Kay: The Value of Persistence

Roy F. Chandler standing next to a stack of the books he has written. Original photograph taken by Katherine R. Chandler 29 April 2009.

Roy F. Chandler standing next to a stack of the books he has written. Original photograph taken by Katherine R. Chandler 29 April 2009.

I envy writers who write fast and well, who don’t seem to have the creative issues I have. Two, three, four, five, six, or even more books per year for these folks seems entirely within their grasp. I can’t write that fast. I never have enough ideas; concepts don’t jump out at me. I’m not one of the writers who say, “I have so many ideas, I don’t know what to write first!” No. I say, “What can I write about next? Must cogitate.”

I’ve always thought that a person is either an imaginative thinker or not—that’s it’s a genetic trait, a gift. It turns out, that’s not true.

Researchers Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that people underestimate how many creative ideas they can come up with if they continue to work on a problem, rather than give up after mediocre initial results. In fact, the most creative ideas arise after many other ideas have been considered and discarded. People who give up too soon don’t allow the best ideas to emerge.

In the first test, university students were told to “generate as many original ideas for things to eat or drink at a Thanksgiving dinner” as they could. Participants worked for 10 minutes, took a short break, then worked another 10 minutes. During the break, they were asked how many ideas they thought they’d generate with the additional 10 minutes. They underestimated the number of ideas they’d add, and the outside evaluators found that the ideas in the second batch were “significantly more original than ideas generated initially.”

A follow-up test featured 45 performers from SketchFest, the largest sketch comedy festival in the United States. The performers were given a scene set-up and asked to create as many comic endings as they could. Participants worked on the task for four minutes, predicted how many endings they would come up with during an additional four minutes, and then worked another four minutes. Like the students, the comics underestimated the number of ideas they would develop on their second attempt.

The researchers believe that people doubt their ability to be more creative because coming up with creative ideas is hard. When a task feels difficult, “people decrease their expectations about how well they will perform,” they wrote.

We learn that attitude from taking skills tests. For example, if you can’t understand a simple math problem, you won’t do well at calculus, no matter how much time you spend on it. But that approach doesn’t necessarily hold true with creative work.

“Creative thought is a trial-and-error process that generally produces a series of failed associations before a creative solution emerges,” the researchers write. You never know when you’re nearing a breakthrough; it might occur right after a period of deep frustration. But we tend to interpret that struggle as meaning that we’re not creative and might as well stop.

The Ladies often talk about hitting the bottom of the well and what to do about boosting creativity. Many ideas have been floated—from attending cultural activities to exercise, meditation (or maybe medication!), and shifting gears to something else. Whatever works! But one more solution? Just keep at it.

Does persistence work for you?

12 thoughts on “Kay: The Value of Persistence

  1. Persistence is definitely key for me. Although I have the opposite problem of too few ideas- I get way too many ideas and most of them are bad and require a lot of time to sift through.
    I can’t imagine being able to write multiple books in the span of a year- it takes me all my effort to just write one, if any. Persist is all I can do, really.

  2. Hi Tori! I suppose the grass is always greener—I truly envy writers like you who have to sift and winnow the good ideas from the bad, or think about how to develop which ideas into a plot. I usually think, I have this one idea, what can I do with it? But either way, we have to work with our own styles, I guess. Good luck with that sifting! Keeping at it is sometimes all we can do.

  3. I don’t have a problem finding ideas I like, but it takes me time and persistence to develop those ideas in an interesting and workable way. I wish I could find a way to speed up, but like the Thanksgiving Dinner students, I find the ideas that come first and most easily are the boring, obvious, drecky ones. To move beyond those to something I love is hard and frustrating and I really have to work at it. I’m very happy to learn that this is no reflection on my creativity 😉 .

    Next time I fall into some horrible plot hole and am desperately spinning my wheels, I hope I remember this post.

    • Right—as you say, there’s a lot of time and thought that has to go on from the “Eureka!” moment of getting the idea to translating that idea into something that works as a plot. I wish that process went more quickly for me, too…

  4. When I took the Story class with Robert McKee, he recommended thrwoing away, at a mininum, the first ten ideas you have for sorting out a plot problem. He said the first ten you come up with are the ones you’ve seen in books and movies. It’s only by persisiting through to another ten, or another ten after that, that you come up with something original. Another plus for persistence.

  5. This is one of the key reasons I stayed away from writing fiction for so long. I didn’t think I had enough ideas to make new stories. Since I started writing, though, I find that I do have enough ideas (and let me tell you, that discovery was AWESOME!). Sometimes they’re just little nuggets here and there, and sometimes they’re full-fledged plots! But I agree with what Jeanne said about throwing away the first ideas that come to your mind. They’re great for getting the mind working, but there’s usually better ones that’ll come after them.

    Another thing I do that’s helpful is brainstorm with my critique partners. In fact, we all do that when we’re stuck. Sometimes just talking about things generates a solution to a problem, or a fresh idea. Just last week we all sat down and fired off problems/issues/roadblocks for our respective stories and helped each other out with some great solutions. One of my CPs writes contemporary and the other writes paranormal and often them just asking about historical stuff helps me move my story along.

  6. Gosh, it’s not just persistence here, but also that break — take a rest, then tackle things again. Amazing things can come up during the break! I’m feeling much better about my lousy week, now. Next week could potentially be very good for writing; I’m not going to worry about this lousy week. I’m going to eat well, sleep as much as I can, and feed my brain with story fodder, and then persist my brains out next week.

  7. Pingback: Kay: Finishing the Book – Eight Ladies Writing

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