One of my favourite blogs, Garr Reynolds's Presentation Zen, has a great post about the benefits of self-imposed limitation. His focus is on design - specifically design of presentations - but it can be extrapolated to writing (actually, many of the lessons he cites come from writing). Too many choices are overwhelming. Too many choices can lead to... too much. Of everything. To illustrate this example, spend five minutes in the hanger section of Bed Bath & Beyond (in the States). Too much choice is overwhelming - and wasteful.
Part of this is the way the creative mind works - at least mine, and a few others I know. Anything is possible, ideas are limitless, and until someone yanks at the hem of my jeans, I'm not coming back down to earth. Whee!
To paraphrase a quote we used recently, talent is generating ideas; genius is knowing which to keep. Prior to E+S, and probably for my first year at E+S, I spent about 15% of my time on a first draft and 85% on the rest. Most of that 85% was cutting, cutting, cutting, followed by tweaking and polishing. The ultimate goal was (and always is) to have the words that remain on the page imply all those words that aren't on the page.
My rationale was that each creative endeavor was a blank canvas. I believed in brainstorming wildly, writing everything that could possibly be relevant, to get beyond cliches and start generating new ideas - and to ensure I didn't miss anything (the renowned FoMS illness: Fear of Missing Something). The first draft of my book manuscript was 600 pages. Eeek! Because the creative mind tends to be so self-critical, crazy brainstorming can be a good way to allow your brain complete creative freedom and then, at a different time, shift to the critical/editor part of the brain to make choices about ideas.
At E+S, I'm learning a new model - one that some other writers use with ease - not only of outlining but of figuring out the important stuff before I put it on paper. In a world with unlimited time, I'd choose to put everything on paper But in a deadline-driven world, and one in which fewer hours are directly linked to greater profit, being strategic about creativity is essential.
It starts with the questions. There are literally limitless questions we could ask clients. But which ones are going to start giving us insight into their story? And which question do we ask first? And how do we phrase the question so that the listener feels free to explore and be creative and not give a rote answer? How do we get them out of the box (or, as in one recent case, into the box)? Pre-planning questions saves time and helps us structure the session, but we have to have the ability to throw all those out the window if the client is clearly going in a different direction. To me, that's how we get at the authentic story, rather than the story we want them to tell.
In the past, the storyteller would come back and go through the notes, their experience of the session, and identify the big ideas and write them up. Then we'd ask what everyone else thought (usually a day before it was due to the client). That - while fun and perhaps a bit more creative - was very time consuming, and there was no guarantee we were on the right track. So now, we debrief together and, though it sometimes feels as though there's a surfeit of input, we have more structure. I bristled at first (and still do, sometimes), feeling like my creativity was being limited.
What I didn't see was that, by placing those "restrictions" around what I write, I can write a more focused first draft and spend a higher percentage of time tweaking and polishing (those are highly technical words, by the way). Though I still have to remind myself of this, it's not that this process is less creative; it's that my creativity is focused - dare I say it? - strategically.
Yes, sometimes it feels a little constrained, and there are plenty of times I just want to write out everything that's in my head and then edit it (like, uh, in this post), but when it comes to cost-effective business, for us and our clients, limited options actually make me more productive.
A good exercise in semi-limited brainstorming
One way I learned to semi-focus my ideas was this: when brainstorming ideas for scripts or sketches, I'd open a thesaurus and pick a word. Then I'd brainstorm story variations that could possibly include that word (even if it meant the entire cast of Grace Under Fire was going to Space Camp to become...astronauts!). I made myself list a minimum of 10 one-line plot descriptions, and I aimed for 20. Then I'd pick another random word and repeat the exercise. I'd do that with ten random words, and voila - 100 story ideas. Then I'd go back and, in each list, pick the two that had the most potential (and I was usually lucky if there were two). Those 20 ideas got a postcard-pitch treatment, slightly more fleshed out. By this point, I'd have a couple of favourites, and I'd try block-outlining them. Sometimes I'd have to go back to the thesaurus entirely. And as you all know, I never did get hired for any sketch shows or sitcoms. But it's a great creative exercise (and it's not original - thanks to Jurgen Wolff, author of Successful Sitcom Writing).
Here's a not-so-secret: it's not just for writers. It's not just for artists. You can approach almost any situation in your life this way. Use the random words to trigger solutions, no matter how outrageous - the brainstorming allows you to get at your subconscious without your conscious mind interfering. Look for my new book, The Thesaurus Solution to Life at bookstores soon...