The Three Stages of Creativity

I’ve had the opportunity to see many creative people at work recently.  I’ve begun to see a pattern: they all go through the same stages to achieve their success.  These people are writers, composers, and artists, people who create for a living.  When they first begin, they go through the same mindsets and cycles as everyone else– the same cycles as I am still going through.  This isn’t a road map to success, but it gave me an idea of what I need to work on and how much work I still need to do.

The original idea that drives anyone to create anything is the thought that they can write, or compose, or paint, as well as everyone else– in fact, since they’re unique, their works will be unique as well.  The world needs more originality.  Thus, beginners start out wanting to create original stuff; they want to write, draw, or compose in a way completely separate from everything anyone has ever seen.  They throw all their big ideas, the ones that Tolkien unbelievably missed, into their work.  They’ll have fun with it.

I wrote my first two novels with this in mind.  Wise was medieval fantasy, but it had brilliant characters– fourteen protagonists and no antagonist.  Fathoming Egression had an original world, with talking rocks and assassin ducks and plenty of fun stuff.  I had fun with both.

But, invariably, these creators will realize that although their work is original, it’s no good.  They lack the finesse that established professionals have.  While their stuff is new and different, it isn’t perfect.  And at this point, as budding creators, they begin to want perfection.  They start looking at the professionals and seeing what they did right.  They realize why no one has picked up on those original ideas of theirs already: they don’t work as well as everything else.

Here, the novice embarks on an epic journey.  Inspired by the successful works they’ve just absorbed, they begin to create the exact same thing with minor differences.  They copy, but from many different sources.  For writers, a character arc here, a world or cultural element there, a magic system with a small tweak.  Their plots mimic things they’ve watched or read.  For music composers, they begin to mimic the greats– Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky– in order to make their stuff sound like everything else.  Because if it’s like everything else, someone’s going to like it… right?

This was the stage in which I wrote my latest three novels.  Arson had a style of Dustfinger from Inkheart, plus a lazy world mimicking bad YA I had read.  Stakes felt like The Alloy of Law, with that same blend of magic and industrial revolution.  Desolation took from several places at once, Partials and The Way of Kings especially.  None of it felt especially spectacular, but I felt good writing each of them.

Then comes the epiphany.  After taking the two extreme paths– conceited independence and near-plagiarism– the creator begins to realize that it’s a mix of the two that really works.  They might be inspired by someone else’s work, but they put their own originality into it as well.  They take an element they thought of themselves and combine it with something people already know.  Beneath that on the structural level, they take emotional arcs that authors have done and twist them to suit their own needs.  While they still get material from professionals, they begin to branch out and add their own independence into it, creating a mixture no one else could replicate.  That’s when they begin to succeed.

I can’t say I’ve hit this stage yet.  I might still be in the copying stage for all I know.  Or I might have begun to move beyond that.  I’m not sure yet– I won’t be sure for a while.  But I’m confident this novel I’m writing is the best I’ve written yet.

What’s the moral of this story?  This outline of creativity doesn’t really help anyone on its own– but the only way to get to the first step to the second, and from the second to the third, is by working.  Work hard.  Create, even if it feels completely unlike anything anyone’s ever seen, and not quite in a good way.  Create, even if it feels like you’re copying everything you just read, listened to, or saw.  Keep creating until you realize that while you can name a few things that inspired you, nothing stands out as a blatant ripoff.  Keep creating when it’s corny.  Keep creating when it’s weird.  All that is okay.  Just keep creating.

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38 Comments

  1. Renn.

     /  April 9, 2014

    Well said.

    Reply
  2. Heh. I think I skipped that first part. My first novel was basically “Ooh that’s awesome I’m going to put that in here.” So, in other words, it was about an orphan fairy princess who was transported from our world to a fantasy world because she was the “only one” who could fulfill the prophecy and defeat the evil overlord guy. I think I was going to turn her into a mermaid somehow, too. Gosh, that sounds so embarrassingly horrible… I’m so glad I’ve grown up a little since then.

    I hope that means I just skipped the first part and not that I’m doing it backwards. It would be nice to think that I’m finding that happy medium right now, but…I don’t think I am. I might be nearing the end, though, I hope, because I think I’m copying smaller things rather than the bigger stereotypes. More like random ideas for setting, or maybe a character arc, or something like that. Though, I do have a story that has been continually “reminding” people of the movie Frozen. Which doesn’t make so much sense, because I haven’t even seen that movie.

    Oh, by the way, I also finally got past my not-able-to-read phase. Boredom cured me.

    Reply
    • Perhaps my three stages are a bit flawed. But I’m glad you’re getting better with that balance.

      Yay!

      Reply
      • Or maybe it’s just different for everybody?

        Yes, it’s awesome to be able to read things again!

      • Perhaps. It’s come up in a few other people, though…

        Indeed.

      • …so I noticed. Both kind of make sense, though, if you think about it. Looking back, I think when I first started writing, I wasn’t out there to write a new story, but I more or less wanted to experience what it was like to write all of those things that I read and enjoyed, stereotype or no. And I still sort of do that sometimes. Like, I don’t know if anybody else does this, but sometimes it’s fun to write a stereotypical character or scene, in a weird sort of way. I’m not really sure how to explain it.

        Plus, my first character was very much a Mary Sue, if I’m understanding the definition of that correctly, so everything I did to her was something that I thought it would be cool if I could do or be or experience. And most of the things I thought were cool were things I’d read in other books.

      • Indeed. Parodying is fun, or just copying. That’s why the second stage exists.

        Yes, that’s the right definition.

      • True.

        Oh, good. It’s good to know I’m not completely ignorant…

      • Of course not.

  3. DK

     /  April 10, 2014

    This is perhaps the best post you’ve ever written. The depth and insight is frighteningly accurate.

    I’d like to think I’m on the third stage. That’s how it feels with my recent ideas, anyway. For example, I developed a character on the lines the detective, L, from Death Note, but bit by bit, she’s turned into her own person and the story has developed from a mystery to a very high-level psychological story.
    Then again, perhaps it’s wishful thinking.

    All the same, lovely post.

    Reply
  4. Robyn Hoode

     /  April 10, 2014

    I have no idea where I am on this scale. I started out copying. I could probably say that I’m still copying, but now on a more structural level than I was a year ago. But at the same time, I think I’ve got some of that “conceited independence”. Maybe I just slide up and down the scale.
    Very interesting post.

    Reply
  5. Excellent post.

    I, actually, skipped the first stage. (Or perhaps the stages are coming in a different order for me.) When I started writing, I wanted to write the next Nancy Drew, only set in modern times. So, that’s what I wrote. It wasn’t very good, though I did create some characters I still adore and want to use in the future, and it probably wasn’t very original. After that phase, I tried a medieval fantasy…but it turned into historical fiction for a world that doesn’t exist, set more in Victorian times than medieval times. (This is probably due to the fact that my family loves period dramas, especially Dickens and Austen.) And that’s what I’m still writing. Don’t know if it’s the plagiarism stage or not, but we’ll see where it takes me. I have had some wacky ideas, but I haven’t worked on those stories yet. Perhaps I’ll hit the first stage when I pick one of those up.

    On a somewhat related note, I’ve noticed the same “go down two extreme paths before finding a balance” cycle with regards to character development. The character will start out as flat or having some problem, I’ll over-correct and they’ll have the opposite or a different problem, and then somehow between the two balance is found.

    Again, excellent post.

    Reply
  6. Interesting… I think I came to the third stage at a ridiculously early age, namely that one wherein my brother was copying just about every plot he saw, and that annoyed me, so while I emulated some things, I made them my own at the same time.
    So, the moral of the story is: Many siblings may cause irritation, but they also set one on the path to wisdom. 😛

    Reply
  7. Selsey-Mithrandir

     /  April 11, 2014

    As a little kid I used to make things all the time. I’d paint, draw, make clay animals, do origami….you name it. My sister and I made up stories together. We shared imaginary friends (I know, it sounds weird.), and we’d go on adventures in our basement or back yard. I still do art and want to pick up knitting again. I also sing and play the piano. I swear playing the piano helps improve writing.

    Now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever did much of the second phase. As far back as I can remember, I don’t think I really copied anyone. A lot of writers inspired me, like Robert Louis Stevenson and J.R.R. Tolkien, but I don’t think I copied them. Not directly, at least. All the people who inspired me to write influenced me or nudged me to try something new. I love writing fantasy, thanks to Tolkien. I’m mulling over a novel idea (future summer project) where the characters/magic have roots in old European and Slavic folklore. I feel like I’m starting to develop my own style, but it’s still needing some work. A lot of work. Hopefully I can improve over the summer.

    This was a really intriguing post. I needed to step back and look at where my writing was. I can’t wait to start writing this summer and working on my writing style. Thank you!

    Reply
    • No, thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
    • The European/Slavic thing sounds really cool…

      Reply
      • Selsey-Mithrandir

         /  May 6, 2014

        Thanks! The whole European/Slavic thing started when I looked up the Slavic creation myth for a World History class. Woo. Talk about weird. Ducks and lightning shouldn’t mix. LOL

  8. When I do NaNos, I actually have to make sure the stuff I am reading doesn’t make its way too obviously into what I’m writing. However, I have tried to use this to my advantage by reading books of the style I’m writing in.

    Reply
    • I’m the same way, although not so much as I practice more. Some people have to regulate their reading strictly while they’re working on a project.

      Reply
  9. I think, as a writer (or even an artist or musician), you need to find the right balance between inspiration and originality. It’s perfectly fine to be inspired by others’ works and to include elements into your story that are inspired by those works, but you also need to make sure your story has enough originality so that the things you were inspired by aren’t too blatantly obvious (don’t want to be accused of plagiarism or the sorts). Music’s Curse is heavily inspired by The Phantom of the Opera, but I’m hoping that my story is original enough so that that fact isn’t too noticeable in my writing.

    Reply
  10. Everyone has good input here…one advantage to being late to the party, I suppose.

    I…am not sure where I am with this, honestly. The first things I wrote were complete nonsense (for instance, a story about a family of dandelions…I rediscovered that the other day and almost had a heart attack). But then I copied, quite blatantly, the Magic Tree House series. After that it was slightly more original stuff, and as I was a little older and had read more, I realized my stories had no plot. I finally learned some stuff about writing and, with much effort and re-writing and re-starting and painful plotting, I wrote a book I’d call fully my own. This is “Different,” by the way.

    But then…uh-oh. My reading started to vary a bit more and I slowly learned to like fantasy and dystopian some. And I got what I called “the weird story idea” that really…had bits and pieces of quite a few stories I’d read recently in it, as I later realized. I don’t think they’re too obvious so as to be called plagiarism (at least I surely hope not), but it was rather alarming to notice those elements. And worse, the new story I started about two months ago…well, it was very easy for me to pinpoint where that “random inspiration” was coming from: a few books I’d recently written and been impressed by. In fact, I’m not even a third of the way through the first draft, and I already know one element definitely has to be changed. Whether that’s in the second draft or before then, I don’t know, but…it’s a little disturbing.

    The one hope I have for myself is the observation that those “copy-stages” seem to come from trying a genre or style of writing for the first time. So hopefully, they’ll pass once I have more practice with that type of writing. But anyhow. That was a very long comment. Sorry about that.

    Thoughts?

    Reply

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