I’ve written extensively about creativity in the past in relation to education in particular, but here I’m going to adapt one of those earlier articles to specifically address creativity in writing.
The subject of creativity is surrounded by so much mystery and there is so much advice out there about how to be creative that it is easy to get overwhelmed by the whole topic. Too often writers fall into the following traps:
a) They conclude that their favourite author has unlocked the way to creativity and so decide that they must be like that person in order to be truly creative. This means that the writer consciously or unconsciously copies the style and subject matter of their ‘chosen one’ and effectively ‘goes into orbit’ around them, producing derivative work which is a kind of glorified ‘fan fiction’.
b) They imagine that there is some connection between insanity or depravity and creativity and so go off the rails in life in an effort to be more creative.
c) They conclude that they are not creative and that the secret of creativity belongs to some kind of mysterious elite but can never be theirs. I’ve seen many writers in this position. Their writing is actually worthwhile and contains many positive qualities, but, because they have missed particular points of craft, they have not connected with a readership and so conclude that their work is entirely worthless.
All of these are mistaken deductions. Creativity is native to all and can be tapped into quite easily. As a matter of fact, you can tap into your own personal creativity in minutes, using some or all of the steps below.
1. Recognise Creativity as Natural and Important
To be a writer is to be naturally creative with words. Many writers see the whole world differently: some absorb material for fiction with every glance, every sound, every touch. As they work to transfer their experiences or thoughts into words and then stories, many slowly sub-divide it into what works and doesn’t work in a fictive sense.
Some continue to live in the sub-world of what doesn’t necessarily work but which is fun to think about, knowing that they may never reach an audience; others more ruthlessly close down any avenue of thinking that doesn’t lead to commercial success, labelling it as ‘useless’.
Some writers lose this natural creativity over time and withdraw into a more solid existence. They begin rejecting the imagination as ‘just fantasy’ and regard the hard and fixed world around them as superior, senior, more logical, more real. If they do write at all, it is as a private pastime with little hope of being read by anyone else.
Imagination and fantasy are, by some, relegated to the nursery. In fact, J. R. R. Tolkien, world famous author of The Lord of the Rings, fought a life-long battle to get fantasy as a literary genre back out of the world of children and into adult acceptance.
Creativity, though, is about much more than fantasy. It’s about being able to think along lines which are not necessarily ‘workable’ in the world in which we live. If we can’t be creative, then how can we claim to be anything other than robots, electronic brains who take on board what they are shown or told and regurgitate it on command? If we can’t think ‘outside the box’, then we might as well just settle down into being part of the box and give up thinking at all.
The main block to creativity is that we have forgotten how to generate power in that part of the world of thought which is not necessarily ‘useful’.
Being a writer is to some extent about relegating ‘usefulness’ to a junior role. Fiction is a way of stepping outside the solid world of commercial realities into a larger universe, at least at first.
2. Exercise Your Creative Thinking
If you’re creatively stuck, try this drill:
i) Think of some object somewhere. Any object, anywhere.
ii) Now think of something entirely unrelated and very distant from the object you first thought of.
For example, I might think of a piranha fish, deep in the Amazonian waterways. Then, for my second thing, a banana sandwich in a council flat in Leeds.
Two disconnected and apparently unrelated things.
iii) Now try to connect them.
They could be connected in any number of ways: perhaps along the subject of food; perhaps as subjects that would fascinate a child; perhaps by colour (the piranha may have been yellow!) or by the fact that they are both silent. It would be possible to construct a narrative to link them - a boy adventurer, growing up in Leeds, fantasises about encountering the wild creatures of the Amazon.
Already the creative juices are flowing, as they say.
iv) Try the same exercise again.
Let’s say someone came up with an old chewed slipper in the mouth of a dog in Chicago, and the feather of a wild albatross circling the coasts of Antarctica. Two vastly different objects. Connecting them makes the imagination work overtime because they are so different. What it comes up with is bound to be creative.
So prompting the mind to think of wild opposites also urges creativity to kick into gear.
Why does this work?
On a technical level, by thinking of two unconnected things you open up an imaginative ‘void’ or ‘vacuum’ between them. This prompts the imagination into action, drawing out ideas in order to fill that void. Things which are logically connected, like bananas and, say, oranges, create less of a void and thus less energy.
3. Recognise the Importance of Rhythm
We’ve all read good books, seen good films, been entertained by good music or admired great works of art. But have you ever wondered why these things work on us? What is the principle underlying their success?
There’s a fundamental, prime factor at work here - it could be called the most successful technique ever, used by all great artists and in all effective art to one degree or another, except that the word ‘technique’ doesn’t quite do it justice; it is the thing which, as readers or viewers or listeners, we most look for even when we don’t know we’re looking for it; the principle which underlies almost all emotional and spiritual effects in art and in life.
It can be summed up in one word: rhythm.
What is rhythm?
In brief, rhythm is any kind of movement or change characterised by the regular recurrence or repetition of strong and weak parts.
The key things are regularity and repetition.
Rhythm of whatever kind establishes a relationship.
This is how the creative artist enters into a relationship with a person he or she has never met and is never likely to see: a mutual trust or affinity develops between the creator of the work and the participator in it based on repetition and regularity.
Think of an audience in a theatre: it is not merely a group of spectators (unless the play is failing). The people sitting there are participators.
What encourages them to participate?
An audience in rapport participates in small or large ways with the performer or the artist or work of art, often by vocal or body motion. In writing, this actually is a component of the action of reading - entering into a rhythm, consciously or unconsciously, with words on a page.
There has been a lot of concentration on the beat, the sound, the word, which we usually consider is the thing that we must focus on. But in putting attention on the ‘thing’, it’s possible that we have overlooked the hole, or gap, or absence, or emptiness which lies between the beats, sounds, words, and so on, in any sequence.
Regular omission of a beat or step or full explanation causes the audience to fill it in for themselves and encourages physical or mental participation. Just as we stamp our feet or clap our hands to rhythm in music, so we enter into a piece of art, mentally and silently ‘stamping’ imaginatively with the ‘beat’ of the artwork.
And the silences between the beats are just as important as the beats.
This applies to non-musical forms of art too.
Darkness, absence and emptiness in visual art and in story-telling should not be underestimated.
So coming up with at least two apparently unconnected things is part of the answer; making them work together in a way which engages the reader or audience is another.
4. Use Harmony - and Disharmony
Some artists use disharmony and even disappointment within a work to set the reader or viewer or listener up for the ‘joy’ of a restored harmony. A writer can begin an unwanted rhythm, use the reader’s objection or disappointment to focus attention and then transform it into a wanted rhythm. What we call dramatic tension is really an offshoot of this - no tension would exist if all rhythms were entirely regular and predictable.
Rhythm can excite, soothe, lull and arouse any kind of emotion. A rhythm slightly below the usual or expected rhythm of a piece of writing will depress or relax readers; a rhythm marginally above the usual rhythm will capture and interest them. Rhythm and its expression is the basic key to all creativity. Using it well is the most successful technique ever because it underlies so much else.
5. Take Creativity Further
So let’s take the original idea of the piranha and the banana sandwich. Poles apart, but already that establishes a rhythm of sorts - the very fact that they are so different but presented together sets up an expectation in the reader that they will be connected.
What we have here is similar to the two terminals on an electric motor - they are held apart by the base of the motor and so the positive and negative poles can discharge against each other. That’s creativity right there - the discharge between these two concepts is the imagination trying to connect them.
Try to work out a series of points between the piranha and the banana sandwich by moving one step closer in from each.
• Piranhas and bananas might both be found in tropical regions.
• The boy who is going to eat the sandwich may have a pet goldfish.
Now let’s try and get even closer.
• It might be possible for a piranha to be shipped to England accidentally along with a banana shipment.
• The boy might be reading about piranhas as he eats the sandwich.
So we have a connected narrative now and the flow can go both ways - either a story about a piranha which finds itself in England, or the tale of a boy’s imaginative encounter with a piranha.
It’s only a small example, but a large number of great works of art began along similar lines.
Tolkien’s The Lord of Rings epic, for example, began when his vast imaginative structure of Middle-earth found its way into the innocent children’s story he was telling his own children called The Hobbit.
'The Lark Ascending', one of the most sublimely peaceful pieces of music ever written, was initially composed by Vaughan Williams as he watched troops cross the English Channel at the beginning of the First World War.
C. S. Lewis’s famous children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia began when a series of disconnected images in his imagination were suddenly and unexpectedly brought together by an overpowering image of a lion.
6. Recognise That There Is No Right Or Wrong
The funny thing about creativity is that it is not something that can be learned in the same way as arithmetic or spelling where there is a right way and a wrong way. But there are principles that underlie it.
As long as creativity makes vacuums, and thus sparks the imagination into action, there will be fiction that attracts readers.
There are workable techniques for getting started, and I hope that the above has revealed a way for you.