Tag Archives: creativity

Two ideas a month?

Today I learned that, in the view of one pundit on Kinja, all newspaper columnists stink at their jobs. First, because they’re trained to report and not persuade. Second, because no one can come up with a fresh, original idea more than twice in a month. Maybe three times in a good month. Yet the columnist is expected to produce two columns a week.

Waterfall at the Japanese Garden in Portland

Google “image idea” and you get a lot of light bulbs. So instead, here’s a photo of Portland’s Japanese Garden — a good place to get fresh ideas.

The article offered a solution to idea-lorn columnists: use the same ideas again and again. After all, no one except your closest friends reads every column you write. So who’s going to know?

I’m highly suspicious of the finding (that all columnists stink), the explanation (two ideas a month), and the advice (recycle your ideas). Yet I’m prompted to ask, would that apply to bloggers too?

If the likes of George Will, Thomas Friedman, and Dana Milbank are good for only two, maybe three, fresh ideas a month, then surely a blogger like me — even though I try
to publish at least one original post each week — can’t hope to do better.

That would take the pressure off, wouldn’t it? When I struggle to find new ideas, I can just warm up some leftovers, as it were, and dress up an old post as something new. You, dear reader, won’t even notice.

(Insert eyeroll emoji.) If only that were true.

I don’t think columnists are that hard up for new ideas. Bloggers either. Reading Tom Johnson’s blog, for example, I suspect that he has at least two fresh ideas every day before breakfast.

I agree with the pundit about one thing, though: ideas are sometimes hard to come by. But we can still train ourselves to increase the likelihood of having fresh ideas. How? Try these techniques.

Seek other points of view

You’re used to seeing things as you see them. What would they look like from another vantage point? What if you could see them in a larger context?

What would you learn? Would your feelings or your opinions change?

There. Now you have fresh ideas to write about.

To get a different vantage point, maybe you just need to go someplace new, like the Japanese Garden. I like to follow people on social media who aren’t from my family, who aren’t from my home town, who don’t share my religious and political views.

I’m not saying you have to change your mind about anything (although that could be a side benefit). But you’ll get fresh ideas.

Read something new

If I were in my 20s or 30s I might say do something you’ve never done before. And, yes, that’s a good way to get fresh ideas. But when you reach a certain age you already know whether you’re willing to jump out of an airplane (I’m not) or take a trip around the world (love to, but can’t afford it).

I can read, though, and so can you. Those folks on social media who don’t share your comfort zone? They can point you to articles and books that’ll spark fresh ideas. Be careful what you click on, of course. But it’s possible to broaden your horizons without getting mired in internet quicksand.

Read books and articles about topics that are new to you. One of the best history books I ever read was Steven Pressfield’s The Lion’s Gate, about the 1967 Six Day War — a subject about which I’d known virtually nothing.

I also recommend anything by John McPhee for new insights about culture, technology, and environmentalism.

Tell a story

You probably know that I believe in storytelling in all kinds of writing — including business and technical writing.

If you want fresh ideas, start telling a story. You might not know how the story will end. You probably don’t know what insights you’ll draw from it. Start telling the story and see where it takes you.

Fellow technical writer Neal Kaplan recently broke a blogging silence with an appealing story about taking a hike and then taking it again. I think it’s fair to say that the experience rejuvenated his creative thinking process. So be like Neal: go ahead and tell your story.

What are your techniques for increasing the flow of fresh ideas?

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A passage particularly fine

I’ve agreed to give a short speech at the STC Carolina chapter’s 50th anniversary celebration next week. It’s a special occasion, so I want the speech to be good.

Right now the speech is about twice as long as it needs to be. Which means that I’m right on schedule. It’s time for me to stop writing and start crossing things out.

I’m guided by this bit of wisdom from the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson (quoted by James Boswell):

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson: not particularly noted for his sense of humor

I think I first encountered this quotation when I was in my twenties — perhaps even in college. That’s a good joke, I thought. That Dr. Johnson was quite the kidder.

He wasn’t kidding. But I wasn’t listening.

By the time I turned 40 I began to see wisdom in the doctor’s prescription. Stay vigilant, I took it to mean, lest your writing become flowery or overly ornamented. I was quick to deride those attributes in other people’s writing. Scoffing, I’d hand down my judgment: it’s overwritten.

Today, however, I’m a believer. Today when I write something cunningly clever, a phrase especially well turned — anything that’s particularly fine — I regard it with suspicion.

I don’t always strike it out, I confess. At least not right away. But l move it aside. Then I go back and see whether the piece is actually stronger with it gone. Almost every time, the piece is stronger.

It’s stronger because now, instead of pleasing me, it aims to please the people who’ll read (or hear) it.

You’re looking to be informed. It’s not my place to impress you.

Perhaps you’re looking to be amused or entertained. I’m more apt to do that if I write for your benefit rather than mine.

So (on a good day at least) I’ll furl my flowery phrases and instead deploy language that’s clear and direct. I’ll stop putting on a show and I’ll put you in the center of the story.

Many of us writers fell in love in our formative years with creative writing. It’s taken most of my life to understand that solving a puzzle — the puzzle of communicating effectively with my readers while keeping them engaged — is no less creative than making my prose dance on the head of a pin.

It’s no less creative, it’s no less fun, and it’s a lot more considerate of you, my audience.

(Update: Remember the speech I was writing? Here’s how it came out.)

Review: The Dance of the Possible

(Subtitle: The mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity)

dance_of_possibleScott Berkun has delighted me in the past with books like The Year without Pants and The Ghost of My Father. Engaging and original, they touched me in such a way that, long after I put them down, their insights remain fresh in my mind.

Yet after reading the first couple of chapters of The Dance of the Possible, I thought Berkun had let me down. In this, his “guide to creativity,” he was telling me that creativity comes from inside me. That I should keep a journal. The messages seemed shopworn, not original.

Then he hit his stride. Or maybe I just opened myself to listen to him. At any rate, the rest of the book proved to be entertaining, practical, challenging, and authentic.

Authenticity was the secret ingredient in Berkun’s earlier books. He’d embark on a journey of discovery, often self-discovery, and invite me to walk alongside.

This time he’s already gone ahead. He’s done the research and he’s created things. (This is his seventh book.) In The Dance of the Possible he’s left me a set of detailed signposts – showing me how to find my creative path and what to expect along the way.

There’s plain-spoken guidance on topics like finding and nurturing ideas, developing discipline, and seeking feedback.

You can read this book in an hour or two. But don’t. Linger over it. Underline. Jot down notes. (Start that journal.) And, when you’re finished, keep the book handy so you can refer back to it.

Or read a chapter at a time. Most of the chapters are little essays, two or three pages long, about some aspect of the creative process. Each one can stand by itself while complementing the others.

Dancing, it turns out, is an apt metaphor for the creative process. I won’t spoil the book for you. I’ll just say that dancing requires intention, it’s something you can learn to be good at, and – above all – it’s fun.

Four stars out of five. Maybe four and a half.

An abridged version of this review was posted on Goodreads and amazon.com.