I’ve been watching a lot of MasterChef lately. I’ve seen the US version, although I’m not wild about the style, where three judges humiliate home chefs until they make someone cry. No, what I’ve become hooked on is the Australian series. I’ve just watched the most recent season (and found past seasons of the Junior version of the show), and aside from the basic structure, it’s nothing like the US show. The judges are nice. They encourage creativity and risk-taking. They laugh. And they teach. The US show is 20 episodes. The Australian show—for a slightly larger pool of contestants—is 70 shows. That’s long enough to get to know the habits and cooking genres of each contestant.
So why—on a creative writing—am I talking about a cooking show? Stick with me. We’ll circle back around.
The creative process has been on my mind lately. I suppose any creative artist thinks about it—at least in passing, from time to time. But, aside from those annoying times when I can’t come up with an idea, I’ve never taken the time to give the notion of human creativity any real thought. It’s just something that’s part of the process. I can’t start to write a story until I have an idea.
But where does that idea come from? Do the mysterious workings of my brain pluck it out of some cloud of grey matter made of long-gone memories that have been not so carefully filed away? Or am I just mashing together different bits of things I see and hear around me?
There are many kinds of creativity. I’ve seen people who wanted to write a story about… oh, let’s say love… any they slowly build up details around that structure, like a creating a home from a wooden frame. A different kind of creativity is what allows us to take the idea we have and flesh it out, inventing realistic people and places in which to set our idea. But for now what I’m talking about is the spark.
The spark. We’ve all felt it. That moment when you are searching for an idea, for something to get the keyboard humming. One second you don’t have anything. And then. POW. Suddenly you do. You might not think it’s the best feeling you’ve ever had, but you’re lying if you say it’s not awesome. The idea is never fully formed. It’s a sense. A feeling… from a story that you feel like you’ve been told. But then it’s up to you to tell the story in a way that brings back that feeling to life.
Science tells us that that moment of inspiration is related to a dream. Think back to a recent dream—preferably one in an unfamiliar setting. Last night I dreamt I was lost is a particular Las Vegas casino. I’ve never been to that casino. I have no idea what it looks like. The reason I knew I was in that casino was because my dream told my brain to conclude I was. Similarly, our dreams almost never have beginnings. I don’t remember how I got to be in that casino. The dream started in media res. I was there and this was the situation. Go!
Inspiration is the same. We imagine or a character, or a scene or a generic feeling. That is the divine breath. The rest of it, is good old-fashioned hard work, to make that final story deliver the same feeling.
But how does it do that? I’ll start by admitting I do not know. But by observing the creative process from several angles, I’ve got some thoughts.
Answer this for me. Are you more creative when you have no constraints?
Back to the cooking show for a minute. The MasterChef had several different kinds of contests within the overall competition. Two in particular of interest here. Occasionally, the judges will ask the chefs to cook anything (we’ll call this Open)—you have 90 minutes to create whatever you want… Go. More common are variations where there is a theme (Italian) of collection of odd ingredients the chefs must use (we’ll call this Restricted)—here’s bacon, chocolate, dry ice and a lemon… Go.
Invariably the when an Open challenge was put forth, there was always a period of standing around, hemming and hawing over what they would cook. While with the Restricted challenges, everyone was off immediately—even if they didn’t know what they were going to do, they knew where to start… get the bacon.
But of some surprise to me, the food cooked during the Restricted challenges was more creative and better executed than the Open dishes. And I don’t just mean a little—wildly more creative.
Back to writing. I’ve always felt I worked better under structure. Deadlines motivate me. Word counts give me a benchmark to aim for so I don’t feel like I’m rambling (yes, this post has no work count… deal with it). But until recently I’d always through of those merely as guidelines. Now, I’m starting to think of them as Constraints.
In past several years I’ve worked with Paul and Jodi on several anthology projects. And with each one I’ve been given a starting point. Most recently I wrote a Christmas-themed short story, with the following constraints: 1,500 words, use “See the blazing Yule before us” as your source of inspiration… Go. That’s basically wide open. No problem, right? Of course it’s wrong. I floundered in uncreative hell for weeks (the months of floundering you may have read about in other posts or on Facebook was in the execution stage).
But if we look back a to the story immediately prior I was given these constraints: 1,500 words, your inspirations should be the Eurythmics song “Don’t Ask me Why” (not just the title, but the lyrics and mood) and one or more historical events from 1989. I had an idea five minutes after looking at a list of events and reading the lyrics.
Or what about this one: Here are the four stories that come before yours. Use the world that has been created. Your main character must be a character from the story right before yours. Leave a few new characters for the next author to choose from. Go. Nothing in the previous stories even suggested that I’d wind up with a main character in the grip of vivid hallucinations, but there you go.
And looking back at my creative history, the pattern repeats itself. One of my best stories ever was the result of a class exercise. Walk up three different hats and take a slip of paper from each… a random character, with a random occupation, does a random act… a woman who is painter kills a man.
Although I have no notable skill, I dabble in visual art. When I try painting and drawing, faced with white canvas and limitless colors I freeze up. But if I focus on relief printing and limit myself to one or two colors, I can’t keep up with the different blocks to cut.
Is the creative center of our brain, like an animal, only fighting back when pressed into a tight corner? Of is the process of creation simply an unconscious act of fitting pieces together until something works—and when we have the world to work with, there are just too many combinations.
Or are we more creative when we have narrow terms, because we challenge ourselves? Maybe we want to see how create we can be, when the challenge sounds impossible. Maybe that’s when our subconscious mind steps up to the plate. Maybe our mind flourishes when freed from the need to do create every aspect.
Maybe those things we think of as constraints are misnamed—because, at least anecdotally, they seem rather freeing.
Although I willingly accept that the act of constraining creativity does not work for everyone, in the last few months, I’ve been watching. I’ve been asking questions. I’ve read the books that were born of Open challenges, and of Restricted. I’ve read the blogs of writers and painters. And I’ve watched cooking shows.
I’m interested to hear what you think. Do you work better with no rules? Or when your painted into a corner, is that when you shine?