On creativity – summary of talk at Creative Fuel Conference Aug 2015

In August last year, my partner, Anne Buist, and I spoke at the ADMA Creative Fuel Conference on some of the creativity techniques that we use in writing, particularly in developing plot and dealing with structural problems.

I have a bit of a background in design theory (as you’ll know if you’ve read previous posts), Anne’s a professor of psychiatry and both of us are novelists.

So, here are a few of the techniques we talked about – topic headings and a quick summary of the points.

  1. Look for what you can use. We said this at the beginning of the presentation and it’s a good rule for any learning environment. Have a current problem (or two or three) in mind as you listen, look for anything that might help or stimulate a line of thinking and don’t be distracted by the negatives. We’ve had some of our best ideas listening to our ‘worst’ teachers, critics and editors. If you get one thing you can use from the few minutes it takes to read this list, good. Don’t write to us about the other nine!
  2. Focus your creativity where it matters. If you’re looking to write a popular bestseller, plot is going to be critical, so make sure you give it a proportionately large amount of your total writing time and throw the full creativity tool set at it.
  3. Wear the lucky socks – if they’re really lucky. Which is to say, find out what works for you and keep doing it. Try what others recommend by all means, but evaluate it. No point spending an hour doing free-form writing every morning if it isn’t helping you. If your best ideas come in the shower, or after a run or that first drink (it’s seldom the third) then do those things deliberately—or schedule creative thinking time around them.
  4. If you’re looking for a creative idea (e.g. for a story!), look to combine two ideas. Idea A (a story about running a marathon) is not likely to be unique. Nor is idea B (writing a story using three tenses and three grammatical persons). But A+B (a story about a marathon using three tenses and three grammatical persons) is far less likely to have been done before. You can read mine at http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/three-encounters-with-the-physical-20130111-2cl32.html
  5. Embrace your weirdness. Or at least identify it. At the Romance Writers Conference in Melbourne last year, I played the ‘stay standing if you…’ exercise with a big audience of writers. There were people who had PhDs, had walked the Camino de Santiago, who identified as indigenous, etc – but very few who could match any given combination of 3. Those rare combinations can be the basis of an original perspective. Think: What makes you unique? What story can you tell that others can’t? What can you bring from another field to inform your story?
  6. Redraft. Good writing is re-writing—and the creative perspective on this is that with each re-write you bring all your creative resources to the job, starting each time from a higher base. So, with that first draft, don’t get it right, get it done. Then improve. Repeat.
  7. Put it aside for a while. If there’s one thing most creativity studies show, it’s that creativity needs an incubation period. When you’ve reached a point of satisfaction, put the work aside—and work on something else. Which means you should have at least a couple of projects going at once.
  8. Separate the identification of problems from their solution. Plenty of people are good at finding problems, but not at fixing them. You’re the writer. If you want help with a solution, make that a separate exercise—and save it for the problems you can’t solve yourself in your own style.
  9. Give solutions to problems a chance. The first question is not ‘Why won’t this solution work?’ but ‘How can we make it work?’ And remember, solutions typically generate new problems—sometimes opportunities. Don’t reject a solution because it’s going to necessitate work elsewehere.
  10. Make the magic routine. When you succeed in solving a problem, look at how you did it. Strive to make that something you can do at will so you can save your creativity for the tougher problems.

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