Luck and Creativity

Writing is a matter of chance. 

I’m not talking about the type of luck that is involved in landing an agent, a publishing deal, or a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, though all those wins do contain an element of luck. 

I’m referring to the chance that happens within your writing habit. 

These are the unintended connections, repetitions, resonances, or loops that your subconscious mind embeds in the story and that are invisible to you until you begin revising the work. 

They are also the sudden insights or ideas that pop into your mind while you’re working on a scene. When you are out walking the dog, having coffee with your best friend, or attempting to meditate. 

There is more than one way to write, whether you are a true pantser or a planner or a combination of the two. But regardless of how you approach writing, this aspect of chance shows up for all of us in the same way. 

It is unpredictable and entirely outside of our control. 

And yet, it is one of the most fun aspects of writing. 

There is a unique joy in editing a draft of your novel and discovering that a comment in chapter fifteen mirrors an event in chapter two, or noticing that a spontaneous decision you made at the end of the book now acts as a broader metaphor or illuminates the novel’s theme. 

You couldn’t have included this stuff if you’d tried, but because you’ve opted to live a life steeped in storytelling and because you’re deeply familiar with your story, the subconscious mind has done the work for you. 

Sometimes these chance aspects may be underdeveloped, but once recognised, there is an opportunity then for you to flesh out, expand, or work these novel nuggets into literary gold. 

The other aspect of chance is equally outside of our control, however, there are things you can do to invite these types of spontaneous insights and ideas into your practice. 

Spending time in low-stress activities that are separate from writing but that allow your mind to relax and wander creates the space for these types of connections and insights to occur. For example, gardening, swimming, walking, cleaning, playing with your kids, or engaging with other creative practices like music, dance, or art. 

These activities absorb your attention to a degree, but they are not cognitively demanding. However, the trick is that you must be present with the activity and not actively thinking about the story you are working on. 

There are times when you can intentionally use movement, such as walking, as a method for solving creative problems. This is a method that Cal Newport uses and he refers to as Productive Meditation. But to experience the sudden, sharp bursts of insights I am describing here, your mind has to be in a relaxed and semi-distracted state. 

The element of chance may only occur a handful of times within the making of a single project, and yet, it is one of the most thrilling aspects of writing. 

So much of writing is problem-solving. It is fumbling around in the dark as you try to discover the shape, size, and scope of the story. Even when you create an outline, there is so much that remains a mystery. 

For most of us, we only truly get to know our story once we start writing it. You can think about your story forever, but there’s a good chance that you’ll only find it once you start creating it

When chance occurs, it’s like you finally found the key that will unlock your story. Chance may resolve a plot hole, create nuance and layers, change a character’s motive, or reveal an alternative structure. 

It happens infrequently, and yet, it is the high that every writer is chasing. A good writing day is great. We all love when a scene feels more like fluid dictation rather than painstaking creation. But chance is the holy grail that every creator is seeking. It comes as a surprise and fills us with awe, wonder, and relief. This story is going to work. 

I wish I could provide you with a five-step hack that guarantees creative insight every time, but that’s not how creativity or chance work. 

The best you can do is look for those unintended connections, mirrors, or repetitions while editing your book. Look to see if there are any possibilities or opportunities within the work already that you can draw out, build, and expand on. And finally, carve out the space to spend time doing other things, because the one thing chance demands is that you be distracted. After all, how else will it slip into your apartment and leave a love note on the bench? 

Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

Need help finishing that short story, novel, memoir? No problem. The Follow-Through Formula is a free video training which unpacks the five strategies you can use to go from idea to completed project.

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