Writing and the Creative Life: Is the key to creativity “unlearning”?

July 10th, 2014 by

What if everything we have learned in our lives has actually diminished our creativity? That we were inherently creative as children, then over time lost much of that capability. That possibility is what I discovered when I stumbled across this blog post at Creativity at Work.

In 1968, George Land conducted a research study to test the creativity of 1,600 children ranging in ages from three-to-five years old who were enrolled in a Head Start program. This was the same creativity test he devised for NASA to help select innovative engineers and scientists. The assessment worked so well he decided to try it on children.  He re-tested the same children at 10 years of age, and again at 15 years of age. The results were astounding.

Test results amongst 5 year olds: 98%
Test results amongst 10 year olds: 30%
Test results amongst 15 year olds: 12%
Same test given to 280,000 adults: 2%

“What we have concluded,” wrote Land, “is that non-creative behavior is learned.”
(Source: George Land and Beth Jarman, Breaking Point and Beyond. San Francisco: HarperBusiness, 1993)

Need a visual representation to really drive home the point? Try this:

Lots of questions here:

* Does this mean that most people are born creative?

* Does formal education stifle creativity?

* Is it possible to learn anything that actually augments creativity?

* Or is the best thing to unlearn conventional approaches to being creative?

I can’t offer any official data to the conversation, but I do have anecdotal ‘evidence’ that suggests these tests are onto something, specifically with regard to brainstorming.

In the six week Prep: From Concept To Outline workshop I created, I have writers spend an entire week doing nothing but brainstorming. I tell them to create a Master Brainstorming List such as a Word document and whatever they generate in the way of ideas for their story that week, all of it should go into that list. No judgment. No pre-editing. Turn off what we associate with the left-brain and get in touch with the right-brain. Free the mind and let oneself go.

In the words of that great screenwriting guru Obi-Wan Kenobi: Go with your feelings, Luke!

I provide three extensive sets of prompts and techniques to facilitate brainstorming:

* Character Work: Any combination of biographies, monologues, questionnaires, interviews, sit-downs. Basically engage key characters – especially the Protagonist – to learn more about them and start to find their voices.

* Archetypes: Use five primary character archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — as lenses through which to live with and analyze the story’s main characters, exploring each character’s respective narrative function and how that can shape their personality and, thereby, influence the story.

* Subplots: My theory is that Subplot = Relationship. So I encourage writers to make a list of each primary character, then consider the nature of their relationship with the Protagonist as well as their own interrelationships. Again, use these as lenses to feel one’s way into those character relationships and what each of those subplots means relative to the overall story.

These are prompts. Tools. Each an opportunity to go into the story and find the animals.

Here’s the thing. Some writers take to the brainstorming like ducks to water… albeit ducks tethered to a computer and a screenwriting software program. But many writers find this part of the prep process challenging. Even with the context provided by the workshop — the three sets of prompts, the week-long period, due date, Master Brainstorming List — I have worked with a lot of writers who struggled to get into the creative flow.

The key to them breaking through is often when I lay this on them:

“Remember your 5th grade teacher? The grammar lessons. Outlining. Diagramming sentences. Draw within the lines. All of that? Chuck it. When you are brainstorming, your 5th grade teacher has no place in the process. You are freed from the shackles of that systemic approach to learning. Rather I want you to feel your way through this process. Turn off your inner critic. Get in touch with the obscure voices in your mind. Listen to what they have to say. Sit with your characters and feel what they are feeling. There is no right or wrong when you are brainstorming. You never know when you will strike gold. So put it all down in the Master Brainstorming List. And remember: Tell your 5th grade teacher to beat it.”

Invariably I convey some version of this to the writers I work with in Prep during brainstorming. And more often than not, it works. So in a sense, it does appear to be a kind of unlearning that is required for some writers to get their brainstorming in gear.

It’s as if those writers need to reopen their way of thinking in order to access a sort of pure, even — dare I say — infantile form of creativity.

Again, I’m no scientist. But I’ve worked with literally thousands of writers in my time as a screenwriter and teacher, and interfaced with thousands more as a blogger. And often I discover creativity emerges most powerfully when a writer goes against convention… freed from what they’ve learned.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

Go On Your Own Quest — Week 10: Prep

September 18th, 2013 by

The 2013 version of The Quest starts Week 10 today. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by because you can Go On Your Own Quest by following the structure of The Quest to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

We are now in the second week of the Prep phase and our topic for discussion is brainstorming. We began Monday with this question: Do you find brainstorming beneficial and if so, why? Discussion here. Yesterday’s question: Do you interview your characters? If so, how? Discussion here. Today’s question:

* What tips do you have for conducting story research?

On October 21, you can type FADE IN, then over a ten week period write your first draft.

Why not use the structure of this 24-week workshop to Go On Your Own Quest? That was an idea that gathered energy among many members of the GITS community which I described here.

If you’d like to participate in a Prep workshop just like the members of The Quest are doing, you’re in luck. Starting September 23, I’m overseeing the next session of Prep: From Concept To Outline. It’s perhaps the single most popular course we offer through Screenwriting Master Class as it has proven to be hugely successful, enabling writers to break their story, then approach the page-writing part of the process with confidence. You can take this Prep workshop, then have 8 full weeks to write your first draft by the end of the year, more than enough time since you will have a fully fleshed-out outline.

For more information and to enroll, go here.

Meanwhile I encourage you to head to comments to discuss today’s question. And for a related discussion on The Black Board, check out these topics:

For more information on Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Onward!

Go On Your Own Quest — Week 10: Prep

September 17th, 2013 by

The 2013 version of The Quest starts Week 10 today. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by because you can Go On Your Own Quest by following the structure of The Quest to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

We are now in the second week of the Prep phase and our topic for discussion is brainstorming. We began yesterday with this question: Do you find brainstorming beneficial and if so, why? Discussion here. Today’s question:

* Do you interview your characters? If so, how?

On October 21, you can type FADE IN, then over a ten week period write your first draft.

Why not use the structure of this 24-week workshop to Go On Your Own Quest? That was an idea that gathered energy among many members of the GITS community which I described here.

If you’d like to participate in a Prep workshop just like the members of The Quest are doing, you’re in luck. Starting September 23, I’m overseeing the next session of Prep: From Concept To Outline. It’s perhaps the single most popular course we offer through Screenwriting Master Class as it has proven to be hugely successful, enabling writers to break their story, then approach the page-writing part of the process with confidence. You can take this Prep workshop, then have 8 full weeks to write your first draft by the end of the year, more than enough time since you will have a fully fleshed-out outline.

For more information and to enroll, go here.

Meanwhile I encourage you to head to comments to discuss today’s question. And for a related discussion on The Black Board, check out these topics:

For more information on Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Onward!

Go On Your Own Quest — Week 10: Prep

September 16th, 2013 by

The 2013 version of The Quest starts Week 10 today. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by because you can Go On Your Own Quest by following the structure of The Quest to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

Today we head into the second week of the Prep phase. I like to think of the drafting of a screenplay as having two parts: Prep-Writing and Page-Writing. While most aspiring writers like to jump into the latter, almost all professional writers know the time to figure out most of the story is in prep.

For those of you who plan to Go On Your Own Quest, let’s continue the conversation we began last week about Prep with this question:

* Do you find brainstorming beneficial and if so, why?

On October 21, you can type FADE IN, then over a ten week period write your first draft.

Why not use the structure of this 24-week workshop to Go On Your Own Quest? That was an idea that gathered energy among many members of the GITS community which I described here.

If you’d like to participate in a Prep workshop just like the members of The Quest are doing, you’re in luck. Starting September 23, I’m overseeing the next session of Prep: From Concept To Outline. It’s perhaps the single most popular course we offer through Screenwriting Master Class as it has proven to be hugely successful, enabling writers to break their story, then approach the page-writing part of the process with confidence. You can take this Prep workshop, then have 8 full weeks to write your first draft by the end of the year, more than enough time since you will have a fully fleshed-out outline.

For more information and to enroll, go here.

Meanwhile I encourage you to head to comments to discuss today’s question. And for a related discussion on The Black Board, check out these topics:

For more information on Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Onward!

Story concept suggestion

July 26th, 2013 by

In one of the Go On Your Own Story posts this week, I asked readers how they go about generating story concepts. There were some interesting observations. Here is my response:

An interesting array of approaches. It goes to show that just as there is no right way to write, there is no one right way to generate story concepts.

However I do STRONGLY recommend this: Be proactive.

Try this: For one month, commit yourself to spending a half-hour each day working up story concepts. Whether it’s just you sitting with a pad of paper and pen, noodling with ideas, flipping through the yellow pages to look at a variety of jobs to see if something pokes out at you, going through loglines in Halliwell’s film guide, reading obituaries, browsing through unusual online news sources, whatever it is, each day for a month, commit the time to proactively conjure up story ideas.

The premise: To get your brain used to doing that. I find that if I’ve got at least one track of my mind on the ‘lookout’ for story ideas, I’m much more in tune with that process and more apt to sense them.

Also I believe the hard work you do in conscious effort can pay off in those moments where you’re showering or out of run or standing in the grocery line, when — BOOM! The idea suddenly hits you.

To cap off this week’s discussion, let me remind you of this fact: The story concept is of singular importance for any spec script you choose to write. Any of you who have queried managers know this. Why? Because you send them loglines for consideration. If they declined to read your script, that’s because your story concept didn’t grab them. If it did grab them, chances are that’s the primary reason why they agreed to read your script.

It goes way beyond that. The story concept is the shorthand by which anyone involved in that script’s development refers to it. It is the touchstone for how the story gets developed. It often is at the center of how a studio markets a movie.

All arising from the single moment of inspiration you have when you come up with a story idea.

So why not try my suggestion? Each day for one month, be proactive and try to generate story ideas.

Remember: The key to coming up with a great story idea is to generate a lot of story ideas.

Go On Your Own Quest, Week 10: Prep

September 18th, 2012 by

“The Quest” has entered Week 10! And so did Go On Your Own Quest, an opportunity for anyone to follow the structure of “The Quest” to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

This week the writers in The Quest are deep into brainstorming their stories and characters. For those of you who plan to Go On Your Own Quest, we began our week-long discussion on brainstorming yesterday with this question: How is brainstorming helpful to you as a writer? Discussion here. Today’s question:

* Do you interview your characters? If so, how?

I encourage you to Go On Your Own Quest. First off, you can’t sell a script unless you write it. Second, you can’t get better as a writer unless you write. Third, if you don’t write that script now, when are you going to write it?

So consider this your very own Call To Adventure. Will you heed the call?

I will be teaching the 6-week online writing workshop Prep: From Concept To Outline beginning October 15th.

For background on “Go Into The Story: The Quest,” go here and here.

Go On Your Own Quest, Week 10: Prep

September 17th, 2012 by

“The Quest” has entered Week 10! And so did Go On Your Own Quest, an opportunity for anyone to follow the structure of “The Quest” to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

This week the writers in The Quest are deep into brainstorming their stories and characters, so let’s put our focus there and being our week-long conversation with this question:

* How is brainstorming helpful to you as a writer?

I encourage you to Go On Your Own Quest. First off, you can’t sell a script unless you write it. Second, you can’t get better as a writer unless you write. Third, if you don’t write that script now, when are you going to write it?

So consider this your very own Call To Adventure. Will you heed the call?

I will be teaching the 6-week online writing workshop Prep: From Concept To Outline beginning October 15th.

For background on “Go Into The Story: The Quest,” go here and here.

How I Write A Script, Part 2: Brainstorming

February 7th, 2012 by

Another installment in the 10-part series “How I Write A Script.”

PART 2: BRAINSTORMING

Once I find a story concept I think might make a good movie, I create a Word file in my computer and start brainstorming ideas into that file. I can not emphasize enough how important brainstorming is. To begin with, this is where I discover if my concept is, indeed, good enough – if ideas for the plot and characters leap into my imagination, there’s a pretty good chance I’ve got a decent concept.

Also when I brainstorm, I start to ‘see’ the movie. Key scenes emerge, characters morph into being, I hear bits of dialogue. Of course, that all represents potential story stuff, but more than that, ‘seeing’ these elements fuels my passion… which drives me deeper into brainstorming… which gives me more story stuff… which gets me more excited. And so on.

Finally, and most importantly, if I do enough brainstorming and the creative stars align, this is where I uncover gold, those fantastic bits of story business that appear as if from nowhere, totally unexpected, surprising ideas and beats.

The key to doing it right: no prejudgment. All ideas go into the master brainstorming file. Upon further reflection, I may choose to toss them aside – fine. But any image, scene, line of dialogue, action, or theme I have as I brainstorm goes into the file. I find this process frees up that special part of my consciousness so that those wondrous gold story nuggets can reveal themselves.

I spend days, even weeks brainstorming (in connection with research, our next subject). The process is a lot like wallowing in a sea of ideas, but again, this is where a majority of the story ‘stuff’ emerges and, more often than not, the Plotline and sub-plots start to show themselves, too.

Many aspiring screenwriters do not spend enough time brainstorming, their impatience getting the better of them. That will almost always come back to bite you in the ass. You’ll either get stuck in the writing because you didn’t ‘find’ your story or your story will have little, if anything special about it because you didn’t brainstorm enough to surface the gold.

I have a whole set of prompts I’ve developed over the years to fuel my brainstorming, but there is a common dynamic to all of them: Get curious. Get curious about the plot. Get curious about the characters. Get curious about the story universe. If you keep asking questions, that help you go deeper and deeper into your brainstorming process.

In Part 3 tomorrow, we look at another important part of the script-writing process: Research.

[Originally posted June 6, 2008]