Are Some Creativity Myths Holding You Back?

sunset and clouds over Lac BromeAre you letting some creativity myths stop you from getting down to the creative work you should be doing?

It’s so easy to use some of these myths as excuses – I don’t have enough experience, I don’t have any truly new ideas, I don’t have the right pen, desk, laptop, I haven’t planned it all out yet…

In a recent Globe and Mail article, Harvey Schachter examines how David Burkus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., describes – and rewrites – these myths in his book The Myths of Creativity.

I found myself mulling over three of the myths from a writer’s (or any creative person’s) perspective.

The Originality Myth

“Creative ideas are assumed to be original to their creator […] But history shows ideas usually develop through the work of more than one person…”

There is often a tendency, certainly when we start our fiction writing careers, to think “my stuff is so weird”, “wow, this is different”, “what I’m writing isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen”, “no-one’s done this before”.

 Sometimes this feel good – really good, as in “wow, I’m so different from everyone else, I’m unique, I’m exceptional. I’m going to knock everyone’s socks off.”

Sometimes it feels terrifying: “what on earth am I going to do with this stuff? No one is going to want it. It doesn’t fit anywhere. They’ll think I’m crazy. I’ll never get it published.”

Maybe it’s just a matter of being surprised by what comes out of our pens or what appears on our screens, of not recognizing or not being used to our own creative work, especially if we’ve given heart and soul to our writing.

Or maybe it’s because we haven’t read deeply or widely enough to recognize connections with other writers.

Is it time to take another close look at the classics and our favorite stories?

Three suggestions:

            * read as much as you can in your genre.

* list four or five writers or stories that you feel a kinship with, or that make your heart beat faster when you read them.

* read any story that resonates with you slowly, closely. Why does it resonate with you? Once you’ve identified this, you’re ready to ask it questions – about  pacing, structure, characterization, whatever it is that you especially like. The idea is not to write a clone of that story, we’re each different after all and our stories are unique, but we can learn from those who’ve gone before to push our own ideas and our own writing to the next level.

Then there is another issue here. We’re writing stories that we hope (oh how we hope) others will read. To be sure the stories are readable, we ask colleagues and friends for feedback. Sometimes when we don’t like what we hear, we say “they just don’t understand what I’m doing here” and turn to someone else for ‘better’ feedback.

I personally find difficult feedback is often the most fruitful in terms of pushing me towards an interesting idea – a more interesting idea – than the one I started with! Not necessarily because I do what I’m told to do, but because it triggers new ideas.

Yes, we often work alone as writers. But not entirely alone. Working with others in developing our stories is a delight and not only helps us with our stories but gives us a sense of community.

The Incentive Myth

“It’s widely believed that incentives, monetary or otherwise, can increase motivation…”

Why do so many writers keep on going, word after word after word, when any potential payoff publication- or money-wise is a pale purple fuzzy dream way beyond those distant hills?

Mr. Burkus points out that it’s something inside that pushes creative people on.

For writers I think this means it’s important for us to nurture our desire to write, and to enjoy writing even when we’re not sure where it’s going (or if it’s going anywhere!)  – and to take pleasure in our own creativity.

More mundane but equally important is that we organize ourselves in terms of space, time and ‘tools’ (pen, laptop, particular notebook, music or silence…). This will hopefully reduce frustrations and give us a decent chance of actually sitting down to write when an opportunity presents itself.

The Constraints Myth

“We assume companies that give their innovative people unlimited resources will be the most effective…”

My worst case writing scenario? “Write about anything you like and don’t worry about time, take as long as you need.” This means I usually end up with a document as blank as when I opened it on my screen. I like Mr. Burkus’ approach: “it’s better to apply limits.”

That’s why I love my Greene Writers Group when we take turns to produce a prompt, and love it or hate it, that’s what you have to write about…in thirty minutes.

In a workshop that was part of the Knowlton Literary Festival this summer, Josip Novakovich wanted participants to write about a particular kind of person for the third exercise. His instructions were specific – too specific, too confining, and totally outside my kind of writing. Absolutely no wiggle room at all. My heart fell. My mind went blank. Nightmare. I rushed off to the washroom. Others obviously felt the same way as they all rushed off to the washroom too. But then I started writing and didn’t want to stop. I continued the story when I got home. It was a totally different story from any I’d written before and I just loved it. I’m still working on it. (You’ll find plenty of exercises in Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop.)

Which of David Burkus’ rewritings of creative myths speaks to you most?

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