Lessons on Creativity for Adults

One evening when I was 15, I decided I wanted to write a story. I'd written a bunch of stories already, plus some poems, plus the first 100 or so pages of a novel, plus some comic strips, plus I'd designed the crypts and ruins for the Dungeons & Dragons games I'd been running for a couple years -- so I was a 15-year-old who was used to making stuff. That's what I did. It seemed there was a switch I could flip from which the things I wanted to make would flow.

So I began pacing around my house, trying to come up with an idea for a story I could tell. I didn't have one already, you see. No matter. First you don't have an idea, and then you do. That's how creativity works. Except on this evening, that was not how it worked. The ideas I came up with felt artificial. I'd never experienced this before. The ideas looked like stories in my mind, but they had no weight or substance. Real story ideas have a way of moving on their own. These ideas were like puppets, dead on the floor unless I pulled their strings. The more ideas I tried to come up with, the more artificial they felt. It was as if I were going around my house flipping every light switch after the power had gone out.

I soon gave up trying to think of a story and listened to some music instead. Yet that experience continued to trouble me for many years afterward. Why didn't the switch work? Why did it work some nights, but not this one? Little did I know, that was my first encounter with a challenge faced by most professional writers -- that is, people who write stories, not when the mood strikes them, but more or less every day. If I was going to be a professional writer, which I very much wanted to be, that switch needed to be as dependable as the electricity flowing through my house.

The big difference between powerless houses and writers without live story ideas is that houses do not fix themselves. If the power is out, then somehow, somewhere, someone needs to turn it on again. For the writer, there is absolutely nothing to fix. The relationship between people and compelling, inspired, interesting, exciting ideas is a connection that can't be severed. If I ask a question to which I sincerely want an answer, then one will always come. I did not have one such question that night. I was trying, you might say, to manufacture a story on my own, like an adult would. Adults had all the answers -- or so they claimed. So I would write a story like an adult.

I would like to tell you that I never made that mistake again, but I did. Many times, in fact. Fortunately, as I said, the connection cannot be severed. It cannot wither or atrophy. It will answer any question, no matter how much time has elapsed since asking. I still have to remind myself, as a 50-year-old man, that it is not my job to have answers, only questions. The answers I've already received may have a certain comfort to them, but they are not as alive as a question I am asking now. For instance, 35 years ago I asked why my creative switch didn't work, and I've been writing down the answers ever since.

You can learn more about William at williamkenower.com.