Two Questions About Creativity


Last weekend, I was reading The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larson. Modest Mouse was playing in the background. I had a belly full of very good steak and decent red wine. I’d spent the weekend relaxing, writing, bike riding, drinking, and eating well.

I was reading a scene in which one of the villains conspires with another villain to have the main character tortured and murdered. It was a very effective scene, bringing the reader into the grimy underworld and creating a sense of menace that the reader is aware of but that the main character remains ignorant of.

While I was fully engrossed in the story, “lost in the fictional dream,” there was some part of me that took note of this. As a writer, I have tried (with varying degrees of success) to pay attention to how the fiction I’m reading works. Ironically, the more immersive a story, the more engrossed I become, and the more difficult it is to maintain that observation.

Quite suddenly, and with no intention on my part, a new scene for my novel sprang into my head – Alex Lee alone, guarding the magical runes that establish the San Francisco Cabal’s connection to the city, defending against the combined magical pressure of a small army of sorcerers–the Society of American Magicians–intent on crushing that tiny resistance. For Alex, this defense is not especially difficult–she is enormously powerful. She reflects on the enemies the cabal has and her role in protecting the cabal and the city. The reader gets a scene told solely from Alex’s point of view, as well as a scene in which the reader truly sees for the first time the caliber of sorcerer that Alex really is–world class. 

I sat up, put down the book. Where did this idea come from? How did I catch it? Two separate questions.

The first question doesn’t have a solid answer. The creative mind is an elusive beast. The way I like to think of it is that my subconscious mind is chewing on a steady stream of stories, bits of information, images, songs, dialogue, and experiences that I feed into it. In particular, this is the way I like to deal with problems in a story. I digest the problem, think about it, and then let it sit down there for awhile. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, something pops back out.

So in this case, that’s where the idea came from. While it feels as if I plucked it from the aether, in fact what happened is that I was listening to my subconscious mind when it offered up a fresh-baked blueberry muffin.

The answer to the second question is that I’ve learned to listen. It is similar to the way I try to observe what an author is doing even when I’m lost in the fictional dream. I have a radio receiver in my head and I keep it tuned to the frequency that my subconscious mind transmits on. Then the important part is to always be listening, even when I’m doing something else. When you learn to listen, you find that the mind is constantly churning up ideas. Most of them are junk, but occasionally you get a gem. (It remains to be seen which category that particular idea will fall into.)

Creativity is a strange and insubstantial thing. These are just my theories. The most important thing is that the ideas come and that I catch them.


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