75 Chris Miller

04 May

Creativity and Risk

{Note: This essay was originally posted on Chris Miller’s site. I thought it was so wonderful that I asked begged Chris for permission to share it with you here. Please spend a little time perusing his site; he has wonderful thoughts and well written words. ~Sue}


I spent part of my lunch hour today re-reading Neal Stephenson’s “Inno­va­tion Star­va­tion.” Two things struck me that related directly to com­mon cre­ative problems:

  1. We are to quick to dis­miss things that have, in some way, been “done before.”.
  2. We fear tak­ing chances on our own ideas.

The first prob­lem, Been Done Before, is the most com­mon stop­ping point for novice cre­ators. This applies to a num­ber of fields, art, writ­ing, pro­gram­ming, busi­ness.  In Stephenson’s words:

Most peo­ple who work in cor­po­ra­tions or acad­e­mia have wit­nessed some­thing like the fol­low­ing: A num­ber of engi­neers are sit­ting together in a room, bounc­ing ideas off each other. Out of the dis­cus­sion emerges a new con­cept that seems promis­ing. Then some laptop-wielding per­son in the cor­ner, hav­ing per­formed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it suc­ceeded. If it failed, then no man­ager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spend­ing money try­ing to revive it. If it suc­ceeded, then it’s patented and entry to the mar­ket is pre­sumed to be unat­tain­able, since the first peo­ple who thought of it will have “first-mover advan­tage” and will have cre­ated “bar­ri­ers to entry.” The num­ber of seem­ingly promis­ing ideas that have been crushed in this way must num­ber in the millions.

What if that per­son in the cor­ner hadn’t been able to do a Google search? It might have required weeks of library research to uncover evi­dence that the idea wasn’t entirely new—and after a long and toil­some slog through many books, track­ing down many ref­er­ences, some rel­e­vant, some not. When the prece­dent was finally unearthed, it might not have seemed like such a direct prece­dent after all. There might be rea­sons why it would be worth tak­ing a sec­ond crack at the idea, per­haps hybridiz­ing it with inno­va­tions from other fields.

Let’s take writ­ing for an exam­ple. There is a great deal of reluc­tance to taken an idea that you feel was poorly exe­cuted upon and use it for the base con­cept of a new work. While an author could not cre­ate a slav­ish imi­ta­tion of the poor work, they cer­tainly could take the base idea, infuse it fresh cre­ativ­ity and new ideas, and then release the new work to the world. Note, though, the the reluc­tance is usual only in the case of the novice cre­ative. Pro­fes­sion­als know that there is noth­ing new under the sun: depend­ing on who you believe, there is only one plot, or seven plots, or thirty-six plots in the whole world. Freytag’s pyra­mid is a basic con­stant of the field. The trick is in mak­ing the old idea bet­ter than it was before. That’s where the skill of the sto­ry­teller and the will to risk putting some­thing new into the world comes to play.

For exam­ple, there is a comic book series called Last Blood. In it, a vam­pire pro­tects some humans dur­ing the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse.  My per­sonal opin­ion is that it wasn’t very well exe­cuted, there were major weak­nesses con­sid­er­ing the moti­va­tions and actions of the char­ac­ters. The idea, how­ever, was fascinating.

Along comes Chuck Wendig. He may or may not have known about the comic…I have never asked him. He releases a book called Dou­ble Dead. In it, a vam­pire pro­tects some humans dur­ing the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse. How­ever, Wendig brings to bear some crazy-yet-fascinating char­ac­ters and ideas that make his book into some­thing special.

Adding the crazy makes the story. That’s the risk. (See that smooth tran­si­tion to my sec­ond point?)

Look at some of these ideas. When con­densed, they sound a lit­tle suspect:

  1. A midget has to take a ring to a vol­cano to kill a dark god.
  2. A wiz­ard lives in in a mod­ern city and has a talk­ing skull as a com­pan­ion. They solve crimes together.
  3. An alien comes to earth, is imper­vi­ous, dresses in dance tights, and peo­ple take him seriously.
  4. A dam­aged kid who saw his par­ents shot dresses as a bat and takes the law into his own hands.

Sure, you can iden­tify those, and they might even sound good given that you know that they work,. However…would you try to take the sub­ject on in a new form?  Would you be will­ing to try to take the same ori­gin story of Super­man or Bat­man and put your own spin on it, while not call­ing them by name? Why not?  Peo­ple have been doing it for years. (If you think that The Man of Steel is all orig­i­nal, go look at The Man of Bronze.)

My point is this: every­thing new is based on some­thing old with an infu­sion of a lit­tle crazy juice. It takes courage to see the sim­i­lar­ity with some­thing that’s Been Done Before and then put a new spin on it. Do not let that stop you.CREATIVITY IS RISK. Embrace it, and do mag­nif­i­cent things.

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Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Creativity Guest Posts


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