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. So glad to have this podcast! It’s awesome, another great episode too. I’m going to check out that context exercise for sure.

  2. I sometimes have jazz students who tell me they aren’t creative and can’t improvise. I then ask them if they get a script every morning to tell them what they are going to say for the rest of the day. Just the act of getting up and out of bed forces us to be creative, but to be able to apply it into different fields takes practice.

    Your suggestion to take unrelated things and mash them together is excellent. I think that is something that many of us creative types do naturally.

  3. ” I then ask them if they get a script every morning to tell them what they are going to say for the rest of the day. “

    That’s brilliant, Berin.

  4. Mary was always my favorite guest, so I’m looking forward to more. That said, how will this affect bringing in guests? 5 people seems like too much for a 15-20 minute discussion, so will you leave guests for when one of you can’t make it?

  5. @Matt: We’ve talked about this, and I agree. Sometimes we’ll do guest episodes when only two or three of the usual hosts are available (like we did with Brandon and I at Penguicon, and like you’ll hear from Dan and I in a month or so.) But sometimes we’ll ALL be there, in which case we may take turns bowing out for an episode.

    Or maybe we’ll run long.

  6. My writing goal for the week is to post an exultant congratulation for all involved, but avoid the risk of having it come across as a backhanded compliment.

  7. Welcome Mary!! We love you, so it’ll be awesome to have you on the show.

  8. It is great to hear that Mary Robinette Kowal will be a regular.

    Now with four regulars you should consider a 20 minute podcast.

    “Twenty minutes long, because you’re not in that much of a hurry, and we’re just a little smarter.”

  9. Just when you thought Writing Excuses couldn’t get more awesome. Too bad I’m not on a computer with decent sound right now. Something to look forward to, at any rate.

    And, as an added bonus, we get more #marygoround whenever it’s time to record again.

  10. Awesome! Good to have a female point of view on topics and someone to keep these guys in check. xD

  11. Awesome! I’m really excited about having Mary on the podcast…I second Derby’s comment. Surely Mary’s brain makes you all at least 5 minutes smarter. :-P

  12. I agree with the above posters who want y’all to go long. Besides, nothing against the rest of you guys, but Mary’s more pleasant to listen to, too. ;)

  13. I’ll echo the other commentators–Mary Robinette Kowal is a great addition to an all-ready terrific podcast. The first five seasons have been excellent, but season six looks to top them all. With Mary Robinette on board, revisiting some of the other topics the ‘cast has covered would be worthwhile–characters, POV, brainstorming you name it. At the same time, I’m sure you have plenty of topics have yet to be covered. Can’t wait for this season to unfold.

    As always, thanks guys for all your time and effort.

  14. Full time cast member? Awesome!

    I mean, I love you guys and all. But Mary is totally super awesome.

  15. I agree with Berin, a lot of writers naturally mash unrelated ideas together to make new ideas, new characters, and new stories. I’ve done it several times. When I was a kid, that’s all I would do with my toys–have GI Joes team up with He-Man and Han Solo so they can fly around in space together.

    I’ll repeat so many others and say Mary Robinette Kowal is a great addition. She’s been a good addition in her guest appearance, is full of great ideas, and has a fantastic voice.

  16. adding Mary Robinette Kowal to Writing Excuses is like adding chocolate to peanut butter. Two awesome things becoming exquisite when combined.

  17. Having Mary as a full-time cast member totally makes up for last weeks (IMO) lackluster show (Again, not the guests fault).

  18. And now that I have listened to the ‘cast, all I can say is: awesome, inspiring stuff.

  19. Such a great Podcast for the season opener; that’s an excellent context exercise, helpful when I find I’ve just penned an adverb for dialogue (he said lamentably)
    I found this podcast to be in the same vein as the “This Sucks…” podcast. So now Mary’s onboard I guess we can expect more Life Day references and more Pride and Prejudice and Zombies jokes?

  20. Hmmmm, so with a female perspective as a full time cast member, perhaps now you can all actually do the episode that scares Dan? “How To Write Women” would certainly be handy to a lot of us. :p

    Also, hello and welcome! Please, help keep them crazy!

  21. Welcome Mary!

    “‘What happens if I do this’ – is the first step of combining the familiar with the strange.”

    I agree this is an early step, but at the risk of being overly semantical, my first step is always asking, “what if…”

    Marvel did this fabuously and had a great crossover line of comics. In addition, I think it’s best to, like comics, combine two items, each being familiar or each being strange, that one does not normally associate. From this method have we receive, not only, shorts like Hulk Verse, characters like Wolverine (who likes to fight and can heal, which works ultra well because it gives character motivation), but Video games like Wii Fit or Angry Birds, food like lemon and fish, and websites like Groupon.

    In closing, you’re mashup exercise, was awesome advice as allows for an easy pitch to agents, “It’s a great story, it’s like Silence of the Lambs meets Herbie.”

    (Thanks guys!…and gal!)

  22. Welcome to the show Mary! I love the idea of taking a fairy tale and changing one element at a time until you have a story. I think one of the ways Writing Excuses has most helped me is showing that writing isn’t this intangible muse thing. Creativity and good storytelling can be approached very logically.
    Welcome to the show Mary!

  23. Welcome to the show, Mary. This podcast didn’t NEED to get better… But it has.

  24. Nice to have you on the podcast Mary. Excellent episode, though now “Easy Avatar: The Life and Times of an Intergalactic Tavern Wench” may be written, and I’m not so sure the world is ready for that yet.

  25. So does this mean Mary will have to read Hero With A Thousand Faces? Because dangit I bought that audiobook on your recommendation and I expect a podcast on it this season!

    But seriously, thanks for all the great advice you guys have given over the last 3 years ,and I’m sure things will get even better with Mary Robinette on board.

  26. Welcome Mary! Glad to see some girl-power added to the podcast (not that it wasn’t great before, guys =). I loved Shades of Milk & Honey and always looked forward to your guest appearances on the podcast. And now you’re permanent! Yay! I know you will be an awesome addition. Looking forward to future episodes!

  27. Tackle the Monomyth in fifteen minutes? now that would be an extraordinary feat.

    I think that in terms of looking at Hero with a Thousand Faces in the format of WE it would really be a similar breakdown to Chris Vogler’s work and really that just puts the Monomyth into the three act structure simplified. Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale is much more interesting than the Monomyth anyway.

  28. Welcome aboard, Mary! With four voices, I have even fewer excuses not to write.


    Once upon a time there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She wandered into the woods, and found herself suddenly trapped in the cabin of the Two Bears. They stood in front of the exits, towering over her, and wouldn’t let her go.

    “You have to pick which on of us you like the best,” the first bear said, a large brown grizzly.

    “Or we’ll eat you,” the second bear, also a large brown grizzly, added.

    “Would you eat me?” Goldilocks asked the first bear.

    “Of course I would. I’m a bear.”

    “Would you eat me?” she asked the second bear.

    “Of course I would. I’m a bear.”

    Both bears padded around her, examining her as much as she examined them. She tried to watch them, but lost track of which bear was which as they went around and around.

    “Your fur is softer,” she said to what she thought was the first bear, “But you growl whenever I touch you.”

    “My fur is only for looking at,” the bear replied.

    “And you,” she said to the second one, “You don’t bare your teeth at me, but you smell like death.”

    “I eat just as much, but only when no one is watching,” the second bear said.

    Goldilocks trembled. “I’m ready to decide. I pick–”

    The bears stopped circling, and both faced her. “We’ve already decided for you,” they said, closing in on her, lips drawn back from teeth.

    “But you said you wouldn’t eat me.”

    “No, we said pick one of us, or we’ll eat you.”

    “Pick one of us, and we can still eat you.”

    “After all– we’re bears.”

  29. At the risk of being strangled by the rest of the community,

    I’m afraid that if you plan for 20 minute episodes they’ll soon turn into 25 minutes or longer. Don’t get me wrong, Writing Excuses has quadrupled my knowledge of writing and has been better for me than any book or class ever, but part of its great value lies in being short and concise.

    Besides…I really am in a hurry.

  30. …but if you started posting 15 minute episodes TWICE a week, that would certainly be something nobody could complain about.

    Howard’s inner Zen master sounds like ancient wisdom about leading horses to water, and I totally agree. Learning has to be about desire, not methods. Fortunately, great teachers increase the desire to learn as well as provide effective methods.

    Thanks for all you do, WE! So happy to have such a preposterously charming addition.

  31. “Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale is much more interesting than the Monomyth anyway”

    It IS the Monomyth but with more steps. In a way, the monomyth is a “slightly” simplified version of the Morphology based on a wider sampling of myths.

  32. “…part of its great value lies in being short and concise”

    The problem is that they sometimes stumble around a bit and the actual info you get is less than 15 min worth. I’ve always thought it would be better if they had “most” of the questions before the cast started and had their “general” answers ready beforehand.

  33. The REAL question is where was Mary in Episode 632. Did the guys decide to time travel without you?

  34. Welcome, Mary – and I add another vote for going long (I support anything that encourages more random humor riffing. :-))

  35. I honestly feel like I was sitting over here with my little cup of awesome, when all of the sudden, someone gave me a bigger cup, with even more awesome in it. AND, not only is it MORE awesome, but there are new flavors in the awesome. That’s right, somebody just poured awesome sauce all over my heaping helping of awesome.

    Hmm, I wonder if anyone will be able to tell that I’m excited about Mary being added to the podcast.

  36. I mean no disrespect but Mary’s voice is very sexy. And much nicer to listen to than a bunch of guys (by which I mean no disrespect either).

    Keep up with the good work, people!

  37. My first thought when the mashup prompt came up was Star Wars meets Indiana Jones. Jedis! Nazis! Then I realized it would just be Where Eagles Dare. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  38. @Marie –

    Normally I’d worry about people being more reserved in a mixed-sex environment, but these guys are G rated, unless Howard starts Anthony Weinering pantless pics. You’ve always been a welcome addition, and I look forward to you being around for the duration.

    I’ll admit that I was hoping for the tagline to change to “20 minutes long, because there are 4 of us and together we form a headless Voltron.”

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