Two things popped unto my writerly rear view mirror in the last 24 hours, both of which I found interesting, but neither of which I initially thought merited public comment. Then, as happens, the two things got together and frolicked a bit and created an odd connection which, after the fact, seemed destined for the obvious file.
The first came from an oblique (to me) tweet about “the rule of twenty.” That sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Sure enough, a Google search brought it up as a term for Bridge, not a game I play but where the reference made sense to me. Except it didn’t, because the tweet was from a writer friend and it didn’t seem like she’d be talking about card games.
Inquiry led me to a blog post about Bruce Coville’s Rule of Twenty, about how you have to come up with, on average, twenty ideas before you land on the one that is right. Twenty story ideas before you come up with the one that’s unique, twenty character names before you find the one that fits like a tailored suit, twenty plot twists before you uncover the truly exceptional. Okay, on average, perhaps it does take many trials and errors before landing on the one that “takes.” It’s not a hard and fast rule but a reminder that settling for the immediate, for the obvious, will yield immediate, obvious results.
A little later comes the question: Where do your (creative) ideas come from? Ugh. This was the essay question I had for a college admission back in 1980. When you’re 18 years old and have spent your formal education learning basic artistic skills and then intuitively applying them, the idea of consciously thinking about where creative ideas come from is a sort of cat turd in the sandbox. If creative ideas could be reliably summoned, if one could delineate the process for coming up with creative ideas, basically if an idea could be articulated why would it need to be created? At least this was my teenage objection to the question. If I had to explain how and why I came up with an idea as hair-brained as putting Beethoven in a modern-day city (an actual short film I made) it sort of lost its charm and humor. It was fun, it was funny, it had no real plot, why did I need to explain where it came from? Just watch it and enjoy!
The point of the question — then and now — is not really where, but how. What do you, does one, do to allow for creative ideas to flourish?
Here these two separate-yet-connected ideas (did you notice the crows, one from a Crowe’s Nest, the other from an Upstart Crow?) meld into semi-articulate the idea of what is involved in what we call “the creative process.” Both the Rule of Twenty and locus of ideas actually come from a process that people often think of as god-given, as talent, or simply as mystical. The actual word for the true creative process is called discipline. All the creative arts can be learned but they require the mind be open to the possibilities.
Creative ideas come from creating ideas, the same way that using muscles creates muscles. It comes from the simple permission to think and combine thoughts in new and unexpected ways. We are actually born with this talent, if you will, and have it slowly replaced over time with more rigid thinking. Be reasonable, be logical, behave, take these subjects in school seriously; we are taught that this is the way to be, to think, that this is the point and purpose of education. We may occasionally be thrown a “what if?” but it usually with a purpose. Purpose. What we do must have a practical application, practical and accepted. This is what comes to replace our intuition, our sense of play, our ability to create.
So by the time we make the conscious decision to dedicate ourselves to the creative act we find we have to unlearn much of what we have been taught in order to access those dormant areas of our brain that are naturally creative. We need to relearn the joy of a line without a purpose, wordplay without rigid logic, story without rules. We have to discipline ourselves to see beyond the surface and imagine new definitions, we have to develop a mental yoga that builds new flexibility into our thinking. We have to work backward in stripping away what we know and assume, idea after idea, until we find the core of raw, pure, pungent creativity.
Where do ideas come from? We are born with them. They are lumps of coal that are hardened into diamonds over time just waiting for us to begin the process of mining them. If you are sturdy and disciplined enough you can find them just twenty layers or so beneath the surface.