Inverted Ingenuity

Betty Edwards' famous book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, contains a wonderful series of exercises for people who think they can't draw. One of her assertions is that creativity is not something you're born with, as most assume; rather, it is a learned skill. Or, to be more precise, it's an unlearning skill. For example, one exercise she uses for the artistically challenged, is the upside-down drawing exercise. It goes like this:

Find a line drawing that you like. It can be the work of a master, a cartoon, anything.

Turn it upside down.

Now, without turning the page right-side up, draw what you see, trying to ignore the subject and focusing strictly on the lines, shades, spaces and proportions of the original.

So in other words, if you're creatively constipated, turn things upside down.

Ms. Edward's rationale is based upon brain research. The brain has two sides (though before 9 a.m. on weekends, neither of my family's sides appear to work), and various commands and characteristics emanate from one side or the other. The left brain thinks in concrete, linear terms, while the right is conceptual and non-linear. Left-brainers are logical; right-brainers are intuitive.

The bottom line is: Creativity flows from right-brain activity. When you have a burst of inginuity, when the lid of your mind's eye is yanked open, or two mutually exclusive ideas suddenly join hands and waltz across the parkay of your noodle, it started in your right hemisphere.

One of the obvious characteristics of great writers is this ability to see things with new eyes -- or to use a tired phrase, think outside the box. In brain parlance, it's writing with the right side of the brain. This ability to re-imagine, to reshuffle the deck of the ordinary, to part the veil of ho-hum that shrouds most modern novels, is essential for writers.

Donald Maass, in his excellent book. Writing the Breakout Novel, says this:

There certainly are no new plots. Not a one. There are also no settings that have not been used, and no professions that have not been given to protagonists. Although human nature may never change, our ways of looking at it will. To break out with familiar subject matter -- and, really, it has all been written about before -- it is essential to find a fresh angle.

To those of us with low-wattage mental light bulbs, these facts can be frustrating. Try as we might, we continue to regurgitate yesterday's best sellers, inflate leaky plotlines and repackage another unwanted white elephant.

I'm currently polishing my first novel, and as I go back through it I can see flashes of brilliance...and lotsa, let's say, 40 watt moments. I've been pondering Maass' call to "find a fresh angle," and it keeps bringing me back to this idea of learning creativity.

But how do we learn creativity? How do we pull ourselves out of the writing rut by our bootstraps? What happens when we read our manuscript or step away from the canvas, only to see the same-old, same-old? Where do we acquire fresh angles?

I've got some ideas stirring which I'd like to doodle about for a couple posts -- ideas that have to do with imagination, ingenuity, and that creative spark we're all trying to run down and bottle.

And in a way, I think it all goes back to this principle of inverting things...turning the real world on its head. According to Ms. Edwards, by doing the upside-down exercise, "you're disabling your left-brain, which can't see or handle such abstractions, and allowing your right-brain to do all the work." In theory, drawing upside-down pictures, disarms our normal mode of thinking and challenges us to see things differently -- in abstraction -- which is a right brain function.

I want to suggest that this drawing exercise is a template for "finding fresh angles." It's not a matter of doing something that has never been done, but looking at what is already there in a new way. If God has called you to write or draw or carve or act, then everything you need to be more creative -- more original -- is already at your disposal. All you need to do is...turn it upside down.

More next post...


Dineen A. Miller said...

I think brainstorming with trusted crit partners is another avenue to "turn things upside down." Even in advertising and design, I found a group to be more creative than the individual.

Heather Smith said...

Looking forward to seeing more on this, Mike. For now my characters are standing on their heads waiting for you to tell me what to do next!!!

Sandy Cathcart said...

Great post! Very helpful. It's totally in line with what I'm doing with my students this week and on my blog. It's the "turning off the editor" thing that is so crucial to creativity. Thanks!

I read your chapter on the "Raven" page. Is that what you're finishing up? You can't finish it too soon for me. I'm wanting to read it!

Anonymous said...

Regurgitation has been on my mind this week. I’m reading Paolini’s “Eldest,” blinking at the blatant Tolkien roots. His book is well-written and bestselling, but all said, it’s fan fiction. The kid is named Eragon, for goodness sake! I understand that nothing’s new and no writer can be wholly original; however, where do you draw the line?

There’s a fascinating essay by somebody Nicholson, on the “Scholarship of Imagination.”

“One looks through the lines in Lewis and sees a layer, as in a palimpsest, of Nesbit’s imaginative writing. It is not that Lewis read Nesbit and then “borrowed,” still less plagiarized from Nesbit: it is rather that Nesbit was digested and absorbed by Lewis’ creative scholarship, which transmuted and found uses for it in his own work. One does not prove these relationships, of course, but the intensity with which Lewis read and re-read Nesbit and even made use of very precise details for his own work, indicates the thoroughness of his “research” – the research of the creative scholar, who studies predecessors in order to create new work. This scholarship of imagination is both a training and a form of consultation (how did Nesbit do it?). It is mysterious, too, because it is largely unconscious and involuntary.”

Here’s a thought: this process originated with our Creator. There are far more patterns and repetitions in history than we realize – God likes certain plot lines, and He reuses them. Even our regurgitation is emulated!

But the question remains: “How should we then rehash?”


Pedrique said...

The one thing that could be indisputably unique about my writing is the fusion of my own experiences into that world of fiction.

Some might say it would lead to a boring novel. I don't. Want to write something scary?

Think about when you were a kid and that time you got lost, and the light began to fade, and a dark figure with a clicking cane and devilish smile stalked you.

Sure, it turned out to just be your neighbor Mr. Smithers taking his nightly stroll and he ended up offering you a piece of gum, but your readers don't have to know that.

Later on,

michael snyder said...

Brilliant stuff, Mike. Can't wait to see what else you have up your sleeve on this topic. I plan to try the drawing thing tomorrow.

And an idea just occurred to me...maybe I'll take all the scenes in my current WIP, assign each one a note card, then put them in a box and shake them up and see what happens.

Ame said...

Hummm . . . so what would we need to do if it's the Left Brain we need to enable, not disable??!! hehehehehe . . . sometimes I feel like I'm just flowing through life and waaaay too much logic escapes me!!!

Gina Holmes said...

Sometimes, I wish I could put your brain in my head. I like the way you think. Definitely not a 40 watter, that'd be me.

This is interesting. I'm going to try it out, literally. Maybe I'll brainstorm my next book in the handstand position :)

I'm looking forward to more on this.

Elaina Avalos said...

I know I'm a little late to the party but I'd like to add that I'm looking forward to more of your thoughts on this. I like what you said about everything we need already being at our disposal if this is our calling. After all...we have everything we need for life and godliness! And if this is the life he's called us to well, there you go.

Jeanne Damoff said...

Great thoughts, Mike. Thanks.

For several years in the mid-90s I taught art to 4th-8th grade students. When sketching a still life or live model, I told them to forget what they "knew" about the object and to sketch only what they saw. Some managed to turn off the left brain. Others couldn't. Maybe I should have had the models stand on their heads? :)

I find sketching a marvelous way to jump-start creativity. As my students worked, I often sat to the side and sketched one of them. At the end of class I gave the sketch to the child. Many of these "portraits" are framed and displayed in homes all over the city, and parents still occasionally thank me for them.

I'm a big believer in the arts inspiring and informing the arts. If the muse is asleep, she can often be roused by music, dance, drawing/painting, or drama.

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this topic.

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