I have a theory about writing and where ideas come from. It basically goes something like this, you can’t force it. You need to let an idea cook for a while before it is ready to come to life on the page. When I read Adam Grant’s book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, he had some great proof about why this may be true.
The Power of Procrastination
He writes, “procrastination might be conductive to originality. When you procrastinate, you’re intentionally delaying work that needs to be done. You might be thinking about the task, but you postpone making real progress on it to finishing it to do something less productive. . . you buy yourself time to engage in divergent thinking rather than foreclosing on one particular idea. As a result, you consider a wider range of original . . Delaying progress enable them to spend more time considering different ways to accomplish it, rather than ‘seizing and freezing’ on one particular strategy.”
I don’t think of it as procrastination. I think of it as cooking an idea. This is how I described it in a previous blog post, “My stories need to spend some time cooking in my brain. Every story I have ever written, no matter the format, has always come out the same way. First, I think of the idea and then I leave it alone for a while. I will then run across things in real life and get inspiration from events, items, and things around me. At this stage I don’t even really need to pay attention to the oven. The ideas get mulled over in my brain with, what seems like, very little effort. This is what I refer to as cooking the story.”
Grant writes, “Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity.”
Paving the way for Improvisation
Also, putting things off while you let the idea simmer, can help foster improvisation. You can mull over your ideas ad then when it comes time to lay them down, you have some wiggle room. In the book, Grant tells a great story about one of the most famous speeches in history.
Just before Martin Luther King Jr was to give his historic “I have a dream speech,” Mahalia Jackson yelled some encouragement from the crowd. She said, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” Believe it or not, he had not written the most memorable lines of the speech. They were improvised and born out of that small comment. He hadn’t taken a long time to plan his speech. In fact, he only prepared the night before.
“As King walked to the podium to deliver his speech, even as he approached the microphone, he was still revising it.” Grant compared him to “some sort of jazz musician” because “King acted spontaneously, beginning with small ad-libs.” In fact, “King added so much new material to his prepared speech that the length of his address nearly doubled.”
What can we learn from this?
“When we plan well in advance, we often stick to the stricture we’ve created, closing the door to creative possibilities that might spring into our fields of vision.”
This is one of the reasons that I don’t use an outline when I write fiction. I am what they call a pantser. I have an idea of where I want to go with the story, but I let the process steers me.
So you need to plan, but you don’t need to over-plan.
He suggests that you “don’t skip planning altogether.” Creative people “procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities. Although the memorable lines about the dream were improvised, King had rehearsed variations of them in earlier speeches . . . he had a wealth of material at his disposal that he could draw upon extemporaneously, which made his deliver more authentic. . . King did not so much write his speeches as assemble them, by rearranging and adapting material he had used many times before . . . It gave King the flexibility to adapt his addresses as he was speaking. Had King not decided to leave his written text, it is doubtful that his speech at the march would be remembered at all.”
Freestyle Rappers Do This
This reminds me of how freestyle rappers construct their rhymes on the spot. Some of it is just rearranging and combining different things they have played with in practice before.
“two radically different styles of innovation; conceptual and experimental. Conceptual innovators formulate a big idea and set out to execute it. Experimental innovators a solve problems through trail and error, learning and evolving as they go along. They are at work on a particular problem, but they don’t have a specific solution in mind at the outset. Instead of planning in advance, they figure it out as they go.”
Outlining vs Winging It
Some writers plan out every single detail. They plan things out well in advance. Others, have a basic structure and just start writing. The latter style is often referred to as pantsing as some people thing it means you are flying by the seat of your pants. But I don’t think that is really true. It just like freestyle rappers or someone going off their notes during a speech. This is often where great stories and ideas flourish. It’s also my favourite way to write and why I never outline!