All About Creativity

Inspiration is one thing, but what happens once you’re inspired? Let’s say the inspiration has lead you to something of value. A writer’s job is then to take that raw inspiration and make something of it — and this calls for creativity. Creativity happens when the artists makes new connections and associations between existing ideas. According to recent findings, creativity actually has very little to do with that sudden spark of ideas (cognitively speaking). Creativity is about figuring out solutions to problems. Ironically, the most effective way to solve a problem can sometimes mean taking a break from it. Once we’ve removed ourselves from that problem, our brain opens up. When we stop focusing, our brain relaxes and it is easier for ideas to roam around — networking with other ideas, thereby developing new solutions.

Why is it then that some people can think creatively while others seem to have a mental block? Creative people don’t have any inborn cognitive advantages, they don’t have better childhoods, and they’re not smarter. It is not nature and it’s not always nurture either.

Creativity is a skill that you can practice. For example, creative people generally have schedules that serve to maximize creative thinking. They shift between work and rest, so that their mind can reboot. Creative people know where they work best. In public, noisy environments or in quiet, seclusive environments. They also know to always keep a specific objective in mind. Even if they don’t have an exact picture in mind, they will have, at the very least, an idea of what they want and that will keep them focused. Of course, I also believe that sometimes not knowing what you want can lead to great artistic things. But that’s kind of the lucky exception.

But most of all, creativity is about having a free flow of ideas. Creative people are more creative because they have more ideas. And I think maybe that’s the key separator between talented and mediocre. Many of those ideas will be worthless, but it is up to the thinker to decide that. They filter their inspiration like a sieve and they work with the few ideas they’ve found viable.

Ways to Unleash Your Creativity

1. Shift to another project – When you get can’t work any longer, you’ve reached a normal, practically inevitable, point. One solution to writer’s block is to move around that road bump and start working on another project. I have one big WIP, but every other month I stop writing it. I’ll stop thinking about it too. But I’ll continue to write. Prolific writing is important, but no one said you had to stick to the same story. Try some writing prompts to kick you off. Write some short stories instead of trying to conquer another full length novel.

2. Exercise – Adding a physical hobby to your daily schedule can refresh your mind. In addition to the physical benefits, there are also psychological reasons to work out. It can improve mood and help with anxiety. A clearer mind might help you focus on your writing. I know that when I’m depressed and worried, I don’t write very well.

3. Classical Music? – Yeah. It’s good for the intelligence of your baby and it’s good for your adult mind as well. Try it out. And if classical music isn’t your thing, try soft or sweet lyric-free music.

4. Bathtub, Bed, Bus – The three most common places to be struck by inspiration. “In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn’t in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another.” (Time.com)

5. Think Big – According to the Construal Level Theory, people are more creative when they think in distances. That is to say, when we think of anything that is not occurring in the here and now. If we look through another lens, from someone else’s perspective, from another culture’s eyes, or if we imagine things not of this earth — we’re more likely to create something new. Thinking big promotes global processing which allows your brain to open so that creative thoughts can connect to each other and produce new and interesting thoughts.

6. Tagline/Logline –A logline is that one-sentence summary that a writer will use to sell his story. But before the novel is even finished, a writer can use a logline as a guiding light. The logline is to a writer what a walking stick is to a blind man — it keeps us on track. To write a logline, ask yourself the following questions: 1. Who is the main character and what he/she want? Who/What is standing in the way? What makes the story unique? Use action words to intrigue and descriptive words to create a lasting image. Advice from scriptologist.com

Photo: Flickr alicepopkorn

In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn’t in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another.

Discovering an Author and Handling Disappointment

There’s this author by the name of John Muir. Heard of him? Probably not. When I read about him on the Library of America website, Story of the Week, I had such high hopes. I thought He’ll be my next favorite author. Move over Steinbeck,Fitzgerald and Cather (yeah, I’m big on American writers). All the signs pointed to FAVORITE.

  • According to LOA, he was the next Thoreau.
  • He loved nature and I love nature. One of the first serious things I ever wrote was an Ode to Water.
  • “He rebelled by becoming a vagabond, and by asking powerful questions about the orthodoxies of his day and ours, especially the notion that people stood at the center of the universe.” And that just screams awesome.
  • He shares my belief in worldly interconnectedness. And by that I mean that everything in the world is related to everything else.

But then I read his short story, A Wind-Storm in the Forests, and it dawned on me that… nature writing kind of sucks. It was a terrible epiphany — it didn’t feel good at all. It was as though I was tearing off a part of my identity.

Here’s an interesting tidbit though… I really enjoyed reading his story at first. I thought Wow, what powerful writing, what descriptive language. Thing is — that kind of language and writing style is very distinct and too much of it gets boring fast. It’s like when you hear one note for an extended period of time. You’ll either get annoyed or you’ll stop hearing it all together. His nature descriptions were wonderfully written but they needed to be weaved in with plot, with people, with… more than just setting. I couldn’t even concentrate long enough to find out what the plot was. Ugh, it was so sad.

But now I must pick up my disappointment and move on. Hm… what to read next?

Good Grief: Setting the Stage for the Five Stages

I love psychology and sociology. They are useful and interesting in life and in fiction. While there is an expansive pool of issues to choose from, I have been thinking a lot about one topic in particular: grief. Grief is the reaction to any great loss — be it a person, place, object, position, etc. It is a trademark of life. Most people, if not all, will experience loss in their lifetime. And everyone deals with it differently.

So how does one write grief? Obviously each person will make grief their own, but some scientists believe that there is a basic grief formula (that will bend and twist as needed for the individual). The Kubler-Ross Model is a cycle made up of five stages that victims of loss tend to go through as they cope with their grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (in that order) are the emotions that make up the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. Some doctors believe that these stages happen one after another in ascending order, like steps. Other doctors disagree and maintain that the average person is complicated and will go through the five stages (or states) in their own way. Either way, I think I’ve found a consensus. Everyone seems to agree that the five basic emotions are the make up of the common reaction to loss.

Personally, I agree with the more contemporary view that says that the grief cycle is not so much steps or phases as they are states. “Rather than distinct, sequential stages of grief, it may be more accurate to conceptualize proposed stages as multidimensional grief states that evolve and diminish in intensity over time” (Prigerson, Maciejewski). But since “stages” is the more common terminology for this kind of thing, I’ll stick to that.

The Kubler-Ross Five Stages (or States) of Grief in Detail

1. Denial — The refusal to acknowledge the situation. Characters avoid feeling anything relating to their loss — sometimes characters will avoid feeling anything at all. If we refer back to the Johari Window, denial would be everything that you hide from yourself, what you keep inside your blind spot.

2. Anger — This is the point where things start getting complicated. Instead of a void of emotion, there is an explosion of emotion. And often, those emotions will contradict with each other. At losing a loved one, for example, a character might get angry at them but still love them.

Beware that each character will have a different voice. While some will shout their anger out loud, others will bubble up and boil within. Also think about how healthily your character is able to express their anger. Will they channel it through art or therapy or will they act out? Note: Acting out is usually a good fit for a weaker character, who easily gives into pressure. Does your character attack and push his discomfort onto others? Consider your options.

3. Bargaining — Here, your character gets desperate. In seeing that anger does nothing to help the situation, the character will break down and try to think of anything that will get them/it back. The character will believe that maybe if he stops drinking or starts going to church, his wife will come back. After the loss has occurred, it is usually a private process, worked out between the character and his Higher Being – a series of what if’s? will ensue. What if I had been kinder? What if I had worked harder? But other times, particularly before the loss has actually happened, it’s a process that happens directly between the character and his dying love (a job, a relationship, a dying parent, etc). You can see that there is a tinge of denial in this stage when you look at how the character is either convinced that he can stop the loss before it happens or undo what’s already been done.

4. Depression — Given up yet? Denial didn’t make it go away and neither did anger or bargaining.  On feeling abandoned and helpless, a character will retrieve into himself. This is when the character finally breaks down and mourns. Characters finally face the reality of the situation. This stage is the stage most commonly associated with grief. Whenever I hear about someone losing a loved one, I think about how upset they must be.

5. Acceptance — This can take a lifetime to reach. But it is a highly rewarding feeling to finally accept a loss. Sometimes people even walk away from grief feeling like they have bettered themselves through the process. Your character might feel themselves wiser, kinder, or more understanding.

As each day passes, you close your eyes and let your grief slide through your fingers, one rough, cold link after another, until your loss settles deep inside you. It is a give and take between you and your grief, a tension that rolls your emotions back and forth. And at first you are certain that your life is going to capsize and you will drown. Eventually, the grief will ground you and give you stability in troubled times.

Michael Newland on This I Believe

Grief is an obstacle I find very interesting in fiction (and in life). It tests our abilities to cope and establishes who we are under pressure.

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We Can Work It Out: Using Research in Your Fiction

Research is very often a necessary, or at the very least it’s an advisable, step in your writing process. The old adage still holds true that a writer should ‘write what he knows’. But sometimes writers want to explore unfamiliar worlds and so they turn to research.

Recently, I wrote about following your gut. But sometimes research must be done. I don’t mean research about craft (although that too is important). I’m talking about research relating to your plot.

My current WIP is about a girl who struggles with reconnecting with her neglectful father one last time before his death. Although I knew, before I began writing or researching, the basics of what my characters were going to experience, I felt a greater confidence once I had the support of some research behind my writing. There’s always something to be researched, to be double checked. In my case, I wanted to know about how a young girl might deal with grief.

I don’t know that many people who’ve died and I also don’t know that many people who have lost loved ones. So this isn’t really a subject I’m comfortable with (thank you, God). Whenever you feel uneasy about anything you’re writing — look it up. Go to your local library, use the internet, investigate a new setting personally, and/or talk to people who might know more about that subject than you.

For that audience you couldn’t have expected, now you can be sure that you have your facts straight. Sometimes your audience will know more about your character’s type than you and they’ll recognize when you’re depicting your character incorrectly. And if you’re thinking to yourself How could I depict my own creation incorrectly? It’s easier than you think.

Here’s a few tips and suggestions as to how to go about your research.

1. In terms of the internet, don’t be afraid to go beyond Google. Explore! Curiosity will be your greatest guide. Researching through other, specific search engines can be more beneficial to your needs. Here’s an expansive Directory of Open Access Journals. This way, you can feel confident that what you’re writing makes sense. No matter who reads your writing — nobody will find any factual flaws. Are you writing about an American criminal? Here’s a page on outlaws.

2. Research before you write. This way, you won’t feel bogged down by interruptions and your writing will probably come out more fluid.

3. Your research will take the shape of an hourglass. Start with broad questions, focus in on specifics, and then expand again. According to Research Methods Knowledge Base, it’s important to start with general questions and finish with general conclusions, but somewhere in the middle you are discussing and thinking about the mechanics of your topic. This method is geared more towards non-fiction writers, but it’s a technique that can be molded to the needs of fiction writers as well. In my story, for example, I start by asking: How would my MC grieve? Then, as I find out more and more about the subject, I can ask more specific questions like: What does angry grief look like? How are her friends and family affected? As I observe and take notes on everything, I’m able to compile a certain set of knowledge. In my story, I might not use everything, but I now I have a general perspective on the subject.

Do you have any research tips?

The Great Writer’s Instincts

Recently, while mulling over a WIP, I started feeling very apprehensive about the story itself, in all its entirety. Were my worries of simplicity and conventionality paranoia or was my story really trash? Nobody will care about this story… the hero is not interesting enough… her obstacles aren’t challenging… I had to talk to somebody. I began on a rant about all the literary rules I was breaking and all the writer’s advice I was forgetting to apply to my story.

The advice I got was simple. Stop thinking and just write from your gut.

Of course, I should take into consideration that this came from a person who just wanted to go back to sleep and get rid of me. Nevertheless, I think the advice was sound. Except, after all the time I spent thinking logically and pragmatically about my writing, how I do I make the shift into passionate, effortless writing?

Writing viscerally means transcending what you’ve been told about literature, while remaining connected to that knowledge, and listening to the past, present, and future of yourself and your world. It requires a great deal of character (no, I don’t mean the fictional kind), confidence and the courage to put all of yourself into your writing. Great writers open themselves and their minds and let the world flow through them. Great writers (and artists in general) are sieves which leave us with filtered versions of their world. It isn’t that these writers are better people or that they are more interesting; it is their sensitivity to their surroundings and their ability to regurgitate their experiences.

What I need, and what I think many writers could benefit from, is a dose of moderation.  To detach myself completely would be a mistake. But to continue on this narrow path of writing tips and literary instruction is also wrong. I will try to center myself between my instincts and my how-to books, between my self and the advice of others. For me, the most important aspect of writing is to ensure that it is a creation all my own. To feel the airs of inspiration is necessary, sure. We should still try to, as T.S. Elliot says, “steal” from great writers. But what we steal should be open and flexible enough so that we are still able to work with it and make it our own. Now when I write, I will try to remember to ask myself: is my voice coming through? Does it reflect my own originality? Am I contributing as much of myself as possible?

Character: Come to My Johari Window

Listening to: Come to My Window by Melissa Etheridge

BACKGROUND

I recently discovered a very interesting method for developing character. The Johari Window is a “cognitive psychological tool”, originally invented to improve understanding between self and self, and self and others. I got to researching and found out that the Johari Window is mostly used by businesses who want to encourage better communication between their employees. They set up these workshops where employees have the opportunity to finally build a rapport with long-time office strangers.

The Johari Window has four slots, the open self or arena, the blind self, the hidden or facade self, and the unknown self.

The arena is what is openly known about the person. Depending on the relationship, this area can include anything from hair color (the obvious basics) to feelings, emotions, desires, and fears (what you might share with a friend). If the relationship has just begun, or if the relationship has yet to exist, then this area will remain very small. Even something as artificial as small talk can expand this space.

The blind spot is what you know about me that I have yet to find out. This might be something you don’t tell me on purpose, because you’re trying to protect me or because you’re trying to hurt me; this might be something that I’m in denial about or maybe it’s a delusion that no one can talk me out of. Either way, the blind spot are is not an effective or productive space.

The hidden self, or Facade area, is the space where all my secrets stay. Particularly discreet people will have a larger hidden space than others, just as people who lack boundaries will have an especially small hidden area. The hidden area should not be too big or too small. Some secrets are healthy, while others, when kept hidden buried, can be damaging to the self or to the relationship.

The unknown self contains that which is completely hidden, from everyone. These can be both psychological and physical. Physically, it could be a skill, like fast running, or an illness, like cancer, which I am unaware of. However, more often than not, it is psychological. These can range from capabilities or talents I don’t know that I have, traumas I refuse to surface, fears I don’t want to face, subconscious feelings, or ingrained traits and attitudes from childhood.

IN TERMS OF WRITING

So! How does all this information connect back to fiction? The following is an analysis of a Fitzgerald short as it relates to the Johari Window.

Most, if not all, fiction is built around a main character or a group of main characters with an objective. Whether they are aware of their goals, whether they succeed or fail — these are choices that each writer will make for himself. Over the course of the story, the character will try, probably more than once, to get what he/she wants/needs. An author can use the Johari Window to develop the characters and their relationships to themselves and to each other. With time and through action, the Johari Window will change and each pane will increase or decrease in size.

As an example, let’s look at Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story begins with Bernice, the story’s protagonist, feeling awkward and forlorn while visiting her shallow cousin Marjorie. Fitzgerald begins with an opening where the characters are unfamiliar with each other. If we were to apply Johari’s Window to the first pages of this story, the “open area” would be minuscule because Marjorie knows little about Bernice, except that she is a scrupulous young girl, and Bernice knows little about Marjorie, except that she has a lot of friends.

Bernice’s objective is to feel like she’s part of the crowd, part of the “vast circle of youth“. At first she attempts to become one of the crew by being polite (in other words, by being herself). But this plan quickly falls apart. That night, she overhears Marjorie explaining to a family member how “a little cheap popularity” is of such paramount importance, especially to an eighteen year old girl. Bernice confronts her cousin later on about their opposing views. Fitzgerald pushes the two rival girls together, making for a collision which results in a furiously tense altercation. While  in the heat of the argument, Bernice and Marjorie both begin to take what belonged to their hidden areas and use it to fill their open areas. That is to say, they let guards down while amidst great emotion and expand their open areas by disclosing relevant hidden feelings.

After some fighting, Bernice begins to feel defeated and starts taking Marjorie’s advice. It is important to note that Bernice probably would not have changed her ways if it weren’t for this external force pushing her. I have read stories where the main character makes an internal shift suddenly and without any apparent cause. These stories feel awkward and forced and the reader, confused, is left to wonder why the character did what he/she did and felt the way he/she felt. Everything happens for a reason, particularly in fiction.

But back to Bernice. Slowly, the morals which Bernice’s mother imbued on her are swept away. Marjorie blows in with her tempting superficiality and re-creates Bernice. Marjorie teaches her naive cousin the ways of a shallow and effortless flirt. During these lessons, Bernice is becoming increasingly aware of that which was previously in her blind spot. To push the open area into the blind spot space, the character must actively listen to others and be open to feedback. Now, prepared with new and different weaponry, Bernice walks back into Marjorie’s social scene. An interesting twist: Bernice learns all too quickly how to hog attention and, soon becomes Marjorie’s replacement, Marjorie’s competition. By the end of the story, Bernice is the talk of the town. But in her greed to be the ultimate center of attention, she goes mad — ruining her own image and that of her cousin. The story’s conclusion reveals to the reader, Bernice, Marjorie, and possibly even to Fitzgerald how monstrous Bernice could be. Her potential is surfaced and her unknown area is made smaller.

Sometimes our stories grow automatically and our writer’s sixth sense guides us through its development. But sometimes we need directions which is why the Johari Window is so damn useful.

Challenges, Goals, and Other Literary Objectives

I’ve just finished a VERY big life project and now feel like I’m going to have a lot of extra time on my hands, at least until college starts (I’m thinking of September as a possibility). I’d like to take advantage of this new time surplus by setting some goals.

1. Writing Goal: 500 words a day

I know I can write more than 500 words a day, but I want there to be less pressure. I feel like high expectations scare me away. The cool thing about this challenge in particular is that, its host, Inkygirl.com, has a “Weekly Word Check-In” pit stop where all the challengers are encouraged to post their progress. I’m not sure I can do this yet, but I’m going to go ahead and recommend this as an efficient motivator.

2. Reading Challenge: A Story a Week

Just a story? That’s no challenge. Ah, but it is a challenge. First of all, I haven’t been reading at all lately. So, jumping into full length books might be asking too much of myself. But, giving myself an entire week for each story has quite a few benefits. Its regular pace will keep me reading, even if its only a little at a time. And, beecause the expectations are so low in terms of quantity read, there’s no pressure, and thus, there’s a greater likelihood that I will meet my goals. The bounty of time I’ll be giving myself to read will mean plenty of time to dissect, analyze, and review the stories. I find that when I take the time to delve into what I read, the lessons I learn from picking apart the writing of others leads to improvements in my own writing.

3. Submissions!!

I want to start sending out my short stories. I want to make it an annual event. I read somewhere (Writer’s Digest?) that September is the best time to submit to literary magazines. My goal is to have 10 completed shorts by September. With the remaining 4 months and 3 weeks, I’d like to finish 5 shorts, one of which I’ve already begun. Then, I’ll send them all out to different lit magazines and hope for the best.

I’m not too good with goals and I’m definitely not too good with commitment. But my optimism never fails me, and so, once again, I will set these goals for myself.

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