Style, Fear and the Bias Against Creativity

by Ruth Harris

Style was once described as "looking like yourself on purpose." 

I don't know who said it but the words and the idea behind them always made sense to me. Certainly Barbra Streisand, Audrey Hepburn and Tilda Swinton are examples. So are Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Woody Allen. They don't look like anyone else and are instantly identifiable—and millions admire them and even want to copy them.

But what does style and looking like yourself on purpose have to do with writing?

Star hair cutter, Roger Thompson (he was Vidal Sassoon's first Artistic Director), told me that the dilemma is people are afraid to look like themselves. They come to the styling chair with a photo or a clipping and request a hair style like Jennifer Anniston’s, Beyonce’s or the model on that month’s Vogue cover.

Never mind that their own hair is super curly, stick straight or thick and wavy and will never work with the style they dream of unless a hairdresser equipped with curling iron, blow dryer, gel and hair spray is with them 24/7.

They fear owning their own hair, body, face when, in fact, the key to standing out and shining is to do exactly that.

So what does fear have to do with writing?

Stephen King has an answer to the question: “I’m convinced," he says, "that fear is at the root of most bad writing. . . . Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation."
When you write, are you afraid of what critics/your Mom/a reviewer/your crit group will say? Do you feel pressured to prove to the world how smart you are and how brilliant your prose?
Do you shrink from ideas that seem too far out/too freaky/too scary/too ordinary/too done-to-death? You know what I mean: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. You don’t want to write that. Not again.
Or do you?  Never stopped lots of romance writers from making a lot of money, did it?
And you do know, don’t you, there there are maybe 7 basic plots?
Are you holding yourself back because you’re afraid? Of what? Of the nay-saying phantoms in your head? Of what “people” will say? Do you cringe from imagined hostile reviews?
Is your writing suffering because you’re afraid of what people you don’t even know much less care about are going to think?
Now you’re beginning to see what I’m getting at, aren’t you?
But, you say, if I let go, if I indulge my nuttiest, weirdest, furthest-out or done-a-million-times idea, people will laugh at me, sneer at me, think I’m crazy, call me untalented.
The fact is, you’re right. The fact is, they might even think of worse things to say.
The reason is that there’s a bias against creativity.
Only a few examples needed to make the point: Jackson Pollock was ridiculed and called “Jack the Dripper.” Picasso’s Cubist paintings were considered “shocking.”
Two experiments at the University of Pennsylvania involving more than 200 subjects discovered that people resist creative ideas because they challenge the status quo:
    People dismiss creative ideas in favor of ideas that are purely practicaltried and true.
    Creative ideas are by definition novel, and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make most people uncomfortable.
    Anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it, which can interfere with their ability to recognize a creative idea.

So now what?

The obvious answer is that a writer must face his or her fears. Which we do anything to avoid. Booze is popular. So is chocolate. 

But an article I read a while ago about an in-demand sports psychologist gave me an idea for a different approach. 

Why not accentuate the positive? Why not conquer fear with confidence?

The psychologist’s theory is that if a golfer is a good putter, s/he should practice putting until s/he becomes a superb putter? This shrink’s approach was not to focus on correcting an athlete's weaknesses, but on polishing his/her strengths.

Writers can take the same approach: write what you’re good at. To bring the end of this post back to the beginning, as you polish what you’re already do well, you’ll will inevitably hone and define a style. It will be as individual as a fingerprint, as recognizable as Streisand, Tilda or Audrey and you will develop it by doing what you like best and by practicing what you’re already good at.

Ruth's hilarious new rom-com mystery-thriller, THE CHANEL CAPER  has just launched. Nora Ephron meets James Bond. Or is it the other way around? It's Chick Lit for chicks who weren’t born yesterday. The story is about the ups and downs of long-term relationships and addresses two of the most important questions of our time: 1) Is there sex after marriage? 2) Is sixty the new forty?

What about you, scriveners? Do you think there is a bias against creativity? At first I thought Ruth's title might be a little too provocative, but then I thought of all the times my own rom-com mystery-thrillers were dismissed with statements like "I've never heard of anybody doing that," or "You aren't allowed to mix genres" or a sneering, "well, that's different."  

But the big breakout books are indeed "different" and something "nobody's ever heard of doing." They succeed because the authors showcase what they're good at instead of trying to shoehorn themselves into existing stereotypes. Or they offer a completely different treatment of an old idea.

JK Rowling mixed the obsolete English boarding school story with magic. EL James mixed YA fanfic with very adult erotica.  Hugh Howey sold his sci-fi epic as a series of short episodes like a TV show instead of marketing a traditional novel.

Are you working on developing what you're good at instead of trying to conform to an existing norm? 

Have you ever had your creative ideas rejected by somebody who feared change? 

Or, like me, have you ever tried to write in copycat genres dictated by agents (like steampunk or apocalyptic dystopian) instead of the book you really want to write? (Yup. I failed dismally.)

Is there a book that's really "you" that you've been itching to write, but fearand other people's negativityhas been standing in your way?

For those of you who have faced your fears and written a "weird, unwieldy, unclassifiable" book, I found a contest for you in the Opportunity Alerts below.



1) FOR THE FEARLESS: The Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize comes from Black Balloon Publishing: "we champion the weird, the unwieldy, and the unclassifiable. We are battle-worn enemies of boredom and we’re looking for books that defy the rules." Prize is $5,000 and a Black Balloon Publishing book deal. They want a sample of your completed, novel-length manuscript. It's a two-tiered process, so make sure you follow the guidelines in the link above. Wait until April 1 to submit.

2) Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest. The prestigious literary journal Ploughshares runs a number of contests during the year. Winning or placing looks really good in a query. Plus there's a cash prize of $1000 in each category. This one is limited to writers who have not yet published. They're looking for poems and literary stories of up to 6000 words. Deadline is April 2.

3) The Saturday Evening Post’s Second Annual Great American Fiction Contest—yes, THAT Saturday Evening Post is holding a short fiction contest. Could you join the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald; William Faulkner; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; Ray Bradbury; Louis L’Amour; Sinclair Lewis; Jack London; and Edgar Allan Poe? $10 entry fee Deadline July 1, 2013

4) New Literary Journal, The Puffin Review is looking for submissions of short fiction, (up to 3000 words) poetry and essays. They welcome new writers.

Labels: , , , , , ,