All Of This Happened Before and It Will Happen Again

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity since participating in Camp NANOWRIMO.  The process of writing a book in such a short time made me interested in where do the ideas come from and how do they develop.  I have been thinking about not just being creative, but the whole concept of how creativity works and why humans need to be creative.

There is a general belief that ideas and creativity just springs forth from the mind in some epiphonic flash.  In a sense it does.  Usually the idea that excites you springs forth from your mind almost fully formed.  However, it doesn’t just appear as if by magic.  It has usually gestated in your conscious and (mostly) unconscious mind for a time.  So, when it does appear, it isn’t something that just appears to you but it is something you have been preparing for a while.

The continuation of that thought into something more than just a single plot point is kind of the stuff of magic.  However, if you have prepared your characters and your setting and you know them well enough, the spinning of the story is a logical progression that your mind instinctively and subconsciously already knows.

This is why creativity fascinates me.  It is a mix of mundane preparation and foundation laying combined with flights of inspiration.

I suspect this is how getting ideas works for many writers:

You go through your daily life going to the grocery store, getting your oil changed, etc. and you see a person and something about them catches your eye.  Maybe it’s the clothes or the hair or a way they say phrase to someone else, but something catches your eye.  So, you write down a brief sketch of that person in the little notebook your carrying (because most writers carry a little notebook for just such an occasion).  Then you’ll go back and imagine, where this person came from, what led their life to this point in time, how did they grow up, where do they go on vacation.  Later, you’ll then see a story on a news website or on television that is interesting.  At some point a critical mass of characters and stories sits in your brain.  Consciously (maybe you keep playing with a character’s backstory) and unconsciously your mind makes connections and concepts slowly congeal until bam, the idea has arrived.  You know what you are going to write about now.

The interesting thing is, creative ideas are rarely ideas created out of whole cloth.  New ideas are usually old ideas and concepts put together in a different order and in a different way.  An excellent primer on how creativity works especially as a recombination of old ideas is A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young.  Young was one of the top advertising executives of his time and helped modernize advertising.  All of that work allowed him to study first hand how the creatives around him worked and came up with ideas.

His theory that new ideas are just bits and pieces of old ideas put together in a new and interesting way is really important to the world of the writer.  Everyone has their own story, but most of those stories are similar to ones the Greeks and Shakespeare told before.

There aren’t that many stories to tell.   There is the love story, the tragedy, the heroes journey, the comedy, the redemption story, the mystery, the road story, and a couple of more which are mostly just combinations of these that I can’t think of off the top of my head, but we all know them.  The writer’s job is to take individual characters and their situations and find the details that make this story particular to these characters in this place and make it interesting and still universal to everyone who reads the story.  Simple, right?

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