Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Where Are You Creative?

I think lately I've been stuck on finding creative premises for stories. Or, sometimes I'll try to come up with a creative character. But, I'm feeling like I'm neglecting all the other ways we writers can be creative in our writing. It can be in language. It can be in structure. It can be in metaphors. Really, anything.

I've been rereading Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse and stumbled upon this glorious passage about a man, Mr. Ramsay, thinking about his own intellect:

It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q....But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation*. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q-R- Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded. "Then R..." He braced himself. He clenched himself.

Isn't that a creative way to express the idea of one's intellectual limit? It just inspires me to work harder in my own writing.

So, tell me, where are you creative? What parts of writing give you the free room to play? I need ideas, people.


  1. I usually start with the premise for a story:

    - A man has to die in order to save his soul.
    -God decides to destroy the world, but He can't decide how to do it so He comes to earth and hires a consultant.
    - A group of researchers drilling for ice cores at the north pole finds a book that tells the origins of Santa.
    - A little boy who was born on a bean farm can toot with super-hero-like force.

    I have about 5 others in queue, just need the time to focus on them.

    I take the premise and expand it into a story concept (1k-2k words), which brings different characters into the fold. I break up the story concept into scenes, and have at it.

  2. Ironically, I think I'm most creative when I'm forced into a structure that does not come naturally to me. When I have an "assignment" like a certain poetic structure or another set of rules that my writing must follow, I get more creative than usual because my mind is forced to go in unusual directions. Also, I find it a great challenge to strictly follow the rules while coming up with something totally unexpected.

    I think most of my creativity lies in the details--unique insights, turns of phrase, etc. I don't really try to come up with genius Big Ideas. Some people's talents go in the opposite direction. But for me, I like to take familiar or formulaic stories/structures and do unexpected things with them.

  3. Rick, I always find your story ideas quite fascinating. Thanks for sharing some of them! The Santa one is pretty cool.

    Jeannie, I think a lot of people benefit from setting some sort of restriction on themselves. Just as you say, it can force you to be creative while sticking to the rules. It's interesting that the first two commenters have two very different approaches on creativity!

  4. creativity in ideas is easy for me. It's the putting them down that is tough. I work more like Rick than Genie.

  5. Davin: I just read "Bohemian" on Michelle's blog, and that's a great story. It goes from cool to incredible as you read along, and is filled with surprises.

    I have no idea where I put the creativity in my own writing. "Bohemian" makes me realize that I'm working hard with character right now, to have well-rounded people who have flaws and quirks and secrets and curiousity and are surprising but believable.

    The Woolf excerpt is great. I think she had that idea separately from her fiction and just worked it in because she could and it made sense. I think it serves as a reminder that we can pour a lot of our ideas into our fiction if we keep in mind that everything is connected and that stories are part of the rest of the world, if you know what I mean. Too many stories are sort of airless and walled off from reality; one thing I've always liked about Woolf that I try in my own stuff is to have things in the story pointing out to ideas loose in the real world.

    Anyway, I have no idea how to answer your actual question. Except to say, as usual, that you're worrying too much about being creative. To slightly misquote Salman Rushdie, you can go on all you want about surrealism or whatever, but at some point you've got to just tell me a fucking story. [Obscenity in the original Rushdie quote.]

  6. Mr. Ramsay is someone I don't think I'd like to have tea with.

    I'm of two minds on this passage. It's clever, perhaps gloriously so, but it's also a bit too self aware, IMO (of course, my preferences don't trend toward more literary fare).

    Being creative is all good and dandy, but unless you're a letter X,Y,Z, it can come across hackneyed or worse (unfortunately something I know all too well in my Qish position).

  7. Hands down: character creation.

    The idea for a person- a whole, living, breathing, fully-dimensional (and I typed
    'dementia' orginally yeah sometimes that's in there too *laugh*) flawed, human -or in the past sci-fi I've done sometimes not even human- being that really inhabits a mental space, plants their flag in the smooshy, over-wrought firmament that is my brain and says "Look, this is my world, you're just taking dictation in it. You WILL listen to me."

    Then it goes to telling the stories of these people. Where they came from, where they are now, where they wish they could be.

    That's what gets me thinking- and dreaming- and writing. Always ways to make the characters more real, no matter how unreal the circumstances they may be in. After all, sometimes real life feels more surreal than the most imaginative tale (for good or bad).


  8. First, Rick, you rock!

    I don't know where I'm the most creative in the writing process, but I've been playing around with style a lot lately, with fragments, clipped sentences as well as longer sentence (25 plus). Why? I guess I'm still coming into my own as a writer.

  9. I find I'm most creative doing something entirely different, something that jolts me out of my norm: Going running, entering a martial arts competition, learning to play an instrument, hiking by myself in a new place.

    I also like to explore new music when I'm feeling flat and predictable. Sometimes a word or phrase in a song sets me off for the day.

  10. For me, sometimes it's a story premise, other times a character idea or sometimes even a single line. Inspiration can strike in any which way.

  11. I'm like Jeannie. I'm most creative in a box. Then I like to knock the walls down once I see my thoughts take a more creative turn than normal. My "True Colors" story did this for me (the Six Birds thing), as well as other prompts I've written stories from. "Cinders" was similar because it was something I never would have discovered without giving myself the challenge of self-publishing it. That put me in a box, but a clear box if that makes any sense at all. It probably doesn't, but oh well.

    I agree with Scott. I think you worry too much about your creativity and whether or not your stories are "creative enough." Just tell a story. You're an experienced enough writer that creativity will happen on its own. Self-aware creativity has never worked well for me. Maybe it does for you, I don't know.

  12. I think my creativity shows itself in many ways within my writing. I think it's the same for any writer.

    I ended each chapter of one project with one paragraph sections of the character at the very end of the day, most likely in bed, their thoughts rambling toward sleep . . . kind of like me at the end of the day. For me, as I'm lying in bed at the end of the day my mind flits here, there and everywhere - events of the day, things I need to do, things I want to do, thoughts about a book I just read or a movie I just watched. For my characters, the thoughts centered more on specific issues. Still, in one paragraph, the last moments of waking for the day were detailed for the reader.

    Is this creative? Well, I think so, but someone else may not.

    So, as Michelle and the other Scott pointed out: stop worrying about being creative and, well, just be creative.

    Everything is subjective after all.

    If we worry too much about, oh, say, creativity, rules, etc., then we stifle the creative process. : )


  13. Enjoyed your post! All my life, poetry was the format I felt most comfortable in..At some point in the past couple of years, I felt like I had nothing new to say in verse. Simultaneously I thought of a story idea that excited me..Forcing myself then to think within a fixed structure of a novel/story instead of trying to pull words out of thin air to express my own feelings(?), actually helped my writing get better- more immediate, accurate, less purple, more honest (since the words had to actually serve a story rather than stand alone). And ironically I felt like I could write better poetry because of this foray into prose.
    Does that make sense?
    [My comment could imply two things: 1) That trying to force yourself into an unfamiliar structure can help fuel creativity or 2) Trying to focus on WHAT you are trying to convey rather than HOW you are saying it could be the way to go.. For me- I think both of these came into play. Ultimately focussing on WHAT you want to say will force you to say it in the best way possible, no? ]


  14. Davin, though I write fantasy, I usually find a lot of inspiration in science. A trip to Denver's botanical gardens this weekend got me thinking about bees, polination, and interconnectedness. I usually take whatever is inspiring me and route it through a character; so at the moment I'm building up a character who is great at seeing patterns, and this is crippling her ability to function in the "real" world. She've overwhelmed by too many connections, and she's trying to avoid becoming a conspiracy theorist. That's all I've got for now, but I find inspiration out in the world and how it works.
    Current events, sure, but usually in museums and nature. What if the aliens didn't invade in saucers but as a red tide washing over our shores? What if it's relatively benign compared to the thing that's driving it to take refuge here?
    I guess it comes down to questioning, cross-examining an idea, and trying to get it to give up its perfected essence. Questions seem a good place to start. Ask yourself a few questions. Verbally pin your character to the wall and look for the unexpected answers.

  15. I don't think I could write that Woolf passage (though I'd love to if I could), but I do think that I let myself play mostly in dialogue. Puns, double entendres, miscommunications, disingenuity and so forth are all things that get my creative brain working.

    Though I wonder if I am at my most creative when doing things that are easy for me (like dialogue) or when doing things that are difficult for me (like setting and description) that make my brain work harder? Which of those is the really creative act? I don't know.

  16. Where am I creative? In my little toe. :-)

  17. Lois, you and I are opposite in that. It's always getting the original idea that's hard for me. I'm getting better at translating those ideas into words.

    Scott, I'm glad you liked the story. Thanks for reading it! It feels experimental for me, so I'm thrilled to get positive feedback on it. You always tell me to just write the fucking story. Okay, okay, I'll write the fucking story.

    Bane, that self-awareness you mention is something that comes up for me a lot too. I used to avoid it, but I don't anymore. I guess I don't mind a bit of showboating when I feel like it's a celebration of human achievement. What made me change my mind was actually going to see an art exhibit about Aboriginal art. I loved the war paint and masks they used, and I felt like I understood their purpose for the first time.

    Ah, Bru, you're character driven! I love to read those types of stories. They are hard to come by these days, I feel.

    Crimey, I hope you're having fun playing with the sentences. I keep trying to experiment with them, but then in revisions I go back to my same ways.

  18. Wulf, That's great advice. When I was studying art I had an art teacher who often made us move around while we were sketching. Sometimes we had to stand or go to a part of the room we were never in before. It works to get your mind focused again.

    Jennifer, I think that's usually true. Yes, I've been inspired by all sorts of things. Sometimes they turn into stories and sometimes they don't.

    Michelle, that's interesting that you have the rules to get started and then take them away. That makes a lot of intuitive sense to me. We need that push to get started sometimes. Deadlines often help me too.

    Scott, that's cool what you did at the end of your sections! I think a lot of writer's avoid those going-to-bed scene, and it would be fun to read them! And, if you haven't picked up on it yet, I'm a worrier. :)

    Lavanya, BEAUTIFUL comment. Thank you! Yes, I agree with you totally on both points! Funnily enoug I've been reading a lot more poetry lately in my attempt to be more creative. I've felt naturally drawn to it.

    David, thank you so much for explaining your process for us. I always love to go through step by step on these types of things. "I guess it comes down to questioning, cross-examining an idea, and trying to get it to give up its perfected essence. " That makes a lot of sense to me.

    Martin, you better protect that toe at all costs!

  19. Aw, man, I never get past E-F. After that I just hum.

  20. Ha ha! Tara Maya, somehow I think you are more of a Z writer.

  21. Z for me, definitely Davin, but only because I've yet to master alphanumeric sequencing.


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