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Creative Process in Action: This American Life Peels Back The Onion

A look inside the creative processBack in February I was lucky enough to be driving during the time This American Life airs on my local public radio station.

Those of you who listen to This American Life know what I mean by “lucky,” and those who don’t are in for a real treat!

This particular episode of This American Life was called: Tough Room and was basically about self expression in the face of a difficult audience. The entire show (per usual) was provocative and engaging, but the first act/story was especially not to be missed for anyone interested in creativity or working as a creative professional: a front row seat for the creative process that results in each new issue of The Onion – a hilarious satirical newspaper.

Listen Here

Within this one story, there so much insight into so many aspects of creativity: courage, nuance, judgment, rejection, acceptance, revision, subtly, work, play, originality, letting go, holding on and more.

The primary reason for this post is simply to share a rare experience with you – the opportunity to listen in on the creative process. Then, I would love to hear your reaction, thoughts and insights about what you heard.

And, of course, I also want to share just a couple of my own:

Words Fail (or it can be hard to explain why something is good)

This story drove home for me something that I’ve always struggled with as a creative professional creating “things” for other people. The sometimes impossibly difficult to describe reason why one idea or “thing” is RIGHT, PERFECT, WILL WORK whereas another similar idea or “thing” is not right, not perfect, won’t work – or, at least, not as well. In the audio story, there is an example of this:

One of the writers tries to explain why a certain headline for The Onion is better – why it works. Words fail her. That’s me!!! a lot of the time. I get a gut feeling about a creation (why it works), and I can have a hard time articulating that why. I almost want to say, “Just trust me!” but that is not a good reason for ANYONE to follow me down a certain road.

The editor at paper takes on the same headline that the writer was trying to explain and is able to get to the nuance and meaning of it – the reason why it works and why another version doesn’t. He reveals that he did not get it right away. He had to spend time thinking about it, processing it and through that WORK discovered what the headline had to say. This is something a lot of the people I work with creatively are great at – something I want to work on. Taking the time to figure out why you are choosing one creation over another. If this is done in the inspiration and insight phase of the creative process, I believe it can only improve what happens as you are making your creation real.

Invisible Creators (or separating self from the ideas your “self” puts out there for other people to stomp on or embrace)

Is The Onion a Tough Room? Yes. But only because of the scrutiny each headline is put under. Not because of how the people in the room treat each other and each others’ creations.

Objectivity. Distance.

There is a clear understanding that the creator with a bad idea is not bad – that the work is separate from the person.

In other words (and this is something covered in the 10 Un-Rules of Creativity (you can get a copy by subscribing in the masthead of this website), an idea is just that, an idea. Not necessarily right, not necessarily wrong – and definitely NOT indicative of the quality of creativity inherent within the creator.

There is no doubt that each person creating for The Onion is valued as a creator by the others around the table. The question is: How does the creator get into the space where his or her ideas are separate enough from self that rejection is more about, “Darn, I LOVED that creation, and now it’s going away! Okay, let’s move on to the next thing.” Instead of, “Darn, they HATED my idea, they probably hate me too. They think I’m HORRIBLE! I’m never putting myself out there again.”

Do creators at The Onion get their creative souls squashed at times? I know they do. They may not show it, and they may. Many of them may be way better at separation and others not as much.

But from what I know from my experience as a writer in countless group idea sharing sessions and presentations (and what I know all of you who have the courage to practice creativity out loud know) is this:

You learn how to separate. You just do. Over time.

And once you have chiseled your “self” away from your work, it’s a beautiful thing.

You are free.

Susan B.