I want to share with you the long and winding exploration in which I’ve indulged during the magical cold days of December, days that somehow lend themselves to introspection, giving the psyche time to go deep like the dormant trees doing whatever it is they do to prepare themselves to leaf out in the spring.
This exploration all started when I read my friend Gayle Parness‘ debut novel Rebirth (Rogues Shifter Series 1). She has a dozen or so books out, and she gave me the audio book of the first one, which starts the series. Rebirth brims with imagination and gorgeously rich language not to mention brilliant characterization, snappy dialogue and good plotting. But it’s the brimming imagination that triggered a negative thought about myself as a writer.
When something happens to make me doubt myself as a writer, I am all over it. I am a disciple of Eric Maisel, my go-to writer for all the baggage that goes with being an artist. Because I’m a “self-coach,” as he teaches, I know when I am having a self-defeating thought about writing, and I get on that. Not to deny it, but to examine it and understand the thought so that I can then dispute it.
First the examination. It is a known self-defeating action to compare oneself to other writers. However, if we have the solid anchor of being a creativity self coach and know that we are not going to let the self-defeating part take root, it can be a useful exercise. I do have this creativity self coach thing down now, so let’s take a look.
Unlike Gayle, who is prolific, I am a lean writer. With my debut novel, my newly assigned editor said, “This could be a lot longer.” I said, “I know. I write lean. I don’t know why, but no matter how much I try, that is what I do.” She said, “It’s your style. Most authors throw everything on the page and I have to sort through it.” I felt lots better. This leanness is just my style.
However, I want to do more, much more.
As I was examining this comparison of myself to Gayle, I thought, I’m semi-scientific. I say semi-scientific as I like to dwell on the fringes of science; I am not myself a disciplined scientist. In my previous career, I was a senior technical writer, a role that is on the border of the engineer the IT professional and the written word. Nothing in my life has ever come to me so naturally as technical writing; the field was a perfect match for someone who majored in math and English.
This thought that I am semi-scientific rather than richly imaginative led to the idea of Googling creativity for scientific minds, which led me to: How to Train Your Creative Brain, which led me to: A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young. Gold mine. I need a deliberate methodology for cultivating creativity because while flashes of insight and imagination come to me, I want to go deeper and I want to have some control over it. If I am analytical, how can I use that quality in the service of my art?
I put together this from A Technique for Producing Ideas. This book is about advertising, which is a highly applied form of creativity. I translated the book to writing fiction this way:
- Ideas — ideas for plot and character
- Product — whatever the characters do for a living and the setting or other element that plays a big role in the book
- Consumers — readers
Here is a longish quote from the shortish book:
We constantly talk about the importance of having an intimate knowledge of the product and the consumer, but in fact we seldom work at it.
This I suppose is because a real knowledge of a product, and of people in relation to it, is not easy to come by. Getting it is something like the process which was recommended to De Maupassant as the way to learn to write. “Go out into the streets of Paris,” he was told by an older writer, “and pick out a cab driver. He will look to you very much like every other cab driver. But study him until you can describe him so that he is seen in your description to be an individual, different from every other cab driver in the world.”
This is the real meaning of that trite talk about getting an intimate knowledge of a product and its consumers. Most of us stop too soon in the process of getting it. If the surface differences are not striking we assume that there are no differences. But if we go deeply enough, or far enough, we nearly always find that between every product and some consumers there is an individuality of relationship which may lead to an idea.*
Another book I read in December had a major impact on my writing: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. So I looked him up and found this quote which captures what is so genius about Freedom and which ties in neatly to what James Webb Young said:
…if you pay careful enough attention to a character’s inner life, it turns out to be a marvelously detailed mirror of the character’s outer world.**
Here’s another quote from a book that is playing into my new methodology of creativity (The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman):
…it is the purpose of this book to show that plot is not just about having a single great idea; on the contrary, a good plot is an amalgamation of many ideas or elements of writing, including characterization, journey, suspense, conflict, and context. An idea is paramount but without the supporting elements, an idea by itself is just that — an idea, not a 124 or 300 page living being replete with shades, colors, and textures. Most stories do not come in one flash — on the contrary, the best stories or are organic to their characters, to their layers of suspense and conflict.***
Creativity and imagination can be cultivated. Stay tuned for Part II on how I employed the methods and the results.
* A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young
***The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman