Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Week 1, Day 3.
You’re here. You’re back for a third day. This is starting to feel dangerously like a thing you might be doing. Welcome.
So one of the classic tests of creativity is a simple instruction: ‘list as many uses as you can think of for a paperclip’. The Alternate Uses test was created by a psychologist called JP Guilford in the late 60s and whenever you read an article that says ‘researchers find drinking 3 cups of coffee makes you more creative’ or ‘boffins at the University of Fakeville have discovered that sleeping with a kipper in your pyjamas makes you more creative’ this, or some variant on this is probably the test they used to determine that.
Is it a good test? By which I mean, does it measure what they think it’s measuring? Well, that’s a great question, me, because it asks us to reflect on: what exactly is creativity?
If you ask me to list uses for a paperclip and I say: holding documents together, holding banknotes together, holding photos together – is that creativity?
But you ask me to list uses for a paperclip and I say: aeroplane, dinner, book – is that creativity?
What’s the difference between creativity and a mistake? Was I being unwittingly creative that time I accidentally put salt on my grapefruit instead of sugar?
Guilford’s test sort of addresses this by scoring answers based on four criteria:
Fluency is the raw number of responses. How many uses for a paperclip can you bash out, regardless of quality?
Originality is more subjective – how uncommon are your answers? So if they’re testing lots of people they can sort answers by frequency. If you write ‘lockpick’, did lots of other people suggest that as well, or were you the only one.
Flexibility is more subjective still – it sorts answers into categories and gives you a score based on how many categories you covered. So, for example, if you said a paperclip could be used as a tiny katana, a tiny sai dagger and a tiny bat’leth, those would all fit into the category of ‘weapons’, and so you’d score less for flexibility than someone who wrote tiny katana, cheap wedding ring, bookmark.
Finally, elaboration refers to how detailed your answers are. So basically, how specific you get with each one.
Fluency, originality, flexibility and elaboration. Are these the four principle qualities of creativity? Probably not. And at first glance you might find some of these demands compete. It’s hard to be both fluent – to produce lots of responses – and elaborate – to produce lots of detail.
Psychology occupies an uncomfortable contested zone between the hard sciences and philosophy and trying to establish absolute parameters for what creativity is and isn’t is like trying to nail a moonbeam to the table. Data scientists like hard endpoints, like death. If you want to know how many participants die when you drop a piano on them from a skyscraper then of course there will be questions of study design – you know, how high is the skyscraper, is it a Steinway or just a rollout mat – but in the end you get a nice binary table with deaths on one side and non-deaths on the other.
As soon as you ask a question like how good is person a at creativity versus person b you get into very shaky territory indeed. The sort that has data scientists breaking out into flop sweats and dreaming of the merciful shadow of baby grand.
All of which is to say, by training as a writer, as a storyteller, you’re a maverick. You’re beyond the grasp of the sciences. I’ve spoken to lots of researchers doing sterling work in this field and it’s given me lots of interesting new ways of thinking about it, but for now, I can confidently say we’re still so much vapour wafting through their fingers.
So today I want you to embrace your uncatchable status. Your essential unpindownability. I don’t suggest anything mystic is going on here but I do think writing is usually easier when we think of it as mischief. We’re creating something that didn’t exist before. Wow. Feels vaguely naughty. Not in a sex way. Just. Almost like cheating.
Rather than taking a single object and thinking of multiple uses, I’m going to ask you to do something apparently simpler but at the same time much more challenging. What I’d like you to produce over the next ten minutes is a list of interesting objects. Just a list. Not as part of a scene. Not even necessarily ones that you’d find in the same place or reality.
But keeping in mind these four values I’ve mentioned. Fluency, originality, flexibility and elaboration. So fluency – try to come up with as many as possible. Originality – try to push beyond your first thought, the obvious, into newer, riskier territory. So instead of an old running shoe, a prosthetic leg. Instead of a prosthetic leg, a sheep’s heart in a jar. You know, take whatever you come up with and see if you can take one step away. Something related but rarer. Flexibility – try to come up with lots of different types of things. It might be quite easy for someone like me to come up with a list of macabre or weird objects, skulls and grimoires and stuff, oooh, but what about a small clothbound book of pressed flowers with notes in brown ink? What about a coffee tin full of projector slides and a small silver whistle? What about big things? Tiny things? Perishable things? Impossible things? And then there’s elaboration. So, better than ‘an apple’ is ‘an apple with a bite taken out of it’. Better than ‘a toy car’ is ‘a metal racing car with a number 9 on the side and chipped green paint’.
And to be clear, I’m not making global statements about style here. You’re not always going to want to make every object in your fiction a dazzling curio which you describe in great detail. I’m saying for the purposes of this exercise, as an experiment, aim for fluency, originality, flexibility and elaboration.
So. A list of objects. Ten minutes. Don’t worry about getting it wrong. Don’t spend too long on each one, just move onto the next, keep writing. Got it? Ok. Write til you hear the gong.
And that’s it. Congrats. I hope that was interesting for you.
I do think these object lists are a good way to start if you’re ever stuck. Because you can’t win them. We’re not kidding ourselves we’re writing a final draft here. But occasionally, and you might like to glance back over your list to see whether this is true for you, occasionally one or two objects will pop. You’ll go ooh, that seems more interesting to me than the others. And it’s worth reflecting why. Often there’s an implied question. Who owned this? What’s in the envelope?
We have this idea that inspiration is about something that comes to you, something you’re given, but really, I think a lot of it is about being nosey. Refusing to mind your own business. Spotting an oil painting in a hedge and wondering how it got there. Maintaining some tiny part of you still wowed by the romance of the junk shop and flea market.
Right. Look back through your list if you have time, see what you think. But mainly, hang onto it. Well done, and I’ll see you tomorrow.