A producer and script consultant who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers.
A recent power surge toasted my microwave and burned out the FiOS Internet. I’m certain that, like me, you wouldn’t dream of plugging in your most important electronics without a Surge Protector. As I can’t keep everything in my office up and running and within arm’s reach without a Power Strip, I definitely want one that does double duty – keeps the juice on hand and protects my precious computer.
Setting up my new office got me thinking.
Are we getting the most out of our “Creative Power Strip?” Are we relying too heavily on the “Surge Protector?”
I’m constantly saying that your most significant commodities as a writer are your time and your “Creative Juice.” I’ve written about how to get yourself back in the zone through overcoming resistance to maximize your time.
But how do you turn the juice on and keep it flowing?
What charges you as a writer?
If you’re reading my words, then you’re living somewhere that electricity flows at the flip of a switch. Light floods the room, music pours forth, and computers, well… compute, and connect us to the Internet, putting infinite information at our fingertips. Since the inventions of the late 19th Century turned electricity from a mysterious marvel to part of every day life, we assume it will always be there when we need it. But getting and keeping your Creative Juice flowing can’t be taken for granted
To be creatively charged, we need to nourish ourselves on artistic inspiration. Aim for a diet in the vein of Jack Sprat and his wife – both lean and fat. Gorge on wonderful movies and chow down on mediocre scripts. You’ll learn from what other writers have done right, as well as where they have fallen short.
As health experts say, the ideal diet should be rich and varied. No one can thrive on Krispy Kreme’s alone. Or subsist on kale. Sometimes you may crave inspiration from the gurus. Other times, you need mindless entertainment. Graze on a diverse variety of sources of inspiration to get the maximum energy boost. From arias to fine art, tabloids to Tolstoy.
Figure out what the creative monster inside you hungers for; then keep feeding it so that you have the Creative Juice to keep ideas flowing.
Are you paying attention to the sparks?
You never know what spark will set your Creative Juice on fire. For me, no matter how nice and steady a rhythm I’ve achieved tapping away on the keyboard, within moments of shutting down my computer, an idea for enriching an article pops into my head. I rush to jot down a note, so that it’s there when I next sit down to write.
The same thing happens to me in the shower. When I’m not forcing creativity, it explodes – often sending me into a frenzy of note writing while wrapped in a towel.
It’s akin to the phenomenon of being suddenly unable to recall something that you know you know perfectly well. It’s on the tip of your tongue, but it’s not until you stop trying to actively remember that the AWOL detail springs to mind.
Notice that I’ve primed the pump by being in the Creative Zone first. Only then does the relaxed, “off-duty brain,” give rise to a shower of creativity. That’s when my receptors are open. Flashes of insight occur. Ideas leap to mind.
This entire article was inspired, essentially, by a typo. I knew I needed a topic. It was in the back of my mind, but I was actively, consciously ignoring it, reading magazines. Quickly scanning a magazine’s table of contents, my brain misread “Power Trip” as “Power Strip.” My subconscious was on the job. The happy accident sent my mind spinning, and soon the entire column took shape.
What sparks each person may be completely different. Figure out what works for you – long walks, your favorite music, a yoga class – and make that part of your routine. That’s the key to hearing the little voice in your head that whispers… “inspiration.” Although it may not grow louder, I believe we can hear it more clearly when we keep our creative, subconscious mind switched on.
Tuning in to the spark of creativity works like an antenna pulling invisible radio signals from the air. According to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Loveand The Signature of All Things, “Creativity is a scavenger hunt. It’s your obligation to pay attention to clues, the thing that gives you that little tweak. The muses or fairies – they’re trying to get your attention.” (That quote, astonishing apropos of this article, was in the magazine as well. Simply serendipitous or seeking the sound of the muses?)
Morning Lark or Night Owl?
We’ve all heard of circadian rhythms – our individual internal clocks that fluctuate over a 24-hour cycle. It would seem logical to write when you are most energetic, but researchers have found that we may be more creative when we’re not at our sharpest.
Rationally, I’m in no position to be writing today at all. I didn’t sleep long enough last night, and I didn’t sleep well enough. I’m frazzled. Too much on my plate and too many directions to head in at once. The actresses at the table next to mine in Starbucks are driving me to the brink of madness, as they run lines in not one, but two badly butchered accents. Which, of course, I must post about on Facebook, so that I can silently kvetch to all my friends and keep grooving on the distraction buzz.
My well dry, I sat down without hope of a mere sentence coming together much less a paragraph. As I corrected typos, I tried to convince myself it that at least it was a millimeter of progress. I’m cold, hungry, and tired with a heaping spoon of cranky thrown in – apparently The Perfect Storm. Paragraphs form. The article takes shape. How is that possible?
Researchers have discovered that there’s a benefit to not being able to pay attention – a surge in creativity. Psychological science professor Mareike Wieth studied 428 undergrads, first asking them to fill out a questionnaire that classified them as either night owls or morning larks. Discussing the implications of these findings in his article, "You are at Your Most Creative When You're Tired," writer and tech geek James Plafke says, “I’m so much a night owl, I’ve never even heard the term ‘morning lark.’” Ditto.
Wieth then tested the students on problems requiring analytical skills and problems requiring insight. Each group performed better on problems requiring insight when they were tired. Wieth believes this effect is the result of a reduction in “inhibitory attentional control” – the ability to filter out information that is irrelevant to the task at hand.
“This less focused cognitive state makes people more susceptible to think about other, seemingly unrelated information,” Weith explains. “This additional information floating around in your mind during your non-optimal time of day ultimately helps you reach that creative ‘aha!’ moment.”
So how to plug into this unexpected creative power source? Science suggests that if you’re that rare lark, your creativity may be at its peak during your afternoon energy slump or the evening. Night owls like myself can relish the thought of losing sleep and rejoice in working when we’re tired and distracted.
When are you playing it too safe?
It’s reassuring to know that when lightning strikes, it isn’t going to fry your life’s work. “Safety first” is a great motto in certain hazardous situations, but is your reliance on an artistic Surge Protector hampering your Creative Juice?
In developing stories with my consultation clients and students, I find the most productive work happens with writers who are ready, willing and able to take a great leap. Flipping genres, rethinking the theme, tossing out beats, or restructuring altogether.
When a writer is truly open to exploring all the options, amazing progress is possible. Stories are re-energized. New possibilities appear. Exciting options for getting the movie that is in the writer’s head onto the page – in an exciting, cinematic way – become crystal clear.
For some writers, it feels too dangerous to let go of familiar concepts. It’s natural to want to play it safe, but to succeed creatively you must be willing to hurl yourself off a cliff.
The best time for this kind of magic to occur is while your idea is a mere baby, its future evolving, or in outline form, just beginning to take shape. Ah, another opportunity for me to harp on pre-writing over rewriting! Would you rather cut and paste a few sentences, or rip apart 120-pages?
I fully understand that when a writer is at the point of having what they believe is a honed, final draft; radical surgery can be unimaginably scary. But sometimes it’s the only way to save the ailing patient. The longer you rework a script, the more embedded you are in what has become familiar and feels safe. The more challenging it is to make great change. And the more likely it is to lead to creative burn out.
Writers who are truly open to rethinking and reworking a completed screenplay have my utmost admiration and support. For me, it’s incredibly exciting to help them realize their vision, and they are invigorated as well. Those writers who find it overwhelmingly scary to reconceive their work may be doomed to never reach the next level.
I love the story told by my friend, Glenn Gers, a screenwriter and director whose work includes Fracture and Mad Money, guest blogging for me in a piece called, Persistence Pays Off. Glen discussed the long path of his very first spec script. This “Little Engine That Could” has been going and going and going – for thirty years! It’s brought him a lot of work, and almost gotten made numerous times. Glenn has received plenty of notes from industry folks along the way, and he had to be open to doing a lot of rewriting, He believes this feedback has made his script better – and it’s on the verge of getting made once again.
At no point should you ever rule out flipping your story end-over-end in pursuit of its maximum potential. This lightening bolt can reinvigorate you and be the dynamic charge your work needs to become electrifying.
The Energizer Bunny
Creative Juice will always remain illusory, but having insight into your patterns and your needs – your personal Power Strip – can give you the edge that will get you charged, rev your inventiveness, and kick your imagination into high gear.
When the Creative Juice is flowing, you’ll blast through problems, solve conundrums and keep those keyboard keys clicking.
Take comfort in knowing that you have Surge Protector, but don’t let it make you complacent. There is no writing without rewriting. Sure – it’s scary, but the path to success isn’t found by playing it safe, but by taking risks. Be open to experimenting and exploring all the possibilities in pursuit of making your story the best it can be. When you do let go, you may very well find it exhilarating.
As for me, I plan to stay up late, a read script, watch some TV, maybe flip through a magazine, and then take a nice, long shower.
After all, I’ve got a book to write.
- More articles by Barri Evins -- follow Barri on Twitter @BigBigIdeas
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