An Idea is Born: Writing and the Creative Process

An Idea is Born (2)Last week I attended a really cool event: I saw Stephen King interview Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher novels, at Sanders Theater at Harvard University. It was easily the best class I’ve ever attended in that lecture hall, with apologies to my Confucian Humanism professor. The conversation between King and Child was intended to promote the newest Reacher book, Make Me, but ended up covering topics from casting movies based on novels, to understanding cultures where novels are set, to the creative process.

The creative process discussion was actually kicked off during the Q&A. One audience member asked an interesting question. Roughly paraphrased, he asked: “There are models of creativity that say there are periods of dormancy, where you are just absorbing information from the world, and then periods of generativity, where you are coming up with ideas. Is this true for how you work?”

Now, this is a pretty common way to conceptualize creativity, and it does make sense. One such model, with periods of incubation and illumination, has been developed by Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania (whew). This model of creativity also jibes with some of the known neurological benefits of sleep around cognitive consolidation.

Lee Child’s answer to the question was a little surprising; he said that no, his creative process does not have these periods of dormancy and generativity. Rather, he feels that ideas are easy to come by. The trick, according to Child, is judging which ideas have the merit to expand upon in writing, and which will have the longevity to remain relevant and interesting to an audience by the time they finally emerge in a published work.

Lee Child (left) and Stephen King (right) as seen from the nosebleed seats.
Lee Child (left) and Stephen King (right) as seen from the nosebleed seats.

I’m not sure what I think about this answer. There’s something there for certain: Ideas that seem interesting in the moment may not remain interesting over time. Ideas sometimes also lose their luster when you start to develop them. I’m sure that one of the talents that distinguishes a successful and prolific author from a wannabe is an ability to tell the difference between the enduringly good ideas and the fleeting fancies. However, I do think that there are times when ideas come fast and furious, and times when those ideas need to sit and grow.

What do you think? Does your creative process have ebbs and flows, or is it more about sifting through a rich bed of ideas?

Update: The full interview is now available to watch online courtesy of WGBH’s Forum Network, a joint venture of WGBH and the Lowell Institute.