Saturday, 9 March 2013

Challenge, focus, creative solution, completion

At the moment, I'm sitting at my desk, looking at a little cartoon.

It's one I drew myself. Not that I'm making any claims to being a cartoonist, or for that matter a visual artist of any kind. But sometimes, I quite like to draw stuff.

The cartoon is split into four separate panes:

1. The challenge
2. The focus
3. The creative solution
4. The completion.

I didn't make up the titles. Many years ago I attended a problem-solving workshop as part of my job, and these were the titles of the four sessions which described the four stages of problem-solving.

I didn't love this workshop. To be honest, anything that involves me sitting down while other people stand up and go blah blah blah is not something that I love. So, during the first session, the challenge session, I began to draw. Vaguely aware of what the presenter was droning on about, I began to draw my own little challenge. It's a golfer, standing on the edge of a cliff, about to hit a golf ball. The flag is located on a small island, a tiny stack poking at from the water quite a distance away.

Once I had this picture drawn, I had figured out a strategy that would allow me to survive the rest of the workshop. I would draw a little cartoon to illustrate each part of the problem solving strategy my golfer would use to solve the problem of getting the ball into the hole. I'm not going to tell you what that was (maybe I'll scan the pics and put them up for a subsequent post if people are interested) but I can tell you it did involve a rather helpful whale.

These cartoons really struck a chord with me when I noticed them recently, because in some ways they encapsulates the important aspects of writing to me. Most of my stories involve a character facing a problem (the challenge), taking the time to comprehend what that problem involves (the focus), finding a way to solve the problem (the creative solution) and finally enjoying the satisfaction of a problem solved (the completion).

It's more than just the characters. It's also about the way I go about writing a story. It's like I give myself a problem and then try to figure out the best way to solve it. And I can't always rely on helpful whales to come to my assistance. But that's where I frequently get the most enjoyment from the whole writing process.

Have a great week, and hope you find solutions to all your problems.


  1. I can relate to this. Writing for me has never been about storytelling. I’ve never been much of a storyteller to be honest; I’m not even one for telling jokes (I can never remember more than two or three). But I like solving problems, working things out on a page. That I use fictional characters as proxies is just a matter of convenience, a way of simplifying the problem and distancing myself from it. The first book I wrote was at a time when my life was in crisis and a year after I wrote it everything in my life had changed, absolutely everything. The question I sat down to answer—although I’m quite sure I never expressed it as succinctly as this—was: Where will I be in twenty years? Well, it’s now twenty years since I wrote that book and my life couldn’t be further from Jonathan’s but then Jonathan was never really me, he was a caricature, a worst case scenario whose life only got worse but that’s how I was feeling at the time. I got to live out the bleakest of futures on the page and leave real life to take care of itself. But, as one astute reviewer pointed out, Jonathan is not me; the character of Truth is every bit as much me. Jonathan has very little sense of humour, but even when things have been at their bleakest I’ve never lost mine; if anything it’s been my salvation.

    I also went through a phase of drawing cartoons even though I can’t draw to save myself. I managed this wee doodle that just stood there and I got to think up new and interesting things to put in his think bubble. A bit like David Lynch with his Angriest Dog in the World cartoons.

    1. Hi Jim,

      Sometimes I feel my life is pretty far away from Jonathan too - now that sounds a bit odd.