Creativity and Groups

When I started writing fiction (via NaNoWriMo ) back in 2006, it was mostly a solitary exercise. I would occasionally post answer to questions on some of the forums, but I wasn’t really interacting with anyone about my own story beyond the occasional question about some fact or other. That all changed after the 2015 Writing Excuses cruise, where I met a lot of other writers who shared a culture shaped by the podcast and the ground rules for participation in the cruise. After that, I had regular contact with a group of people willing and able to help me work through problems or challenges in my writing. And today that leads me to think about how groups can be thought of as creative.

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There’s an archetype floating around about the solitary creator, working alone, possibly starving in a garret. There’s disparagement of “design by committeeI am not naturally good at teamwork: I’m “mildly autistic” (more than mildly, but I’ve learned to (mostly) pass). So why is it that I can feel morecreative when I work with a group?
There is a way that groups can come up with ideas that would not have occurred to any solitary member of the group: brainstorming. The idea of brainstorming, whether alone or in a group, is to get as many different ideas down in recorded form as possible, without evaluating any of them (yet). Most of the ideas around brainstorming boil down to shutting off one’s internal editor, the one that censors ideas before they’ve had time to blossom.
With a group, the key thing is to avoid inhibiting participants. So one essential rule is you don’t criticize ideas and you don’t ignore them. Every idea gets written down. Some groups insist the next speaker summarize the previous speaker before expressing their own idea. Some groups have everyone write down their ideas in advance of discussion, then copy all of them into a joint list. When it comes time to evaluate, one doesn’t just shoot down ideas one doesn’t like. One articulates criteriafor judging ideas, and applies allthe criteria to allthe ideas. An idea weak by one criterion could turn out to be strong by another, and might be worth fixing instead of discarding – or might inspire improvements to other ideas on the list.
Some of the same turning-off-the-editor applies to solitary pursuits, too. In freewriting one forces oneself to keep writing for some small amount of time – I’ve usually seen 10-15 minutes recommended, but one speaker from a writing retreat last December preferred 25. The people who recommend this say it’s a good way to get ideas and even phrases out of the unconscious. In a lesson about writing short stories, I learned about writing down 20 characters who could possibly be in the story’s chosen location, then afterwardspondering which ones seem worth keeping. One may have to throw away much of what one writes, but often buried in the drek are gems worth keeping and expanding on.
So what has made my writing group so valuable to me? They’re all alumni of the Writing Excuses cruises, where treating people well was drilled into us from the beginning. They’re all willing to say “I liked that” when they do, and to make gentle criticisms when they don’t. And when one of us is stuck, we do the generate-a-bunch-of-ideas thing, and everybody knows they won’t be mocked for anything they say. Hearing a bunch of different perspectives, and being willing to consider all of them, even if only briefly, has helped me break out of writer’s block several times.
This is mostly a brainstorming and chatting group; I’ve also participated a few times in critique groups, which have a different purpose, which I may talk about in a different post.

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