Tuesday, 18 August 2015

How to create an abundance of ideas

As part of the Summer of Writing, I created a magical realism workshop which ran last Saturday. Among magical realism's various other features is "abundance" or "plenitude": basically, it soaks ideas up like a sponge. Anything you want to throw at it, it just absorbs, gleefully. And the kind of fanciful, unexpected, incongruous ideas it likes best aren't the kind that come from frowning at a piece of paper and thinking very hard - they come from the bouncy bit of your brain leapfrogging around. (That's the kind of thinking we traditionally call "right brain", even though it's actually the left brain doing it.) It's a kind of careless, carefree, giggling, half-cut, freedom of ideas. So how do you conjure up reams of ideas, ripe for the picking? And how was I going to create that space within the workshop? How do you create an abundance of unexpected ideas?


At the start of the workshop, we looked through a range of magical realist books, for two reasons. (I popped a summary in the front of each book, and marked some key excerpts, so students could browse through them.) The first, more obvious reason was to explore what magical realism is, and start identifying its main features. The second reason, though, was to give students permission. That sudden realisation of "Oh! You're allowed to do that!" All the crazy, surprising, tongue-in-cheek things that happen in magical realism (and of course the excerpts I chose honed in on those) turn into permission.

Often, the problem isn't finding ideas, but allowing ideas: each time they pop up, like moles from the ground, not bopping them on the head the moment they appear. Lots of creative strategies that talk about the unconscious mind, avoiding the internal censor, and so on, are about exactly this: not bopping ideas on the head, giving yourself permission. Freewriting, free association, writing when you're groggy, even the infamous "creative tipple", are all ways to duck our usual idea-bopping.

The most valuable writing permission I ever got was when I was 17, at the Grahamstown Festival in South Africa (think Edinburgh festival). At one of the schools events, Pieter Dirk-Uys, a famously anti-establishment comedian and activist, told us that people always asked him, "How do you get away with it?"
"There's no getting away with it," he said. And then the words that have stayed with me forever: "You can do anything with the alphabet. You - can - do - anything - with the alphabet."

You can do anything with the alphabet.

An abundance of approaches

To get my students inventing, I brainstormed heaps of ideas-generating activities. I quickly realised that not all these activities would work for all the students. I also realised that the usual teaching approach, everyone working on one activity at one time, with me leading and time-keeping, would work against exactly the kind of liberation that I was trying to create. I needed to give my students the options and the freedom - a different kind of approach, buffet-style teaching! For the generating-ideas part of the workshop, and the writing part towards the end, I created "Ideas menus" and "writing menus" from which they could select what they wanted to do. (The lovely hipster-style jars was fortuitous: I had to figure out a way to fit seven sets of handouts plus accompanying instructions on the table, so jars it was!)

Switch around your entry points into writing (or art, or whatever creative practice is your thing). Try new writing activities and creative activities you haven't tried before. Sometimes we're reluctant to try out something we haven't tried before - that's normal, it's called neophobia, it's a standard-issue human thing, but we also have its arch-enemy and best friend, neophilia, the love of the new. That comes in when you remember this is playing, you're just playing around. Have a play with some new approaches to writing.


The ideas-generating activites weren't just the handouts in jars: I also had a stack of poetry books with some useful lines bookmarked, a pile of Symbolist paintings, and a little jar of music. Taking inspiration from another art form is called ekphrasis. Strictly speaking, ekphrasis is describing a painting or using a painting as a starting point for writing, but it can be used more widely to mean one art form taking inspiration from another art form.

For the paintings, I chose work from the Symbolists because their combination of unlikely things happening in realistic surroundings felt like the best match for magical realism. (Surrealism, on the other hand, tends to have dream-world surroundings.) Try paintings by Frida Kahlo, Marc Chagall, and Vladimir Kush. For the poems, I flicked through my own favourite anthologies, looking for metaphors that could provide story-ideas, if you took them literally: "My true love hath my heart and I have his" (Sir Philip Sydney), "Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair" (TS Eliot), "Our dreams / Poured into each other's arms, like streams" (Stephen Spender), "If there were dreams to sell, / What would you buy?" (Thomas Lovell Beddoes). If you want to try freewriting to music, here's a Spotify playlist - not quite the one from the workshop (not all the songs are available on Spotify) but a close match!

Using pictures, music, and other art forms doesn't just give you new ideas: it also creates a richness of experience. The richer our experiences, the more creative we're able to be. This richness of experience was also the reason behind the many fonts (a different font for every handout and exercise) and the coloured paper. It was practical (it made it easy to see which was which) but also created a richer environment, with more variety.

To create your own ekphrasis, or just to enrich your experience, you can use the painting links, poem excerpts, and playlist above, as well as seeking out your own. Read poetry. Listen to new music. Visit museums, art galleries, and exhibitions. Even if you can't afford the paintings, buy some postcards to put around your desk. And if you're in Oxfordshire and like writing poetry, you can take part in the Ashmolean's new poetry programme, Ekphrasis.

What's around you

My students stare around the room, when they're looking for ideas. (So do I. So do we all.) Often the ideas come from something they're staring at, even if it's only a lamp. So for a workshop where I want them to have as many ideas as possible, I suddenly thought, Why not fill the room with ideas? After all, I have enough random bits and bobs tucked about the place. If they're staring round the room, give them plenty to look at! I gathered a multitude of random, interesting, potentially ideasy-things, and set about decorating the room. I was looking for three things, each of them vital to creativity: richness of experience, again; novelty; and incongruity.

Novelty is vital for creativity. In Iconoclast, Gregory Berns explains what a limited energy budget the brain has and how much energy it saves by following familiar habits, familiar choices, familiar pathways. That's extremely useful, until it comes to creativity: we want to think new, unexpected, unfamiliar thoughts. "Novelty releases the perceptual process from the shackles of past experience and forces the brain to make new judgments" he writes. Incongruity has a similar effect: the easy automatic thinking you'd do for each thing individually doesn't work when they're juxtaposed. Your brain "wakes up" from its energy-saving trance and pays new, sharper attention. It sounds slightly alarming - that neophobia-neophilia dilemma again - so make it playful. Make it beautiful. Have fun.

When you're writing and you look around you - what do you see?

Decorate your writing space. If you'd decorate your room or your house wildly and unsually for a party, why not decorate it just for fun, from time to time? Write somewhere different, a park, a coffee shop, a pub garden. Spend some time one Saturday charity-shop scavenging, finding new things to put around you.

If you'd like to see those pictures of the room in more detail, and use them as bouncing-off points for your own writing, I've put larger versions in an album on my Facebook page. (And if you "like" the page and want to actually see updates, hover over the "Liked" button and choose the "Get notifications" option. I don't exactly flood the feed, so you'll be safe!)

You can do anything with the alphabet. Have a play with some new approaches to writing. Fill your life (and your mind) with art, music, and poetry. Change up what's around you, from time to time. And most of all, have fun. Enjoy the abundance of ideas.

If you're interested in upcoming workshops, you can see all the possibilites and make your wish-list here. You can also arrange a workshop for your writing group or society, either in Oxford or further afield. More details on that here.

Get occasional emails about interesting things

* indicates required

I won't share your email with anyone else. You'll get emails from me only, about upcoming courses, writing competitions, publishing opportunities, interesting articles about writing, new blog posts, and creative events in Oxford. All emails are sent via MailChimp and you can unsubscribe at any time. Add megan@thewritersgreenhouse.co.uk to your address book if you want to keep the emails from vanishing into spam.