Monday, 26 August 2013

How to be Creative - Andrew Strong

I’m not sure whether creativity is as complex as writers of books on creativity would like us to think, and books on creativity are not in short supply, which suggests that the writers of these books are not that creative, for if they were they’d write something on a subject other than creativity, something no one else has thought to tackle, for example, How to Speak Lobster or Dummies for Beginners.

From 1964 and Arthur Koestler’s monumental The Act of Creation to 2012 and Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine – How Creativity Works (later withdrawn as Lehrer was forced to admit he’d been a bit creative in the quotes he’d attributed to Bob Dylan) -  I have read a lot of these books and I can tell you - they don’t help.

Because what they don’t often say is this: creativity is just a sunny word for work.  Long ago, at art school, it was impressed upon me that artists have to understand how their chosen materials behave. Whether your materials are paint, stone or film, get inside the form, practise, work. You must understand your medium, and for writers, these are words, sentences, paragraphs and so on.

I kept journals for twenty years.  Five hundred words a day.  Whatever the weather, whatever I was doing, I wrote.  If I had nothing to say, I made things up.  If there was so much going on that I had no time to write, I would still write.  And then one day I looked at all the words that I’d written and thought, if I’d written novels, instead of journals, I might have something proper to show for all this writing.  So I stopped writing my journal and started writing a book.

Writing a book is hard, isn’t it?  It’s not easy starting, and it’s even harder to keep going. To write well there is no doubt you need to harness your creativity.  I noticed from the early chapters of my first book that I often harnessed my creativity to develop ways of fooling myself I was working when I actually wasn’t, and the three most brilliant diversions I came up with were notebooks, research and coffee.

The lure of the pristine notebook is very powerful: it’s so exciting shopping for one, you feel like you’re working when you’re not, of course, and you can even stop when out shopping for a notebook and have lunch. And once you’ve found the notebook, you can start thinking about a new pen.

Similarly, research. For me research is a way of reading interesting snippets on the internet without actually writing.  I can spend an hour just looking for a minor character’s name. I set my most recent book in a real city I’ve never visited. This was a cunning excuse to spend weeks on Google Street Search, going for imaginary cycle rides. 

But preparing coffee is the quintessential distraction. I have an elaborate coffee making ritual that lasts around twenty minutes.  I love those twenty minutes.  I can think about my writing, pretend I’m very close to actually writing, but be staring out of the window at a tree, or a bird.  If there were a job that involved staring at trees and birds, I would love it.  Although I’m sure that after a few months I’d be looking at ways of not actually staring at trees and birds but something related to it, like shopping for a notebook so I could jot down which trees and birds I intended to stare at for the next week or so.

You see, this is the problem with being creative. You end up creating so many forms of distraction that your whole day is spent making coffee, jotting in notebooks and conducting research. And just to make matters worse, you can add to this list of distractions reading books on how to be creative. And as I said, I’ve read lots of them.

There are wonderful things some of those books have taught me, and very few of them have failed to be interesting. Guy Claxton’s Hair Brain, Turtle Mind is good on the importance of allowing the mind to wander; Tor Norretranders’ The User Illusion – although more about consciousness than creativity, does say some astonishing things about how limiting conscious thinking can be.  I’d also recommend Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary – a huge work exploring how western cultures have become too conscious, too ‘left brained’, too restricted. 

These books, and many others, are compulsive, and all emphasise that creativity occurs unconsciously, and each, in its own way, suggests how we can set up the right conditions for allowing the unconscious mind to play with ideas and come up with something. But for all their insight, these books don’t really help, they just tend to confirm what I’ve suspected all along, which is this: I need to get on with it.

So if you came to this blog as a distraction from writing, stop reading now and get back to work. However, if you came because you hoped for a tip or advice, I’m not going to disappoint.  Here it is: if you're a writer and you want to be creative, go and write, go and write anything at all, even if it’s what you’d rather be doing instead of sitting down and writing. Just write and write and write, and eventually, if you’re lucky, something magical will happen and you’ll suddenly realise that you have something, and you won’t know how it happened.

I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be a book on creativity.


Stroppy Author said...

Hah! you got me! Reading ABBA instead of writing. Damn. I'll just look out of the window at all the trees and birds. Might even go and let the chickens out so there are more birds to look at...

Heather Dyer said...

Great! And thanks for the book recommendations - more opportunities for procrastination.

Heather Dyer said...

Great! And thanks for the book recommendations - more opportunities for procrastination.

Sue Purkiss said...

Brilliant! Right, just off...

Alex Seaford said...

So true! Having spent an hour or so in a bookshop browsing through the moleskin sections to find the 'perfect' notebook; and then testing all the pens....... Oh and grabbing a cup of coffee at the in store coffee shop so I could read my newly purchased novel ( well it WAS a bookshop after all........)
I have discovered I am the queen of work avoidance behaviour!!!

Chitra Soundar said...

I always buy the same type of notebooks in the same two shops. but choosing the cover design of the notebooks takes ages.

Of course my window has the view of the tower bridge and canary wharf and it is hard not to get distracted.

When I can't write anything I'm working on - I just write random first lines. :)

thanks for the post.

Penny Dolan said...

Think that view must be a distraction, Chitra!

Well said, Andrew,and a nice twist to the post, but did you forget the "tidying my desk up first" syndrome?

Carole Anne Carr said...

Think I share with others in this way because I'm gregarious, and because I would like everyone to know about my latest children's books - but better get back to writing, or nothing to talk about! :0)

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Oh God yes yes and yes and yes. That's to coffee and fiddling around with gel pens and notebooks rather than reading how-to-write books (not so keen on them).
About 8 years ago I was still working in house (for a MAJOR player-publisher) rather than freelance. And I was faced with a dilemma. I had a headache. A severe headache which lasted, night and day, for 5 weeks. Without cessation.
I tried everything. I even gave up caffeine. And the major thing that was worrying me: would giving up the caffeine stunt my own creative writing? Are you serious?
Well, it didn't. And I got rid of the headaches. (The London bombs put paid to seeing them off, sadly-ish.)
But that was my concern at the time.
Not since then have I worried about such concerns.
One of the areas of my work is advising on manuscript appraisal. I worry about it. It is the one aspect of my work which fills me with mixed emotions. And yet the advice within these tomes would save some newbie writers an awful lot of literacy consultancy money. I don't know whether that makes them a good thing or a bad thing. Is advice taken, even? I don't know. I think it's a kind of by the by.
My creative procrastinations, which have me tantalisingly on the edge of writing, or just reading if I am really tired, are coffee preparation, coffee drinking, Twitter, buying a new notebook or pen in Waterstone's or somewhere else vaguely lush, driving, checking into a hotel, opening a bottle of wine, getting into bed.
Lovely lovely post.