Creative Living 1: Christopher West

December 31st, 2008

This is the first in a weekly series of guest blogs about creativity by people who are leading creative lives.  Beginning on January 11, a new blog will go online every Sunday night.

Christopher West, to the best of my knowledge, was the first writer to set mysteries in post-Mao China, and the four novels he wrote featuring Wang Anzhuang, a detective in the contemporary Beijing Xing Zhen Ke (Criminal Investigation Department) are among my favorite books. The series comprises four terrific titles, Death of a Blue Lantern, Death on Black Dragon River, Red Mandarin, and The Third Messiah, all of them enviably good. China is undoubtedly the world’s fastest-changing place, and West captures it marvellously. As one reviewer said, “The atmosphere of a society undergoing dramatic transition is conveyed with authority and a welcome dash of wit.” He can be reached at

Creativity is the ability to make something new. This can manifest itself in small ways, such as improving the filing system at work, or in majestic ones, such as writing a novel: everyone has the capacity to be creative, and should be proud of what they create, large or small.

Many people do not believe this, and believe instead in the Romantic notion of the ‘genius’ who has a monopoly on creativity (as opposed to the dull, plodding ordinary Joe or Joanna who has none). To see what nonsense this is, look at any group of five-year-olds. If ‘society’ later grinds creativity out of some people, it is at least partially because those people have bought into the ‘I’m just an ordinary Joe therefore I’m uncreative’ myth. More fool them.

Though everyone is creative, talent is probably normally distributed across the population, like most other traits such as height. But there are many different types of talent. Novels, poetry, drama, reportage, music, philosophy, humour, physical expression (dance, sport), making things, mending things etc. People talk of certain individuals having a ‘talent for love’, and why not? Relating to other human beings is an activity that requires lots of creativity.

Having established that artistic creativity is only one kind of creativity, so artists shouldn’t think themselves superior to the rest of the human race, I’m going to spend the rest of this piece on artistic creativity! I hope what I say below will be of interest to readers, whatever kind of creativity you have most of…

  1. Find your medium. It follows from the many-faceted nature of human creativity that you need to find out what your favourite creative medium is. You may have several. Lucky you – though you may not be able to develop them all fully. So which one do you follow? I think your intuition will tell you. Keep the others for a hobby – for example, I am a (very) amateur musician.
  2. Seek out kindred spirits. Creativity flourishes best in an atmosphere of activity and excitement. Think Elizabethan theatre or the Liverpool music scene in the early 1960’s. OK, there may not be these prime examples going on where you live, but seek out the keenest, most able people around you. Don’t be afraid of competition. It’s good for creativity.
  3. Get nerdy. Inside every ‘genius’ is an unglamorous individual with a fascination for the minutiae of whatever they are good at. Be proud of this, and let yourself really enjoy it. Mike Tyson, who may not be everybody’s model of a creative soul but was outstandingly creative in his field, was fascinated by the great boxers of the past and spent ages watching and re-watching videos of classic fights.
  4. Practice a lot. Malcolm Gladwell is only the most recent of a stream of people to point out that to be really good at something you have to work hard at it. (The Romantic genius didn’t have to work hard, of course. They were just inspired. But the Romantic genius is a myth.)
  5. Make it a habit. As a professional writer, how do I get myself into a really creative mood? By sticking my bum on a chair at 9.30 on Monday morning and switching on the computer. That really works. Every now and then it doesn’t – in which case have one more go, then go and do something totally different for the morning. After a while you get to know when you really need to stop and refresh, or when your subconscious is just being lazy (again!).

Some answers to more specific questions…

How do I spot ‘winning’ ideas? All ideas seem great when they first appear. I start planning them out: if they are really good ideas, new thoughts emerge, and the idea acquires a life of its own. If it’s not such a good idea, it tends just to sit there and not develop much.

How do I know when something is ‘finished’? There is a nice glow I get from a work that feels ‘finished’, and that’s a good time to stop. But actually if I have the time to put it away for a few months then revisit, it can suddenly look very unfinished. Arguably this process can go on forever – publishers’ deadlines can be helpful here! With a shorter piece, if you can leave it overnight before sending it off, that can really help. The story of this piece might be instructive. I wrote a draft about a week ago, but wasn’t happy with it. I then tinkered with it for a while. Then I left it for several days, and now I’ve come back and rewritten the whole thing very quickly. I’ll have another look tomorrow morning, but I know it will be pretty much right.

How do I know if a project is ‘beyond rescue’? This is always a tough one. Arguably all creative work is done to satisfy the artist, and the works that succeed are those that then hit the spot with a load of other people. So a piece might feel great but just not resonate with anyone else out there (I have a humorous sporting detective story that has suffered exactly that fate.) You just have to accept that the judgement of the marketplace has been negative in this instance, and get on with the next project.

26 Responses to “Creative Living 1: Christopher West”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    What a marvelous start to this exciting series! Each piece of advice is priceless, but what’s clicking around in my mind is:

    ” It follows from the many-faceted nature of human creativity that you need to find out what your favourite creative medium is.”

    Thanks to Tim for kicking off this project and thank you to Christopher for sharing these valuable insights.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I agree, Lisa. Robert Burton says in “The Anatomy of Melancholy” that he who is everywhere is nowhere. As much as I might like to spend hours on photography or learn to play piano or master Urdu, it all would take away from writing. And becoming a better writer is going to take not only endless practice, in other words, writing daily, but all the creative energy I can summon. So if I want to be the best writer I can be, I have to identify it as my priority and stick with it, even when I can’t write a functioning sentence.

    There are some really great pieces in the chute, by the way. Chris has gotten us off on the right foot.

  3. Pia Says:

    Interesting and food for thought. It’s great to see the series take off and the guest writings appear.

    I think that all life is about decisions, of taking risks and go for one thing and see if it’ll work out. It is a chance we will have to take and that can be rather scary. Stay in the 8-5 job which is safe, or start a new business. Focus on writing or painting. Choose this or that woman for the new date. Some decisions will exclude others, but I think we often see the consequenses of our decisions to be much harsher than they really are.

    There’s nobody who says you can’t spend 10 years trying to become a great writer and then turn to photography or playing the oboe. When it comes to it, it’s about what makes us happy and makes us complete.

    The above makes me wonder if there are some creativities which should be explored in new ways when more than one field draws one. Why only stick to one area if several can be combined and create something different and appealing.

    I could imagine comics started this way (though I don’t know)?

    Thanks for everything and may the New Year shine good light, happiness, success and dreams coming true over you all.

  4. fairyhedgehog Says:

    This is a great start to the series.

    Happy New Year!

  5. Dana King Says:

    It’s gratifying (to me) to see various types of creativity acknowledged as worthy of celebration. A musician friend of mine once complained that the daughter of a friend wasn’t going into music as a career. The girl had perfect pitch, and my friend thought she was wasting a gift. I told her it was unfair to the girl to assume she had but one such gift, and that there were many other talents that were just as worthy of development. Frankly, I’d like to see classical musicians and writers get more acclaim and athletes get somewhat less, but I’m not one to say the writer/musician is more worthy because their “art” is more “elevated.” Excellence should be celebrated in whatever form it comes.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks to all of you on behalf of Chris West, who has read and enjoyed your comments.

    Pia, I think you’re right that one can explore different kinds of creativity, although I’d argue that it’s something that’s best done serially rather than simultaneously — and even then, I think I’d be a better writer if I spent twenty years on it rather than switching to photography for the second ten years. And, sure, you can use creative pursuits as hobbies or as a way of relaxing, but I believe you’re likeliest to reach a level of excellence if you give the art form of your choice a permanent shrine dead center in your consciousness. Comics are a great exception, but I think the best comics are the work of primarily first-rate writers, but who can also draw their ideas. Or, as is often the case, they’re collaborations.

    fairyhedgehog, thanks, and thanks for dropping by. Next Sunday, January 11, we’ll have something completely different — a classical composer who’s also won an Emmy for best score. And he has the bravest writing tip I’ve ever read.

    Dana — Dead right. All kinds of creativity should be acknowledged and encouraged. Otherwise, you wind up living in the Age of the Concrete Slab, where utility triumphs and imagination is treated like some kind of tarnish. I think that Chris’s central point holds true at any time — find the area that most engages you, and mine it for all it’s worth. (And I’d argue that an athlete like Derek Jeter is an artist, that what he does is no more complex than what a fine violinist does. But it would be nice to see more parity in the pay scales.

  7. usman Says:

    My thanks to both Chris and Tim for this great post.

    Chris, you mentioned that when you finished a project you had a nice glow feel.
    Having finished my MS, my experience was the opposite. I felt dejected…perhaps because I had tired of the subject matter, the revisions and thinking and tinkering…or perhaps, because the book wasn’t simply good enough.
    Do you experience this dejection, sometimes after finishing. And what do you attribute to that–a flawed book, or being tired.

  8. Sylvia Says:

    “This can manifest itself in small ways, such as improving the filing system at work”

    How wonderful to think about the creativity involved in the little things, so easily dismissed as menial. This post has me looking around my house and my friends in a new way.

  9. Chris West Says:

    Thanks for the comments (and to Tim, of course, for setting the whole thing going). They’re a real pleasure to read.

    On the subject of creativity and relationships – I see this talent in children at my daughter’s school. Some of them just have the knack for bringing people together, soothing ruffled feathers and generally making the wheels of 6-year-old society go round. Most of them don’t have this knack (nor do most of their parents, including me). It’s remarkable and cheering to observe.

    Usman – my reaction to finishing a piece of work is just mine; everyone’s is different. If I’m not happy with something, I tend to react in one of two ways. Either I go into a frenzy of tinkering, or I put it away in a (metaphorical) drawer for a while. After a time, I suddenly feel a strong urge to work on it again. On revisiting it, both the strengths and weaknesses of the piece are apparent (believe me, it will have both). Looking at your post, it sounds like the second course is the one you should follow. Take a break; live with what you’ve written (it will be sloshing around your subconscious, whether you want it to or not); come back to it when you feel a sudden call to do so. Good luck!

  10. Larissa Says:

    Ok, so in case you hadn’t heard. Great start off. That being said-I really dig the overall optimistic approach to these things. Something that I’ve learned is that being creative or artsy or whatever shouldn’t hurt…meaning there shouldn’t be any guilt or frustration or anger at others on the path to getting where you want to go creatively.

    It doesn’t always work out that way and the things that Chris mentions are part common sense and part experience-a few things that really hang with me are exactly what Sylvia pointed out and the “finding your medium part” This is something I struggle with. Huuuugely. I tend to be decent at a lot of little things but not really great at one big thing. Going back to what I said about this whole process being ideally painless…I run into a lot of self critique and frustration because I simultaneously feel the need to do many things and to focus my energies on one unknown thing.

    Whether that’s because I”ve been told that I “should” only have one thing I’m “good” at or whether it’s because I just haven’t found the fullness of my voice yet I’m not sure.

    Thoughts on this Tim or Chris? I have always been equally cynical and envious of Renaissance Men/Women and those souls who find what they love, what really lets them speak and can hole up and do it for 30 years. I dunno. I certainly don’t lack in experimentation I don’t think-perhaps commitment.

    Perhaps I just need to a blog post. (c:

    Thanks for the great beginning to the year. I’ll be back.

  11. Andrea Says:

    What a great idea for a series! I look forward to reading the rest.

  12. Peter Says:

    Wise words, I’d say, inspiring and quite possibily exhilarating even if one is not trying his hand at creative endeavors.

    Thanks, Chris. Thanks, Tim
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  13. usman Says:

    My last comment has disappeared for some reason.
    What I wanted to say was on the lines of how to gauge your own talent. Is perseverance an enough of an indicator that we can succeed in professionally achieving our goals. That is a prerequisite no doubt. However, what else tells you that you are on the right path.

  14. Chris West Says:

    Larissa – the reality is that most people are in between your archetypes of the utterly focused specialist and the ‘dabbler’. As I’ve said, I do a spot of music from time (and I know that Tim was a songwriter). Most people have a portfolio of activities, and this is a good thing – insights from one can feed into others. In the end, I do think it is most rewarding to do one thing really well, but I don’t think this means you have to abandon other things, just prioritize. How do you know which one to choose? If it’s your job, sadly, the marketplace will tell you, and it’s not always what you want to hear. If it’s a hobby, then I think you just have to make a decision at some point. Draw up a list of things you want to do, and imagine a) life when you never did this again and b) life when this was your main creative outlet. Note down how you feel about each one. Live with these thoughts for a while. A decision should emerge.

    Usman – All but the most egocentric of artists (and there are number of these!) have doubts about their ability, so you’re in good company. Don’t let doubts put you off – just plug away at your work, as I recommended in my first post to you. If it takes you thirty years to write one great novel, you’ve done brilliantly. That’s the aesthetic aspect – in the mean time you have to earn a living! I use my writing skills commercially as well as working on fiction: I do all sorts of stuff like writing business books, doing marketing copy (etc. etc.) which keep the writing ‘muscle’ fit and bring in cash. And actually I’m fiercely proud of the craftsmanship that goes into these projects. So my advice is: keep going; ignore the inner voice saying ‘you’re rubbish’; but don’t starve in a garret for your art either.

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    First, I want to say that I really think Chris’s answer to Larissa about making a decision — to try to imagine your life without each of your creative enterprises and see which leaves the most gaping hole — is tremendous. I want to add — and I’m speaking about myself, but also about some other creative people I know — that sometimes the allure of multiple creative outlets is one manifestation of the fear of failure. As long as you never commit 100 percent, you can’t really ever fail. (Of course, you can’t ever really succeed, either.) I think this can be one of the most effective diversionary tactics our personal demons employ to keep us from actually getting in there and risking it all.

    And Usman, I agree with Chris that longterm commitment is necessary to bring our skills to their potential pitch of excellence. Just remember that most first novels are terrible. Think how many brilliant books wouldn’t have been written if the authors of those terrible firsts had quit. You have a lot of talent — I know, because I’ve read you. You’re going to write a first-rate book. You just need to remember that there’s a difference between being an inexperienced writer and being a bad one. You’re not a bad one.

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Peter — Thanks for dropping in and leaving the words of encouragement. For those of you who care about intelligent crime fiction, Peter’s site,
    should be a regular stop.

  17. usman Says:

    Chris and Tim,

    Thanks for the reply. The personal demons-such an apt term, are what eat away at unpubs like me.

    And Tim, thanks for the compliments. It means a lot coming from you. But that throws up the question…what you read from me was the start of a detective novel; whereas I am more geared mentally towards serious writing. Sometimes, I think, I should write the irreverent stuff like Dilbar. At others, I wonder if I am good enough to write the serious books I want to.
    In short where does my writing medium lie.

  18. Dana King Says:

    Usman wrote:
    “what you read from me was the start of a detective novel; whereas I am more geared mentally towards serious writing.”

    Out of respect for Usman’s consistently high caliber of comments, I will allow that comment to pass without a vituperative response. 😉

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Just want to say that Sylvia has posted a terrifically beautiful response to Chris’s post on her blog at

    This is one of the best-written and most graphically appealing blogs I know. And her reaction to Chris’s post is well worth following that link up there.

  20. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Usman — What Dana is suggesting is that those of us who write detective novels and/or thrillers sometimes think of them as serious writing. These books explore themes just as real and important as so-called literary writing, and the demands on the writer are pretty much the same: create your world, fill it with people, set them in motion, and then keep the reader interested in it until they get to the back cover.

    Sure, there’s crap in the genre, but there’s crap in “literary” writing, too. And at least thrillers are rarely pretentious.

  21. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Usman, to answer your last question, your writing medium lies at the far limit of your ability. It’s always the best you can do, what you can only reach on tiptoe, the thing you’re not actually certain you can accomplish. That’s the only way talent grows, and (personally) I think it’s the most fun.

  22. Chris West Says:

    ‘What you can only reach on tiptoe’ – what a great way of putting it! That’s made my day.

    Usman – all artistic forms have rules. Sonnets, sonatas, even three-minute pop songs! Good artists create magic within those rules. So it’s wrong to say crime fiction (another set of rules) is ‘inferior’ to literary fiction. It’s just a different – OK, slightly tighter – set of rules. You may feel the need to write outside the rules of crime fiction (Shakespeare didn’t just write sonnets), so go ahead, do so and enjoy the journey. In the end, every writer – actually, every creative person, so I mean all of us – has to ‘find their voice’, and yours may not be in crime. But you shouldn’t look down on the crime genre or your own work in it.

    Everyone — thanks for your posts. I’ve hugely enjoyed participating in this discussion.

  23. usman Says:

    Hello everyone,

    I am sorry to have said things in the wrong words. Guess I was in a hurry to be somewhere else.
    I was not looking down on crime fiction, and when I used the word serious fiction, I was not alluding to literary fiction.
    I specifically addressed Tim, because he had read writing of mine that was irreverent and funny. By serious I meant things that affected people. I myself am sometimes influenced by thrillers or writers like Le Carre and Graham Greene. I do not think we can call them literary.
    I guess I was trying to get an answer as to how do we meld these things, these ideas of writing, and thoughts.
    But I’ll leave it at that. For the moment, I’ll just say sorry for, unnecessarily being clumsy, and leaving an impression as if I look down on crime/genre writing. Far from it. I am in no position in the first place to judge anyone. I hope this states my intentions. And clarifies my stupidity.
    Thanks for being soft on me.

  24. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Usman, please don’t take it to heart. Dana’s got a big hot button about the idea that detective novels and thrillers don’t count as serious books. I share it, because I work extremely hard to make my books as good as they can possibly be, and (like all the writers I know) I try to transcend the conventions of genre.

    And the Dilbar book I read so much of was very well written. I don’t know about you, but I think being funny — which you certainly are in that book — is serious business.

    Your contributions are very highly valued, and I only hope you’ll keep visiting.

  25. Larissa Says:

    Chris-Thank you for the wonderful response. I think if I can get it out of my head that to be an artist means specifically this or specifically that I’ll do much better by myself and others-as far as making a decision-I am definitely going to sit down and analyze how much richer or poorer my life would be without certain things. I actually posted about that on my blog before reading your response. (c:

    Tim-You’re on to something. It’s been a huge battle for me to accept the idea of succeeding or failing at something so on some level it may very well be distraction. Not totally though anymore, they really are all things I like to do. I dunno. I left more thoughts about it on my blog (good timing I guess).

  26. Lindsay Price Says:

    Great post! I am such an advocate of establishing a habit of creativity. It’s important to keep at it, so that in dire times, in the middle of writer’s block, it’s there to fall back on.

    And exploring creativity is the fun part of writing. It’s not the fourth or fifth re-write, it’s not solving plot holes, it’s something we should do every day!

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