Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Divergent Thinking and Writing Books

What is divergent thinking?

Wikipedia ( says: "Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions." For example, if I asked you how to bake a cake, you can probably recognise there are thousands of cake recipes. However your instructions will probably include spoons, bowls and an oven. What if we use clay? What if we use lava to cook? What if we make an 'oven' using a super hot car in the sun in summer?

Sir Ken Robinson did an excellent talk on the subject which can be found here, on youtube ( which I highly recommend. The most important part, in relation to this blog post, is the section about the test they did on schoolchildren, examining their divergent thinking abilities. It found that children are best at divergent thinking in kindergarten and progressively lose the ability as they age. Ken hypothesises it is conditioned out of us by the school system and I agree.

You will always be punished for divergent thinking by peers.

For a short period, when I was 12, I went to a very fancy private school. I did not thrive there.

For mother's day, we were instructed to paint pots. An art teacher came in and gave us very direct lessons on how to paint the pots. The body of the pot was to be white, the rim coloured, then we were to paint a specific flower pattern on the white part. All of the pots would be virtually identical. Pretty, but mass produced.

I had a much more interesting idea for my pot. A sort of Inca mosaic. However when I tried to bring it to life, I realised we had not been given the right colours to realise my goals. We only had the white, the purple and small dabs of the 'flower' colours.

My pot did not turn out well. However out of the 28 pots painted that day, it was the only original. All the pots were on display at the front of the class and after a week of listening to my classmates ruthlessly mock both me and the pot, I quietly asked for paint in a lunch break and painted it white. With a purple rim. There was no time to add the flowers before I gave it to my mother.

I was glad about ten years later when she threw it away.

And so I learned, as we all do, that divergent thinking is a punishable offence when dealing with peers.

However I refused to stop. Every activity we were given, I found an alternative way to do it. Steadfast, through all the bullying. To this day I regret caving in. I regret painting over my ugly pot.

However you will be applauded when it works.

Around the same time, I went to an art workshop run by a very famous aboriginal painter. There was about 100 students there. This man's art sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and, as an example, he painted a killer whale on cardboard, right in front of us.

We were then all given paints and told to paint something. The artist would then judge our entries and the winner would get to take home the painting he had just created.

I watched everyone around me try and copy his whale. Poorly. I knew I couldn't copy his whale and I didn't want to. I think I painted a crocodile, in the style of the cave paintings I grew up around at Laura and Aurukun.

I could hear the kids around me mocking me as I painted. "Look at what she's doing! It's not even a whale!" You'd have thought I was eating the goddamn paint. I didn't care. I never wanted to copy, only to create.

I won.

And that was when I learned a second valuable lesson. The people at the top don't want clones. Divergent thinking will be rewarded when it works.

Divergent thinking rarely works.

You might be thinking: 'I bet your pot was better than the other pots and kids were just jealous'. No one was jealous of that pot. It was the ugliest pot ever painted. Mostly because I didn't have the resources I needed. Had I been more experienced, I could have worked with what was there. But I wasn't, and I didn't, and it was a hideous pot.

When I tried to make up my own swimming stroke at the school swimming carnival and my team lost, it was great divergent thinking, but a terrible time and place to test my theories. I was bullied for that too. So much, I remember the teacher having to pull another student off me who was trying to rip out my hair.

This all applies in a general sense to writing too. New genres, odd stories, things that 'break the mold', most of them suck. Then, sometimes they don't. Harry Potter springs to mind, and Blair Witch Project. Along with any other book or movie that 'spawned its own genre.'

Divergent thinking and you.

When you were five, you were really good at divergent thinking. I'm still pretty good at divergent thinking, but I don't expect you to be. I was spared the conditioning largely due to staying out of traditional schooling models as a child and partly because I lack a certain capacity for empathy that means I am largely unaffected by others. It has pros and cons.

You probably don't want to be good at divergent thinking for the same reasons I am. However it is important you realise once you were good at it, and that you are now bad at it because you were punished for it. Brutally. For years and years.

Now, when you feel a divergent idea coming on, you probably suppress it. Quickly. You quickly tell yourself it's too different, too odd, unmarketable. Whatever. You're really just trying to spare yourself the pain of what you have experienced in the past. Don't touch fire, fire is hot. Don't be too original, originality will be punished.

The problem is, if you see 'failure' as punishment, you're probably going to keep being punished. Because while divergent thinking leads to a lot of ideas, odd, original and new ideas, that doesn't mean they're good. In fact, they're probably not. But that is okay.

The key to winning with divergent thinking isn't to hope it's going to be successful, it's to say: 'Okay, this is likely to flop, but what if we tried it this way?' and be okay with the outcome, whatever it is.

For me, divergent thinking is about creation, curiosity and enjoyment. I enjoy the act of finding out if something works. The outcome is less important. Which is probably why I love writing, but am a bit blasé about actually selling books. They tend to go to whichever editor asks me for something.

And you know what those editors say when they read whatever handed them? 'Different' and 'not what I was expecting'. Which most of us are conditioned to think of as insults. They also say 'exciting' and 'loved it' and 'original'.

Which is nice. I love positive feedback. However I'm usually off painting another ugly pot by then.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Physician, Heal Thyself

In 2008, a doctor prescribed me a medication that triggered Steven Johnson Syndrome and almost killed me. It came after years of trying to find a solution to my TMJ, and by that stage I had tried literally hundreds of other options: specialists, oral splints, acupuncture, injections, medications, etc.

Near death and a whole laundry list of new, debilitating symptoms from the SJS would be reason enough for most people to lose faith and stop trying to find an answer. To just accept how things were, because there was plenty of proof that trying new things made the situation worse.

After all, next time, it could finish me off.

However I never stopped trying to find a solution to my symptoms. If I heard about something new, I tried it. If I read about an obscure medical research experiment that had positive results, I tried it. If someone suggested prayer or meditation or crystals or yoga, I tried it. (Just FYI, most of that stuff is complete shite and you're probably an asshole if you suggest it to chronically ill people.)

I wasn't willing to knock anything until I had tested it. So I have tested a lot of whacked out crap. Some of it was surprisingly effective. Some of it was predictably stupid.

Sometimes I would get one problem under control only to find it was masking eight more. Sometimes I would do a complete re-assessment of treatment by stopping all my meds and going off my carefully controlled diet to check it was really helping. (Also, stopping all your meds is really dangerous. Do as I say, not as I do.) Sometimes a change would require everything (meds, food, exercise) to be completely re-balanced and it would take painstaking weeks of experimentation to get things moving forward again.

The important thing is, I never stopped looking for solutions. I never stopped trying new things. I never stopped researching.

At the end of last year,  a friend who had similar symptoms to me, but a different condition, said he was 'feeling better'. Jealous and curious, I asked how. He told me about a old medication with a new, off label use. Within a week, I was badgering my doctors about it. Took me a month or so to get a script and another month to actually get my hands on the medication itself, which had to be made specially at a pharmacy that did special orders.

The results were profound. They only targeted one of many symptoms, but it was a big symptom. My brain fog and fatigue were almost cured within two weeks. If I miss a dose of the medication, I am helpless again. However most of the time, this medication leaves me at almost normal brain function.

I still have pain, I still can't eat anything, I still get migraines. There are plenty of other symptoms to contend with. However being able to think clearly makes working on those a lot easier. What would have taken me three days to puzzle over with brain fog now takes me about half an hour. My productivity and social life have exploded in joyous ways.

It would have been a lot easier to give up. To accept, at its worst, that my life wasn't going to get better. And there were plenty of days I did. When I couldn't bring myself to keep searching for an answer that just wasn't likely to be there. That doctors kept telling me didn't exist and probably never would in my lifetime.

However it was right there. They just didn't know and didn't give enough of a shit to look for it. You have to do that for yourself. No one is coming to save you. I know that's not fair. It is so unfair it hurts. However fair or not, its true.

If you are chronically ill (I use the term to be inclusive of all chronic conditions, be they mental, physical, addictive, etc) don't stop. Live by the following:

1. Do the things you know you should do.

Take your f-ing meds on time. Drink water. Eat healthy food. Stop smoking and drinking. Stop doing all the shit you know is bad for you. Prioritise your health over other shit. Cooking a healthy meal is more important than answering your emails.

2. Never stop looking for a solution.

It's probably out there. Even if your doctor says there is nothing left to try, they're full of shit. Research and don't be afraid to bring it with you to appointments. Some quack says he cured your condition by having his patient drink and eat nothing but camel milk for two months? You better start gooling camels (true story, did this, yes A2 milk makes a huge fucking difference, no I didn't believe it either until I tried it, no it didn't cure me, but it did expand my diet slightly).

3. Fall off the horse and get back on.


You get to yell that once a day, or save it up for a few weeks and have a 'this is too hard' weekend. Sometimes it's too fucking hard for a minute or two. After my father died, it was too fucking hard for a few weeks. The point is, 'it's too fucking hard' has to be a temporary thing. And that is best achieved by letting it happen, wallowing in it as deep as you can for a short period, then letting it go.

No one is keeping score. Giving up is a temporary state. Its best just to let it all out in a spectacular toddler tantrum and then pick yourself up and move on. Whatever you do don't say: 'oh well, I failed a little, so I may as well just accept defeat and eat three kilograms of these nuts I am allergic to'. Your full body hives will not love you in the morning.

Just remember, there could be a solution out there. A real, honest to god solution, that allows you to have your life back. But you have to keep fighting for it. I did and now I can go to the shops and meet friends for coffee and shit. And that is a goddamn miracle.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

For Love Of Writing

I love writing.

Some writing is harder than others. Depending on the stage of a project, some writing requires more focus and mental power. However I always enjoy the act itself.

Many of you know my co-author Meg and I have insanely high word counts. We love writing together even more than I love writing alone. As a result, we produce a huge volume of first drafts. About 15 last year, I think. More than one a month and most are between 60k-100k. We can do this, because we enjoy it so much.

A few days ago a friend came over and he gave me some excellent advice. He said: 'You need to stop writing first drafts and focus on editing.'

Unfortunately, while his advice was excellent, it was also wrong. He, like most other people in the industry, considered writing a first draft to be part of the work and editing to be another part of the work.

However for Meg and I, writing the first draft isn't work in any capacity. Writing the first draft is something we do for fun. It's like playing video games or watching TV. We would do it even if we knew it was never going to be a book, if it was never going to go further than that first draft. It's pure joy. It's quite literally a game we play.

The suggestion we stop writing first drafts to focus on editing is like saying: 'Don't watch TV, play video games or read, just work all the time.'

I mean, I could do that. It would be a pretty joyless existence. The problem is not that we are writing first drafts instead of editing. The problem is that editing, while I love it, requires a lot more focus and concentration and skill. So it is much slower. It is a 'work' process. First drafts are not.

Slowly, however, Meg and I are changing our first draft processes to make the editing process much easier. So perhaps in future, it will be faster. At the moment, however, while we are very fast writers, we are pretty normally paced editors.

And that is perfectly okay.

It really only causes problems when I am gung-ho and decide I can skip normal human functions like eating and sleeping and edit at the same pace I can write. Unrealistic expectations are not your friend.

I think the barrier a lot of people have with writing, is that they don't let themselves enjoy it. I work fastest when I have no deadlines. The moment I have a deadline, my productivity dies, because I feel the weight of expectation and it's no longer about me just having fun. Suddenly people expect things. People I like, such as my editors.

Imagine you are at the beach with your kids. No one else is there, just a gorgeous, sunny beach with gentle waves and pristine sand. They have their floaties on and sunscreen and cute little hats and they're laughing and playing. You're happy. They're happy. Everyone is happy.

Now imagine a creepy guy shows up and stands nearby watching your kids. It's the middle of the day and he's wearing a trench coat. On a beach. You think he is filming your kids with his camera? Maybe? You're not sure. You're not having fun anymore.

You also see something that might be a shark out in the water. Or is it seaweed. Was that a fin? Then your kid brings you some broken glass and you realise there is a lot of it, hidden under the sand. It's really sharp too.

Are you still having fun? Or are you ready to pack the fuck up and go home?

Nothing bad has actually happened, but the fear of bad things happening, worrying about things, anticipating disaster, sucks the joy out of things, regardless of how lovely they are at first.

If you're thinking about deadlines, what people will think, sales projections or angsting about your own skills, you can't enjoy writing.

You know what though? No day at the beach with your kids is actually flawless and awesome. Nothing is ever perfect. Someone gets stung or sunburnt or you lose something or someone cuts themselves on a oyster shell.

No book is birthed perfectly either. I'm not saying you should be deliriously happy every time you sit down to write. However EVERY book is going to be hard and stressful and draining if you are worried about shit the whole time you're writing it.

I enjoy writing so much, that if I am suck and stressed, my answer is usually to write something else. Often, it's something I think will entertain Meg or Annie. I'll pound out two thousand words, show it to them, they'll laugh and enjoy reading it and I'll feel a hell of a lot better.

Sometimes, if I am struggling to edit something, I will choose someone I want to impress or want to make happy and write the scene to appeal to them. (It's good to choose people who are enthusiastic about your work for this.)

I always turn my writing problems toward a source of joy. I always make joy the end goal. Am I happy? Is this going to make someone else happy? Who is going to smile or shiver or cry over this? I don't angst about it, I'm excited about it. And when Meg and I share our edits, I make a point of actually showing my enthusiasm. (I'm an enthusiastic person, but it doesn't always show on the outside.)

Knowing I am excited and waiting to read more motivates her, in the same way her enthusiasm motivates me. Having people I adore say they are excited to read something I have written is also very motivating.

Most of the time though, my main reason for writing--particularly first drafts--is just for the pleasure of doing it. Just like watching horror movies or playing video games. It makes me happy.

If it doesn't make you happy, ask yourself why. Clear out the negativity. Be joyous. Love the process of writing.