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.
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 the wastewater.
They're not worrying 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.
Addendum: 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. Finally, here's Neil Gaiman's reaction to this post.
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