The Collection at the Beginning of Creative Process

January 29, 2009 · by Burley Grymz · Permalink · Category: technique

I’m always fascinated with the process of creative types. Because, of course, it might teach me something about my own process which has been doggedly formed from ignorant persistence. I long for some sort of validation that I’m doing it “right” (make of that what you will, psychology buffs).

Merlin Mann has been digging into process, and I think his Macworld presentation Towards Patterns for Creativity was interesting beyond his charismatic manitude.

He talks about Twyla Tharp and her book The Creative Habit (haven’t read it yet. Definitely on my list). Tharp starts each project with a box that she collects loose items associated with the choreography she’s creating. The box gets filled in a loose association and inspiration gathering, and then when it’s time to work it serves as muse and inspiration.

Compare this technique with Steven Johnson who, on his recent guest gig at Boing Boing wrote a post called DIY: How to write a Book. He captures information into software called DEVONthink, which acts as digital equivalents to Twyla’s Boxes (as Mr. Mann, sans external wink, likes to call them):

The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting. I grab paragraphs from web pages, from digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text — and each little snippet I just drop into Devonthink with no organization other than a citation of where it came from.

DEVONthink has the advantage of, once captured, of connecting text:

It has a very elegant semantic algorithm that can detect relationships between short excerpts of text, so you can use the software as a kind of connection machine, a supplement to your own memory.

Capture — the first step. In thinking back, all of my projects start with a single question “What if we lived in a world that was X instead of Y?” Knowing that question, capturing disparate information about that topic is how I approach it, albeit more loosely than either Ms. Tharp or Mr. Johnson (my process includes folders, Scrivener files, Yojimbo, and lost-to-the-ages software that didn’t stand the test of time).

Tangentially related to this topic is John Gruber’s talk at Macworld which gave us a maxim (Gruber’s Law?) which may or may not bear relationship to Mr. Beeson and my more democratic attempts at working together, but is still relevant to those who collaborate:

The quality of any collaborative creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever is in charge.