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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Writers’ Brains Require Random Input


“Where did that come from?”

Usually I’m so enthralled by fresh ideas, images, insights and plot points, I immediately focus on weaving them into the story. I’m so busy figuring out where to go with those ideas and images, I don’t notice where they came from.

For example, I couldn’t tell you why the leaves on a puttak tree are purple, even though I made that decision at some point. Now, purple puttak leaves are simply part of the world in that story.

Research Is Necessary, but Insufficient

Sometimes I remember where an idea came from. Sometimes I can point to the research I consciously chose to do as one source of the idea. But there is almost always some random source that contributed to the creation of a new idea or image.

For example, Amy Schumer did a stand-up routine that I just happened upon and that gave me a bit of intimate information about women her age that I don’t think I would found anywhere else. Even though I was watching TV alone, I said out loud, “Really? Seriously?”

Thanks to Amy Schumer, random information entered my brain. I wasn’t sure it was information I wanted in my brain, but there it was.

It mingled with other bits of ideas and possible plot events and came out as one of the specific sensory details that made the scene powerful.

Research Randomly Recombined = Creativity

Research transforms into something creative when the consciously acquired information bumps into other bits of information in the writer’s brain.

Imagine information as atoms floating in the brain, randomly bumping into other information atoms (aka a kind of mental Brownian Motion for my fellow sf geeks). Most of the time, the atoms bounce each other, slightly altering their trajectories.

Creativity sparks when information atoms bump into to each other and bind together in a brand new molecule.

Creative Requires Random

Creativity is combining two disparate things into a cohesive new whole. Often, the more disparate the elements are, the more intriguing the creation is.

Because we want to be creative, writers need to scoop up massive amounts of random images, experiences and bits of information.

It might be mere chance that brings random bits together, in which case, the more diverse and weird stuff you have in your brain, the greater the likelihood that two or more random bits will bump into each other in unexpectedly creative ways.

I’m inclined to think that random recombination is more than chance. I suspect there is an unconscious process in some part of the brain that actively rummages around in its own attic of memory, tossing bits around until it finds a combination worth the effort of getting the conscious mind to notice.

In that case, the more diverse and weird stuff you have in your brain, the more stuff your unconscious has to play around with.

Either way, you need stuff in your brain. And not just “useful information” or ordinary stuff. You need random input.

The next time you feel blocked, resistant or stymied for a solution to a writing problem, throw something random into your brain attic.

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