A Strange Place)
On Monday I started my latest short story, which is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There is an outpost of survivors, perched at the edge of a horrifying monster’s domain, and a mysterious stranger who comes to them with an a secret power.
But while the story is extremely fictional, the location of it is not. I very clearly state that this outpost is positioned is at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, a famous real-world location in Tooele County, Utah.
These Salt Flats are the residue from the Bonneville Lake, a massive body of water that once covered the entire North-Western portion of Utah during the Pleistocene era. So massive was this lake that we can still see its old shoreline etched into the mountains today, and 150 million tons of salt still rests in its old basin.
That salt covers a spread of nearly 40,000 acres, creating a plain of dry, white powder that extends as far as the eye can see. When it rains a thin pool collects on the surface, creating a perfect mirror of the sky above, and when it is dry you can feel the air sucking the moisture out of your body.
In short, it is a strange and ethereal place. It feels totally alien, like it doesn’t actually belong in this world. And in my experience, that makes it the perfect place to help one’s imagination come alive.
The Two-Part Process)
Creativity comes down to making meaningful connections. Whether it be an original combination of notes in a song, or colors in a painting, or words in a novel, or jokes in a comedy act, the thing that makes creativity creative is how it puts things together in a way that the audience has not experienced before.
But making meaningful connections can be difficult. For being able to do so requires a most fickle connection of its own: unconscious fantasy and deliberate thought. The unconscious fantasy comes first, where novel thoughts and ideas pop up, seemingly at random. We have little to no control over this process, it just has to grace us when it sees fit. This is the “connections” part of the puzzle. Then comes the deliberate thought, because it is rare that these new ideas come through fully formed. They have to be filtered, distilled, and completed, and that comes about by simple, hard work. This provides the “meaningful” aspect. Spontaneous inspiration plus methodical development equals meaningful connections.
The “deliberate thought” phase is the hard piece of the puzzle in that it requires a mind that is disciplined and trained. It requires the ability to analyze and iterate. It requires energy, so being well-rested and in full command of one’s faculties are essential. It requires time without interruption. But while this may be the hard piece of the puzzle in terms of work, it is the easy part in that we can control it. It is work, but it is work that we can do on purpose.
Contrast this to the “uncontrollable inspiration” side of things. When we are in the zone it is effortless and fun, new ideas popping up one after another and delighting us. But when we are not “in the zone?” Well, that is what we call “Writer’s Block,” which isn’t a blockage of effort, but a blockage of new ideas.
In short, creativity requires a mind that is healthy in two different respects. It must be both strong and flexible. In weight training one learns that it is important to build both muscle strength and muscle relaxation. Healthy muscles don’t just flex well, they release well. And so it is with the creative mind. By being able to relax we freely make new connections, but by being able to flex we distill those into plot and structure.
Exercising and Stretching)
Muscle strength and flexibility are improved through different practices. Stretches help to keep the muscles limber while weight-lifting helps them to grow tense. So, too, there are different practices for strengthening and relaxing the mind.
Keeping the mind sharp is as simple as using it intentionally. This can be done through creative exercises, such as writing stories and poetry, but also through non-creative means. Mastering new subjects, learning analytical sciences, and solving puzzles may not seem like they directly contribute to your writing prowess, but they teach your mind how to work hard, and that absolutely helps with the creative process.
And while inspiration may be less within our power to control, there are still ways to relax our mind so that it reaches a state that invites new ideas. The free-association pattern of dreams has been a rich well of inspiration since the dawn of man, and keeping a regular dream journal can help one to retain the memory of those moments past waking. Meditation can also bring us to a more free-flowing state that is ripe with fresh ideas.
Of course there are those that have used mind-altering drugs to enter a creative trance, but this has the negative effect of degrading the mind’s health over time. It is a short-term gain for long-term losses.
There is one other excellent technique I know of to seek out inspiration, which is to experience something new. New experiences have to be processed by the mind, and processing gives rise to all manner of “what-ifs” and “imagine-thats.” As I mentioned at the start of this post, my current story is based at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and it is because my childhood visit to that place fired so many questions in my mind of what might be lurking beneath this flat, dry ocean of salt.
When I was nineteen I went to the Caribbean for two years, which was also a mind-opening journey. So was my first week at University. So was the first time I learned how to write computer programs. So was falling in love. So was holding my newborn son. Each of these days was a new experience and accordingly a new story idea.
There are some great, creative scenes in there, and now they just need some mental power to turn them into the moments of an actual story.