Creativity Exercises for Writers

from Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents

Posted 1/29/23

People enjoy being challenged by possibly unanswerable questions. Like a seriously contended chess game, they cause us to feel awake and excited, and therein lie the seeds for creativity. Try these writing exercises and see if any of them help you become a more creative thinker and writer.

1. The Big Bang

Imagine what existed before the so-called Big Bang. Imagine holding in your hand the alleged sphere of concentrated energy that contained the entire universe before it exploded to form the universe as it now is and will be. Next, imagine a "time" before the sphere existed. Assuming you only see empty black space, what existed before that? Is the opposite of something possible? If yes, how did something emerge from nothing?

At best, we are left with a paradox that cannot be answered unless we agree to negate the answer. Science confirms that the mystery exists, but fails to provide context or satisfying solutions. Each of us is an existing product of whatever happened and is still happening, and we are capable of getting at least this far with our mental gymnastics. What if we convert the mystery into an abstract Rubik's Cube and contemplate every way to resolve it? It's unlikely that any of us can, but the process of trying might expand our creative potential.

2. Define (Don't Describe) Life

Matter is everywhere and it's dynamic. However, only a minute fraction of matter is biologically alive. We can see and measure when something is alive, and when it isn't, but no mortal can see what life is as a thing. Science doesn't help much. There's much discussion about steam vents and crashing molecules, but no one has been able to replicate what that is. Separate from all matter is an energy we refer to as life, and we are its beneficiaries. What else might exist that goes even beyond what we refer to as life?

3. What Are Thoughts Made Of?

Can thoughts exist without a brain? What about without a mind? Can a mind exist without a brain? Can a person's thoughts exist without a biologically supported body? Are thoughts alive? Was matter created by thoughts, vice versa, or neither? Can God be the merging of all thoughts? Where do thoughts go after we stop thinking them? Do thoughts think about us? I can keep going, but now it's your turn. Don't forget to envision potential answers.

4. Are Religions Proto-Creativity Systems?

As soon as we start attending Sunday school, we are trained to think outside the box. Whether or not religious stories are the literal truth is separate from their manifest creativity and reliance upon blind faith. Every generation feels overwhelmed by everything that's inherited and is understandably inclined to cling to whatever explanations and guidelines already exist. As societies are forced to change, their belief systems are pressured to keep up. Religions that aren't inherently expansive tend to fade or spawn offshoots more relevant to the changed environment. That can't happen without human creativity. Even if divinely mandated, it still depends upon the human ability to mentally integrate fantastic concepts as de facto explanations for whatever we don't understand.

People of faith are referred to as "followers." Some of them may indeed be followers, but others are genuine cocreators. Studies show that many people of faith apply obscure parts of their brains in order to feel emotionally connected to and in harmony with something that can't be proven to exist but which for them is absolutely real and "with them." Many people, especially in Western societies, are more comfortable with science than religion. But what if science is the same as religion? How is the Big Bang theory any more or less absurd than Genesis? The point is that both religion and science can be used as creativity systems, assuming we avoid becoming dogmatic.

5. What Is Love?

Imagine what love might be for insects, reptiles, amphibians, single-cell organisms, even viruses. If you choose to exclude these beings from love, then imagine what replaces it. What passion drives allegedly loveless creatures to achieve feats of communal survival that outpaces us mere mammals?

6. Can You Deliberately Change Your Mind Back and Forth?

I've saved the simplest exercise for last. But it's also the most valuable in these divisive times. The rules are very simple. Take one of your beliefs and write from the opposing viewpoint. Let's say you're pro-choice. You know why you feel that way, but what do you really know about opposing opinions? You likely have unrecognized prejudices. Let go of everything you think you know about the other side and read what they say. Next, formulate arguments as if you were advocating against your own team, and do it in good faith.

I was on my college debating team, and we never knew ahead of time which side of the argument we would be arguing. Because we were always driven to win, we could never allow our personal beliefs to undermine our ability to decisively present the side we were assigned. This was an invaluable exercise that I've used ever since. Whenever someone expresses an opinion, I feel the urge to ask questions about what drives their opinion. I'm careful to not put them on the defensive or cause them to feel threatened, and I don't even indicate whether I agree or disagree. If I sense that the person isn't open to this process, I immediately drop it.

I like to think that the above process helps me to be open-minded and not prone to tribal air pockets. I consider it one of the many ways to maintain mental agility and health. This doesn't mean you shouldn't have opinions. On the contrary, you definitely should. However, this exercise will give you the elasticity to avoid de facto brainwashing and the tools to step outside your usual community when appropriate. And it enables fiction writers to conjure realistic representations of people they don't necessarily know.

©2023 Jeff Herman. All rights reserved.

Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents

Excerpted from the book Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. Copyright ©2023 by Jeff Herman. Printed with permission from

Jeff HermanJeff Herman is the author of Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 29th Edition and coauthor of the acclaimed Write the Perfect Proposal. ...