Big Smile, No Teeth: First, 'kill all your darlings'


Don't latch on to the first few ideas that emerge from that brainstorming session! Research shows that your brain throws up better ideas later in the thinking process. - 123rf.com

Do you think your first ideas are the best ones? Then maybe we should talk about the Creative Cliff Illusion.

The Creative Cliff Illusion is the concept that our creativity on any given topic declines over time. Using the example of a brainstorming session, the Creative Cliff Illusion would mean our best ideas are thrown out early on and we dry up over time. Basically, we fall off the creative cliff. We fall off the idea cliff into the valley of no ideas, which as a simile probably needed more time to work on, but I’m throwing it out there anyway.

But this idea that we lose our creativity as time goes on is incorrect.

New work by Asst Prof Brian Lucas at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in New York has found that the best ideas come to those who are patient. His concept is that when you first start on a topic, the ideas come fast and furious – a deluge of creativity if you will – but soon after that, further ideas may come slower but they are the ideas that may be more valuable.

As a writer, not just of this column but also scripts and fiction, I can attest to this.

Often your best work is done when you’re not thinking directly about a project. Many times, I’ve been stuck on a plotline only to wake up with some new perspective and the solution presents itself. It’s almost as if when you take your conscious mind off a problem, your unconscious mind is still working at the task and comes up with a more elegant answer to the problem you were trying to solve.

Indeed, Lucas’ work also goes against the concept that your first idea is usually you best. As I’ve noticed, my first idea is usually the most clichéd. It’s the easiest for your mind to grasp. And it’s only natural that you gravitate toward what you know or what you’ve seen before.

Sometimes, especially with creative writing, it’s great to embrace these clichés as a starting point, and then let your unconscious mind go to work and put a twist on the cliché to make it fresh. Sometimes it’s not about re-inventing the wheel, it’s about giving people a wheel they haven’t seen before.

Which brings me to another tenet of writing that can apply anywhere. Murder your darlings. Yes, murder them dead. It may sound harsh but you’re better off doing this. In writing, this usually means a passage or line you’ve written that you’ve fallen in love with because you think you’re being especially clever, or that it’s got a certain poetic twang you’ll never recapture.

Outside of writing, murder your darlings may mean getting rid of ideas you’ve become attached to. Usually this might be one of your first ideas that you thought was brilliant. But often your self-proclaimed brilliant first idea might be holding you back as you try to fit every solution into that framework. Building a new purpose into a framework designed for a different purpose means you are building a framework with no purpose.

Don’t be afraid to scrap your first ideas.

Especially since Lucas’s studies have found that truly novel ideas don’t come right away. The fountain of ideas at the start of any creative process is the easy part. Surviving the frustration of the trickle of ideas that come after that promising start is what will eventually lead to more originality.

Lucas noted that most lay people feel that innovation should come easily and feel fun. And this is much like a quote I love, “Inspiration is for amateurs”. Everyone is happy to create during the deluge of initial ideas that pop up at the start of any endeavour. Everyone is happy to create when they’re inspired. But it’s whether you can keep going when you get frustrated, if you can keep putting in the time when things get harder, that’s what separates the amateurs from the pros.

And with Lucas’s study showing that great ideas actually come later in the creative process, there’s affirmation that putting in the time will eventually be worth it.


Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at lifestyle@thestar.com.my and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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