Thinking Like an Outsider

The Twirl and Swirl of Letters

This week, I attended a speech given by Jonah Lehrer, an author and scientist. I didn’t expect to be entertained much, nor did I expect to start taking notes! Lehrer had some really interesting things to say, but he also gave three pieces of advice. As I listened to him, I realized that these three suggestions could be applied in terms of creation, writing specifically. Given the length of things, I’m splitting up his advice into three posts. One today, one tomorrow, and one the next.

Think Like an Outsider

Lehrer began by telling the story of the invention of the Swiffer. Procter & Gamble attempted to create a better soap to use with a mop. Nothing worked. They then shipped out the task to another company (whose name escapes me). This company spent nine months watching videos of people cleaning and realized that mopping a) took too long and b) spread dirty water everywhere. They thought a disposable cleaning sheet would be just the thing. A stronger soap wasn’t need; the mop was the problem. And so the Swiffer was born.

Lehrer also mentioned a website where the world’s top companies post their problems for other people to solve (you are apparently rewarded handsomely). This is for when the biochemists can’t figure something out because they’re going about it in a biochemistry way. Maybe a physicist, an outsider on the problem, can see the best solution.

And where does creating come in?

While I was working on a brief comic prologue for my Electronic Media class (and that old faithful, The Continent), I discussed parts of it with my roommate, particularly in terms of my characters’ costumes. I was pretty confused. I had all this backstory and a scene I wanted to illustrate. As I was so embedded in my story, I kept hitting a wall when it came to actually drawing the pictures.

My roommate, completely removed from the situation (only having to deal with my griping), had me describe my characters’ personalities and lives to her.  Through all this, she came up with costume ideas (which I ended up using, to an extent) and one wonderful suggestion to my story:

Why don’t you just tell the backstory?

In that immediate instant, I didn’t. But I worked on The Continent for a good portion of the summer and found myself doing just that: telling part of the backstory as the first act.

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