Hitting a Creative Wall? Try Thinking Like Einstein.
Using logical tools and frameworks to support your creative process.
Essay #2 in Fraught Experiments
Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.
— Albert Einstein
The Problem With Unbridled Creativity
A writer sits down, bristling with anticipation, teeth bared in a bright, indefatigable smile as they take a pen in hand. The instrument slashes across its plane and soon a setting, dialogue, and two characters — no, three, no, eight — begin to materialize as the writer leans into their creative fury. Soon there is a scene, and seven more scenes like it that have been outlined, all of the work part of an overarching plot. In this tale, a dastardly king threatens to use his ultimate weapon — the Sgard’led Staff — to oppress the nearby fish-people of Kinmonder, while his daughter (not to be confused with the niece of the neighboring mountain-town’s jarl, who is, indeed, the fairest maiden of all the land) is somehow magically enlightened to a subplot set three hundred years in the future, for reasons unknown to us just yet — there, the eighty-seventh lad in line to the throne has been wrongly accused of stealing rat poison from the local apothecary to kill his brother, who, in truth, is the eighty-sixth in line to the throne but has a nasty penchant for reciting absurdly long poetry, the main subject of which is a benevolent ancient stag-god from the ninth ring of Granled who wishes to claim as his own the time stone which once belonged to the king’s Sgard’led staff but which now resides in the newly-minted nation of Bilhaz’s premier museum of natural —
Okay, so this writer’s got a lot going on. And, at least from the way it’s presented here, they may not know exactly what to do with it.
Who knows, maybe you identify with this work-in-progress, with its complex, multilayered, interweaving story with tons of characters, each with their own intricate narrative. Maybe this reminds you, instead, of your latest series of photographs or artworks, which all connect somehow…but it’s in a way that you can’t exactly articulate. Maybe this was your latest way-too-long epic poem, or your confusing concept album, or your plodding video essay —
Of course, complex works like these have their virtues. But what about when they stay convoluted? When there’s just way too much going on, and it isn’t being presented in a way that’s easily digestible, sensical, or — to use the best word — logical. In the end, the issue with such a work is its unbridled creativity.
While there’s plenty of value in creating with abandon and holding onto the sort of wild, meandering thoughts that stem mysteriously from the subconscious, at some point, all creators have to recognize that making a work that’s truly entertaining, sustainable, or (God forbid) commercially viable, requires some sort of clear structure. And how do you find that structure? How do you adjust it?
Well, over the next two weeks, I’ll present two tools that could help you down the road of refining your ideas with just that sort of structure. First, we’ll look at the Language of Sentential Logic as a framework for analyzing, understanding, and adjusting creative structures — that’s the subject of today’s piece. Then, we’ll see a tool I’ve used for building certain story elements from the ground up: the Fibonacci Sequence.
The Language of Sentential Logic (or LSL for short) is a unique tool for abstracting arguments and logical systems, and it works well as a starting point for developing your own logical outlining process. You won’t find it mentioned in your typical writing or drawing class, but a framework like this is essential for understanding the structures and connections that lie within your creative work. But if you do find yourself breaking down your creative problems into an LSL format, there’s also an off chance you’ll end up with endless formulas on your blackboards and a crazy head of hair. That’s the dream, at least.
More than anything, I hope this tool, and these logical frameworks show you how to develop and use your own tools to bring order and balance to your creativity.
Logical Abstraction & Creative Problem Solving
When I signed up for a logic class in college, I was hoping to show up and engage in debates over heated, controversial, philosophically-grounded topics…but what I got was more like, well, math.
The definition of ‘logic’ as provided by the venerable Merriam Webster is as follows:
“A science that deals with the principles and criteria of validity of inference and demonstration : the science of the formal principles of reasoning.”
But, to present that a little more plainly and practically, logic is a science that deals with the interconnectedness of ideas. One idea will connect to another by enforcing it, negating it, supplementing it or stemming from it, and the connection between those two ideas just might lead you to a ‘conclusion,’ a third idea. An inevitable result.
In a class on logic, you’ll see how ideas connect to each other in those sorts of ways by using math-like ‘languages’ for reasoning, such as the Language of Sentential Logic. In a language like this, ideas or pieces of evidence are converted into letters, with symbols showing their connectivity — I think of this conversion process as an abstraction, since ideas are represented using simpler forms. When you abstract a bunch of connected ideas using LSL and map out their connections, you’ll end up with something like a formula:
G → (∼E ∨ (∼J ∨ (∼O ∨ ∼K)))
[G → (∼∼J & (∼∼O & ∼∼K))] & E
Okay, so now you have a way of generating cryptic messages for your spy novel. But what does this have to do with creativity in general?
Well, what does math, or logic beyond it, have to do with the real world?
Both questions have the same answer.
In mathematics and logical languages like LSL, ideas are abstracted into simpler forms so we can understand their relationships to each other more clearly. In the argument presented above, you’re actually looking at a series of premises that lead to a conclusion that there is no God — pretty heavy stuff, but all of it is parsed together so that you can review the logical relationships between ideas without worrying about the muddy, emotional waters of language. In this first line, for example, we see a premise that if there is a God, there would be no Evil (~E), or else God would be unjust, not omnipotent, or not omniscient. The second line (and second premise) builds off of the first, and the third line presents a conclusion that results from the two lines put together: given these premises, there can’t be a God. There’s a ton going on here, and if you write it all out you’re way more likely to get bogged down by every ‘unless,’ ‘or else,’ ‘or’ and ‘nor.’ Viewing an argument in this sort of visual way, instead, helps you narrow down relationships between ideas more precisely, and takes away whatever subjective baggage you may carry with you into the argument.
And this task of abstraction works for arguments or complex mathematical theorems — suddenly, you may see why Einstein called math the ‘poetry of logical ideas,’ as I quoted at the beginning of this article. He understood that, thanks to the abstraction of mathematics, something as fundamental and multifaceted as the law of gravity or the theory of relativity can be explained, proven, and understood using only figures and forms. By expressing the theory of relativity as E=mc2, for instance, we (just him, actually — I’m not sure I could do it) can then compare, contrast, and integrate that theory with others in a way that produces more complex and practical results.
The theory of relativity itself was also only found through the mathematical problem-solving process: by abstracting other ideas, building block concepts, that can be strung together and reveal a conclusion. Ultimately, that conclusion refines and explains a hugely important part of our physical reality, something that affects our understanding of our place in the universe.
So, if we can explain and use the theory of relativity in this way, extracting its logic and producing that visual, mathematical poetry…why shouldn’t this work for your creative work too? Let’s see how that might work.
How To Analyze Your Creative Work Logically
Take the story that I detailed at the beginning of this article. It’s a verifiable mess of ideas, but even that is salvageable. To make it readable — and, maybe, just maybe, after decades of blood, sweat, tears, and revision, dare I say enjoyable — we need to understand two things. First: what’s in the story in the first place — that’s the process of abstracting. And second: how all the pieces of the story connect.
So, if we’re identifying what’s in the story, it’d be easy enough to start with the characters. List them out: there’s a king, his daughter, a jarl, his niece, fish-people, two heirs living 300 years in the future, and a stag-god, not to mention the various keepers of shops and museums that may be involved in the story as well. Let’s just give all the main players abbreviations, to start out:
D (King’s Daughter)
J (Mountain Town Jarl)
N (Jarl’s Niece)
L (Boy 87th in line for throne)
M (Boy 86th in line for throne)
Great! We at least see some principle characters now. At this point, a writer that got carried away in the freewriting process may realize they have too many ‘cooks in the kitchen’ within this story, and even the small step of listing your characters out this way can give you that information. But, if they look at that list and are satisfied, the next step will be to identify some of their connections to each other. Try this on for size:
K & D
K ~ F
J & N
L & M
D > L & M
M > S
Note here that I’ve developed some of my own logical symbols (I explain them in the next paragraph, but see if you can figure them out on your own!) to describe these characters’ relationships.
Characters that are connected in some intimate way, most likely through blood, are connected with &. Characters with antagonistic relationships are connected with ~. And any characters that are aware of others, but where the relationship may not be reciprocated, are connected to those others through >.
Now, just look at that list. Take a gander at all of the connections between characters. What do you see? What is there the most of? What may be lacking?
For my money, I see that there are plenty of interconnected characters with no established antagonism. K & D, J & N and L & M are all connected, but not in such a way as to be antagonistic toward each other. In fact, there’s only one antagonistic relationship in the whole story as of yet — again, this could be an ‘Aha!’ moment for our writer, who sees that adding some clear and simple conflicts between characters might be a good idea for such a convoluted story — giving the reader something to hold onto and root for. Speaking of convolution, there’s one last thing we can map out: time, and perhaps space as well! This story takes place across two timelines and what seems to be a few locations, so let’s parse those out here.
K & D
K ~ F
J & N
L & M
Now, we’ve identified three distinct timelines and can see how they balance out in terms of the actions and characters in play on a chronological level.
In the ancient past, the stag-god reigned. In the bulk of the story’s chronology, the King seeks to oppress the fishpeople and the jarl and his niece are also present (we don’t know their connection just yet, but know they are there). Lastly, there are the two brothers, three hundred years in the future, who are known by some people from the main timeline and who themselves know of the stag-god from the ancient timeline.
Looking at this overall, I’m actually struck by a sense of balance: one set of major characters resides hundreds of years beyond the main protagonists, while another major character resides hundreds of years in the past. This could give our writer yet another ‘Aha!’ moment. As they write, it would be good for them to identify and clarify those distinctions early on, to establish what events are ancient or yet to come and at what particular points. Perhaps this way of formulating the story could help the writer change an element of their story and its structure, but even if it doesn’t, it’s at the very least a useful tool for visualizing that structure — for keeping the chronology of the tale consistent, intact, and easy-to-reference.
Of course, a logical analysis like this doesn’t apply exclusively to writing. In fact, It can apply to just about anything. The point of using LSL as a creative tool is in how it abstracts your creative work and allows you to see relationships between key elements: how and where do points of tension arise and resolve across your poem? What conclusions might result? But in another world, how does the order of your photographic series ebb and flow; which pieces are in visual tension with each other, and which are complementary?
In the end, though I’ve used LSL as a starting point, there isn’t much logical reasoning that’s actually going on here. Where logical reasoning involves premises, conditions, and conclusions (lots of ‘unless,’ ‘neither’ and ‘inevitably,’ if you catch my drift), the process I’ve outlined has involved more abstraction and simple rearranging. Using full-blown LSL to reach a logical conclusion for your work or story may be your next step, but for my money, most creators just need to understand how to view their messiest work in an ordered way, to abstract it and identify patterns that they can use to improve it.
To put just this thought in the words of the crazy-haired man itself:
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
Although I wonder if Einstein was talking more moralistically at the time that he penned this humdinger, the principle of the quotation still stands in the context of logic and creativity. We may generate our works using the fluid, bubbling thrill of inspiration, but any of those works’ problems are created the same exact way. Solving them, then, may take a different approach.
Next week, we’ll take a look at something even more mathematical than LSL — the Fibonacci Sequence — and see how you can use principles like that to build and order your work from the ground up.
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This was Essay #2 in Fraught Experiments, a series of introductions to creative techniques and principles used throughout history. I’ll be posting new essays as part of Fraught Experiments…semi-regularly, shooting for Fridays. See you then!