My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with stand-up comic, comedy writer, and singer-songwriter Ariane Sherine!
My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with bestselling author Nat Russo!
My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with screenwriter and novelist Suzie Tullett!
My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with musician and writer James Radcliffe.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a talk at Inspire’d.
It was a really fun evening, and I had a great time both giving the talk – about the creative process – and watching the other speakers too.
Oh, and there was also wine, which is always a nice bonus.
Anyway, click the link above to take a look!
(And I don’t know why I look like I’m strangling someone in the video still either…)
I can sense it before it happens now.
Something about the look in their eye. A slightly quizzical glance, as though they’re weighing something up. This is normally the point in the evening just after the information that I write/perform has been introduced. Generally not by me, as I usually try to avoid having to answer the inevitable questio-
“So where do you get your ideas?”
A-a-and it’s all downhill from there – me stuttering away, and desperately trying not to a) bore everybody, b) sound pretentious, or c) both. I always do my ‘writer’ face too, mainly in an attempt to negate the utter nonsense spewing from my mouth as I try to answer such a difficult question.
Actually, no. That’s not true. It’s not actually a difficult question, in fact on one level (I’ll mention the other level later…) it’s an incredibly simple one.
Ideas are everywhere.
Pick up a newspaper, sit on a bus, go for a walk, do pretty much anything and you’ll be surrounded by ideas.
Think of any recent news story, for instance. Got one? OK, now imagine it’s not true. As in, the entire story as it was reported didn’t happen and it was all an elaborate set up. Given this as a starting point, what’s the story behind this lie? Who set it up, and why? Think about what it would take to orchestrate it – whatever it is – in such a convincing manner that it’s actually reported as news.
If it’s a murder, for instance, why would it be faked? Where is the supposed victim now? Were they in on it too? Probably, but in what specific capacity? And why would they essentially forfeit the rest of their current life by going to live in hiding? What are they gaining from it, or what were they threatened with if they didn’t go through with it?
It works with more mundane things too. Go for a walk in a local park and look around. See that couple sitting by the pond, snuggled into each other? Are they married? Engaged? Cheating? How did they meet? Did they like each other at first, if not then why not? And what changed their minds? Will they still be together in a year? Why/why not? Are their families happy they’re together? Are they happy they’re together?
We are totally bombarded with events and information all the time. On any given day, life can be busy, relaxing, noisy, quiet, emotional, calm, colourful, bland, confusing, straightforward, happy, sad, boring and fascinating. Sometimes all at the same time. I don’t know where you’re reading this – you could be using a computer, your phone, a tablet, who knows. But wherever you are, you’re not in a vacuum, there are other things going on around you, and other thoughts going on inside you. If you look at each one of these things as a potential idea or source of inspiration, then you’ll see what I mean when I say that ideas are everywhere.
I always feel that the real question – the second of the ‘levels’ I mentioned above – isn’t about where ideas come from, but more about why idea number 28 got chosen over idea 43. To me that’s a more interesting – and infinitely more complex – question.
Unfortunately, that makes it very difficult to answer.
And this isn’t a way of promoting some kind of bullshit mystique around being a writer by the way, where I walk the streets at 2am smoking a Gauloise cigarette and quoting Nietzsche until my ‘muse’ appears to guide me to the perfect idea through interpretive dance. Not at all. Writing is work. Hard, frustrating, why-do-I-not-just-go-do-fun-stuff-like-everybody-else work.
As a comparison, stand up is different. If I think it’s funny, I use it. If the audience then agree with me that its funny, then it stays in my set. If not, it goes. Simple.*
Writing fiction is much trickier, because the test isn’t ‘is it funny?’, as much as ‘does it resonate with me on some level?’. And your guess is as good as mine as to why some ideas ‘resonate’ and why some don’t. I recently wrote a blog post about a real-life crime case that I couldn’t get out of my head, and I still have no idea why, out of the hundreds of cases I’ve read, that this one in particular struck a chord in me.
Looking at the novels I’ve written, the first was based on my experiences as an actor/comedian, and the second based on various sleep disorders I have the hilariously good fortune to suffer from. But I’ve obviously experienced more than two things in my life, so what made me choose those two particular subjects to write about over every other idea I’ve ever had?
The honest – and probably quite unsatisfactory – answer is that those ideas resonated with me and made me want to explore them. Which is, of course, just a nice way of saying that the honest answer is that I have no idea.
See what I mean about the question being complicated…?
In saying all this, sometimes ideas do leap out of nowhere and present themselves. I remember being on holiday a while ago and seeing this kid sitting by himself on the beach. He was miming the act of cutting his wrists, then convulsing as though he’d been electrocuted, and would then laugh manically. He did this about three of four times, with a period of around a minute or so in between where he’d sit and stare at the sea. Eventually, he stood up and walked back towards the hotel.
A lot about this scene unnerved me (and, I assume, anybody else who’d seen him). Why was this kid miming slitting his wrists? Had he seen it on TV? And why was he laughing about it? People on TV generally don’t commit suicide then laugh manically about it. Maybe it was based in reality then? Maybe he’d just witnessed his parents execute some kind of blood-drenched murder-suicide in their hotel room, didn’t know how to comprehend what he’d seen, and strolled downstairs in a trance. In his shock, he then went through the motions trying to make sense of them, then finally felt prepared enough to go back upstairs to join his dead/dying parents. Although I don’t even want to contemplate what that might have looked like…
So, why did this weird scene inspire me to write the short story Child’s Play (from The Walk)?
Let’s be honest here, why wouldn’t it…?
That is an exception though. Most of the time there’s just some elusive quality about an idea that grabs you and makes you want to explore it creatively. It’s not even a necessarily intellectual decision, it’s just something that feels like it’d be interesting to explore, or funny to use on stage, or entertaining to write about, and – for others – to read about.
And I guess that’s the point here. Why do we choose one idea over another? Because it feels right.
Maybe the answer is pretty simple after all.
*This is obviously oversimplifying how much tweaking, trial-and-error, and embarrassed silences go into successful stand up, but I guess that’s a post for another day.
You might not have heard of her, but you’ll definitely know of the legacy of Stella Adler.
She was one of the most influential and seminal acting teachers in the history of, well, acting. Taking her cue from Stanislavski’s ‘method’, she taught among others Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Harvey Keitel, and Warren Beatty.
So she was, y’know, pretty good.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about her approach – although her life and work were fascinating – what I do want to do is highlight one of her most famous quotes.
“In your choices lies your talent.”
For me, this is a quote that becomes more insightful every time I think about it.
Our talents – and by extension our lives – really are about our choices. It’s not enough to just have an ability or qualification or talent, it’s about utilising those things in the best possible way.
And yes, there are other factors that shape and inform our lives – I’m not pretending for a second that we all live in a static, safe environment which is just waiting to accommodate our next choice. But the power of our own choices on our own lives shouldn’t be underestimated.
For example, following the acting ‘theme’, a lot of people will look at a character in a film and think ‘I could do that.’ And a number of people probably could. They could learn the dialogue off by heart, and then deliver it in the same way, with the same intonation, and the same body language. They might even be able to do a passable impression (everyone can do Marlon Brando in The Godfather, can’t they..?) But the point is, that performance didn’t start off as that performance. It started off as typed words on sheets of paper. The actor’s talent was in the choices they made in terms of how to bring the character to life. (As was the writer’s talent when they chose who to write the character, and the director in his/her role, and everybody else involved in the process).
There’s a great audition tape of Robert De Niro as Sonny Corelone in The Godfather, a role which was eventually played by James Caan. In it, you can see that De Niro’s Sonny would’ve been quite different to James Caan’s. I’m deliberately not using the words ‘better’ or ‘worse’ here – the audition tape simply illustrates how the same source material can result in very different performances.
The reason? The choice to go one way with the character rather than another.
Looking at another example, this time closer to home, my first novel The Artist was about a serial killer who kidnaps and then films the last fifteen minutes of actresses’ lives. The story follows not only the killer, but also a young girl who becomes increasingly scared for her actress mother, and the story follows the way all of their lives are affected.
But, and here’s the ‘choices’ part, this story could have been completely different. And I don’t mean the names of the characters could’ve been different, I mean everything could have been. The story came out of:
- My own experiences as an actor
- My disillusionment with peoples’ obsessive pursuit of fame for its own sake
- My interest in and experience of forensic psychology
Looking at that list, the story could’ve gone anywhere and its inception still been attributed to that specific list. The ideas would still be there, but the execution of those ideas would’ve given a completely different result. The story could’ve been about a group of actors who are fed up with being rejected and take violent revenge on a top casting director. The twist could be that the crime then makes the group (in)famous, resulting in TV appearances and eventually ‘real’ acting jobs. One of them could even win an Oscar for playing themselves in the biopic.
Or, from the other side of the process, the story could’ve been about a casting director who becomes disillusioned with the industry and seeks to ‘save’ a young actress who auditions for a specific role. He could become obsessed and begin stalking her, ostensibly to protect her from the dangerous people within the industry (which, of course, he has now become).
Again, all the boxes above would be ticked, but the story itself would be completely different. I had to choose, not only at the start of the story but at each step of it.
And, not to be dramatic, I think that’s analogous to life as a whole.
We don’t just choose one path and keep going, we continually decide where to go next – as well as where not to. Ok, so you chose the job you’re in, but you also choose not to resign each day. You also choose whether to do a good/bad job at any given moment, whether to look for other work, and so on.
As I said above, I’m not proposing that we can choose every aspect of our lives – we definitely can’t – but that the vast majority of us do have choices, however small they may appear. And the way we choose to utilise the talents and abilities that we do have can make all the difference in our lives.
For instance, you might be an incredibly sensitive and perceptive person who is great at caring for people, or have a sharp eye for detail and an aptitude for design, or be talented creatively in some exceptional way. But merely having that ability or talent isn’t enough. You have to do something with it.
That, after all, is where real talent lies.