Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 7.
So just a heads up – you’ve already completed a whole hour of intensive, focused writing training.
So why lists? Why do I think lists are so important that I began with them, out of all the concepts we could have covered in fiction, character, plot, genre, form, style, ideology, dialogue, how to structure your day, grooming, swordplay or horticulture? And why am I getting you to practise different iterations, over and over? A lack of imagination? Am I simply a misguided eccentric?
Well I talked yesterday a bit about the concept of siloing. Of storing inspiration away for harsh winters yet to come. And that’s part of it, sure. But there’s another fundamental component of listing, as an exercise, but also as a foundational principle of creativity that I want to convey. Because if you grasp this, if you get to actually experience this instead of its being merely an abstract principle that I expound and you go ‘oh yeah, that sounds reasonable’, if, rather than telling you, I show you – do you see what I did there – then you’ll have won the war before the enemy have time to pitch their tents.
Notice there how I tried to invest this endeavour with a kind of grand sweep by evoking the pitched battles of antiquity. And yet civilisations rise and fall, human beings give their lives on the basis of stories. We are this kind of people, this is our story, they are that kind of people, this is their story.
But why lists? Why do I think lists are such a basic component of making shit up that I’ve chosen to start with them? Why, indeed, do I use them in every creative writing workshop I run?
Because lists are the opposite of writers’ block. A key, perversely counterintuitive thing about creativity to understand is: it’s easier to come up with twenty ideas than to come up with one. It’s the difference between asking ‘what would your protagonist do next?’ and ‘what could your protagonist do next?’
The first locks us down into the pursuit of a single, correct answer. Which is necessarily a process not of discovery but exclusion. We have to switch on our critical filters because there are possibilities everywhere, actually, clamouring for our attention. When you get blocked, it’s not that you’ve stopped coming up with ideas, it’s that you’re rejecting them. Does this idea make sense? Is this one good? Well it might be good, but am I missing something better?
There’s nothing pathological about asking those questions but they use up processing power you could be turning to the task at hand, idea generation. There’s a slightly obscure sidestreet of neuroscience that concerns itself with a cognitive process known as error monitoring – which is how much of your mental attention do you put aside while you’re doing a task to check if you’re making mistakes? And one of the ways they’ve studied it is via this thing called ERN, Error Related Negativity. Basically they’re monitoring electrical signals in the brain. It’s quite a crude measurement compared to fMRI and the movement of haemoglobin in specific regions and stuff but anyway, the bottom line is, under this model, when you focus on avoiding mistakes while doing a task, your brain tries to modify your behaviour by what they call a ‘phasic dip in midbrain dopamine’.
Basically, it punishes you for errors, by temporarily robbing you of dopamine. Like Masterblaster shutting off the power to enforce an embargo on Bartertown. You fuck up and your brain goes ‘who run Bartertown?’ Sorry that may be too weird a reference. But the idea is your brain is trying to incentivise better behaviour but ‘better’ here is defined very bluntly as ‘with fewer errors’. Guess what? A quick way to make fewer errors is to take fewer risks. Be less innovative. In fact it’s even easier than that. You can make fewer errors by making fewer attempts at the task.
You can immediately see why this mode of thinking, this error monitoring mode, is dreadful for creativity. We don’t actually care about errors. Errors, in creative writing, are pretty much consequence-free. That’s the beauty of working in a purely conceptual space. ‘Once upon a cheese there was a big nice egg who newspaper garbanzo bean I’m a seamstress.’ There. Look. I made some mistakes. I did a bad. And nothing happened. It doesn’t matter.
And yet so many writers act as if it does!
This is where the list technique shines. It is priming your mind to be in the idea generation, divergent thinking, scattergun mode.
For example, if I say to you: ok, so give me twenty possible reasons why the guy in this story lost his job. You know 19 of those are going to get chucked away. So all at once, you can take risks. Ok so he was caught stealing cash from the till. Cool. Conventional, but plausible. What else? Uh, his boss hates him. Great, ok, so now we’ve got the suggestion of a relationship. What else? The business went bust. Another? Uh, his boss was in love with him. Ok. Another? He discovered they were secretly, that the business was a front for a drugs operation. Drugs? What else could it be a front for? Um, military tech, developing weapons for the military. What else? Alien invasion. They’re all aliens and they’re propagating their species. And they just let him go when he found out? They’re nonviolent, it’s part of their culture, but they’re keeping him under surveillance. Are they really? He thinks so. So he thinks he got fired from his job because he uncovered an extra-terrestrial conspiracy and now they’re watching his every move? Yes. Is it possible he might be unwell? The thought has occurred to him, yeah.
So see there how I used the list technique to generate ideas then created mini-lists within some of those answers. What’s an alternate? Another one? Another one?
In this way, you exhaust the obvious. You force yourself towards originality. But more importantly you liberate yourself from the ludicrous dogma that you need to be right all the time. Writing fiction is mostly a state of being interestingly wrong.
Enough talk from me for today. What I’d like you to do is a version of what I did just there, but maybe winding it back a stage. You’re going to write a list of problems. Problems a person might face.
Not necessarily the same person. But, you know, one example might be ‘got fired from their job’. Or ‘can’t find a hat that fits’. Or ‘on fire’. Can be big or small. I think, as we’ve touched on in previous exercises, the more specific you can be the better. Like ‘worried’ is a problem, sure, but it’s not as engaging as ‘worried that her eighteen year old daughter is getting drawn into a cult’.
Don’t filter for quality. Don’t worry about some being quote unquote wrong. I hope some are really bad! That would be fantastic. Steer into the skid, please do. They don’t all have to be funny or amazing, some can be everyday and sad. Just experiment. Play.
Right. Are you ready? A list of problems different characters might face. Three two one. Go.
And that really is it. I love doing this exercise because it’s fun. It’s like you create a bunch of tiny prompts for stories. Well, I say ‘like’, that’s probably an abuse of the art of simile, you have literally created a bunch of tiny prompts for stories. Maybe we will pilfer one later!
But for now, pat yourself on the back, or, it’s probably more convenient if you give your tummy a little rub. Well done. Good work. You’re writing. You’re turning up. You’re training. And we’ve only just begun. I shall see you back here tomorrow.