Storytelling as Archaeology: Lowering the Bar for Creativity


    Originally drafted on Substack

    Do you consider yourself a creative person? If you’re older and not working in a creative field, chances are your answer is no.

    But did you draw as a child?

    Did you make up stories to tell to your stuffed animals?

    At one point did you lose this innate skill that we all possessed as children? When did you decide creativity was no longer a part of who you were?

    When it comes to spontaneity and storytelling, Keith Johnstone observes in Impro that his students are often paralyzed by perfectionism:

    If I tell a student, ‘Say a word’, he’ll probably gawp. He wants a context in which his answer will be ‘right’. He wants his answer to bring credit to him, that’s what he’s been taught answers are for.

    Coming up with something creative on your own feels really high-pressure. You want to prove that you’re original, that you’re clever.

    Maybe you feel the need to follow the “rules”. You must first save the cat or plot out the entire hero’s journey.

    But how would you feel if I told you that your story already exists?

    Story as fossil

    In his book On Writing, Stephen King compares stories to fossils :

    Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground ... part of an undiscovered pre-existing world

    King describes how your job as a writer is to carefully excavate this fossil without breaking it.

    You know what that means?

    You don’t even know what the fossil is at first!

    It is through the process of excavating that you discover whether your fossil is a T-rex or a trilobite.

    There is no right answer.

    Detaching art from ego

    If we believe that art is self-expression, then someone who criticizes your art is essentially criticizing your self-worth.

    Perhaps at some point, you were given a grade in art class, or you saw a classmate’s work and saw that it was “better”. You felt your ego shudder and you resolved to avoid any future pain with the simple phrase “I’m bad at art“.

    But the concept of art as self-expression is relatively new in the history of mankind.

    In ancient Greek culture, human artists were vessels, channeling the muses and the gods’ divine inspiration.

    In traditional physical crafts like sculpture and carpentry, the creator is not brute-forcing a predetermined vision. Rather, they are listening to the raw materials.

    The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material. ― Michelangelo

    Sounds similar to the fossil metaphor we saw above, right?

    As another example, here is a Chinese inkstone artisan describes his thought process for one of his pieces:

    This stone has a really good texture… The only problem is there is some white quartz on the stone. But that’s how it is naturally. So we’ll try and keep it, and design the stone in a way that turns its flaws into something perfect. 1

    This year, June Huh was awarded the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics. He had this to say about creativity:

    Huh himself draws parallels between the artist and the mathematician. For both, he said, “it feels like you’re grabbing something that’s already there, rather than creating something in your mind.”2

    Collaborate with your story

    You can have this type of conversation with any type of creative work.

    For example, Johnstone is working with an actress and asks her to come up with a story. She freezes and says that she can’t think of one.

    So Johnstone flips it. He goes:

    “Suppose I think of one and you guess what it is.”

    At once she relaxes, and it’s obvious how very tense she was…

    She agrees, and begins to ask him questions about his story. What she doesn’t know is that Johnstone doesn’t have a story in mind at all!

    Rather, he simply answers her questions with the following algorithm:

    • say “yes” to any question that ends in a vowel
    • say “no” to any question that ends in a consonant
    • say “maybe” to any question that ends with the letter “Y”

    Consequently, the student easily comes up with a story because “she doesn’t feel obliged to be ‘creative’, or ‘sensitive’ or whatever, because she believes the story is my invention.”


    I hope from these examples that you’ve learned that although thinking up stories is hard, getting them to come to you is easy!

    Your creativity is still with you, if you’re willing to trust in it. As Johnstone mused:

    I began to think of children not as immature adults but of adults as atrophied children

    If you’re interested, here’s a case study of how I’ve been applying these principles in songwriting!

    You’ll see in the process that creativity is simply a side effect of listening and making choices. In this case, I’m literally listening to an instrumental. But, as you’ve seen from these examples, listening can be done with a friend, your environment, or even your past-self!

    So take the pressure off your ego and get creative!

    This piece was also published on Interintellect's newsletter in preparation for a salon I hosted.

    I had a conversation with Linus Lu on the Interintellect podcast as well: Kevin Zhai: On Storytelling and Creativity.