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The Joys of Mental Sex: Lesson VII

December 4, 2009

Bashing More Barriers to Creativity

VI. That’s not my area.

Cross-fertilization has provided one of the biggest boosts to business while causing dread among more workers. By training people to work areas other than their own, corporate America has been able to institute more layoffs and increase gains. Unfortunately that takes workers out of their comfort zones, because they don’t always receive adequate training for alternative jobs they are expected to work competently.

As writers this is not as much of a problem for us. We are used to researching medieval knights, folklore, judicial issues, FBI agents, professors, corporate executives, etc., depending upon our work. We are constantly entering the world of the explorer to learn new things well enough that we can suspend disbelief throughout the course of our novel.

An interesting exercise for generating creativity is to take two professions that are totally different and see what the people can learn from each other. The last time I did this exercise with writers, three people came up with ideas from the combinations below and their books were published a year later. Darn if it worked for me that way. I need to add combinations of historical professions on this list.

Exercise: What can these people learn from each other:

  • A bus driver and a comedian
  • A beautician and an insurance salesman
  • A kindergarten teacher and a software programmer
  • A priest and the head waiter at a fancy restaurant
  • A choreographer and a bookie
  • A prostitute and a professional football player
  • A bull fighter and a gardener
  • A romance writer and a news anchor

Be an explorer whenever you can. Make it a point to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that no one has used or that others have used successfully. Your idea has to be original only in its adaptation to the project you are currently working on.

Exercise: Identify where you explore for ideas? What outside people, places, activities, and situations do you use to stimulate your thinking? (If your only answer is the Internet, you have a problem).

I once sat and watched eagles at the zoo for several hours. Then I went to the eagle landing at Reelfoot Lake to study them in the wild. The eagles took up very little of my manuscript and story, but watching them gave me so many ideas that it was well worth my time. Animals can spark as much creative flow for me as anything else. So can natural elements. Sometimes, I just have to get out of the apartment and go on a discovery day. It’s usually free and it becomes a day of play that helps me work.

VII. Don’t be foolish.

  • There are benefits to conformity.

1. Living in society requires that we cooperate with other people.

2. In those situations where we don’t know our way around, what do we do? We look to others for the right way to act.

3. By conforming, we may feel a sense of rightness and security.

  • There are also setbacks to conformity.

It leads to Groupthink. This is the dreaded condition of everyone acting and thinking the same way, because no one wants to risk standing out. Remember the old commercial where the guy walks into a doctor’s office and everyone in the waiting room is in their underwear. What does the guy do? He leaves and comes back in his underwear.  Hardly a recommendation for conformity.

As writers, conformity can show us what sells, but it can also be dangerous. I don’t want to read the same story over and over and neither do most readers. Formula writing is only effective in so far as a writer learns to use it in an original way.

My favorite method for avoiding Groupthink is to act like a medieval queen or king and consult a fool. The court jester was not the “fool” typically portrayed in film. He was generally a respected advisor whose ability to present alternative perspectives and options worked to the benefit of monarchs. He made them see things in new ways by employing several tactics:

  • Reverse standard assumptions If a man is sitting on a horse facing the rear, the fool would ask why do we assume it is the man and not the horse who is backward?
  • Irreverent/riddles A fool may ask what is it that a rich man puts in his pocket that a poor man throws away? Snot. Makes you reexamine your daily rituals.
  • Deny a problem and reframe the situation A fool will tell you recessions are good. They make people work more efficiently. People work harder when they are insecure about the future of their jobs. Companies have a fair amount of fat in them, so a recession makes them trim back to their fighting weight and be more aggressive.
  • Absurdity Having lost his donkey, the fool drops down to his knees and thanks God he wasn’t riding the beast or he would be missing too.
  • Notice things other people overlook A fool will ask why do people who pour cream into their coffee do so after the coffee is already in the cup, rather than pouring the cream in first and saving themselves the trouble of stirring?
  • Metaphorical A fool will ask which is true: Birds eat seeds or seeds eat birds? Both. Dead birds on the ground decompose into the soil to fertilize freshly sown seeds.
  • Apply rules from one arena to another
  • Can be cryptic A fool will tell you the best way to see is with your ears. Listening to a poem or short story conjures up more images in your mind than watching TV.

For the court jester it isn’t a matter of whether or not your idea is crazy. The question is: is it crazy enough?

The next time you feel “stuck,” reverse your viewpoint, play with an idea, and let yourself go. See if you can become your own fool.

Once upon a time in a remote Romanian village, a sleeping sickness that mimicked a plague swept through the region. An emergency meeting of the village was called after learning several people had been buried alive (How they discovered this, I’m not quite sure, but the story has a point). During the meeting, the inhabitants divided into two groups to put their heads together to come up with a way to prevent this terrible torture from happening to another hapless victim. The first group’s solution was to put a rope attached to an above ground bell in the hand of all who were buried. Then if the corpse wasn’t really a corpse, the person could ring the bell and be prompted release from his underground prison. The second group had a totally different solution. They proposed that a stake be placed on the lid of all coffins so that when closed, the stake would pierce the heart.

Both of these groups presented solutions. The difference was in the questions they started out with. The first group asked, “How can we make sure no one we bury is alive?” The second group asked, “How can we make sure everyone we bury is dead?”

Both groups had a solution. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The following exercise applies to the next lesson. I’m offering a $20 B&N gift card to the first person to post the correct answer:

In the following line of letters, cross out six letters so that the remaining letters, without altering their sequence, spell a familiar English word.


Until next time, Merry Christmas and Happy Writing!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Aislinn permalink
    December 4, 2009 7:11 am


  2. December 4, 2009 8:18 am

    Wow! A big gold star for you, Aislinn! That was fast. I’ll e-mail you for contact info.

  3. Aislinn permalink
    December 4, 2009 8:21 am

    All I can say is thank goodness for my father-in-law and his love of brain teasers. It’s his idea of party entertainement to hand out sheets of them for people to work on. So I was sort of looking for a trick to begin with.

  4. December 4, 2009 8:56 am

    I just wanted to thank you for a really interesting essay. I like the story about the burials because I’ve always found that 95% of the solution depends on how you frame the problem. (Fortunately, none of my problems have been that extreme!) I had a job where I had to interview people and I was always amazed at how changing one word in a question could elicit a different response. And it wasn’t that anyone was lying. It was just a question of how they heard—and understood—the question.

    • December 7, 2009 2:52 am

      Hi Molly, I’m glad you enjoyed it. What you say is so true. When interviewing psych patients, I’ve learned that wording can be everything… especially when they aren’t thinking clear to begin with. I don’t remember where I heard the story about the village, except that it’s very old. I always wondered if Bram Stoker had heard of it before he wrote Dracula.

  5. December 4, 2009 9:52 pm

    Doc’s again today, but I really enjoyed the blog, Mary.

    • December 7, 2009 2:54 am

      Hi Gwen, I hope you’re doing okay. So many people are having trouble with high fevers these days. I really enjoy your blog site too. Take care.

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