The Writer’s Toolbox: creativity engines

by Kate Paulk


This time around I’m going to look at maintaining the metaphorical engines that allow writers to write – and particularly, provide fiction and especially science fiction and fantasy writers, with all the material we could possibly need to spin a tale.

That’s going to take me into a certain level of neurobiology, which I’ll try to keep from sounding hokey without going into great depths. Aside from it taking too long to delve into the subject, Speaker’s already done most of the work better than I could anyway.

Basically, we – as in, all humans – inherited from our assorted mammalian ancestors (who got it from their reptilian and their amphibian and quite possibly more distant than that ancestors) a damn powerful pattern recognition engine. It’s ridiculously powerful – and flawed. Flawed because there’s no real penalty for false positives (seeing a pattern where there isn’t one), and powerful because ther penalty for not seeing a pattern where there was one was usually becoming the next meal of the cause of said pattern. (Short version – if you didn’t back off from that suspicious rustle in the grass, the lion ate you. If you did, you took a detour, and lived to have babies).

We also got along with the pattern recognition a remote agent detector – that is, the ability to figure out what’s making the pattern. Of course, that’s got the same kind of power and flaws as the pattern recognition engine. This is why there are so many conspiracy theories.

It also gives probably the best explanation for why creativity is so closely linked to mental illness. When the pattern detection engine and agency detectors are ramped all the way up, it gets a lot harder to sort out which ones are really patterns. Those who can either sort them out, or can ‘ride’ the patterns to some kind of conclusion and exert a degree of control over the illusions generated by that combination are the creative types. Those who can’t… well. In my experience most gifted writers are mentally ill, but can manage to more or less pass for normal, at least enough to function in everyday life (quite a few very talented and very skilled writers have this issue, too. And plenty of less skilled ones as well, me among them, so no nastiness about namecalling on that front if you please).

So, as writers we need to look after the pattern engine and the agent engine (no, Onyxhawke, not that kind of agent). We need to keep them running on overdrive, without losing control of the vehicle – namely, us. Personally, I find keeping them on overdrive is easy. In fact, I have to keep reminding myself of the Great Rule of Conspiracy: never attribute to conspiracy anything that can be explained by stupidity, no matter how breathtakingly stupid the people involved would have to be. Also, Hubby’s Golden Rule: People are stupid. Even smart people are stupid. Including me.

Then I remind myself that if you’re looking back at something, it’s easy to see a chain of low probability events leading there. It’s like the lottery – any set of numbers has a ridiculously small chance of being drawn, but each week one set will be drawn. If that set matches the lottery ticket in your hand, of course you’re going to think it was a miracle (Unless your lottery ticket is for next week, in which case you have exactly the same chance of those numbers being drawn as of any other set of numbers).

That’s one side of the balancing act, the one that grounds in reality.

The other side is riding the pattern engine and the agent engine. Okay, so it looks like a conspiracy. What if it actually is? Who’d be behind it? Why? Where would they take it, and would it involve a wei… nevermind. This isn’t a political blog. Besides, I’ve already done that plot line, complete with a universe where all the conspiracy theories are true. All of them. At once. It makes life for the people in charge who are being manipulated by the Freemasons, angels, demons, various religions, remnant and ultra secret combat orders, ninjas, Men (and Squirrels) in Black… All at the same time. So the end result is a kind of messy stalemate. That’s what I mean by riding the pattern engine – following a thought line where it takes you, and seeing if there’s anything interesting in it that you can use in a story.

Sometimes it will generate its own story. Sometimes you’ll end up finding the missing piece in the work you’re writing at the moment. And sometimes, there won’t be quite enough there, so it will go into the toolbox as a cool little extra to slot into the story where it fits – when you find it (I should probably confess that it’s a good thing my toolbox spans multiple abomina… er, dimensions, because otherwise it would be spilling this stuff everywhere, and that wouldn’t be pretty). The pattern and agent engines in the toolbox end up being like Hwel the Dwarf in (I think) Wyrd Sisters, who tried to cram all of it into one piece. The star-crossed lovers, the roller-skating cats, everything… (On one of my re-reads, I sat down and worked out how many different works PTerry referred to in that paragraph. As I recall it was somewhere north of ten, including several Shakespeare plays, at least three Lloyd Webber musicals, and a bunch of other stuff).

Next up – unless I get distracted by something else interesting, shiny, and kind of relevant – character. Or plot. Or possibly both.

19 thoughts on “The Writer’s Toolbox: creativity engines

    1. Hmph. Silly Hawke… I’m saying a literary agent isn’t necessarily the kind of “agent” who’s behind the arcane conspiracies 🙂

  1. To the pattern recognition and search for agency, I’d add the subconcious, free associating and then communicating it to the conscious in dreams. Had a doozy I really doubt I could have come up with wide awake. 6K words in a day and a half, and I had to force myself away from the keyboard to go purchase a few of life’s necessities today, because it wasn’t possible yesterday.

    1. The subconscious is where most of the pattern recognition and agency search happens – usually faster than rational thought can manage. After all, if that rustling in the long grass is a lion, you want to be out of there, pronto – something that continues to serve today, since that’s what most car driving is: recognizing the patterns and agency in the traffic flows and responding to them without conscious thought.

      This is why most people will tell you their car can drive to work without them.

      1. Heck, half the time the car drives me to the grocery store, whether or not that was where I wanted to go.

        But, Cyberpunk meets Alice in Wonderland? Even I don’t deserve this.

      2. If you believe in the concept of memes, rational thought becomes simple rationalisation for decisions your subconscious and the programing you have recieved from various memes that your brain is infected with.

        Perhaps creatives just have wildly divergent memes at war with each other in their brains..

      3. Oh Zhul yes, I have no idea the number of times I’ve zoned out and gotten home from work with no memory of the time between. This’d be a touch less scary if the commutes in question were not 30 or 45 miles long…

      4. Pam, cyberpunk Alice in Wonderland sounds cool. Better than everything including the kitchen sink that routinely finds itself into my stories.

      5. Brendan, you could look at memes as super-patterns or ‘sticky’ patterns – in which case the effect is much the same.

        Another aspect is that people are more likely to find patterns and infer agency when they feel they have less control in a situation – which is kind of the definition of a creative person’s life…

      6. Mike, I know exactly what you mean. Fortunately these days my commute is all of 5 – 10 minutes…

      7. Pam, if you’re into Alice and Cyberpunk, read Automated Alice (Jeff Noon) before going any further. It’s a bit dated now, but ahead of it’s tme when you think about it.

  2. Kate, in my research on creatives I have come across the link between mental illness and creativity.

    They were say the cross connections (making links) fire off at a greater rate in creative types, so that ties in with looking for patterns. It also ties in with the lateral thinking that creatives are prone to do.

    I also believe you don’t have to have a mental illness to be creative. Look at Renoir. He lived to a fine old age and never cut off his ear!

    1. It’s more of a spectrum, actually. Yes, you can be creative without mental illness – but not many people are. Those that are usually are fortunate enough to have some kind of ‘buffer’ to protect them from a society where their differences wouldn’t otherwise be tolerated, or live in a society that doesn’t give a crap about how different you are – at the milder levels, mental illness is to some extent a measure of the mismatch between the person and their environment.

      To put it another way – the tendency towards mental illness will be there, right along with the creativity, but if nothing happens to *trigger* mental illness, the only thing that’s going to show up is the creativity.

      To anyone who’s been that fortunate: you lucky sod. Enjoy it for all it’s worth, because it’s rare.

  3. I think you can also train your brain in pattern recognition. As a geologist I’m always dealing with partial datasets, after all, we don’t know exactly what’s in the ground unless we dig it up, and we can’t dig up everything (can we?).

    So you map a rock outcrop, but what’s underneath? You have to extrapolate from what you can see. You learn to recognise cyclicity on all scales, from micro to mega, and you get really good at bringing a lot of tiny pieces of data scavenged from here and there, to have guess at what’s underneath.

    It’s neat and it keys the brain into continuously looking for periodicity and cyclicity. Never thought about it in terms of writing before though.

    1. Absolutely – and I speak as a trained geologist (also a trained teacher and software engineer. So what do I do for a living? Test software… And I’m *never* going inside a classroom again.)

      All those patterns and cycles can cross domains and get used somewhere else, as story fodder – domain jumping is a writer’s friend.

  4. It doesn’t surprise me that there seems to be a high proportion of geos who feel the need to write SF/F.

    There’s something about the mix of science and creativity…

    1. That’s yet another very strong correlation, actually. From the hordes of computer geeks who immerse themselves in role-playing of one form or another to the top scientists who are also near-professional in one or another of the arts. Einstein used to play second violin in a pro-level quartet.

      If I could find the reference, I’d tell you where I read that just about every scientist who’s won the Nobel prize has also been a damn good musician/artist/writer/something in the arts.

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