Revisiting the Site: Finding Creativity

(CS: I've been in a more creative mindset with the Toronto Star Short Story contest and several other major publications seeking out original stories, so I thought I'd repost a piece from December 10, 2012 where I explored where creative ideas come from.)

"Where do you get your ideas from?"

This is a question that several famous authors have been asked countless times.

I'm a low-level writer with barely a triple digit following that occasionally gets read by several thousand when lucky enough to sell an article to a larger site, but I've even been asked this question on many occasions. (CS: The site is still insignificant when it comes to an audience, but we got almost 13k views in December, which isn't really impressive but I think means it has grown since 2012, at least.)

Of course, the famous authors get asked it after churning massive best sellers.  I usually get asked it when I say something odd at a dinner party.

There are people that are impressed when they hear I'm a writer. They are less impressed when they discover I haven't written anything they have read. After their balloon has been deflated by discovering they found one of those "struggling and unknown writers", they do express some mild respect for my ability to churn out thousands upon thousands of words a day. I then notify them that it is done more out of necessity (I don't get paid for a blank computer screen) than some divine inspiration laser beaming into my head.

People wonder how I can keep on coming up with ideas on a regular basis. Okay fine, they probably wonder more how a heavyweight author like Stephen King or John Grisham are able to churn out a best seller every single year. Even though they are a billion times more successful than me, all writers must constantly discover new ideas in order to survive. Writing about nothing is usually either called a "blank white page" or "a drunken 3am rant". In both cases, they don't tend to sell well to respectable publishers. You need to attract ideas, and in order to stand out, you need for them to be creative.

So, back to the point of this article, where do ideas come from?

A few years ago, I was standing with a hammer in one hand and occasionally picking up pieces of lumber with my other hand while Emily built our shed (I called it "helping"). During this adventure of wood creation, my mind started to wander. Emily asked me what I was thinking, because she wanted to be sure that my glazed look wasn't due to a seizure. I then asked if random thoughts or story ideas popped in her head while doing tasks or when looking at something. She responded that this never happened to her. I revealed that I'm constantly getting ideas for stories or thinking about different concepts while doing tasks or looking at something. I mentioned how I even feel I've been transported into another world when really engrossed in an idea. My wife then told me that I was weird and to pass her the drill. (CS: This was actually a crucial conversation in understanding what made me unique. I already knew that I was creative and imaginative, but I sort of assumed ideas running into each other inside one's head was a common thing and not something that made me unique. It was one of those moments that I realized this was a gift and curse of mine.)

When I am going to bed, often ideas start warring in my head in attempt to become the dominant one. When I am sitting on the bus, I often observe people, which cause several ideas for stories. When I walk Summit, every corner or new passerby creates a different thought. (CS: RIP, my friend.) When I do almost anything, an idea shows up.

I am not saying every idea is a good one. This is part of the reason I don't keep a journal with me. Some ideas are better left forgotten. (CS: Stephen King is the first professional writer I remember advising not to write ideas down, and to trust the good ones will stick with you. This contradicts almost every other professional writer who talks about carrying around notebooks to jot down every idea. Except how do you know what idea is good and which one was a result of binging on a carton of Double Fudge Brownie Ice Cream?) I find that the good ones lodge themselves in my brain and refuse to vacate it. If I try to ignore them for too long then the idea starts to scream and jump around to the point it consumes my thoughts. It needs to be set free, and it needs to become a story. (CS: I have had a story idea now for over a decade that I have been avoiding because it scares me by how ambitious and grand it is. But it has never left. It has just grown and grown over time to the point I feel like most of the novel has been crafted inside my head. I need to give it life by writing it.)

Before that conversation with my wife, I thought this was a similar thing for most people. I recognized there were people who didn't have an imagination or weren't overly creative, but I just assumed they thought about lunch or math problems or pot holes throughout the day. I didn't know that it isn't common to have thoughts constantly invade your brain and beg for you to reflect upon them or even for one to get completely engrossed on them. (CS: I couldn't imagine how one could be a daily writer without constant ideas demanding attention.)

I had to come to terms with being different. Okay, that wasn't the first time I had to come to such terms. I've been aware of my "uniqueness" for most of my existence. But this was the moment that I realized my brain was wired up different than Emily's brain. The notion that stories are organically forming in my head is not shared with the general populace. Apparently, not everyone has a brain crowded with different thoughts and ideas that constantly evolve and often drag me into moments of daydreaming. 

I still haven't answered the question of where my ideas come from. Or more importantly, explain how one can become creative. 

Part of the reason is that I don't really know. My ideas just seem to fly in through my ear, and then start making themselves feel known in my brain. The good ones camp out until I pay attention, while the awful ones are quickly booted out the next ear. I am not entirely sure what gets them there, or why I have a vivid imagination while my wife's thoughts are typically more practical.

But this blog post hasn't been a complete waste of your time. I promise. Even though I may have been born creative, I don't think creativity is something for a select few. It can be fostered and grow inside someone (sometimes like a beautiful child and other times closer to the creature from Alien). It might not be a creativity that will turn you into a millionaire bestselling author, but you could become a fun storyteller around a campfire. (CS: This seems to be the right moment to once again mention how overjoyed I am that both my kids have inherited my creativity and imagination.)

In my case, I had a mother who really nurtured my creativity as a child. I would want to have a Little House on a Prairie picnic in our living room or when we had spaghetti, set up the house like an Italian restaurant to recreate Lady & the Tramp. She was also willing to play certain characters if I felt I needed a friendly dragon as a friend or a magician's assistance for a big act.

I didn't always need my mom. I was more than willing to entertain myself. I would take all my toys and create a new universe where Star Wars and He-man and the Masters of the Universe were united. I could spend hours creating original stories with established characters. If I wasn't with my toys, then I was in the backyard searching for buried treasure or hunting for an enchanted snake. I also took that spirit of play with me to school, where I often convinced some of the kids to join in with my adventures.

I also owned a notebook that used to go everywhere with me. I would write stories that were sequels to my favourite film or a rewriting of that actual film. It was essentially fan fiction before I even know what that was. I also wrote several poems and original short stories in there. That writing helped keep my creativity sharp. I still believe that the constant writing for the pure sake of writing helps that creativity to grow.

But I also mentioned my childhood for a reason. I think that play and the fact I wasn't embarrassed to enter lands of make-belief helped my creativity and imagination to soar. Now, I don't believe a grown up needs to play with action figures to spark some creativity. I think one should be willing to daydream a little. Allow their imagination to take them somewhere new.

I also observe a lot. I watch people. I watch interactions. I soak up my surroundings. I read tons. I pay attention to the news. (CS: This was before the rise of the term 'fake news' and when many on social media just seek out 'facts' to reaffirm what they already believe.) I continue to be aware of everything that is happening. Because I think there is a magical idea hidden in every event -- even the ones that just consist of the young boy going down the street on his tricycle that I observe from my office window. (CS: This would have been at my old house where my office was on the second floor and the window was to my right, where I could look at my neighbourhood that was far more populated than the one that I live in now. The window is also now behind me, so I am not working if I am looking out of it.)

Once you absorb your surroundings, you need to let your mind wander and explore different avenues from your observations. Most importantly, you have to be honest with your thoughts and feelings. Be allowed to go to places that might scare or challenge you. You may find yourself in a world that is unique and original to you. This is where you find your idea. This is where you can create something fresh and innovative. This is where you can declare yourself creative and imaginative.

Or maybe not. Maybe some aren't meant to be creative. My advice can only come from my experience. Like I said, these ideas just keep jumping in my head. I do know many of them are connected through experiences. I create stories that were either triggered by a conversation or based off a walk in the dark woods. It is these moments that form and allow my mind to explore something new. (CS: Most successful writers will encourage aspiring writers to have hobbies or make sure they do things other than just writing. The goal is that these other experiences will spark something and give one more things to write about. The more experiences in life than the more stories to tell.)

I also know my ideas come from loves. My stories tend to steer towards the supernatural or monsters or the bizarre. It was something that always intrigued me since I was a kid. I loved Star Wars and He-Man, but it was never the space ships or vehicles that interested me. It was the aliens and strange creatures. I loved coming up with their back stories and wondering how they thought differently than me. I also liked thinking about other monsters like vampires and werewolves. Part of me liked being scared by them, but also intrigued by what motivated their blood lust, or wondering what I'd do when encountered with these creatures. This stuff drove me as a child, but it still is a huge part of my imagination today.

Now, if you've read this long, then I am going to say something that makes this whole endeavour of reading seem like a waste. Most advice is pretty useless. As I said before, advice can only come from personal experience. My experience is not yours, obviously -- and I am sure you're proud of that fact. It means that how I operate and what works for me isn't likely very universal. The biggest kicker is this is coming from a low level and unknown writer who just happens to have an overactive imagination. This to my great chagrin means that I may never get any kind of fame or success. That sort of makes my advice even more worthless. (CS: Bah! I am too hard on myself here. But I do feel advice is best seen as one person's experience.)

Stick with me anyway, because I have one more thing to say about creativity.

I remember one author once being asked in an interview what he reads while writing. The author answered that he doesn't read any fiction during the writing process and actually tries to stay away from most forms of fiction. His fear is that it will contaminate his work, and influence him in a way he doesn't intend. He feels that he will inevitably start writing a form of the story he is reading.

I personally couldn't disagree with that more. Obviously, I can't disagree that it works for him, because I'm sure it does. Maybe his advice would work for you. It doesn't work for me. I find my imagination soars and my creativity peaks when reading fiction or watching a film.

It usually sparks ideas in my head and gets me asking questions like "What if?". This isn't a case of fan fiction. I'm not creating ideas for Luke Skywalker's next adventure. Instead, there are often events in the film that get me thinking about other situations. I start wondering what would have happened if another character was faced with this situation or if the hero was put in a slightly different circumstance that now makes him a villain. (CS: Though as someone who is battling with hundred of ideas at a time, I can see how this would be harmful in trying to finish the novel that I'm currently writing. Focus has never been a close friend of mine.)

I find that fiction recharges me. A great movie sweeps me away to a different world. A world where I can create new characters and think about different adventures. This is something that happened to me as a child too. The stories I concocted never really resembled the films I saw.

I think reading and being immersed in fiction can help your creativity grow. But then again, I think it can also come from a documentary or other nonfiction. There have been several historical events that have made me ask questions or want to explore things from a different perspective. I find great books or quality entertainment allow my imagination and creativity to come alive.

This is the key, making your creativity come alive. Make it real. Make it a part of you. Allow it to form ideas that won't leave you until you must write and allow them to become free.

Or at least, that is the opinion of this lowly writer. (CS: And be honest with where that creativity takes you. The best writing is always the most brutally honest, and sometimes we try to shy away from where our imagination takes us.)