Creativity

 

 

Yesterday morning I was in a coffee shop when, in a fit of writer’s block, I began to people watch. I love spying on conversations, preferably when me and the persons I am spying on are separated by a pane of glass so that their conversation is muted and the image of me watching them in obscured. It’s the perfect hiding place for my imagination to take over.

My eyes fell on a young woman working the coffee counter. She was young, cute, in that hippy sort of way, a free spirit. As she talked, a smile bent her lips. She had a dimple nestled in her chin.

Suddenly, something took me by the heart, an urge to write about someone other than myself. I’d been in my head too much lately and I needed a break. I picked up my pen and began to write in my notebook:

She’s a little girl deep down, playful. She loves to laugh and have fun. She’s daring when she’s most comfortable with you. She’s anxious about what to do with her life but she’s glad she works at a coffee shop, even though she dislikes coffee, because she loves her coworkers. She will love them forever. When she gives her heart away, she means it. When her heart was broken in the fifth grade, she cried all day in her room. She never told anybody this. She wants to be important. She wants to do good in the world. She has a crush on several characters from Game of Thrones. She hates her thighs. She loves her lips. She’s worried she’s fake and strives to be original at all the wrong moments. She’s always on her phone and she feels proud when she’s not. She loves working out. She loves to work to the point of failure. She has urges when she wants to move away and never come back. She misses her mom, who gave her away when she was little.

Having finished, I reread the piece and underlined all of the lines that didn’t pertain to me specifically. I wanted to know if this girl was just a thinly veiled version of myself or something new.

Some lines were obviously not me. I am not a woman nor do I work in a coffee shop. I wouldn’t describe myself as playful, I’ve never had my heart broken in fifth grade, I don’t hate my thighs and love my lips. I’m not always on my phone, I hate working out, and my mom never left me when I was little. Other lines were universally myself. I’m pretty sure most everyone loves to laugh and have fun and wants to be important and do good in the world.

As I examined my work further, hints of creativity began to emerge. One line was completely made up (I have never seen an episode of Game of Throne nor have known any of the names, hence the line’s emotional impotency) while another line came off more skillfully (I liked the fact that she disliked coffee and not hated it, since I pictured her having it when she needed it and not being addicted to it; she didn’t appear to have an addictive behavior, with food anyway).

Now remember, everything I was underlining were the things that showed me that this woman was most definitely not myself and that I was being creative. I’d nearly underlined ‘she’s daring when she’s most vulnerable’ but after a moment of reflection, I realized that this is part of who I am—being bold in front of my friends and loved ones.

A line I underlined but one which caught my interest was ‘she’s worried she’s fake and strives to be original at all the wrong moments’. I love this line, itself being a perfect character arc—someone who fears something (obstacle) and strives to be original (action) at all the wrong moments (conflict). What are these ‘wrong moments’? It may not be anything dramatic or daring but it’s something new and fresh. And it’s something we all can relate to, no matter how odd or cool the line. I underlined ‘She loves to work to the point of failure’ but I didn’t have to. I can relate to the motivation to do something perfect to the point of it crumbling in your hands in utter failure. All too well actually.

But one of the most fascinating things I noticed about this whole process was how much I’d underlined the more I’d written. Look:

She’s a little girl deep down, playful. She loves to laugh and have fun. She’s daring when she’s most comfortable with you. She’s anxious about what to do with her life but she’s glad she works at a coffee shop, even though she dislikes coffee, because she loves her coworkers. She will love them forever. When she gives her heart away, she means it. When her heart was broken in the fifth grade, she cried all day in her room. She never told anybody this. She wants to be important. She wants to do good in the world. She has a crush on several characters from Game of Thrones. She hates her thighs. She loves her lips. She’s worried she’s fake and strives to be original at all the wrong moments. She’s always on her phone and she feels proud when she’s not. She loves working out. She loves to work to the point of failure. She has urges when she wants to move away and never come back. She misses her mom, who gave her away when she was little. 

The whole purpose of this exercise was to write as another character, completely different in age, gender, and personality than my own. So shouldn’t the whole thing be underlined? What I came to discover that what you start with isn’t exactly what you end up with, literally and figuratively. This is the essence of creativity, and here are a few things I discovered about the process.

 

It Begins with Ego

I began with the most cliched line the world and ended with something specific and forlorn. This happened because I was being different and not myself. I was essentially writing away from myself. I was curious about this young woman and who she might be. Keep in mind that I didn’t think about what she might be, I just let my mind wander. That’s what creative writing is, getting away from yourself. Or what I picture as climbing out of the hole that my ego has dug for me. So what this tells me is not only that I need to keep writing in order to find out about the story and character but also that I need to allow my character to speak or appear. Also that surprises can happen. That last line about her mom giving her away when she was little came out of nowhere.

 

Most of your rough draft is unusable

All writing—ALL WRITING—begins with a shitty first draft and therefore looks unusable. A woman that loves to laugh and have fun is not boring because it’s wrong, it’s boring because most people love to laugh and have fun, and therefore there’s no story there. There’s nothing creative in that. Not every woman hates their thighs but a lot of women do so I could zero in on why she hates them to make a story. This is what I mean by useable. Technically speaking, nothing is completely unusable if you edit it, let me make that clear. But as it stands right now on the page, everything that comes out of you without editing it is unusable until you instill it with craft, like plot and motivation and conflict.

I say most of what you write the first time is unusable. There are glimmers of truth, there are glimmers of gold in the muck, there always are. The line about her feeling like she’s fake and wanting to prove her originality but at the wrong times is interesting because it foreshadows. Wrong by whose standards, other people’s or our hero’s? The other thing I like are the lines at the end. Never did I realize what I’d written until I reread it: those last two lines, juxtaposed next to each other implies not only a psychological conflict but the possibilities for a narrative one as well:

She has urges when she wants to move away and never come back.

She misses her mom, who gave her away when she was little.

Why does she want to leave and never come back? Why does she miss her mom, who left her when she was little? This is just one of the examples of allowing your characters to tell their story; and for me, it is a wonderful example of the brilliance of not only the result of creating literature but in the very process of creating itself. Without even consciously trying, I wrote a few lines that can drive her story better than anything I set out to graph or list. Suddenly that young woman smiling playfully seems a bit sadder now. That’s the beginning of her story and yours.

 

Play…

The point of the rough draft shouldn’t be to create art, it should be to play. When I was just dicking around. Who cares what I wrote? No one was going to see it. That’s when great ideas arrive.

Check out my buddy Eric’s post on Creativity where he discusses questions and tactics on getting more out of himself and his English students creatively, and how the band OK GO uses the act of play to come up with the ideas for their videos, which are some of the most creatively intelligent and wonderful music videos ever made.

The problem comes when we over-identify with our rough drafts. We get stuck in habit loops, nostalgia, and familiarity. In real life, this is essential. No one wants to live a life where they have to learn how to walk every day. But for art, we must walk the line of remembrance and forgetfulness. This is where art lives and it lives in playing, brainstorming, fucking around. If we expect too much right away, we get blocked. We are not carving in expensive marble but spinning portraits from ribbons of smoke. It’s as mystical and elusive, as frustrating and miserable, and as powerful and beautiful as any art form be. And it’s breathtaking to be a part of it.

Make mistakes. Write long paragraphs of shit. Play. Have fun! Write like no one’s going to read it. This is the beginning of creativity. But creativity has another purpose.

 

…and Work

Creativity comes with play and continues with work; and since it is not in our very nature to be creative all of the time due to our human brain’s need for trodding that famous Path of Least Resistance, it is damn hard work to come up with original ideas. This all begins in not accepting anything you’ve written, no matter how much you love it. Expand, create, deviate.

For whatever reason, my paragraph just feels wrong. For one, it’s not a story. Nothing’s happening. Secondly, it’s not creative. There are breadcrumbs leading to creativity and originality, leading to theme, leading to the narrative (a story’s character and a character’s story). There are always those pieces of gold in the muck. But for now, breadcrumbs are all I have.

What needs to happen is craft, theme, purpose. I must interview and explore my character. I need to write more. But as I’ve already stated, most of what I write will be shit. So perseverance is needed. It’s why writers like Hemingway and Conrad announce that most of what they wrote was crap, and also how every single writer talks about editing being what separates bad writers from good writers and good writers from great writers. They kept editing and writing. They keep trying to find a different answer to their problems of motivation, craft, and plot.

Writers every single day quit on their story for tons of reasons but the biggest being that they haven’t found their story, and I’d be willing to guess that it begins in not being creative enough. We have this perfect storm of words swirling across our conscious mind, mixing with the images, notions, theories, dreams, and voices while also mixing with our psyche’s battles with our ego and superego and every other thing in the world not having to do with the literature, which is in itself the difficult task of rendering reality through a complex language in form of art.

Do you understand now why it can be so disheartening and confusing and painful sometimes?

But this is the nature of developing something. Creativity begins with an itch to scratch and it continues in the defiant act of refusing what you wrote. It’s got to be better, more, higher somehow. The best way of becoming a better writer is not at all as much talent or genius as we once thought but in not quitting on your story by being lazy, ignoring it, shoving in bits and pieces of plot. They need to come naturally, and this can be done by being creative.

 

Creativity is Refusing To Settle

You don’t have to accept what you originally wrote–this is the promise of being creative. That means we can always fix it. Even your revisions can be moved and shaped and edited. The Pixar writers have a list of rules, and one of my favorites is “Don’t use your first idea. Or your second. Or your third, fourth, fifth, or sixth. When you get to your seventh, you’re getting close to where the real story is.” That’s creativity in a nutshell. You came up with an idea? Good, now change it twenty times. Get away from your ego and tap into the character, tap into what sparks your interest. And keep developing it. It can always be better. In fact, it needs to be. Now you see that there’s not so much a division of good and bad art as there is a whole kaleidoscope of drafts in different stages.

Creativity is moving away from your typical, common reactions and into uncharted territory. (Uncharted territory is too cliche. I should’ve written ‘and into worlds unfound’. Meh, maybe not.)

No matter how much shit you have in front of you, you can still be a creative, talented writer if you keep working hard at the process. 

Spend time listening to your characters and their stories and get away from yourself for awhile.

You are one choice away from breaking out into something real. Don’t be disheartened when you’re stuck; it doesn’t mean you’re not good or untalented or non-brilliant or discreative, it just means you’re not finished. Climb out of yourself. Break out. Expand.

Creativity dares us to climb out of the mire of the typical to the higher peaks of the original. But really, when we finally get to that higher place, we find ourselves up there all along but better. Lajos Egri in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing talks about how great stories follow the dialectal logic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Borrowed from Socratic philosophy, it means that when two things of diametrically opposite nature are recombined in the right way, it forms a hybrid of the two, incorporating both elements to produce a third. This is the essence of creativity! It’s how writers can create characters unlike themselves but also resembling them, like a male writer writing about a female coffee girl.

 

Evolve

Creativity is about change, about expanding and evolving. When we write a story that we don’t edit or when we just rely on our own thoughts and egos to tell the story, or when we try to mash it together with plot or twists or something, we are not be creative. We need to work at it, be gentle, with ourselves and our characters.This is how your writing becomes better. This is how you evolve.

Write. Follow the breadcrumbs. Get lost (It’s okay. Every writer gets lost. No matter how many forests they’ve wandered through before, they always get lost. You’ll find your way out). Work hard, be creative, listen to your characters and stories.

Being creative doesn’t have to be a complete mindset change. It doesn’t have to be so serious. Some of the greatest words you’ll ever write will come when your ego is sleeping and your child’s soul peeks out and says Hey Oh River! Being creative can be as innocent and playful as trying something interesting; in fact, it should be just that, trying something interesting. When you do that, you learn something about yourself in the process (like, apparently, I guess I am as playful as that young woman in in the coffee shop).

 

Create and Complete!

 

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