One of the most valuable writing skills is the ability to generate novel ideas.
Last year, I stumbled into a mental model to achieve this at will.
I was watching a documentary on songwriter Ed Sheeran. In it, he described his songwriting process. It struck me as identical to the process that author Neil Gaiman detailed in his Masterclass.
Here's the thing.
Ed Sheeran and Neil Gaiman are in the top 0.000001% of their fields. They're among, say, 25 people in the world who repeatedly generate blockbusters.
If two world-class creators share the exact same creative process, I get curious.
I call their approach the Creativity Faucet:
Visualize your creativity as a backed-up pipe of water. The first mile is packed with wastewater. This wastewater must be emptied before the clear water arrives.
Because your pipe has only one faucet, there's no shortcut to achieving clarity other than first emptying the wastewater.
Let's apply this to creativity: At the beginning of a writing session, write out every bad idea that unavoidably comes to mind. Instead of being self-critical and resisting them, recognize bad ideas as progress. Bad ideas are usually the clichés your brain has been overexposed to.
Once the bad ideas are emptied, strong ideas begin to arrive.
Here's my guess as to why: Once you've generated enough bad output, your mind reflexively identifies which elements caused the badness. Then it becomes good at avoiding them. You start pattern-matching interesting ideas with greater intuition.
It's easier to look at something bad then intuit how to make it better than to make something good out of thin air. The human brain isn't wired for spontaneous ingenuity, but it is wired for detecting what's wrong with the world. Is the song too high-pitched? Lower the pitch. Does the story have too many characters? Remove some.
Sadly, most creators resist their bad ideas and never reach the clear water. If you've opened a blank document, scribbled a few thoughts, then walked away because you weren't struck with gold, then you too never got past it.
Neil and Ed know they're not superhuman. In every creative session, they simply have the discipline to allot time for emptying wastewater so that their brain can start contrasting. Further, they know to constrain their initial scope—because the brain freezes when facing too large of a canvas. It doesn’t know which path to go down, and it worries each is wrong. So, instead of writing a movie, write a spy movie. Instead of writing a song, write a love song. Expand from there once the first iteration works.
Ultimately, Neil and Ed don't worry whether clear water will arrive. It always does:
Mozart had 600 musical compositions and Edison had 1093 patents. Only a few are remembered today, and that's the point. Embrace the badness.
See it for yourself: Here's an interview where Ed talks about this mental model. And here's a video of John Mayer showing off the Creativity Faucet in real-time. Here’s Billie Eilish describing how she narrows her creative scope, and John Mayer discusses the same thing here. Finally, here's Neil Gaiman's reaction to this post.
This year, I got tired of overlong books and bad book summaries. So I made a newsletter that just shares the most interesting highlights from famous books. I distill each book's key lessons into short paragraphs. 50,000 people read it. Subscribe to see the first issue.
Check your inbox and respond to the email with "Yes." If you don't get an email, tell me on Twitter: @Julian