Lack of ideas and confidence can freeze an author. Frances Buontempo considers how to warm up.
Yet again I seem to be stuck on what to write about for an editorial, so you will have to forgive me for yet another side-track. Part of the difficulty is being put on the spot and expected to think of a topic to write about. Even if I do think of something, there are other considerations such as would anyone be interested in reading this? Do I know enough to write about this? Surely everyone, or at least most people, know more about this than I do. Being expected to perform a godlike act of creation ex nihilo is a tall order, even without the nagging doubts about one’s qualifications and ability. As I am sure you are aware, Overload requires not only an editorial, but also articles so this problem will affect all ACCU members from time to time since these articles are written, in the main, by ACCU members. We do welcome submissions from non-members too, though. Previously we considered the importance of peer review in general and code reviews and assessing articles in particular [ Buontempo ]. This presupposes code or articles in the first place. Often code is written because someone in charge tells you to write it – perhaps you are on the treadmill and churn it out, perhaps you manage to sneakily delete some as you go. Sometimes you have an inspired idea and work on a personal project or find a better way to do things. Sometimes you want to try a new language feature or framework. Many of us are in this gig because we enjoy life-long learning. We frequently learn by reading things other people have written, either books, blogs or tutorials and documentation for new languages or frameworks others have invented. Given the wealth of things to learn about, how can you possibly be expected to come out with something new or original? This very question has been mused on in a previous CVu [ Oldwood ]:
If none of what I do is novel is it a surprise that I’d have nothing truly interesting to write about? After all, if everyone reads the same books and blogs, follows the same people on Twitter, etc. then they’ll already know everything I do; probably more. Who exactly would be listening?
Sometimes the knowledge that we seemingly know nothing can cause writer’s block. You may recall Socrates claimed he knew nothing and that didn’t stop him having a thing or two to say. Anecdotally, he is supposed to have said, “ As for me, all I know is that I know nothing ” [ Plato ] though this may be somewhat out of context and there are similar quotes pulled from other places. See this Wikipedia entry [ Wiki] for example. Though mention is made of potential fear and upset when sharing, Oldwood’s article makes the important point that you do not need to write about something new in order to write – much writing offers a new viewpoint on an old topic. This is true of Overload , computing in general and in many other disciplines too. Indeed, I have recently acquired a DVD of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead which weaves a tale around two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Many other works of fiction are based around minor characters in a relatively well known story or historical account. The constraint gives a clear context and timeline of events and to an extent provides ready-made characters, though possibly only in outline comic form. It is ok to write around a well-known topic or existing body of knowledge. Many peer reviewed journals have a ‘state of the art’ review article from time to time which summarises the current players in a given area and digs into the advantages and disadvantages of each. For example, our penultimate issue had two articles considering various stands on test driven development.
This begs the question how do other people invent new features or frameworks or topics it’s ok to write about? Where do the new ideas come from? We could ask the same question of articles in this very journal. Sometimes they are inspired by problems people have faced and are a write up of emergent solutions or patterns if you will. Sometimes ‘hot-topics’ show up on online discussion forums or Twitter or similar. In both cases, the ideas are probably not completely new. This does not matter a jot – the important thing is they are interesting. Sometimes you may even find as you try to write up something you think you know well, for example a discussion on accu-general, you will inevitably find you need to investigate areas you hadn’t considered before and so learn even more. Perhaps it’s not possible to create anything new anyway – perhaps we are constantly rehashing and rediscovering old ideas. How often do you attend a talk or conference session to be presented with a quote from the 1960s? More generally, philosophical debates about whether anything, ranging from inventions to mathematics, are created or discovered have raged for a long time.
Pulling back from a grand digression into an abstract philosophical subject, let us return to our key point. How does one find inspiration for a topic to write about? Terry Prachett [ Prachett ] mentions inspiration particles
Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind, which then invents DNA or the flute sonata form or a way of making light bulbs wear out in half the time. But most of them miss. Most people go through their lives without being hit by even one.
Newton’s gravity may have come from being directly hit by an apple rather than an inspiration particle. Evidence may suggest this was an outright lie, possibly never told by Newton himself [ Cracked ], and is not the only ‘Newtonian-ism’ which gets misunderstood, though it may give us something to think about. Stepping away from your books and desk for a while to go outside and get a breath of fresh air is the only way to get hit on the head by an apple and might make you receptive to inspiration particles. The second well-known quote from Newton is almost certainly ‘ If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants ’. He was writing to Robert Hooke at the time, and it has been suggested this was really a disparaging remark about Hooke’s physique [ Crease ]. Nonetheless, its frequent quoting suggests drawing on the ideas and previous work of others is acceptable.
What actually causes the spark of an idea? I believe it is really important to find ways to free up your thinking in order to get the creative juices flowing, to coin a phrase. I have recently finished reading What-If? [ Munroe ]. The sheer ridiculousness of the questions was a delight, and left me for a while afterwards musing on various unconventional angles on almost everything I was faced with. Sadly the different perspective has now waned, but this reminded me how important it is to stop being so serious from time to time and allow oneself to ask seemingly crazy questions. The occasional book can act as a direct hit by an inspiration particle. There are some other ways to attempt to move into a creative space.
If you are learning something new, it is sensible to keep notes as you go. If you read back through them and asked focused questions – Does this make sense? What haven’t I covered? Are there edge cases? – you can sharpen up your notes and form a ‘How-to’ article. If you look back at anything you have previously written you may have further ideas. Unfortunately, this requires you to have written something in the first place. We touched upon constraint to bring about creativity – either in the form of fitting around an existing story, or joining in a current debate on a hot topic, and perhaps writing a summary article. In contrast, it can be useful to drop constraints. Even if you have a specific task to do, it can be helpful to step back for a moment and allow a free-form doodle as a team on a white board during a design session or a time to ‘brainstorm’. It is important to emphasise when doing this that no idea is too stupid otherwise most people will avoid speaking out. The aim is to get ideas flowing. If no one will speak out in your group, there are ways to get the ball rolling. For example, the ‘McDonalds trick’ – if a group of people are trying to decide where to go for a meal and no one will make the first suggestion, the theory goes saying “ McDonalds ” will encourage everyone to say “ No, even [somewhere else] is better than that ”. Saying something, no matter how unsophisticated, or downright poor, can get the ball rolling. Many great ideas can come out of a stream of ridiculous ideas. Sometimes just brainstorming by yourself works – write down all the things you are thinking/reading about and see what emerges. Allow yourself some unstructured play time. Recently there have been increasing reports of children having too much structured leisure time – formal music or sports lessons, extra academic coaching and so on. Though these can be very useful, many are keen to point out the importance of ‘Free-play’ for normal development. “ Jean Piaget conducted extensive research into play and concluded that play was a vital component to children's normal intellectual and social development. ” [ Journal of Play ] This article also touches on the importance of art and music for creativity too. If you do not feed your inner muse, she will die. Don’t forget, adults need play time too. “ All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. ”
So, what makes you creative? You can simply summarise what you have been learning about – this will be your unique perspective on the topic and will at least be notes to your future self. You can meet-up with other people and try to throw some ideas around. You need to give your muse space and time. Sometimes just waiting doesn’t make the proverbial apple fall down though. A brainstorming session may still not be quite enough to get things moving. The so-called Disney brainstorming method may help – in order to come out with and refine ideas, aim for three different roles; a dreamer, a realist, and a spoiler [ Disney ]. The dreamer is allowed, indeed, must come out with fantastical ideas. They can break the laws of physics, be completely impractical, apparently pointless. The next role grounds the ideas a bit – they are not dismissed but refined in order to be possible. The final stage rejects anything it’s confronted with, shooting holes in it. The first two roles can defend/refine further and so on. In theory some ideas will survive the process. You can do this with other people or by yourself. Though it is often used as a training exercise for entrepreneurship it can work in various other realms. Constraining yourself to only being a dreamer – coming out with new ideas – can set off a stream of creativity.
A final example of constraint leading to creativity is warfare. War is sometimes described as the mother of invention. There are many examples of manufacturing companies creating new products during various wars, such as vegetarian sausages [ Sausages ]. To some extend the difficulties cause workarounds to be discovered or invented; while to another extent governments often find sources of funding to solve specific problems. Sometimes disasters, rather than wars, also lead to inventions. John Harrison invented a timekeeping piece and thereby claimed the £20,000 reward which had been in place for almost 60 years since a disaster at sea killed over 2000 people, leading to calls for better means of navigation [ Observatory ]. Most people face the equivalent of disasters or wars at work, albeit on a smaller scale, and as a colleague keeps pointing out to me “ No one died. ” The response, “ This time ” is possibly wearing thin though. Nonetheless, these problems can inspire new approaches to avoid repetitions of mistakes, which are always worth recording for posterity.
What have we discovered? Finding a topic to write about can be difficult, but just keeping notes on what you are doing day to day can be a fertile source of ideas. Deliberately meeting with others to brainstorm can lead to new ideas, but might need tempering with various techniques to get the ideas flowing. Walking away for a bit can help, allowing a chance to be hit by an inspiration particle, or apple. If you are brave and try writing you will learn to weather any storm of rotten fruit and there may be less than you expect. It’s ok to do something that’s been done before – you can bring a new twist and in turn set off a new train of thought for someone else. In order to try to find completely new ideas you need something to fire up your imagination. Whatever you decide to write about, hopefully the ACCU provides a supportive and shepherding environment and never stifles your creativity. Please feel free to submit articles, no matter how left-field you think they are. We do not promise to accept them but you never know ’til you try.
[Disney] Various (contrary) links, but for example: http://www.idea-sandbox.com/blog/disney-brainstorming-method-dreamer-realist-and-spoiler/