The Normal Deviation Anthology: Where Speculative Fiction meets Creative Writing Research

With our Kickstarter campaign in full swing and still in search of funding, I thought I would explain some of the weird and wonderful research lurking behind and the Normal Deviation Anthology. As you probably know, both Lyle and I are writers, university teachers, and creative writing researchers. With that in mind, we are always looking for ways to demystify creativity and make creative writing accessible, expressive, and fun. We are also both attracted to writing that challenges borders whether these are artistic, political or social. When Lyle’s tweet went out early last year, I was intrigued. Would a short story collection built around a single image by authors with no previous association with one another end up as just several people telling the same story? Would the restriction of working with the picture inspire creativity or hamper it? Was there a way to get a creative deviation from the normal narrative line inspired by the picture without prescribing or disallowing an approach? This was what prompted me to say, “I’ll help.”  

Lyle and I had used the weird picture above as a writing prompt in a couple of classes and the results had been mostly predictable. Most stories centered on a sensible explanation for a bear on the bed. Occasionally a student would really push the boat out creatively and write something that made us look at the image again with brand new eyes. This image inspired one writer to write about a mental asylum patient avoiding their imaginary friend (a common approach) and another to write a series of letters from a bear to Santa Clause (one that had never occurred to me while looking at the image.) The reason for the difference between the two approaches was simply that the latter student was actively avoiding obvious routes.  

Our hypothesis on how we might get more of the latter type of writing was suggesting Third Option Thinking, also known as having the writer discard their first two ideas and run with the third. Third Option Thinking is a concept usually applied to films where a protagonist is presented with two dire resolutions to a problem and rather than choosing either, she chooses a third less obvious option and saves the day. In creative writing terms researching Third Option Thinking is about understanding creative thought processes. I believed in the first instance that a writer encounters a creative writing prompt, particularly one that requires a writer to make causation connections, the first ideas they have are typically ones they remember from another story they have encountered.

For instance, consider your first story ideas if I said: 
Write a story about Twins, A Secret, and A Lake.

Are your twins children?
Is your secret that someone is dead?
Did they drown in the lake?

If you said yes to any of the above, then chances are your brain is on recall rather than create. Our hypothesis was that if we asked our responders to develop their third idea rather than their first two, we might get a creative response rather than a recalled one. We also recognized as researchers that there was a chance that the first creative ideas might be the best ones. So we began to experiment.

1)      We had the public select a weird image from a range of odd images. This was so that we could participate in the research ourselves and have the same amount of time as our writers did to come up with story ideas.
2)        The writers reported their first two ideas and then developed the third. We documented these ideas during our submission call.
3)        We are now in the process of categorizing and understanding the creative choices. As such, our writers not only agreed to be published in the anthology but also consented to allow us to dissect their work as research.

What is brilliant about the collection is the similarities between the stories that emerged BECAUSE we asked for Third Option Thinking. Some similarities such as duality, power play, and good & evil are clearly suggested by the image, but others such as time travel, alternate realities, and aliens are harder to trace back to a source. In addition to Normal Deviation providing a space for up and coming authors, the collection itself is an experiment in understanding creativity. We are still processing our preliminary data, but the creative research landscape that’s available here is as exciting (to me) as the stories themselves, and that’s saying a lot.

Please consider supporting the Normal Deviation Anthology through Kickstarter. Get your copy and see for yourself how 23 short stories create a universe built around a single image.

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