Played football last night and won by the skin of our teeth despite not having a recognised goalkeeper, and so we continue our march to (possible) league glory. Maybe this is finally our season?
In the pub afterwards, one of my teammates asked me: “Where do you get your ideas?”
My answer was a bit of a mumble, so have decided to try and respond here.
The assumption is that, in order to be a writer, one must be a creative stalwart with the ability to conjure greatness at will. Well, I definitely don’t feel like a classically creative person – I can’t paint, I have no flair for fashion, I’m a so-so musician with no ear for composition, I can draw…as well as a five year old and I have no affection for East London. To my mind, this is usually what people think of as “the creative sort”, and that certainly isn’t me. I don’t have any great process – at best, I write down lots of tiny observations, type them up, and stick them into a folder. That’s mostly it in the ideas stake.
Sometimes I’ll smash one lame thought into another lame thought and, if I’m really lucky, it comes out as a half-baked idea. The mega awesome, high concept, world changing flashes of creative genius that one feels to be invaluable and the mark of a true artist come along very, very rarely – too rarely for me to attempt to make a living from it which often makes me despair. How can you claim to want a creative career when you’re not strolling around, Don Drappering it at every turn?
But the worship of whacky conceptual ideas as the be all and end all of creative work is misguided.
Dan Harmon, the creator of the TV show Community (which, incidentally, you should watch) says that the best dramatic ideas are ones that have a solid, unspectacular, base upon which you build your distinctive, stylish house. The examples are many – The Simpsons is just about a suburban family. Peep Show is two guys living together in London. Friends are some people who hang about New York together. None of these are genius ideas. All of them have/had long runs and are very popular. They got their basics right and lifted off from there.
Conversely, Lost is typical of a show that fell in love with its Big Idea – Mystery Island – at the expense of everything else. I loved the first series of Lost – it’s a masterclass in creating suspense, and it knows that people love mystery. But only for so long. You can neglect your characters if your idea has a strong enough hook, but you create audiences who are addicted to the cliffhanger suspense alone, and the rest of the experience is not particularly satisfying. Would you rewatch Lost? I sat through all seven seasons and wouldn’t dream of doing it again. Once you know what’s what, there’s actually very little to endear you to the show, unless you are the one and only person in the world who gave a tuppeny fuck about the dull Jack/Sawyer/Kate triangle.
You might say here “Ok, Patel, cool your heels, you’re making an unfair comparison – Lost is a continuing drama, the other three are sitcoms. They don’t have to develop and so they got it easy!” Two words: Breaking Bad.
Everyone loves Breaking Bad. The reason I love Breaking Bad is that it started with a (admittedly less high concept) hook: High school chemistry teacher gets into peddling meth – Great! – then over the course of the season gradually turned that hook into the least interesting aspect of the show. Now it’s more about “where will these characters go?”. I’m still a slave to the “what happens next?” but also to the more profound “who will they become?” And Breaking Bad is no small character drama. LOTS happen, Big Things like (spoiler) EXPLOSIONS! Just that the characters drive the plot. That’s human, that’s engaging. Lost was like forever waiting for a God to hand down the answer, which meant that whatever its characters got up to, it always felt slightly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. If I was a character in Lost, by the end of season four, I’d be like “fuck all this bullshit mystery, I just want some goddamn chips.”
That’s TV, and I will expand later to talk about film as well, which functions slightly differently, but again the solid basis that Harmon speaks of is there, just perhaps more visible in the form of genre. Genres are essentially groups of tropes that we collectively recognise and so act as a platform for understanding. You can subvert, combine or finesse from there, but once you have the base, it’s all about how fancy a house you want to build on top of it. A simple exercise in a class at CSSD that had us put two people in a setting and figure out something they want from each other led to my writing a piece I’m pleased with and that did quite well for me. That’s where my ideas come from – tiny, unspectacular thought experiments that I can hopefully turn into something worth watching. Making the house stylish is where the real invention is, it’s where your distinctive voice comes through, and it’s what people will come to love about it.
So if you’re feeling stuck, don’t hammer yourself for not being a so-called creative genius. A wise person once said that creativity is a habit, not a trait, and I believe that.
Get into the habit of letting yourself start somewhere simple and familiar and see where you can take it.