Thoughts on the creative process from writer Soman Chainani

I spent a lovely couple of hours with writer Soman Chainani today. Well, with his disembodied voice. He’s the latest interview on Tim Ferriss’s often fascinating podcast.

The cover of Soman Chainani's first book
Cover art by Iacopo Bruno

I had not heard of Chainani before—not surprising, since he writes a fantasy book series called The School for Good and Evil, aimed at 10- to 15-year-olds. That’s not my demographic on so many levels. You could stack three 15-year-olds on top of each other and you’d still be  a 10-year-old short.

So while Soman Chainani didn’t win me as a reader, he did make it to my hypothetical list of people I’d like to have dinner with. He’s a smart dude and it seems like we think the same way about a lot of things. And while it’s also valuable to chat with people who think differently than you do, they can come to another hypothetical dinner party. Okay?

Soman Chainani recommends…

When Ferriss invited him to list his favorite books about writing, Chainani said he didn’t really put much stock in them:

“…writing to me is like breathing. You write the way you breathe. Everyone has their own way of doing it. Every true writer has to write to stay alive because that’s how we live, that’s our connection to the cosmos. And so every writer has their specific process.”

But he does enjoy books and documentaries about “creativity and the creative spirit.”

“One of my favorite books is called The Spark, written by Cirque du Soleil, about where their ideas come from. It’s very short; you can read it in like 20 minutes but it’s fantastic. It gets to this idea that so much of creativity is that we try to control it…If we just let go of the conscious ‘I’ trying to control when we work creatively, that’s when the universe comes rushing through. So it’s about almost making yourself into a clear vessel and accepting it when it’s going to come.”

Later he added:

“When I trust myself, that’s when the great stuff happens. Because I’m not editing.”

[Note to my Writing Unbound participants: See? It’s not just me.]

As for films about creativity, these will be showing up on a Netflix queue near me very soon:

Ballet 422 — about a “middling dancer” at American Ballet Theatre who wins a choreography internship and develops into a world-class choreographer before our eyes

“…slowly you start to realize you’re watching a genius. You’re watching a Mozart who is just gifted with something unrivaled…”

Ferriss chimed in with 6 Days to Air, about the creators of South Park putting together an episode in six days flat. And indeed, imdb.com says that if you like the next film Chainani recommends, you’ll like this one. I’m skeptical—South Park has its moments of brilliance, but sometimes the humor is too puerile for me. Still, I’ll give it a shot. It’s always valuable to see creativity in action.

“In the beginning, it’s all bad.”

Soman Chainani secured his seat at my imaginary dinner party when he recommended the documentary Theater of War. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the Public Theater’s 2006 Central Park production of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage.

“It’s the only time Meryl Streep has ever let anybody film her rehearsing. Ever. And she said she didn’t want to do it because she goes, “Rehearsal looks like bad acting and I don’t want to see me do bad acting.” And then she changed her mind and she thought maybe it would be valuable. And to get to watch Meryl Streep’s rehearsal process, you realize how much it is—how much much of  writing in the beginning, how much of acting in the beginning, all of it is bad. It’s just about doing the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.”

I added the emphasis there. The folks in my 5×15 Writing Challenges—and eagle-eyed blog readers—will recognize this as a familiar theme. You’ve got to be willing to be bad if you ever hope to be good.

If you’re not willing to write badly, chances are you won’t write at all. Chainani recognizes this, too, and has taken it as a mission to help people unleash their creativity

“One of the missions I have in life, whenever I sense another creative soul who’s bottled themselves up, I gravitate toward them and try to get them to let it out.”

Generous and kind. Good qualities in a dinner guest.


Ready to start your own writing practice? I have another 5-day writing challenge starting soon. See The 5×15 Writing Challenge for more info.

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