Improving Your Creativity, Habit by Habit

Each of us is born creative. Some lose their creativity along the way. If you’d like to write fiction, but don’t think you’re creative enough, I believe you can increase that attribute through effort.

Researchers Carolyn Gregoire and Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman developed a list of habits practiced by creative people. In their book, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Gregoire and Kaufman introduce and discuss those habits.

However, if you’re trying to improve by practicing good habits, it’s difficult to work on ten all at once. In his self-improvement efforts, Benjamin Franklin tackled just one habit per week. Therefore, I took the ten habits from the Gregoire and Kaufman book and rated them according to how important they are to becoming a better fiction writer. That way you can concentrate on one at a time in your creative journey.

I’ll present each of the habits in reverse order of importance, like any good Top Ten List. The order of the list is mine; other authors might disagree. Each habit is important, and all worth doing. You’ll find you do some already, so you won’t have to work on those.

10. Turning Adversity into Advantage. It’s good to develop your ability to accept failure as part of the process, to learn from it, and to move on. As a writer, your stories will get rejected; some of your books won’t sell; some marketing ideas won’t work; your stories will receive bad reviews. You’ll need to use these misfortunes to improve. As important as this habit is, I judged it the least necessary for developing the type of creativity needed by fiction writers.

9. Solitude. Writing fiction is a solitary endeavor. Creative people need to be able to tune out the world’s noise, to enjoy being alone without feeling lonely. That can be difficult for extreme extroverts. Still, it didn’t rate high on my list, since it’s not a habit you’ll need to practice before you can write. Just write, and you’ll soon get used to being alone.

8. Intuition. As you assemble words into effective sentences, expressive paragraphs, and enjoyable stories, you won’t have time to reason out what works best in every case. Most often you’ll have to go with your gut. This habit is low on the list because it’s hard to practice (try setting out to be more intuitive today) and because it should develop naturally the more you write.

7. Daydreaming. All writers do this. They let their mind wander in unfocused thought, free to go where it will, perhaps to see things anew or to connect the unconnected. The only reason this habit isn’t higher on the list is its low degree of difficulty, for most people.

6. Sensitivity. It’s valuable to be aware of the world and to understand the connections between outside events and your own mood and feelings. You can use that ability to create characters readers will love. For some, this comes naturally but others have to work on it.

5. Passion. There has to be an inner fire, some powerful force driving you to tell a story, to sustain you through the times when writing seems too hard. It’s not an easy habit to practice, though. Moreover, once you experience the success of selling a story, your passion to write more will increase on its own.

4. Openness to Experience. Your muse must be fed, and her diet is experiences. You have to get out in the world, explore new places, meet new people, try new activities, break down the doors of your comfort zone. This is easy for some, but others have to work at it.

3. Mindfulness. A creative person can focus, can think about the world, can think about feelings, and can think about thinking itself. Unlike daydreaming, this is directed, intentional. This is the usual state of writers when writing.

2. Thinking Differently. Creative folks disdain norms, shun convention, and strive for originality. They adopt a unique perspective, and break out of the everyday. Fiction writers must do this, to craft stories that will interest and delight readers. There’s a reason they call them novels, after all.

Drum roll, please. And now, the #1 habit of creative people, the one most important to fiction writers…

1. Imaginative Play. Remember your childhood games? You’d build crude replicas of things that would be huge and perfect in your mind. You’d imagine situations, assume a role, and play it out. No constraints, no rules, no limits. Your mind would ask, “what if…?” and off you’d go. Fiction writers either never outgrow that habit, or find a way to renew it through practice. It’s the essence of creative writing.

You already know what to work on, don’t you? You’ve identified the most difficult habits on the list and you’re set to practice them. Soon you’ll be tapping into hidden reservoirs from which your creative juices will flow. Good luck, Writer, and please take a moment along your wandering, creative journey to leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Are Readers of Science Fiction…Stupid?

Hoisted by their own petard? The very science that science fiction readers adore has now declared them idiots.

Or has it?

Some accounts of a recent scientific study are concluding that reading SF makes people stupid. Researchers Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University set out to challenge the results of an earlier 2013 study suggesting literary fiction makes readers smarter. These researchers believed whatever was going on in the earlier study had nothing to do with genre, and hoped to prove it.

It might help to know some terms used in the recent study:

  • Theory of Mind (ToM)—the text doesn’t tell readers what a character is feeling or thinking, so they must infer those things.
  • Theory of World (ToW)—the text doesn’t tell readers about the world of the story (physical laws, social norms, etc.), so they must infer those things.

Initially, Gavaler and Johnson suspected ToM would be the same in any genre, but ToW would be more challenging in SF, since the worlds of those stories are so different from our own. Things didn’t work out that way.

They asked 150 randomly selected readers to read a 1000-word short story. Each read one of four versions of the same story:

  • Text 1: set in a small town diner. Character’s thoughts and feelings inferred.
  • Text 2: set in a space station cafeteria. Character’s thoughts and feelings inferred.
  • Text 3: small town diner. Thoughts and feelings stated.
  • Text 4: space station. Thoughts and feelings stated.

Study participants answered questions posed by the researchers. From these answers, the researchers concluded, “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality.” “Science fiction readers reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

According to the study, the SF story readers “appear to have expected an overall simpler story to comprehend, an expectation that overrode the actual qualities of the story itself…the science fiction setting triggered poorer overall reading.”

What should we make of this? Are readers of literary fiction smarter than readers of SF? Does reading SF make you stupid?

Perhaps the study was flawed. Were the participants truly random? Did the texts bias readers against SF? Were the post-reading questions biased in some way?

For the moment, let’s assume the study results are true. They imply the public regards SF as a lowbrow genre in comparison to literary works. There’s a valid reason people believe that. Many early SF stories and a lot of SF movies and TV shows were not high quality. In the early years, not many authors were writing science fiction, but the demand for stories was large, and readers weren’t as sophisticated or discerning as they are now. Science fiction fans of the time focused on settings—the weirder and more outlandish the better—not characters.

Given that history, it’s unsurprising that the public views SF as an uncultured mass-market genre for philistines, despite a huge advancement in the quality of writing in recent decades

Another factor is relevance to the reader’s life. Of the sample texts provided in the study, a reader is far more likely to relate to the scene in the small-town diner than the one in the alien-populated space station. Because of that, the public views science fiction as escapist in nature. SF writers strive to say something relevant about the human experience. Despite that, readers will always feel more distant from SF characters than they do from characters in contemporary literary fiction.

In my view, the study didn’t prove science fiction is for dummies, let alone that it makes people dummies. It showed people are different from each other; that’s why so many genres exist. As science fiction improves in quality, it will delight more readers. Delighting readers, and helping to make them smarter, is the main mission of—

Poseidon’s Scribe