Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Writing: The Creativity Equation

I teach creative writing at a large public school, and there's not a day that goes by when I don't hear one student or other whinge about “not being creative” or not knowing “what to write about.” On those occasions I give them my patent-pending Creativity Equation: Character A plus Situation B equals Story, which is greater than the sum of A plus B, or A+B=S>A+B.
This equation falls under the nonlinear algebraic subgroup “magic math,” which most students are not familiar with. So, I dumb it down to an axiom: Creativity is the ability to link two points into a not-yet existent third. 

I'm not the first to discover this. Either the evolutionary process or the Creator of the Universe proved it well before I came into the picture. It takes two gametes to make a zygote, or, to put it in layman's terms: When a mommy and a daddy snuggle together in a special way …
The German philosopher Hegel discovered it, too, and put it into dialectic: Thesis meets Antithesis which begets the new Synthesis.
I owe my discovery of the Creativity Equation, in large part, to mystery writer Robert B. Parker, and a conversation I had with him about five years ago.
I'd seen Parker speak a half dozen years before at the National Writers Workshop, organized annually by the Hartford Courant (Connecticut.). At the time, I knew Parker only through the Spencer for Hire television show, which I watched infrequently in the late 1980s. I enjoyed his talk enough that I bought his book of the moment, Hush Money, and read it that same weekend.
During his long writing career, Parker penned some 70 books, all of which I've now read, the vast majority of which I now own either in hardcover or paperback. He came to my neck of the woods, in 2006, part of a fund raiser for the city library. I was working as the editor of a men's magazine at the time, and I jumped at the chance for a sit-down interview with him.
I met Parker in one of the library's side rooms. After the handshake, he challenged me to come up with a question to ask him that no journalist ever had. I fumbled the challenge, although I like to think it was more a matter of being starstruck than a failure of my innovation. And while Parker may not have walked out of that room impressed with me, I was more impressed with him than ever.
In 2000, when I'd first seen him, Parker was writing, on average, six pages a day. He'd get up every morning, eat breakfast, then sit down at his desk, not to rise until he had his six pages. When I'd talked to him six years later, he'd gotten his daily page count up to 10. I was impressed with his discipline (he actually died at that desk in 2010) but was even more a fan of his attitude toward the work, his craft. Parker wasn't burning out personal demons in those pages; he was telling stories. Writing was his job, and Parker – a master of dialog and plot – had more in common with master carpenters than he did with any tortured artist, locked in an attic and sweating blood over a keyboard to get at the Truth.
In full Fanboy mode, the most original question I could stammer out was something akin to “How do you come up with your ideas?” I think he smiled then. He knew the answer to that one cold. He'd probably given that speech 100 times over the years. His hands were empty, but in my head I could see him taking a sip of a good Scotch, ice cubes clinking gently, before he answered.
“I think I know my characters well,” he said. “I know what they're going to do. How they're going to react. So I read the paper every day to see what catches my eye. I see a story about espionage or something and I think, 'Spenser and espionage,' and then wait to see what happens. Usually, I'll get a story. If it's any good, I'll write it.”
I've thought about that speech a lot over the years, whittling it down, sometimes adding to it, in search of the perfect recipe for creativity. It's really that easy, I think. Take two separate data points, bring them together, and see what happens. In writing, the recipe seems to work best if one point is a character, say, a hard-boiled detective or a young woman named Annie who likes to jog. The other point should be a situation, like a stolen document, or a wooded path too scary to jog on. Bring them together, and magic (this is where the greater-than symbol comes into play) happens. Jogger meets scary trail. Burned-out lawman meets outer space. Why was the pastry chef (A) afraid to leave his house (B)?  You tell me (S).
Once you have the equation (spell), the trick is to find values for the variables. I start every creative-writing class with a 10-minute exercise, using a prompt that provides both variables in some way or another. See the pastry chef above or my favorite first-line, last-line prompt: “[First line] I reached over and calmly gouged out his left eye” and “[Last line] Then my Mom took us out for Sno-Cones.”
But sometimes, kids, you have to go it alone. The blank page awaits. With pen in hand and the Creativity Equation in mind, where do you go from here? What do you write about? Well, if all is lost, go back to the basics as espoused by Parker, and Hegel, and Me: Read something. Then read something else. Then take a minute to think. Work the magic.
 Now, start writing.
This post was originally published on the Cold-Open blog (12/22/12), which is becoming defunct courtesy of the success of talented charmers Krystal Wade and Derek Flynn. Krystal has a book out, and you can get it here.


  1. I loved this when I read it on the Cold-Open blog, and I love it again. Thanks, Rob.

  2. Rob, Thanks for the equation, good teaching and writing tips are always needed. I will use it with my college students. I love your first and last line prompt.