How does an idea come into existence?
- Does creativity spring from an inability to repress associations?
- Can we glean ideas from a constant flow of information?
- We simultaneously hate and are fascinated by moral ambiguity.
Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, exploded on to the bookshelves in 1989. She’s been a consistent bestseller ever since with tales of family relationships. Her thoughts on creativity are far more insightful and entertaining than my commentary, so as ever with a greater mind than mine, please pay her more attention than me.
Tan’s first question is fundamental to the creative process: how does an idea come into being to fill a space, whether in the mind or on the page? She puts her tongue in her cheek to make a few suggestions, such as a gene for creativity that some of us are blessed – or is it cursed? – with, or experience from past lives.
She then makes a couple of more controversial suggestions. The association between creativity and psychiatric illness was the sort of thing Elizabeth Gilbert rejected in a TED talk I pontificated about a few months ago. Tan’s further suggestion that creativity may spring from childhood trauma was contradicted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who admitted in her TED talk that she once considered inventing a troubled past because her childhood was too happy to conform to the popular view of a novelist’s early years.
I’m with Adichie and Gilbert on that one, as I’d like to think we can be both happy and creative. However, that leaves the question of where ideas come from unanswered.
Ideas are forged by friction
Tan’s suggestion that creativity is an ‘inability to repress… associations in practically anything in life’ resonated far more with me, perhaps because it resonated with my own thoughts on building a story supported by a tripod of character, setting and plot problem. Sometimes, the ideas that make a story work spring out of the friction between concepts rather than stemming from any one of them.
As Tan says, ideas only take us so far. As I develop my stories, I often become aware that there’s something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on. In fact, it was the need to ensure I have a complete story that prompted me to develop a framework for developing a story. The gaps stand out when I can see the bare bones of the story structure in note form, and it’s much easier to adjust an outline to accommodate whatever I need to fill the gap than a compete draft.
When I notice the gap, I am faced with the question that Tan started her talk with. There is a space which must be filled with something. The difference is that now, we can’t just work with the first thing we conjure up. We need something that specifically fits the gap that’s opened up.
Tan says she comes across ‘things, quite uncanny, which bring me information that will help me in the writing of the book’. Not being of a spiritual bent, I found myself thinking of Louis Pasteur’s adage that fortune favours the prepared mind. Tan talks about finding her solutions from books she reads or places she visited. It sounds as though she maintains a continuous flow of new knowledge and impressions, from which she is able to pluck what she needs when she recognises it.
I can think of no better way to stimulate creativity than to maintain such a feed.
When I read The Bonesetter’s Daughter, I never felt Ruth the protagonist was either right or wrong. She was trying to balance a difficult relationship with her mother with the demands of her own life, just as her mother had spent her life doing the best she could and was now struggling with dementia.
I wasn’t particularly surprised that moral ambiguity was a recurring theme in Tan’s talk. The most interesting stories are not about characters trying to make a good choice but about characters trying to make the least worst choice. If it’s clear what the morally correct choice is, a character will need to have a very good reason to do something else if the story is to have any tension at all.
As Tan says, ‘we all hate moral ambiguity…and yet it is also absolutely necessary’. We’re fascinated by it. We put ourselves in the position of the character trying to make the choice and wonder if we’d do the same, because nothing reveals character like how they choose between bad options. As Tan puts it, it we have to let go of the idea of natural justice and go where the character will be most tested.
If I ever manage to place a character on the horns of a dilemma as subtle and yet as wrenching as Amy Tan’s characters endure, I’ll know I’m on my way to being a proper writer!