Friday, October 16, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Interesting

If I'm to believe the people I chat with on Twitter, I'm not wired up the same way as other people are. Now, by that I don't mean that I have unnatural urges to maim ducks or stalk choristers or even join a smiley death cult; what I mean is that my twitterchums find it odd that I sometimes find myself pondering unbidden questions that, frankly, just don't matter to anyone but me.

For instance, earlier this week, I found myself publicly opining about Fruit Corner-style yoghurts. Are you familiar with them? The pots have two compartments - one filled with a fruit compote of sorts (or chocolate coated flakes, balls etc.) and a second larger compartment of plain yoghurt. The idea is that you spoon or tip the complimentary flavouring into the yoghurt and stir it through.

I was eating one of these tasty snacks when it suddenly struck me ... why was I doing the manufacturers' work for them? If the point of a Fruit Corner is to mix the two together, then why not mix them at the factory? Why am I being asked to do it? And am I paying extra for the privilege? Surely there must be a cost implication in producing two separate components rather than one single flavoured yoghurt? So I posted this thought on Twitter and was mildly surprised to read that a couple of other people had had the same thought ... but then hugely surprised by the number of replies saying things like 'How do you think of these things?'

How do you think of these things?

It's a very similar question to 'Where do you get your ideas from?' - the question that makes all creative people go wobbly and liverish. It's been asked a gazillion times by uninventive interviewers ... and yet it's almost impossible to answer. Pop it into Google and there are over 200 million pages returned. Most are author or artist sites where the subject has attempted to answer the question. Neil Gaiman, for instance, replies:

'Every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors, for example, are always being asked for free medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting a profession that must be and then people change the subject fast. And writers are asked where we get our ideas from.

In the beginning, I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: 'From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,' I'd say, or 'From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,' or 'From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement'. It seemed to make sense at the time. Then I got tired of the not very funny answers, and these days I tell people the truth: 'I make them up,' I tell them. 'Out of my head.' People don't like this answer. I don't know why not. They look unhappy, as if I'm trying to slip a fast one past them. As if there's a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I'm not telling them how it's done. And of course I'm not.'

Neil's hit the nail on the head there. Or, rather, he's identified that it is the head that needs nailing. We don't 'get' ideas from anywhere. What goes on in our heads is the culmination of genetics inherited from our long line of progenitors blended with the sum of our life experiences. Separate two identical twins at birth and give them lives entirely independent of each other and they will undoubtedly share some similarities of character and appearance. But they will also be very different people in many ways. And it is this combination of factors that makes one person predominently analytical or emotional or tactical or practical or creative or whatever. Both of my parents were creative, my father particularly, and among my late grandparents and great-grandparents there were poets, master masons, tailors, musicians, painters and inventors. So it stands to reason that I would be fairly creative. And, sure enough, my brothers are too. One is a talented photographer and the other can make beautiful wooden furniture from scratch. So where do I get my ideas? From my head. From my particular combination of genetics and life experience. I'm naturally predisposed to invent stuff. That's just the way it is.

However, the act of invention isn't always spontaneous. Sometimes it's sparked by an event, an 'inspiration'. I once wrote an entire short story with a strong ecological message simply because I'd seen a lone glove sitting on a wall. It set a train of thought chuffing along in which I remembered all the other odd items I'd ever seen lying in roads or on walls or railings. Eventually I constructed a story about an overcrowded, over-polluted future society where the discovery of time travel allows the government to deal with its waste disposal problem by dumping trash back through time ... with the inevitable consequences when an unsuitable item arrives in the incorrect era. A lonely faux-leather glove on a wall was 'where I got the idea from'. But it was my head that created the story around it. Like Neil Gaiman, I'm not sure how I can explain this process to people without them seeing it as a cop-out.

Some will claim that you can learn to stoke the fires of invention and creativity with thought exercises and creativity tools. There may be some truth in that - it's hard for me to evaluate as I've always found such courses to be flawed and of little value - but it cannot do any harm to flex your mental muscles by asking a few 'What if ...?' questions now and again. I can heartily recommend books like Julian Baggini's The pig that wants to be eaten (and 99 other thought experiments) as a way of provoking new thoughts and ideas. And there are games you can play with yourself to rustle up new insights too. One such is called Good, Bad, Interesting and was first introduced to me by a chap called Colin Nesbitt. You take a simple idea such as 'What if humans suddenly evolved an extra pair of eyes on the backs of their heads?' and then describe three good things that would result, three bad things and three interesting things. Things like:

Good - Can see muggers creeping up on you. You wouldn't need wing mirrors on cars. Or hats. No more surprises (or is that a bad thing?).

Bad - What position would you sleep in (And would you get tired more quickly)? You would see your own arse ... and what it does (but you would know whether your bum looks big in certain clothes). What would furniture look like?

Interesting - What would hairstyles look like? Would you need individual prescriptions and possibly spectacles for each eye? Would cinemas be 'in the round' and could you read two books simultaneously? What would sex be like?!

It just fascinates me that a simple statement like that can throw up so many ideas. So maybe the next time you're struggling to come up with an idea you could try something similar. After watching Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine tracking sea turtles as they laid their eggs on Last Chance to See last week I wondered ...

'What would be different about our society if humans laid eggs?'

So, what do you think? What would be good? Bad? Interesting?

I'm looking forward to reading your ideas.

Then you must tell me how you think of these things.


Piers said...

But surely the whole point of the Fruit Corner is that you don't stir them together, but rather take a dip into each corner individually?

Sometimes you may even wish to fill your teaspoon half-and-half for the mix of flavours.

But mixing them together?

That's weird.

Piers said...

Please replace the first occurrence of the word "mix" in the comment above with the phrase "subtle juxtaposition".

This may be done either in your head, or by using a permanent marker on your monitor.

Thank you.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thank you Mr B for that, as ever, utterly reasonable view.