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Modular Writing

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

What is modular writing?

Let’s take this article on modular writing as an example.

When I start writing, I have a vague idea of where I want to get to. As I’m writing, I’m clarifying it to myself.

So you’re discovering what you want to write about as you’re writing.

Precisely.

I develop the idea through exploration. I don’t try to force the process. I let ideas emerge organically.

For instance, the idea about writing about the piece I’m writing was unplanned, it emerged spontaneously.

What if no ideas emerge?

Then I take a break. Breaks are an essential aspect of the creative process. Expressed as a principle, I call it creative oscillation. I call the off part of the oscillation, the creative pause.

Structurally, I use short sentences, like this one.

A bit like tweet writing?

Yes.

The goal is to create more or less self-contained units – modules – which, through an iterative process, I develop and eventually assemble into the final piece.

Creative Oscillation

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is creative oscillation?”

“The creative process is an oscillation. 

On/Off.

Creative insights happen during the Off, not the On.

This can be used strategically.”

“How?”

“By alternating Creative Thinking with Creative Pauses.

During the On, choose a Creative Focus, and follow it by Creative Exploration. Viewed as a mind-map, the Creative Focus is the center of the map, and Creative Exploration is the process of branching out in all directions, seeing where it takes you. You’re thus opening a mental process [<link; short read].

During the Off, let go. Focus your attention elsewhere, and let the unconscious mind do its magic.” 

“What’s the optimal oscillation pattern?”

“Play around with it. Experiment. 

What’s important is to remember that the Off is an integral part of the process.”

Creative Flow

The four stages of Flow:

Struggle – Overloading the brain with information
Release – Taking your mind off the problem
The Zone
Recovery

(Steven Kotler)


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“Do they also apply to Creative Flow?”

“They do.

You can think of the Struggle stage as the On, and of the Release stage as the Off.”

“Like an oscillation.”

“Yes.

The On stage corresponds to focused thinking in Barbara Oakley’s terminology.

You can start with a Creative Focus, the primary constraint, and explore from there. Viewed as a mind-map, the Creative Focus is the center of the map from which you expand in all directions.

Or you can start with Creative Exploration, as a means to discover your Creative Focus. Viewed as a mind-map, you start anywhere – Improv style –, with multiple centers from which you expand in all directions, making connections between these mini-maps.”

“For how long do you do this?”

“One pomodoro – half an hour.

After that, you let go, and engage in a diffuse thinking activity, like walking, making sure to have a notebook with or around you.”

Creative Preparation 2

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“How can you create optimal conditions for the creative process to unfold?”

“Edward de Bono makes a distinction between artistic creativity and idea creativity. I’m mainly interested in the latter, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

The goal of idea creativity is creating ideas through combining ideas.
The output of idea creativity is creative ideas, which are a synergistic combination of two or more ideas – a combo, in Magic the Gathering terminology.

What’s important to understand is that it’s the subconscious mind that makes the connections. The role of the conscious mind is merely to facilitate this process.

There’s several aspects to creative preparation:

Creative Library
Creative Stimulation
Creative State
Creative Limitations
Creative Oscillation

Creative Library

Ideas are the building-blocks, so a large part of creative preparation involves collecting ideas. I like to think of this process as building a ‘creative library’. An inner library of internalized ideas, and an outer library of externally stored ideas – which can be thought of as an extension of your brain.

To create ideas you need to have ideas stored in your creative library. The more you have, the wider the possibility-space.

The quality of the creative output is dependent on the quality of the stored ideas. The less noise, the more signal.

Creative Stimulation

This is essentially creative priming, bringing ideas ‘on top of your mind’, thus increasing the likelihood of generating useful creative output. 

Another aspect of it is creative provocation, which is meant to break through thought-patterns that inhibit creativity (pattern-breaking), that prevent your subconscious mind from making certain connections.

Creative State

Your creative capacity is profoundly influenced by your state of mind (state management), which is profoundly influenced by your energy level (energy management).

Brian Johnson’s fundamentals of optimal living are a beautiful guideline here:

Sleeping
Eating
Moving

Breathing
Meditating

All are important.

Tony Robbins’ Triad of Human Emotions – which we’ve talked about before [<link; medium read] – is another beautiful guideline.

Another aspect of it is what I call the creative mindset. This involves embracing your playful essence, making creativity a central value of your life, and a deep trust in your innate capacity to create.

Creative Limitations

Restrictions breed creativity. (Mark Rosewater)

On a general level, this means embracing and befriending the very notion of constraint. For me, Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way captures this idea beautifully.

On a specific level, this may mean choosing a creative focus, to serve as a starting point, and – similarly to meditation – as an anchor to return to when your mind wanders off course.

Creative Oscillation

We’ve talked a while back about the distinction between Focused and Diffuse Thinking [<link; medium read]. The creative process requires both. Both engagement and disengagement.

The focused mode is for creative stimulation. You’re sketching a map for your subconscious to explore. Then you let go.

A beautiful diffuse-mode activity is what I call the creative walk. Going for a walk, equipped with a notepad or your phone to collect the fleeting flowers of your thought. What makes the creative walk beautiful is the life-stacking [<link; medium read] aspect of it. You’re moving at the same time.”

Creative Preparation

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is creativity?”

Controlled Serendipity.

You’re creating optimal conditions for your subconscious mind to do its magic.

I call this creativity principle, Creative Preparation [<link; medium read].”

Creativity Games: Making the familiar strange

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What’s the game about?”

“It’s a little imagination game I created for myself to practice creativity.

The game is simple.

Pick any object in the environment and say:

This is x

where x must be something imaginatively connected to the object. For every x, visualize it, and make up a little visual story.

There’s a principle of creativity which I call Alternatives – not settling for the first answer that comes to mind, and generating as many alternatives as possible. Viewed as a skill, it’s the capacity to generate large quantities of creative output. That’s the goal of the game.”

“Can you give an example?”

“Sure.

Let’s take this [physical] page I’m writing on. I might say:

This is snow.
This is a magic carpet.
This is a wall.
This is an undead tree.
This is a towel.
This is a slide.
This is a garden.
This is a toy.
This is a raft.

Another flavor of the game is generating random alternatives.

It starts the same:

This is x

but now x is this first thing that comes to mind.

This is a chimney.
This is a squirrel.
This is a needle.

The goal here is to discover connections between the object and the generated words.”

Constraint-Setting

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is constraint-setting?”

“We’ve talked a while ago about the creative limitations principle [<link; short read] of creativity. The idea that

Restrictions breed creativity. (Mark Rosewater)

Constraint-setting means making the process intentional.”

“A kind of intention-setting?”

“Yes.

In practical terms, this means getting clear at the beginning of the creative process on what your constraints are.

What are your constraints?

Let’s take these imaginary dialogues as an example.

‘Fragments from imaginary dialogues’ is the primary constraint – my idiosyncratic style. 

I write in the form of dialogue.

I write fragments, which means they do not follow the traditional story structure of beginning, middle, and end. [pattern-breaking]

I write short-form, which means I strive to keep them short. [brevity, condensed meaning]

I write in simple language, which means that, given a choice between two similar words, I go for the more common one. [clarity

Viewed as a template [<link; medium read], this is the fixed part of the template. The content of the dialogues is the variable part of the template. 

Let’s take this particular imaginary dialogue as an example.

The dialogue has a creative focus. [one thing]
It has a general creative focus, a theme – which in this case is mental models. 
It has a specific creative focus – which is usually the title of the piece.

The first stage of my writing process is exploratory mind-mapping.”

“So you’re essentially discovering your constraints.”

“Yes.

I discover my creative focus for the piece, and I discover the main components of the piece. We might think of the former as the hard constraint, and of the latter as soft constraints

Then I continue the exploration by starting to write, using the mind-map as a guide.

The beauty of the process is that I never know where I’m going to get.”

Two models of creativity

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is creativity?”

“To quote Steve Jobs,

Creativity is just connecting things.

I call this the Connections model of creativity.

Creativity is Connecting.

I must say, I love this model. I love it so much that I have the word ‘Connections’ tattooed on my right forearm.”

“I like to pair it with another model.

I call it the Patterns model of creativity.

Creativity is Patterning.

By Pattering I mean two things: 

Pattern-Recognition
Pattern-Restructuring

As concerns pattern-recognition, there’s a quote that’s been stuck on my mind for a very long time:

Genius is only a superior power of seeing. (John Ruskin)

In a flash of insight, I realized that Ruskin’s ‘superior power of seeing‘ is pattern-recognition. The creative genius looks at the same things everyone else looks and consistently sees something different. It’s like he lives in a different reality.”

“Maybe genius is often a polymath because different disciplines give you different ways of seeing reality.

Take Parkour for instance. Once you’ve been practicing for a while, you develop what practitioners call ‘Parkour Vision‘, and from that moment on, the environment is never the same.

By extension, many disciplines (if not all) develop their own kind of similar ‘Vision’. Viewed as a template [<link; medium read], I call it ‘X Vision‘:

– Design Vision
– Poetry Vision
– Photography Vision
– Humor Vision
– Systems Vision
etc.”

“Interesting idea.

As concern pattern-restructuring, it has two components:

Pattern-Making
Pattern-Breaking

Pattern-restructuring is essentially Lateral Thinking. Breaking internal patterns (eg habit-breaking) or external patterns (eg rules-breaking), and creating new patterns that have value.

The two models are complementary. We might call them synergistic models – a combo, to use Magic the Gathering terminology.”

Creativity Tools: The Thematic Oracle

How to use an oracle:

Have a specific question on which you would like a fresh perspective. Clear your mind so that you are in a receptive state.

Pick an “answer” at random.

How does the creative insight relate to your question?
What story does it tell?
What sense can you make out of it?

Try to think of as many contexts as possible in which the Insight makes sense. Be literal in your interpretation. Be metaphorical. Be off-the-wall. Be serious. Don’t worry how practical or logical you are. What’s important is to give free reign to your thinking.

Most insights will trigger an immediate response. Sometimes, however, you’ll look at one and think, “This has nothing to do with my question,” and be tempted to dismiss it. Don’t. Force yourself to make a connection. Often those ideas that initially seem the least relevant turn out to be the most important because they point to something that you’ve been completely overlooking.

(Roger von Oech, Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won’t Find It))


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is a thematic oracle?”

“Using the normal oracle, you’re asking a question and picking an ‘answer’ at random.

Using a thematic oracle, you’re picking an ‘answer’ from a collection of items that are thematically linked.

For instance, you can pick a word at random from the dictionary. (words)

Or you can generate a random quote. (quotes)

Or you can generate a random Magic the Gathering card. (Magic cards)

Thematic Oracle

You can use anything on the card: the image, the title, the mana symbols, the card type, the set symbol, the description, the flavor text [the italicized text on the card].”

“How do you generate random Magic cards?”

“On my phone, I use the method [<link; short read] we’ve spoken about a little while ago.

On my computer I use Gatherer [<link], the official Magic the Gathering card database. At the top of the page there’s a ‘Random Card’ option. (Sadly the option is missing on the phone.)”

Iterative Learning


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is iterative learning?”

“Not long ago, at my brother’s suggestion, I watched a video on YouTube called Iterative Drawing, by a guy called Sycra Yasin, describing a beautiful learning method. I realized the method can be applied to learning anything, not just drawing – and so the idea of iterative learning was born.”

“What’s the essence of the method?”

“If you want to improve at anything, repetition is key. The metaphor Sycra uses is mileage

To improve, you need to get a lot of rep(etition)s in. (Quantity) There’s no way around it.

To improve faster, you need to maximize the learning from each rep. (Quality) In other words, it requires deliberate practice.

A quality-rep is a learning cycle [<link; short read]. 

Quality-rep = Learning Cycle = Feedback + Reflection

The method is brilliant in that it addresses both quantity and quality at the same time (thus increasing practice-density [<link; short read]), which allows you to gain mileage quickly.

You pick something you want to focus on (clear goals).

You fill a page (or more) with variations on that thing. Each iteration is essentially an experiment.

With each iteration, you analyze and reflect on it, extracting key lessons and principles.”

“Can you give an example of how you’re applying it to something other than drawing?”

“Sure.

One of the things I’m learning about is humor. I want to get better at it. 

I’m currently reading a book about humor called You Can Be Funny and Make People Laugh by Gregory Peart.

One actionable insight from the book is that direct questions are an opportunity to practice humor.

Direct questions, like, “Where are you going?” or “What are you doing?” are perfect opportunities for experimenting with unanticipated humorous responses. The question-asker is likely expecting a literal answer, so a lighthearted and funny response could result in easy humor simply because it’s unexpected.

This is an opportunity to practice iterative learning.

I write a question at the top of a page, and I start generating possible answers (thus practicing creativity at the same time). The focus is on quantity, not quality. Whenever I stumble upon a funny response, I give it a rating (1 – mildly funny, 2 – funny, 3 – very funny), and reflect on what makes it funny.

For instance:

What are you doing?

I’m…

– breathing autumn. (1)
– breathtaking.
– digging for treasure. (2)
– growing hair. (3)
– hiking around the sun. (3)
– knitting. (1)
– living danjerously. (2)
– playing at adulting. (3)
– pacticing average. (1)
– practicing awkwardness.
– questing. (1)
– ruminating ruminations. (1)

The goal is to do as many as possible. Dozens. This is an open process [<link; short read]. Whenever I come up with another idea, I add it to the page.”