Using distance to increase creativity

When I was living in Venezuela, I struggled to write creatively about it. Instead, my first novel was set in my home country of Australia. The novel I’m working on now is set in nearby Mexico City rather than Puebla, where I live. It’s a great set up, because I visit Mexico City enough to know it intimately, but writing from Puebla gives me distance.

Psychological distance includes anything that we aren’t experiencing now. So, we can get distance by being, or imagining ourselves to be far away from the subject in time, physical distance, or we can look at the subject from the point of view of someone who isn’t involved in it.

This distance helps to change the way we think about something: whether it’s a problem to be solved, or content to be written. Distance changes the way we mentally represent the thing. It becomes abstract, rather than concrete and personal. Abstract thinking makes it easier for us to form surprising, new, and original connections.

Distance can also help us to see the bigger picture, by zooming out from the problem and its nitty-gritty issues, so we can see it more holistically.

When we are writing something, we are aware of the underlying architecture involved in creating the image the reader sees. When we’re thinking through a personal problem, we’re extremely tied up in it, and can struggle to see the issue more objectively. An outsider – like a beta reader of a novel, an editor of an article, or a psychologist can often see the typos, plot holes, and underlying psychological issues better than we can.

But when we can’t rely on those people, we can often get distance just by imagining we are them. For example, you have a few paragraphs of writing that you aren’t happy with, but you can’t work out why. It’s difficult to get completely out of your head as the writer, but you can put yourself in the shoes of the reader by copying that text and putting it in a different format – like a novel-sized PDF page, or an email to a friend. Intend to send the email to the friend, and read over it as you imagine they would.

You can also get distance by using time. Write the draft, then sleep on it, so you can go back the next morning and improve it with fresh eyes. Even just getting up from your desk and going to the bathroom or making some tea can help.

Or, if you have a problem to solve, think of a friend you deeply respect who isn’t involved in the problem in any way, or a well known famous person, an alien or a child. Imagine you are them. How do they talk about the problem? What would they, with no invested interests in it, do about the problem? This is a way to give yourself the freedom to think about something without any pressure from yourself or others to come up with a certain kind of result.

Note though, distance is just one tool of many to help with creativity. Lived experiences and intimately understanding the subject of the writing or problem are also very important. A nurse likely can’t solve engineering problems, and writer should not be covering things they do not intimately understand. But distance can add an extra layer of clarity. To be a good journalist, writer, inventor, artist, or problem solver, you need to be both an expert in the subject matter, and to be able to see it in original ways.

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