I was recently asked my opinion on the origin of creativity.  I’m pretty sure this is an unanswerable question, but it did make me reflect on creativity.

It made me reflect that I have not a clue what creativity really is or where creative ideas come from.  Indeed, I am very much of the belief that we can’t define or pinpoint a thing like creativity in only one way. In other words, I think it depends on the person.

There’s a question writers often discuss: do you outline beforehand or does it come to you as you go along? Some writers plan out everything before they put pen to paper or, these days, fingers to keyboard. Others start with an image, an action, an emotion, and write forward into the fog. I suspect that most writers fall somewhere in between, that they know a greater or lesser amount about the plot and characters and discover unexpected elements along the way.

But even people who are planning it out beforehand are pulling that planning from somewhere. Where is that where? Where do the ideas even for the planning come from? I can’t explain that in any rational way, although that doesn’t necessarily mean the only explanation is necessarily an irrational one. I know that when I am working, I have learned to keep a kind of openness of mind, as if the top of my skull is metaphorically ajar so that Stuff can float in. Several things typically happen when I’m writing: I’ll be working along and suddenly a link between two characters, or actions, or emotions will leap out of the dark and smack me between the eyes; or I’ll be browsing in a bookstore or library and will come upon a book whose subject would never normally have jumped out at me but which serendipitously holds within the answer or missing link to some obstacle I’m attempting to jump over in the story; or I’ll be totally stuck on a plot point or scene so will take a walk and in the course of that walk the solution will appear as easily as it eluded me back when I was at my desk struggling.

Is there any way to neurologically trace how the mind or unconscious found those things? Theoretically there should be, but the brain is such an immensely complex organic structure that it’s difficult to see how it could be.

I just know that there are some solutions, some answers, some ideas, that I cannot consciously track down and grasp; they have to work out somewhere in my subconscious or unconscious and then emerge from the mire to where I can see them. Sometimes, yes, I can consciously and deliberately think some plot problem or character conflict straight through, but there are other times where any explanation of the process is not explicable. It just happens. Sometimes it is a solution that springs fully formed and ready to go. Sometimes it is a flash that allows me to link up threads that were hanging loose before. Sometimes it’s a nudge pushing me to open a door I had left closed, but which reveals a new vista that changes the way I look at the narrative.

I think the fact that I can’t explain how creativity works or where it springs from is much of what makes the process so amazing to me.

How about you?  What thoughts do you have on creativity?

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  1. 1. Satima Flavell

    I think it matters not whether you’re a planner or a flimmerer – the ideas come from the same place. But planners, I think, have the advantage of some kind of hot line to a corner of the unconscious where complete stories live, while flimmerers like me can only grab little bits of a story at a time. It’s as if the planner can pan for gold and come up with nuggets, while the flimmerer has to keep panning again and again to get the same amount in little flakes – and quite often pulls up no gold at all, time after time.

  2. 2. Matthew Milson

    It’s definately a difficult thing to define. Myself, I tend to be a planner at the early stages of writing, drafting a brief outline that covers the main plot. But once I begin the writing process I often do not even look back at that outline, knowing the story well enough, and usually coming up with something better along the way. By the time the first draft of the story is complete, it seldom resembles the original outline.

    So I suppose I’m equal parts planner and flimmerer :)

  3. 3. Adam Heine

    Satima, I think you give us planners too much credit. I think planners and flimmerers (love the term, btw) are thinking up story bits at basically the same rate. Planners just put their results in an outline instead of a novel, and put off the details until later.

    Personally, I think the creative instinct comes from being the direct products of a creative God, but I’m guessing that answer won’t work for everyone ;-)

  4. 4. Ben Cirillo

    Everyone thinks that creativity is the domain of “creative people”; writers, sculptors, painters and the like. This simply isn’t true.

    Abstract thinking, what we call “creativity,” is the ability to conceive of something that isn’t there. We all develop this ability right around the time peek-a-boo stops working. Mommy still exists, even if she isn’t there.

    This ability doesn’t just apply to art. It is an essential survival skill for the entire human race. Every advancement in human endeavor has come down to a “what if?”

    What if I set aside a whole field to plant seeds? What if I put a barb on the end of my spear so it would hold better onto that mastodon? What if I baked clay into bricks? What if I stacked those bricks into a pyramid shape? What if I used gunpowder to launch a metal ball instead of a firework? What if ships could be made of steel and not wood? What if computers sent small packets of data to each other over telephone lines?

    Creativity is not a mystery force from the depths of nowhere to be handed out to poets and painters. It is our birthright given to us by 200,000 years of human endeavor.

  5. 5. Beth

    Creativity is such an ephemeral thing. You know it when you see it, but you can’t manufacture it and you can’t force it. It can manifest itself in a thousand different ways, and while some people have it in spades, others don’t appear to have any at all. Or maybe it’s just that they haven’t learned to access it.

    People who outline in advance — I honestly don’t know how they do it. Me, I’m convinced there’s this venerable old story-teller living in the basement of my sub-conscious, and he passes bits of the story up the stairs purely on a need-to-know basis. Whatever he does deliver is usually gold. It’s when I get impatient and go off searching for treasure elsewhere that I get into trouble. As long as I trust him, though, the story comes to me.

  6. 6. Danny Adams

    I simply tell people that my Muse started giving me more ideas when I started taking her more seriously.

    I don’t outline so much as I just write notes. The more I write–whether it’s notes or the actual book–the more ideas I come up with. As I’m writing. Like focused brainstorming. The work itself generates more work.

  7. 7. Kate Elliott

    I love the term “flimmerers.”

    It just seems to me that planners and flimmerers are, as you all say, reaching down into the same well. How we get the buckets of inspiration up from that well may differ.

    Sherwood Smith points out elsewhere that human beings are pattern makers, and I hope she might come over here to elaborate on that in how it relates to creativity.

  8. 8. Kate Elliott

    Ben, quite so, but this statement —

    Everyone thinks that creativity is the domain of “creative people”; writers, sculptors, painters and the like. This simply isn’t true.

    – puzzles me because no one here, as far as I can tell, is saying that. I’m certainly not. The question of creativity and how it works came to me from an applications manager for web development who was talking about how solutions come to him and he was wondering what my take was on the question of creativity (neither he nor I had any issue with assigning his thought process as a creative one). Naturally, in writing a post on creativity for a blog called SFNovelists, I focused on writing. I agree that some people do seem to fall into a trap of assigning “creativity” to “art” when creativity is really much larger than that and is, indeed, one of the markers of being human (I would say).

  9. 9. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I try to plan. I think of it as directed dreaming. If I point my brain or subconscious or whatever it is that molders and creates in the direction I think I need it to go, it will (usually) wind its way around in the direction I need to it and collect lint and make cool stuff out of it, all while I’m not paying attention. I’m trying that right now. I need to get underway on a book.

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    I reached a point in my current work this week where I was just stuck on a plot point. Couldn’t figure out how to get my hero out of a mess. I’m usually a blend between planner and flimmerer (I love that term, too). And then it came to me. I have no idea how. But there was the solution, and the background for it, and the emotional impact afterwards. It was almost as if I’d remembered something as opposed to creating it. But it worked and I couldn’t possibly tell you where the spark came from. Creativity is alchemy. It’s taking mundane thoughts and watching them coalesce into something sublime. I’m not a religious person, but for me there is something spiritually sublime in those moments.

  11. 11. Kate Elliott

    “It was almost as if I’d remembered something as opposed to creating it.”

    You know, David, that’s exactly it. I know just what you mean, and it is the weirdest thing about the process. I try not to think too hard about creativity, because if I do I have to just shake my head because in certain ways it makes no sense at all. That’s the element that is identified, I guess, with spirituality, for whatever definition one gives the spiritual, which is maybe only (as small or as big as) that thing one cannot explain or even comprehend.

  12. 12. Alan Kellogg

    The real secret of creativity is to take the ordinary and look at it wrong. How would it feel to be the hunted vampire? The just summoned demon? How would you reassure the monster in the closet the thing beneath the blankets is not going to come out and grab him?

    Look for ways you can alter the old tropes. Say, a goblin kingdom where their chaos is expressed as lots of chatter on all sorts of things. Essentially, goblins love to gab, will gab on any subject under the sun, and use body language and gestures to a frenetic extent. Think 13 year old girls at a slumber party, only with a bigger vocabulary and a wider range of interests.

    What it comes down to, how do you tell a story that’s been told before in your own way? Solve that problem and the rest is fretting and fussing over getting the words down.

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.



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