Unblocking Ideas

by Susan Forest

Creativity—and idea generation and development—is a mysterious phenomenon. It is hard to define. We value it, calling it artistry, imagination, even genius. Ingenuity and the birthing of new thought has changed our world. We puzzle over how to nurture it.

I have a distinct memory from several years ago of feeling as though I was a homunculus crouching in the back corner of my skull, looking out the windows of my eyes watching my fingers type, wondering where the words were coming from. Although I cannot answer this question yet (and likely never will, though I don’t really care), I have learned over time some techniques that help me draw out that seep—or gush—of ideas, and coax them into story.

A character’s desire is the engine that drives story, and knowing this I solve many problems through a deeper exploration of these desires: “If my character wants this, s/he would do . . .” and “when faced with the given obstacles, s/he would . . .” This basic tool can be further tweaked by asking: “What do the other characters want?” In one story I wanted my sea captain to sail her ship to Senegal, but she had no reason to do this: she wanted to go to England. However, the mermaid wanted the captain to go to Senegal, and the mermaid was able to command sea currents. So my captain went to Senegal. Not without a fight, of course. The waves lashed, and she nearly lost her ship—she was determined to go to England—but the mermaid and I won the fight.

Analyzing “becauses” not only reveals problematic plot gaps, it often leads to previously unrecognized and enriching connections between and among characters and events.

A good technique I have been using lately is an analysis of my “becauses.” Because I am a planner, I often write out the events of a story. Beside each one, I write out its “because,” or its “why now?” In other words, what is the direct causal link between the event and what preceded it: why does this event have to occur now? “Coincidence” is not a satisfactory answer. For instance, I was working on a historical fantasy in which the action hinged on the king beginning a war with neighboring kingdoms. Although the story focused on the actions of characters subsequent to this incident, the king needed a motive. It could have been economic, and the king could have been a clichéd, greedy, and power-hungry character. However, my exploration of his background led to a rich world in which the king’s love for his son drove him to cross a religious taboo and have his son resurrected from the dead. Alienating his neighbors by affronting their fundamental principles was a much more interesting moral quandary. Analyzing “becauses” not only reveals problematic plot gaps, it often leads to previously unrecognized and enriching connections between and among characters and events.

One technique I stumbled upon, but later learned has been well researched, is the counter-intuitive idea of walking away from the work. Theorists in the field of creativity call this stage “incubation” and postulate that, when the conscious is removed from pursuing a blind focus on directing idea development in well-known, logical paths, the unconscious is freed to make unique connections. Or, perhaps, turning away from conscious wrestling with the problem allows the brain to forget misleading cues.

This technique of setting the problem aside for a while is based on the idea that stress kills creativity. Dr. Bruce D. Perry, a psychologist who worked with the children traumatized by the events at Waco, Texas in 1993—positing that if stress levels vary between 0 (asleep) and 5 (highly stressed), then any work environment would have a minimum stress level of 2—said, “If you ever thought you had a creative idea at work, you didn’t.” And I certainly find his point to be true: many people verify that the best ideas come just as one is falling asleep or waking up, in the shower, or during a walk, bike ride, or other form of meditative exercise. For three years, I worked close enough to home to ride my bicycle to work, and I can’t list the number of times I’d ridden about fifteen minutes from my house when—pop!—the solution to a problem simply materialized in my head. The trick then, of course, was to memorize the idea until I could write it down. This was made even trickier by the fact that one creative idea immediately spawned three more.

Most people probably wouldn’t credit the notion that riding on the back of a motorcycle can constitute a low-stress environment, but I guess that depends on your perspective. My husband has been riding motorcycles since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, and he raced professionally for about fifteen years. We’ve been riding together for twenty-seven years, and I trust him completely (okay, yeah, I know that if we ever do have an accident, we lose). Because we have no means of communication, I find riding behind him brings me a thorough disconnect from the constant bombardment of media, conversation, and errands, and gives me time to commune with myself. I find this a particularly rich environment for incubating story. But I have learned to be smart about it: I purchased a $10 microphone, broke the earpiece off so it fits comfortably inside my helmet, and dictate not only story ideas, but text, into a tiny recorder in my pocket.

However, this is not to say that everyone who exercises, showers, or sleeps—or rides a motorcycle—writes a novel: there is a bit more to this technique than simply not thinking about the problem.

Creation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Expertise and knowledge are underlying preconditions for success; it was important for me to develop my body of knowledge about writing; I couldn’t write without something to say; and I had to know my own world and characters very well.

Setting my own best creative environment, by living and breathing my art as continuously as I can is another support. When I had a myriad demands from work and family, this was a nontrivial obstacle. Now that I write and edit full time, my environment is much more conducive to devoting time, energy, and hard work to my craft. This has resulted in making me more prolific, and I generate more ideas than I have time to turn into stories.

Although it is essential for me to follow my muse when she reveals herself, I find it equally important to discipline myself to work through periods of low energy. I like to keep in mind the words of bpNichol: “There is no such thing as writer’s block. There is good writing and bad writing, and you learn more from your bad writing than you do from your good writing.” For me, this is true: my rough draft is a matrix from which good writing emerges and I can be comfortable with its unpolished vagueness, recognizing this as part of my process. If my bad writing discourages me, though, it’s time to work on something else. Not every idea is worth pursuing.

Not only am I best served by maintaining a creative, productive environment in general, but also, my brain must be consciously working on the specific problem that is confounding me before my subconscious is ready to solve it. So, my version of the de-stress technique involves brainstorming many options and following each to its logical conclusion, before setting the problem aside to allow the step of “incubation” to occur.

I’ve learned to trust that the process of unconscious gestation will work, which is a bit of a leap of faith.

Sometimes the result of destressing is an inkling—just a glimmer, an image, a feeling—more a spark than a fully formed idea in words.

Sometimes it’s slow. Nothing happens. I alternate conscious struggling with spreadsheets and color-coding, with freewheeling unconscious work. Just last week, a secondary character’s love interest was supposed to convince her to help with the revolution, and I had a reason for him to do so, but the reason was weak. I knew writing the scene would be difficult—the love interest was bound to be obstinate about it—and that I could do better. I deliberately chose that point to take a nap so I could come at the problem refreshed, and—guess what? I woke up to ideas popping in my head: this scene would be the perfect time to reveal the love interest as a coward my secondary character couldn’t respect, giving her a completely different reason to help the revolution: because she didn’t need to hang onto any illusion that the love interest was worth her time. It resulted in a much more honest and powerful scene.

Sometimes the result of de-stressing is an inkling—just a glimmer, an image, a feeling—more a spark than a fully formed idea in words. But, as I write it down, the shape forms. I’ve had this happen in the middle of the night. I fight off the desire to drift back to sleep, carefully slide out from between the covers, find my fuzzy robe and slippers in the dark, barely close the bedroom door so I don’t wake my husband, and sneak to my office to record the thought on my computer, before it is lost. I shade my eyes from the sudden light of the screen, rehearsing the idea over and over so I don’t forget it as the machine boots up. I type like mad, trying to get my thoughts—all of them—out of images and into words, however rough. Then I creep back to bed, and . . . more offshoots flesh out the idea—and I have to write those down, too. Repeat.

But my story takes off. I feel that wow-aha! moment when ideas ignite in my brain, and I explode mentally—and sometimes dancingly—with elation.

There is nothing more energizing than that moment and the frenzy of writing that follows. It is one of the great joys that keeps me writing.


Three-time Aurora finalist, Susan Forest, has published over 25 short stories in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, OnSPEC, and her collection, Immunity to Strange Tales, among others. Her epic fantasy series, beginning with Bursts of Fire, is forthcoming from Laksa Media (Spring 2019), followed by Flights of Marigolds (Summer, 2019). 

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