Backwards Creativity

Backwards Creativity

8/7/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

As I walked past the chessboards at Dupont Circle in Washington, an idea came to me for a spy story opening. Two operatives in a public area would make themselves known to each other by moving the pawns, one after another, on an unoccupied board. That would be their means of verifying each other’s identity.

At the time, I found the idea pretty neat. The problem was that I had no intentions of writing a spy story. The only creative thing I worked on that afternoon was a map and directory of Noulevac.

We tend to picture creative inspiration as a two-part sequence: first, there comes the motive to create something. For example, someone may decide to write a love poem. After that comes the brainstorming process, which concludes with the actual idea. Continuing the example, one might decide to write about their lover’s “sun-radiant hair” and “eyes as soft as the moon.” (I would hope not.)

I use the chessboard anecdote, however, to exemplify how the creative process often works backwards. At the time the idea for the spy story entered my head, I had no intentions to write about espionage; the best I could do was jot down the concept in my notebook and revisit it later.

This example I give is not an isolated scenario. As my writing develops, I find more often than not that my ideas precede my motives. This very piece did not originate because I thought to myself, “It’s about time I wrote a few paragraphs on writing,” but because of a different thought: “Doesn’t the idea for something tend to come about before the motive?”

All of this is terribly annoying for artists, of course. Ideas are fickle things: they can elevate someone to brilliance if he she manages to grab onto one, but might leave that person’s neighbor in the cold. Motives, on the other hand, are as simple as finishing the sentence that begins with “I want to.” It is this tricky relationship between the impetus to write and the idea for the writing, I think, that leads to writer’s block. When someone wants to write but doesn’t know what to write, they’re simply experiencing the difficulties of making the creative process work the other way.

The question, then, is if any good can come of this. I offer no three-step process to eliminating writer’s block or pulling ideas out of the sky, but I will say this: having motives proceed, not precede ideas is a situation commonplace enough to warrant some adjustments on the artist’s part.

First, it’s essential to have a notebook. Doing without one is a little like waiting to build a reservoir until rain actually starts to fall. Ideas come with less regularity than burglars; they not only strike at night but on the bus, in the shower and in one’s dreams. Purchase a composition book (or something similar), and you’ll be surprised at how fast the pages fill with on-the-fly concepts. I’ve finished 240-page notebooks in as little as six months: not due to any perseverance on my part, but simply because I had it on hand at the right times.

Let’s say that someone has a motive to create something, but no idea. The common argument is to delay any sort of writing, painting or designing until a well-rounded concept falls into their right brain. If it only takes a few minutes of reflection to come up with something, fine; otherwise, however, writer’s block is right around the corner. My suggestion is to go ahead with the creation process, even if this means just squiggles on the page or a freewriting session. Writing, for me, has always proved more conductive to those lightning bolts of inspiration than sitting around and thinking. (This also explains part of my case against outlining; I feel that it’s better for someone to write out the first part of their concept and pick up ideas as they go than to outline the entire thing beforehand.)

Finally, it never hurts to think on the bright side. Though one might wish that all their ideas for writing came at 4:21 eastern time, there’s something to be respected in the nature of creative inspiration. For me, that unannounced jolt of midnight inspiration has always been enough to cancel out my frustration at not having anything to write about all day. Besides, the story concepts that come before a notion to write tend to be fresher, deeper and fuller than ideas hammered out during a brainstorming session.

For now, that opening for a spy story sits in the back of my head. I wish it came at a better time—when I was actually setting out to write about espionage, perhaps—but that’s something to be expected. Nobody ever said the creative process was easy to work with.

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