The Mechanics of Creative Writing

What is writer’s block? An inability to find something to write about? Or is it really a proverbial wall that your creative faculties hit occasionally? I can confidently say that it’s definitely something that has happened to me more than once. That feeling when you know you want to keep going, but you’re telling yourself that what you’re creating could improve… by a lot.

I hypothesize that there are two different extremes in the spectrum of writing. On one end is the writing that is curation. This includes the forms of writing where the author, in the interest of their reader, rebottles information he has acquired knowledge of- through any possible resource in their life. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the writing that is idea creation or genuine idea discovery that the author might have made.

Drawing
The creativity spectrum

Creation (or discovery) of Ideas

Is it truly possible to generate ideas that are self-sufficient and grounded entirely in our minds? This is evidently a very absurd assumption to make. How could it be really possible for ideas to even exist in our minds without the influence of external stimuli? Theoretically, would it be possible for a human baby, that has lived in a black room for its entire growth, without any form of stimulation, to contemplate its existence or even have any idea of what it meant to be an ‘ego’? I think the answer is far more complicated than what our intuition would tell us.

Plato addresses this problem in his Dialogues where Socrates is having a conversation with his chum, Meno. Socrates demonstrates to Meno that any form of knowledge is known by man through the process of ‘recollection’. He draws an example where he helps Meno’s servant find out the length of the side of a square that has twice the area of a 2×2 square. The claim, at its core, states that humans already have all the knowledge there is to be known, within them.

When I write a blog post, I do so being consciously aware of which part of the spectrum I’m working in. The Turing Test post would lean mostly towards the left end of the spectrum. The closest I’ve come to the right extreme (although not as close as I would want it), is the Wait, why do nations even exist? post. It is an immensely demanding task to genuinely create ideas that are ground-breaking or truly novel… almost impossible.

Of course, it makes perfect sense to curate material that is already available. It serves the purpose of information centralization and encapsulation. Blog posts that tell you how travel in a particular country are very helpful and informative. Blog posts that talk about the author’s life, provides us with a weird sense of satisfaction (only if they’re famous). Long essays about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar help us appreciate the movie better and tell us whether it’s worth watching. However, they are grounded in material reality… in the world of things. The world of ideas, however, exist merely in our minds as abstract concepts that are deduced through reasoning.

Is it really novel?

Like most answers, the answer to this question is that “it depends”. Specifically, it depends on what your definition of novel really is. If you’re really rigorous then, no, probably all ideas are not novel. If you do allow for some elementary common-sense assumptions (called axioms in math), then yes, there are things that could be novel.

The concept of axioms is pretty interesting. Mathematically a proof could be broken down as a set of implications that lead to a certain result starting with some axioms (assumptions). Similarly, ideas fundamentally are just results of deductions made via implications from combinations of accepted truths. For someone to accept an idea, it makes sense only if he/she agrees with the axioms and the implications made from combining axioms.

This is an extremely helpful approach to have when writing about your idea. It also makes you far more confident about what you’re writing when you know that there are no ‘leaks’ in the statements that you’re making. I admit, I’m not usually very rigorous in my use of this methodology. But theoretically, in a situation when I’m explaining a socially controversial topic, it is far more important to make my argument ‘mathematical’ or ‘proofey’ since it’s likely that I’m treading in very dangerous territory.

When to Write?

My theory is that a truly novel blogger, would blog only when he feels that he has an idea that’s worth putting on a canvas and proudly showcasing it to the world. Without a novel idea, I could keep going on about topics like religion or politics. But as Paul Graham so wonderfully points out , it’s extremely easy to write about things that the world acknowledges as opinion-driven. You do not need to have any level of expertise or logic to back your arguments. It is really easy to make an entire series of blog posts about the demerits of religion or why Trump is stupid. There are several reasons that I choose not to do so.

  • There’s probably nothing I could say that hasn’t been said already.
  • Fanatically religious people (or Trump supporters) are not going to jump the fence even if they’re given logical arguments. In fact, most of them are likely to be irrationally argumentative and defensive (and almost by definition; delusional).
  • I wouldn’t feel satisfied repeating things that have already been said.

I’m myself a culprit of writing pointless blog posts where I talk about “updates” or “what’s going on with my life”. I’m definitely not proud of them nor do I feel good when I hit ‘Publish’. However, I do understand that some of those are needed from time to time to humanize the author. If it weren’t for them, I might as well be a contemplative AI. They also serve the purpose of informing the few people back home that want to know “what I’m up to these days.”

What to Write?

That’s a hard one. There are so many things I could possibly write about. I could elucidate little things that suddenly appear in my mind everyday. The problem lies in whether I have the expertise or credibility to write about X. If I wanted to write about start-ups, I know that what I have to say possibly has little to zero value. I also am not acquainted enough with any of them to know little details that are important factors in idea/hypothesis generation. I could go on and on about how I don’t appreciate the start-up culture and how it’s creating the next financial bubble in Silicon Valley. But I do not trust myself to have a truly informed opinion about start-ups. I haven’t been a part of a start-up, I don’t have any close friends who are involved with start-ups, heck, I don’t even know whether I should be grouping all of these companies together when they do so many different things. Another way of looking at this is by looking at it as a function. As we know there are numerous parameters to a function. If I’m writing about start-ups there are entire parameters that I could possibly be missing due to my lack of experience.

It would be extremely easy to make my blog an online diary. This again is very close to the left end of the spectrum, as I’m simply relaying real experiences that I’ve had during the day/week/month. I’m not engaging in the process of creation by doing so. Aside from this, there is also the issue of privacy.

Writing with all of this consciously in mind is necessary to produce quality work that genuinely sparks a real idea in a reader’s mind. Personally, essays that dare to challenge the status quo, spark an idea in a reader’s mind, or make them go “Wow! I’ve thought of that before! X has finally said it.” are the ones that interest me the most. Two writers who fit this description are:

I cannot recommend these two blogs enough. I urge whoever is reading this blog to take a look at them to get an idea of what creative writing really is.

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