Writing Excuses 6.1: Can Creativity be Taught?

One of our most popular guests ever, Mary Robinette Kowal, finally joins Brandon, Dan, and Howard as a full-time cast-member. And now that she’s with us, we’re going to go back and revisit the very first topic we attempted to record (in a lost episode you can only hear in the bonus material on the 1st Season CD), which is whether or not creativity can be taught.

Mary says aspects of it can be taught. Howard’s inner Zen master says nothing can be taught, but anything can be learned. And from there we dive all the way in.

And you know what? Mary totally rescues the discussion, bringing perspectives that we were missing in that first session back in 2008. Especially right at the end, where she gives us some awesome creativity exercises.

Welcome to the team, Mary Robinette Kowal. We’ve needed you for three years.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1 by George R.R. Martin, narrated by Roy Dotrice

Writing Prompt: Take one of the creativity exercises and run with it. Alternatively, use this mash-up: “The Silence of the Mexican Herbie Part 2: The Two Towers.”

Pearl of Wisdom Not To Be Taken The Wrong Way: “Stealing from children is an awesome tool.”

Liner Note Link: Here is the narration and context exercise Mary mentioned.

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72 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.1: Can Creativity be Taught?”

  1. Loved this post. I actually thought about toddlers the whole time. If being curious, asking questions, and looking at objects in new ways is creativity, then it’s not something we need to acquire — it’s something we forget and regain. Little children (well, mine) don’t look at a block and say “oh, this is just a toy.” It’s also a cup for Cheerios, or a penny depository (stack the blocks up with the pennies in the middle to hide them from Mom), or, unfortunately, a chamber pot. That one probably doesn’t merit more explanation, but I’m just saying, little kids look at the world differently than us old people and seem to constantly test how it works (like jumping from a couch with blankets, and then without). They’re always asking “what if” because they don’t think they have all the answers yet.

  2. @CM
    While that would sometimes be nice, the casts wouldn’t be half as much fun.

  3. @Jonathon Side

    That’s why I said “most” of the questions and “general” answers. I would still like them to have room to riff. I would just like them to have a little more focus given the limited time.

  4. Regarding a 20-minute cast:

    1) If we say “20 minutes long” then we’ll run to 25. BLOAT.
    2) The existing tagline is too awesome to discard. We can riff on it a little, but we can’t actually CHANGE it.
    3) 15-20 minutes is still the right length for this ‘cast, regardless of how many people are talking.

    And the BIG reason:

    4) Just because we have a fourth voice doesn’t mean we have 33% more to say. The overlap among our opinions and experiences is such that what we ACTUALLY get with a fourth voice is a 33% greater likelihood that what is said will be perfect.

    In short, you’re not getting an extra five minutes. You’re getting a BETTER fifteen minutes. Unless we run long, in which case you’re getting a better twenty.

  5. So Howard you’re saying the podcast will not be longer but denser, molecularly speaking.

    In terms of creativity, is there a particular exercise you (and I’ll put it to the other casters too) that you use if you become stumped for plots or ideas?

  6. @ Rob Morgan

    I may not be one of the casters, but I heard a solution from Rohan Wilson, who recently won the Vogel prize (top Australian writers award).

    When you are stuck for a character reaction or plot point, draw up a 3×3 grid. In each box write an idea. They don’t have to be good ideas. Rohan said filling the last few boxes can be hard, but that it’s really important to do them all.

    Next, go through and see which ideas make no sense for the plot. Put a little cross by them. Then go through and see which ones are the most emotionally powerful and put a little tick.

    Finally, pick an option. Sometimes we might have to change the plot to fit a really emotional event. Other times we might have to give a logical event more emotional power. We might even take Rohan and the casters’ advice and consider putting two ideas together.

    First time I tried it, I realised my protagonist should try to sell one of his kidneys.

  7. Rob: I’m rarely stumped for plots or ideas.

    I’m often forced, however, to carefully consider all the characters in a given story and how they might most reasonably be convinced to do things that move the plot in a direction that provides my readers with lots of explosions. When I’ve done it right, the convincing happens through another character. When I’ve done it wrong something explodes for no reason.

  8. Heath & Howard: Thanks for the input, it really helped me see that my plotting had stalled because I was mistaking setting for plot.

  9. Is she Mormon also? If so, this podcast is a conspiracy for the Mormons to take over my local bookstore…

    (this post is in jest btw)

  10. @Josh: Mary is not a Mormon, but that data point neither confirms nor refutes your conspiracy theory. After all, conspiracy theories are designed around non-falsifiability. :-)

  11. I thought they were designed around political agendas and paranoid ramblings.


    My bad.

  12. The real question is whether you believe that conspiracy theories are designed or not. If they are designed, then you might want to ask who is behind them — which might lead you to entertain the possibility of a conspiracy that is pushing conspiracy theories, or at least trying to make them seem unlikely. After all, it’s much easier to conceal your conspiracy if everyone knows that conspiracies aren’t real.

    Right? :-)

  13. I love the writing prompt for this ‘cast. Right now I’m working on a serial from it and sending it to friends, where Goldilocks is not called it based on her hair (she’s got short-cropped raven hair), but her expertise as an infiltrations operative. She’s being sent to Russia’s Khimki forest where three former KGB operatives are planning something (for those of us who remember the “Russian Bear”). They like the story so far and it’s been a lot of fun writing. Thanks for a great writing prompt and love the podcast.

  14. The following is a link to a video which explores the same topic, entitled “Everything Is A Remix”:


    I don’t know how to make it a clickable link, so you’ll have to copy and paste.

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