Ask Angry: Creativity Workout

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

Dindomir asks:

I just read your article on backstory and I wanted to ask you how you manage to be so creative. Even though you just made the backstories to account for the adventure, they are still incredible, especially the dragon one. So the question would be, how do you improve creativity? I know it’s a very broad and difficult question, and I will absolutely understand if you don’t have the time to answer it.

You should know me by now, Dindomir. I can handle broad and difficult questions. That’s why I’m a f$&%ing genius. And why you keep coming back to my site. Because, thing is, there is an answer. People think questions about “creativity” and “ideas” are impossible to answer because people have f$&%ed up notions about creativity and ideas. Which is why you were afraid to ask the question and willing to let me off the hook by saying I don’t have to answer.

I mean, let’s say you went up to my old weight-lifting calculus teacher and asked her how she was able to lift however hundred many pounds she was able to lift. You wouldn’t say “that is, if the answer isn’t too broad or complicated.” Because you know she’d probably have an answer. One about her training regimen. She’d tell you how she got started and how often she worked out and how she designed her fitness program and probably talk about her diet too. Right? Because that’s how athletes become athletes. And, honestly, if you asked her how she learned calculus, she’d also have an answer. Probably not the same answer, though.

The point is that creativity is just like weight lifting. Or, rather, it’s just like muscle strength. Except it’s brain strength. A specific kind of brain strength. Weight lifting is just a particular application of strength just like generating ideas for adventure backstories is a particular application of creativity.

Now, just like muscle strength, there is some measure of natural talent that goes into creativity. Everyone is born with different levels of potential and different basic talents. But, just like muscle strength, that talent only makes it easier to start out. In the end, any dedicated person can build up some level of muscle strength. I mean, you may never be an olympic level weight-lifter, but if you want to build enough strength to do amateur weight-lifting competitions, you can probably do it with enough hard work and dedication.

Like anything, there’s three components to “being more creative” or rather, “building creativity.” The first is a good exercise program that strengthens your creativity. The second is to constantly use your creativity so that you don’t lose it. And the third is to give yourself plenty of creative nutrients and avoid things that ruin creativity.

First, let’s talk about building creativity. Building creativity requires you to purposely and consciously do creative things on a regular basis. One thing I learned to do years ago (actually as a sleep aid) was to tell myself stories in my head as I go to sleep at night. I’ve been building three or four long running head stories for years. They are not the sort of thing I’d ever share or write down or publish, but only because they aren’t terribly refined. They are just shlocky science-fiction and fantasy fare. I am not even joking. If I’m having trouble sleeping, I spend some time in my favorite little story building another dumb chapter.

The trouble with that sort of crap though is that it’s very hard to create out of nothing. Blank pages are the most dangerous thing you can expose an underdeveloped creativity muscle to. So, instead, there are a few games you can play. When you’re out in public, for example, like when you’re out in the mall or on the train or whatever, look around and find some people that catch your eye. Maybe they are fighting, maybe the person is carrying something odd, or maybe the person is in a frantic hurry. And then you can play the “what’s their story” game. What’s their story is a game wherein you decide who the person is and what’s going on? Why is that guy carrying a bowling ball bag through the mall? Why is that couple having a fierce argument over a newspaper? Why is that kid crying? Now, this isn’t an exercise in deductive reasoning. It’s an exercise in entertaining your brain. So feel free to get creative. Obviously. But the rule is you have to take into account the situation at hand. You can’t contradict any of the details of the scene. The bowling ball bag might have a human head in it, but it can’t be filled with gold bars. It’d be too heavy.

Another fun game to play is the “how can this be true” game. This works best when you notice a plot hole in a movie or TV show or a contradiction in something someone said. Or when you notice a problem in a story you’re writing. You assume everything that you have seen, heard, or whatever is true and there IS an explanation for the contradiction. You have to imagine what it could be. Sure, Superman didn’t use his super speed to stop both missiles but he did use his super speed to reverse the Earth’s rotation. Why? How could that be true? Obviously, Superman didn’t know where both missiles were. It wasn’t a matter of him being fast enough to intercept them, he couldn’t search for them fast enough to find both. Or something. I don’t know. Just an example.

That second one is particularly fun because people think spotting plot holes makes them so smart, but it doesn’t. Any idiot can find contradictions. They are easy to spot. We’re hard wired to spot contradictions and a movie is struggling to distract us from the impossible from minute one. The hard thing is to find ways to make the contradictions not contradictions anymore.

Honestly, anything can be a creativity exercise. All you have to do is ask yourself questions that don’t have answers and then answer them. The trick is finding questions to answer.

If you’re serious about building creativity, you’ve got to do exercises like those all the time. Whenever the opportunity arises. It seems like a pain in the a$&, but so is spending five days out of every seven on strength training.

Now, some people will tell you it’s important to expose yourself to new ideas, to play games and watch movies and so on. And some of that is important. But that, alone, doesn’t do much for you. It’s tangential. Kind of like the way maintaining a good diet is helpful when you’re exercising, but it isn’t going to get you far by itself. A steady diet of creative things helps, but it won’t get you far without actively working on things.

More important is resting your creativity. Every athlete will tell you the importance of not working out every day. Your body needs time to rest and rebuild itself. Exercise is actually about breaking bits of your body down so they can come back stronger. Now, I’m not a brain scientist and I’m making all of this s$&% up based on my own personal experiences, but I can say categorically that this is one hundred percent true of your brain too. Exercising your brain breaks your neurotransmitters or synapses or something and then they have to grow back stronger. Shut up. It’s true. I can’t prove it, but I know it.

Anyway, it’s important to spend some time with your brain turned off. You need to seek out some mental abnegation. Find a mindless hobby you can engage in, something that sort of puts you in a trance. And do that every so often to help your brain recharge. I have a tendency to defer to old video games I know really well, like the Mega Man games, when I want to let my brain rest.

So, creativity exercises whenever you have free time. A diet of creative things you like. A hobby that shuts your brain down to let it rest. On top of those things, you actually have to do creative things. For example, maybe start a blog where you have to crank out a certain amount of content every f$&%ing week. That’ll keep you creative. Or run a game wherein you write your own adventures and make custom monsters. That’ll keep those creativity muscles limber.

Now, let’s talk about the things to avoid. Because creativity is a lifestyle. If you want to be creative, you’ve got to learn to avoid things that set you back.

First of all, self-censorship and self-judgment are extremely dangerous. The first ideas that come out of your head are usually pretty stupid. That’s because our first ideas tend to come from primitive parts of our brain that is good at cranking out snap judgments but not so good at analysis. But that’s fine. Remember, contradictions and plot holes can be fixed later. But if you never get anything on paper (or whatever), there’s nothing to fix. So learn to let whatever is in your head out and treat every idea as potentially valuable.

Second of all, that same censorship and judgement also keeps seeds of good ideas from getting into your head from outside. No matter how silly, stupid, or obviously wrong it is, treat it as valid and ask “well, what if it’s true.”

You might notice that there’s been a pattern in some of my GM Words of the Week. And that pattern has to do with pointing out that the scientific and the rational has limited use in gaming. I’ve written several Words of the Week that culminated with the idea that it’s okay to believe in magic and wonderful things and to stop falling back on science. Why? Because if you spend a lot of time among geeks online, you have a steady diet of ultra-rationalism. Geeks are amazing at rejecting ideas, at refusing to see any value in wonder, and at rejecting out of hand anything that seems nonsensical. And that crap is a mind-killer. Especially a creative mind-killer. Understanding is the opposite of creativity. THAT is why geeks are amazing at seeing problems but rarely good at usefully solving them.

It’s an accepted pattern that, as we age, we lose our creativity. Kids are infinitely more creative than most adults. But I don’t believe that’s really a matter of our brain aging. Why? Because I don’t. I think it’s because we stop exercising our creativity because we undervalue it as compared to analysis. But the fact of the matter is analysis only helps us see the world as it is. Creativity is necessary to see a world that doesn’t exist yet. And that involves accepting impossible things until we can figure out how to make them possible. After all, creativity is really just training your brain to treat the impossible as just as valuable as the real.

Anyway, the point is, learn how to be okay with being wrong. Learn not to care about being right. It’ll seriously help you be more creative if you learn to walk away from arguments and debates without having to win or get the last word in. It helps you get rid of the filters that block creative impossibilities.

But all of this is probably just bulls$&%. Honestly, I’ve done no studies on this crap and I don’t have much to back it up other than “well, it all works for me.” But, since you’re basically asking “how can I get my brain to work more like yours, creatively,” that’s as good an answer as any. I’m sure someone is going to argue with what I say. I just don’t care.

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7 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Creativity Workout

  1. Also remember, just because someone has done it before, doesn’t mean you can’t do it again. There’s nothing new under the sun, every idea has been had by someone, somewhere before, and even if you’re recycling something, that is fine, so long as your audience will enjoy your take on it.

    When I create, my brain mashes up a hundred different things I’ve read, watched, heard, and comes out with something that I know isn’t new, but is a good starting point.

    If the Empire is trying to blow up the planet with it’s battle station, I just make sure that the battle station has really well defended exhaust ports, but they allow anyone in to fix the bathroom plumbing, because it keeps getting backed up. High fibre diets are the bane of closed systems, yaknow.

    At least, that’s how I do it 🙂

  2. Great article. I think one of the reasons that kids are more creative than adults is that they haven’t yet fully developed self-censorship or self-criticism. They just go with whatever comes out of their reptile brains without questioning it like an adult would.

    There’s a product called Story Dice that can be used as quite a fun creativity exercise. If you haven’t seen them, they’re a set of about nine d6 and they have a little pictogram on each face. You chuck the dice then try and come up with a story connecting all the little pictures. They do various themed sets as well as more generic ones.

    I find the tables in the 5e DMG can be another good source of creativity exercises. They can be used to give you the basic building blocks of an adventure (location, goal, villain, allies etc) and then you can start to ask yourself questions about how those elements fit together.

    • I have used Story Dice before, and there is a brand out there that works really well called Rory’s Story Cubes. It even has expansions so you can mix and match dice.

  3. I agree with pretty much everything here. I want to drop in a few extra things that I find helpful. Admittedly, most of this is helpful if you’ve got some existing strength. Think of it as advice for going from the amateurs to the pros?

    1) Schedule time to be creative and make a space for it. Like Angry I sometimes have trouble sleeping so I do a lot of my creative thinking in bed with my eyes closed. So much so that, if I lay down and close my eyes I almost always fall into a creative thinking pattern. Do not underestimate the power of training your brain to associate places and things with being creative.

    2)Write shit down. There are two ways writing things down, the write everything method and the write the important crap method. The first gets a lot of coverage, but I find it over rated. I do very little of my brainstorming on paper, that’s just not my thing. I only write down the things I’ve decided on. I do it to clear space in my brain. I find I reach a level of complexity at which I just don’t have the mental energy to juggle all the existing details AND come up with new stuff. Clean house. Put the things you don’t need right now on paper, it helps move them from your short term memory to your long term memory.

    3) Get lots of sleep. This is like Angry’s ‘nutritional’ advice. By itself it doesn’t make you more creative…. but your brain will function WAY better if you give it enough sleep. For extra mileage tell yourself to remember your dreams as you are falling asleep. It works.

    4) Think of one more idea, and then one more idea after that. Make yourself do it. The first idea is easy, so is the second. The third is a bit tricky, the fourth is hard, and the fifth will probably be downright wacky. Those last few are where you are really pushing yourself. It’s like doing the extra repetitions at the gym.

    5) If you use a randomizer, use the first thing that comes up. I sometimes find myself not liking the first result. So, I roll again, and I don’t like that one either. And again, and again. That’s asking the randomizer to spit out a fully formed idea that you don’t have to work at: this neither particularly helpful nor creative. Make the first thing work. A randomizer is about narrowing your choices… putting a Rorschach blob in front of you instead of the blank page. Do it too many times and you end up with ink blobs all laid over each other making the page all black, which is exactly as useful as a solid white page.

    An aside: A lot is made of Rory’s story cubes. Some people love them, I don’t. They don’t work for me. I think the problem is that they don’t feel evocative enough, they are broad and iconic. I need something more visually stimulating with specific details I can extrapolate from. I use tarot decks. They are full of interesting scenes, characters, and symbolic details. I’d recommend the classic Rider-Waite, but they come in all sorts of art styles, so you can pick one that matches the story you are trying to tell.

  4. This might be the first time I fundamentally disagree with Angry (but it not be, either). I’m no expert, but I do read a lot about critical thinking and creativity in the context of education (much of which is nonsense, but some of which is excellent). While much of what is said in this article might be sound practical advice, there is one thing that is often overlooked in discussions about creativity: subject expertise. What I mean to say is that even though we often speak about people who are “creative” and people who are not, this gives the false impression that there is some measure of “creativity” that is generally applicable to all topics.

    The thing is: creativity is not generally applicable. While one person might be very creative at interior design solutions and building novel RPG adventures, he/she might be completely at a loss if asked to come up with a creative dance or creative logistical solution. So our creativity is limited by our experience/expertise in a topic or subject area. The lesson is that if you want to become more creative within a particular context, you need to study (or accumulate experience within) that context more, thereby increasing your expertise in the context. Expertise provides the baseline from which creativity is expressed, but obviously expertise alone doesn’t make one creative. Creativity is an attitude (or approach or motivation) to utilize one’s expertise in novel ways. So at the end of the day, if you want to create a story about medieval England, the best way to improve your ability in this regard is to study medieval England.

    The strongest argument for my case is the real life example of crises that demand expert solutions. When Apollo 13 was stranded in space and the astronauts were faced with their impending deaths… who did we call? Not a bunch of generally creative people. We called experienced astronauts and scientists, and asked them to “get creative” about the problem – in other words, to find a new way to apply their expertise.

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