Tag Archives: creativity

Harvesting Stories

Put your pen to the paper, right now, and think up a story. Use your imagination. Shouldn’t this be easy for a storyteller like you?

Maybe, but only if you know how to go about it. There’s a common misconception that storytellers invent their stories, when in reality we are only translators. We take in and observe the details of life—the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, memories, reactions, expressions, and connections—and write from experience. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are nearly unrecognizable compared with our own experience, but deep down, in thought or in theme, even our fiction comes from the heart.

Stories are harvested more than created, like a fruit salad. The ingredients may come from many different places, but they’re certainly not conjured up out of nothing. If you find yourself unable to “think up” a story (or unable to bring a fruit salad into existence by sheer willpower), that doesn’t mean you’re out of creativity! It means you need ingredients for your salad. Focus on what you have: memory. And write what’s important to you.

For more ideas about writing from your experience, check out this great little article by Richard on CreateSpace. But before you go, take a minute and put yourself back into a memory. Harvest the details, and write!


The One Reason to Attend Film School

Film school touts many benefits for those willing to enroll and pay to work instead of work for pay. Learn how to make films and tell stories is one of the supposed benefits, along with access to equipment and a respected credential, not to mention the great people you’ll meet along the way.

When it comes to graduate film school, unless you know you want to teach and get that terminal degree, there’s only one benefit that could possibly be worth the cost of attendance: the Network. The people you meet, work with, and establish a rapport with are your keys to the industry. The degree means next to nothing if your work doesn’t speak for itself—in fact, there’s a decent chance the degree will work against you, showing that you’re overqualified for the entry level positions you need in order to get your foot in the door of the industry. Chances are you’ll still have to start as a PA anyway, whether you’re fresh out of graduate film school, undergraduate film school, or an accomplished filmmaker with a high school degree.

The equipment is something you can get yourself. The money you pour into film school could have got you tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. That said, forget equipment! No one needs fancy gear to make good movies. You need to be able to tell stories, and that’s something you learn from reading, writing, watching movies, and paying attention in general, whether you’re in film school or not.

Film school is for those who have money and want a structure that will keep them focused on (somebody else’s version of) their craft. You could save thousands by being unemployed and just focusing on your craft without being attached to any one school, but your resume might take a hit when there’s gaps without an official employer or school attendance. The best route for anyone who wants to get into the industry is to just start working in the industry. Work your way up. Skip the schooling. You’ll make connections like you would in film school, and have to fund yourself like in film school, but you’ll probably spend less and have a better chance at getting paid sooner. And before long, your film school peers will be coming to you looking for work.

Make no mistake, I highly respect the work and devotion to craft I see in my film school peers. These people are passionate about film and highly talented. I think they’d be better off blessing the industry with their abilities rather than hanging around, paying tens of thousands of dollars, for a behind-walls education in the hands-on blue-collar people-centered industry of film.

Grow a Story

When stories are starting out, they’re tender and undeveloped, susceptible to any hint of criticism and any suggestion about the path they should travel. An untold story needs to be protected by its author, kept out of the light until it’s strong enough to survive on its own.

During this period, no one has the right to get between an author and their story, to disturb the almost sacred process by which the details of plot and character come into being. Anything can kill a story at this point, and to kill a story before it’s even had a chance is murder. Not only that, but to suck the juice of life from a new story damages the confidence of the author. Who knows how many pages die when one new idea has lost its magic in the eyes of its creator.

I still don’t believe writing can be taught, despite taking numerous writing classes. These help a little, but the meat of writing is learned from reading. Anyway, take a storytelling class. Instruct the students to tell you their story before they write it out, to plan out their plot structure like an architect, to release an unformed blob of ideas dripping with creativity into the hands of an editor. This isn’t the way to write something worth reading.

Good stories drag their authors along as they’re written. They’re not preplanned. (At least, I could never stick to a structure while writing. Plans are for ignoring when characters disagree.) Stories should be hidden and protected like a sprout in a greenhouse, never revealed until they’re fully fleshed out with a strong skeleton and leaves and maybe some flower buds. Only after a full first draft has been written is your story maybe, maybe, ready to see the world.


‘Course, they say never to show anyone your first draft, because the deserved criticism will crush your soul. I ignored that advice. Had the criticism come any earlier in its development, my story likely never would have seen the light of day. But after a first draft? You can take it.

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” -Stephen King

Get writing!

How Success Can Ruin Your Creativity

There was once a flight instructor in the Israeli Air Force who was told that complimenting your students’ performance is a more effective teaching method than punishing them. He didn’t buy it, and replied:

 “On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic maneuver, and in general when they try it again, they do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed at cadets for bad execution, and in general they do better the next time. So please don’t tell us that reinforcement works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.”

This flight instructor’s conclusion is an example of the regression fallacy—he believes that his reactions are what drive students’ subsequent performance, when in reality, statisticians know that flight cadets (and everyone else) are likely to regress towards an average performance after they have performed exceptionally: extremely good cadets get worse and extremely bad cadets get better, regardless of feedback.

Try not to make the mistake that this Air Force flight instructor did—though I must admit, I often do something very much like it. Whenever I produce an exceptionally good piece of writing, I feel proud of myself, and wish to continue writing at that high level. I’ve come to learn that I too regress towards an average performance, and that it’s very likely that my next piece of writing will not be so exceptional as the last. This knowledge makes me want to hang on to the moment as long as possible, to put off writing that next average piece. It’s a crippling attitude.

That’s how success can ruin your creativity—by tapping into your fear of failure. How to get around this creative pitfall? Know how statistics works and learn from all your work, both great and not-so-great. Embrace the fact that you’ll often produce average pieces (average for you, that is, and your unique talents). If you write or make something really cringeworthy, celebrate! It’s all downhill from there. If you create something exceptionally beautiful, savor it for a few moments, but then pick yourself up and get back out there—you’re sure to produce more beautiful things if you keep at it.

Lessons from Design: Pick a Theme

There are as many ways to create a well-made design as there are designers themselves. I saw this fact come to life in design class—beautiful designs don’t necessarily converge on one style of arranging elements, one set of color schemes, or one type of typographic treatment. In fact, beautiful (and practical) designs show an abundance of unique variety. However, there is at least one trait that unites all well-made designs, and all well-made stories too: they all stick to a theme.

Themed design doesn’t have to be neat and tidy. Some designs are consistently messy, consistently weird, or consistently splattered with super-bright colors. The key here is the word “consistency.” Even though there’s always a subjective aspect to creative endeavors, if your design is consistent, I’ll be able to face those super-neon colors boldly and say, “Yep, I see what you did there. You were going for a neon look, which I’d prefer that you toned down, but I can see the pattern anyway. This was purposefully designed.”

Themed storytelling and design is really the only way to go. Without a theme, audiences won’t know where you’re taking them, and they won’t know whether they’ll enjoy the ride. Without a theme, you’re basically making abstract art.

Audiences will tolerate and even enjoy experimental themes when it feels like there’s a pattern behind the chaos, and a guide who knows what they’re doing. By all means, experiment fearlessly! But remember to pick a theme.

Creative Unconscious

I picked up my guitar, ready to play, but soon realized that one of the chords to Dust in the Wind was eluding me. I started once, twice and again, but always got stuck on this one chord. After trying a few more times (and not wanting to give up), I decided to use a trick I’d learned from years of playing piano to retrieve this “forgotten” chord: play the song faster, and think about it less.

PianistSo I played the song faster, and tried not to think about it—and that’s when the magic happened. Sure enough, my fingers found the chord right on time without missing a beat. I stopped to stare at them. Wonder of wonders, my fingers had placed themselves perfectly without my direction—this chord had been lodged somewhere in unconscious memory, effectively out of reach.

Artists dance with their unconscious minds every day (don’t we all); creative people in particular can benefit from understanding how their creative unconscious works, and doesn’t work. If you concentrate on a task, do it slowly and deliberately, you encourage your unconscious mind to take a nap (or rather, to occupy itself doing who knows what else). This isn’t a good thing if it turns out that your subconscious mind is smarter than you.

So, are you having trouble thinking through your story? Stop thinking. Take a break or better yet, just barrel through and let intuition take over. The answer will appear as if by magic, but it’s not really magic—not really—just invisible, intangible, subconscious you.

Impromptu Prompt

“Creativity itself doesn’t care at all about results – the only thing it craves is the process. Learn to love the process and let whatever happens next happen, without fussing too much about it. Work like a monk, or a mule, or some other representative metaphor for diligence. Love the work. Destiny will do what it wants with you, regardless.”

Elizabeth Gilbert

It’s hard to know how to write a bestseller. In fact, I’ll admit it—I don’t know what the secret is. But I do know a little about creativity.

Your creative and imaginative abilities thrive with practice, like most skills. For content producers like me, being able to think up new ideas and implement them is a skill worth cultivating. And, as Albert Einstein said:

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Creativity isn’t just being original. It’s rehashing and reshaping ideas that came before yours, in new and imaginative ways.

One of the best activities I know of for practicing creative thought is the dreaded impromptu speech. When I competed in high school, my speech coach told us:

“Impromptu is the easiest speech to give. Why? No preparation. And impromptu is the hardest speech to give. Why? No preparation.”

When you draw a random topic and have all of 2 minutes to concoct a coherent and engaging 5-minute speech, your poor strained mind will soon learn what it is to be creatively productive. And so my mind did. After many flounders, and too many speeches to count, my creative faculties rose to the task. Now, every time I write a blog post, or rush towards a NaNoWriMo word count goal, or even just speak casually, I use the skills I practiced with impromptu speaking.

Try impromptu! Find a local speech league and sign up. If you want a crash course in creativity, nothing matches the 2 minutes deadline and 5 minute speech.