and thereby appearing to be arrogant, selfish, and ruthless to those who believe they have a right to the creative person’s attention.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity

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June 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

The secret of creativity

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On Tuesday, in an article in The Daily Beast, I sampled some of the recent wave of books on consciousness and creativity, including Imagine by Jonah Lehrer and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and concluded that while such books might make us feel smarter, they aren’t likely to make us more creative or rational than we already were. As far as creativity is concerned, I note, there are no easy answers: even the greatest creative geniuses, like Bach, tend to have the same ratio of hits to misses as their forgotten contemporaries, which means that the best way to have a good idea is simply to have as many ideas, good or bad, as possible. And I close my essay with some genuinely useful advice from Dean Simonton, whom I’ve quoted on this blog before: “The best a creative genius can do is to be as prolific as possible in generating products in hope that at least some subset will survive the test of time.”

So does that mean that all other advice on creativity is worthless? I hope not, because otherwise, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on this blog. I’ve devoted countless posts to discussing creativity tools like intentional randomness and mind maps, talking about various methods of increasing serendipity, and arguing for the importance of thinking in odd moments, like washing the dishes or shaving. For my own part, I still have superstitious habits about creativity that I follow every day. I never write a chapter or essay without doing a mind map, for instance—I did the one below before writing the article in the Beast—and I still generate a random quote from Shakespeare whenever I’m stuck on a problem. And these tricks seem to work, at least for me: I always end up with something that would have occurred to me if I hadn’t taken the time.

Yet the crucial word is that last one. Because the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that every useful creativity tool really boils down to just one thing—increasing the amount of time, and the kinds of time, I spend thinking about a problem. When I do a mind map, for instance, I follow a fixed, almost ritualistic set of steps: I take out a pad of paper, write a keyword or two at the center in marker, and let my pen wander across the page. All these steps take time. Which means that making a mind map generates a blank space of forty minutes or so in which I’m just thinking about the problem at hand. And it’s become increasingly clear to me that it isn’t the mind map that matters; it’s the forty minutes. The mind map is just an excuse for me to sit at my desk and think. (This is one reason why I still make my mind maps by hand, rather than with a software program—it extends the length of the process.)

In the end, the only thing that can generate ideas is time spent thinking about them. (Even apparently random moments of insight are the result of long conscious preparation.) I’ve addressed this topic before in my post about Blinn’s Law, in which I speculate that every work of art—a novel, a movie, a work of nonfiction—requires a certain amount of time to be fully realized, no matter how far technology advances, and that much of what we do as artists consists of finding excuses to sit alone at our desks for the necessary year or so. Nearly every creativity tool amounts to a way of tricking my brain into spending time on a problem, either by giving it a pleasant and relatively undemanding task, like drawing a mind map, or seducing it with a novel image or idea that makes its train of thought momentarily more interesting. But the magic isn’t in the trick itself; it’s in the time that follows. And that’s the secret of creativity.

Written by nevalalee

June 7, 2012 at 9:52 am

The power of intentional randomness

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I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.

Gregory Bateson, quoted in The Whole Earth Catalog

Randomness has been used as a creative tool for a long time. (Leonardo Da Vinci recommended that painters generate ideas by splashing paint on a piece of paper and seeing what images were suggested by the random shapes.) It’s a way of forcing the brain to be ingenious: we’re all very good at seeing connections between unrelated objects, or patterns where there really are none. Intentional randomness is the easiest way to put this ability to useful work.

At the earliest stages of a project, randomness can be used to generate ideas for an entire story. The plots for the three novelettes I’ve sold to Analog, for example, all came about in the same way: I leafed through a pile of science magazines (usually Discover, but sometimes Scientific American), chose two or three articles essentially at random, and tried to figure out what the subjects might have in common. “The Last Resort,” for example, arose from the juxtaposition of two unrelated articles, one about the snakes of Narcisse, the other about the tragedy of Lake Nyos. “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to come out next year, originated in a similar way.

For a novel, which can take up a year or more of your time, the underlying idea will probably not be the result of such a mechanical process (although I’ve done this, too). Once you have a plot, though, you can use intentional randomness to enrich your outline. For a while, I would cast a hexagram of the I Ching for every scene I wrote, looking at the result and trying to figure out how it applied to the current chapter. (At least two editions of the I Ching have been published specifically for writers, although the Wilhelm translation is probably still the best.) I haven’t done this in a while, mostly because I found the I Ching to be a little too vague, but it’s certainly worth a try.

More recently, I’ve taken to doing something similar with A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, which is admirably suited for this approach. It’s an anthology of 218 numbered quotations from Shakespeare, selected by Hughes, presented without context or comment. When I’m brainstorming a chapter, I’ll choose a quotation at random—ideally with a random number generator—and then try to see how the passage might apply to the scene at hand. And I’ll almost always come up with an unusual angle or insight into the story that I wouldn’t have stumbled across any other way.

This technique (which sometimes verges on bibliomancy) is especially useful when combined with a mind map. I’ll write a single guiding word on the page, generate a Shakespeare quotation, and write it down beneath the central word. I’ll then noodle for a while with that particular passage before moving on to less structured brainstorming.

If this sounds a little mechanical, well, it is. And I don’t claim that it works for everyone. But over the past few years, it has become an essential part of my writing process.

Mind maps as a writing tool

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Mind maps—that is, informal diagrams with different words, phrases, or images clustered around a single central idea—are such a useful tool for writers and creative artists that they’ve become something of a cottage industry. I’ve been doing them for ten years, and never start a writing project without one. For Kamera, I probably generated upwards of 150 different maps, while a novelette or short story might have five or ten.

It isn’t hard to see why mind maps work. Since they’re loosely organized, with hierarchy giving way to a random flow of ideas, they’re naturally suited to loose, right-brained thinking. The process of writing with a pen slows down the rational left brain so that the right hemisphere can catch up. And, perhaps most crucially, a mind map provides a record of what might otherwise have been an unstructured brainstorming session. (Even the best idea in the world is no good unless it is promptly written down.)

I’m not going to go into the specifics of how to create a mind map, since the process is different for everyone, and there’s plenty of instruction available online. For creative writers in particular, my advice is to do mind maps in three stages: one or more large mind maps for the overall plot, one for each important character, and one for each major section—for example, the three acts of a screenplay. My own preference is to also do one for each chapter, with additional ones for large set pieces, but this is a matter of taste.

Mind maps can be done on paper of any size, but I’ve found that larger is better, especially when you’re laying out the first outlines of a short story or novel. Later on, as you begin to drill down to individual scenes and characters, smaller pieces of paper may be easier to manage. Here, for example, is a view of the notebook pages that I used to brainstorm character details for “The Last Resort,” a novelette that appeared in the August 2009 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact:

And here are the initial mind maps I made for “Kawataro,” a novelette scheduled to appear in Analog sometime next year:

A number of software programs exist for generating mind maps, but I’ve found that pen and paper is by far the best way. The physical act of writing tends to slow down my thoughts, forcing me to consider each word as I write it, until it seems as if the pen is doing the thinking. (This forced slowness is an advantage that we lose when typing, especially in Microsoft Word.)

As powerful as mind maps are in themselves, they’re even more useful when paired with what I like to call intentional randomness. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2010 at 8:41 am

Where do ideas come from?

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For most people, this is an interesting, if abstract, question. For a writer, it can be a matter of life and death. One of the first things you learn as a working novelist is that you can’t depend solely on blind inspiration: a great idea comes uninvited maybe a couple of times a year, while a novel requires hundreds of great, or at least good, ideas. All writers eventually develop a set of tricks for turning the unpredictable workings of inspiration into something marginally more reliable. Over the next few days, I’m going to talk about some of the tricks that work for me.

The problem of generating good ideas on a regular basis, while challenging for anyone, is especially pronounced for a novelist, whose job requires qualities of personality that don’t always lend themselves to inspiration. A successful novelist has to be a bit of a drudge. Writing a novel is hard, fairly tedious work, with a lot of bookkeeping involved. It demands organization, planning, and the ability to sit at a desk for six or more hours a day. In short, it’s a left-brained activity. But the right brain is where ideas come from. And anyone who wants to write more than one publishable novel has to find ways of coaxing the right brain to life on a regular basis.

Colin Wilson, in his essay “Fantasy and Faculty X” (available in this book), describes the problem in a useful way:

…The right and left hemispheres operate at different speeds: the right is low, the left is fast. And this explains why they are out of contact much of the time. They are like two men going for a walk, and one walks so much faster than the other that he is soon a hundred yards in front, and conversation is practically impossible…

There are two basic methods for reestablishing contact between the two selves. One is to soothe yourself into a deep state of relaxation, so the left slows down. The other is to stimulate yourself into a state of intense excitement—the younger generation does it with loud music and strobe lights—so the right begins to move faster. Both these techniques have the same effect; the two halves are like two trains running on parallel tracks at exactly the same speed, so the passengers can lean out of the windows and talk.

Obviously, it’s hard to write to loud music and strobe lights, however fun it might be to try. But the opposite approach, that of slowing the left brain down, is more practical. Writers have used various techniques to accomplish this, ranging from self-hypnosis (which John Gardner describes in On Becoming a Novelist) to, more dangerously, alcohol and drugs. As I’m going to discuss this week, I’ve found two techniques to be especially useful: mind maps and intentional randomness.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2010 at 8:15 am

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