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5 Great TED Talks to Inspire Your Writing

If you have never heard a TED Talk, or been part of the audience of one, you are missing out on a truly powerful experience. This is especially true if you are an artist and entrepreneur for your work. TED (an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading ideas in the form of short, powerful talks. The topics span everything from business and science to creativity and self-help and are led by people who are highly successful in their respective businesses or creative careers.

So take a moment to listen through the best ones I've found that are led by successful writers to inspire your own work. You won't be disappointed and it will likely be the most productive 18 minutes (or less) you spend today.

Amy Tan: Where Does Creativity Hide?

Amy Tan is the author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife and The Hundred Secret Senses. Her works explore mother-daughter relationships and the Chinese American experience, and for this TED Talk, she discusses the creative process. For writers looking for answers in how to tap into the creative process, this talk is a great way to fine-tune your senses.

Beginning with details about an essay she wrote at the age of 11, Tan discusses her own process of creation—particularly, how out of nothing, comes something. As a background for how she was taught, she speaks of how her mother's belief in fate or curses developed after her father and brother passed six months apart. She had this notion of death all around her, and her mother believed she would be next. When you focus on death, Tan notes, you become creative in a survival sense.

Tan asks her audience to entertain the question of why things happen, how things happen, and how do they influence things to happen? With these questions, Tan introduces what she calls the "cosmology of my own universe" as its creator and notes that creativity is a sense of one's inability to repress the dark matter, the uncertainty principle (am I a fraud? is my writing not meaningful anymore?), and the observer effect. In these, she notes that creative people have multiple levels of anxiety and ambiguity—you don't know what is happening, but you know it's happening.

Finally, she points out that as a creator, you notice disturbing hints from the universe. Writers get these hints/clues that have been both obvious and have not been. You begin to notice it more often and you learn to apply it. She discusses the thought process of her own trip to Burma and the book that would result. There, her chance encounters turned into an absolute necessary in writing a story.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Your Elusive Creative Genius

In this TED Talk, American author Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, begins with a discussion of how something peculiar has happened in her career to recalibrate her relationship with her work. After Eat, Pray, Love, which became a mega sensation, she notes that everywhere she goes, people treat her like she's doomed, like she's never going to be able to top the success of that book. She notes that there is always a fear-based reaction: What about the humiliation of rejection? Is she heading for the scrap heap of broken dreams?

She then questions what is it about creative ventures that worry people? She notes the grim death of magnificent, creative minds who have died young and often at their own hands. Many seem really undone in their creativity and it is a common assumption that artistry will ultimately lead to anguish. According to Gilbert, this is a dangerous assumption.

She then speaks of how in ancient Greece and Rome, people believed that creativity was a divine attendant. Greece called it daemons and Rome called it genius, but in both cases, it was a magical, divine entity that lived in the walls of an artist's studio. When great art happened, it was due to a person's daemon or genius, something that was outside of the ability of the artist alone.

Gilbert notes that this is a psychological construct to protect writers from narcissism or anxiety about success. With the beginning of rational humanism, people believed art came from the self. The artist was the genius instead of having a genius visit him or her. According to Gilbert, this new thought creates unmanageable expectations for performance that has been killing off artists for the past 500 years and she asks: Can we go back to an ancient understanding of the relationship between humans and creative mystery?

Andrew Stanton: The Clues to a Great Story

Andrew Stanton is an American film director, screenwriter, producer and voice actor who has created award-winning screenplays with Pixar. His film work includes co-writing Pixar's A Bug's Life (1998), along with Finding Nemo (2003) and its sequel Finding Dory (2016). He is also the brains behind WALL-E (2008) and Disney's John Carter (2012), as well as the co-writer on all four Toy Story films and Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Beginning with an off-kilter joke (NSFW, don't say I didn't warn you!) about a man in the Scottish Highlands, Stanton suggests that storytelling is joke telling. The best storytelling involves the teller knowing the ending, and everything that is said—from the first to the last—affirming the human connection.

He then discusses the greatest story commandment: make me care, emotionally and aesthetically. Starting from the ending of his personal story to how he learned storytelling, he discusses how he used this method in the fantasy/science fiction film that he co-wrote and directed, John Carter. He notes that, as with this movie, all good stories should begin by giving you a promise that it will lead you somewhere meaningful by the end.

He then discusses WALL-E, which earned him two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature, and how storytelling without dialogue is the most inclusive form of storytelling. The audience actually wants to work for their meal, they just don't want to know they're actually doing that, he says. Thus, this is the job of the storyteller and the unifying theory of his screenplay, Finding Nemo, which won him a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He notes that as with this movie, the best characters are the ones who are trying to scratch an unknown itch.

Finally, he discusses how change is fundamental in a story. If stories go static, they die. This TED Talk is so full of valuable advice, you'll want to watch it twice just to catch everything from this gifted screenwriter.

Misan Sagay: Why you should write

I write because I'm a wrinkle, says Misan Sagay, a former emergency room doctor who made her writing debut with the 1999 film, The Secret Laughter of Women.

To explain this statement, Sagay discusses the reason she writes and the reason her audience (which is us) should write too. She notes that we are joined to all of our immediate families by stories. Stories bind us. We're likewise bound to our human family by stories, and film is the major narrative artform of our times.

She tells how when growing up, she never saw herself on screen. Going to the cinema was like looking at a family photograph album and she was not there, and she wondered why she was not there. She felt this as an ache. The Black films made at the time were predominantly male, violent, and contained drugs. Here she was—a Black woman who loved Jane Austen, and she was nowhere to be found on-screen.

This compelled her to become a storyteller because she realized that in order to see her story in cinema, to even see someone who looks like her, she would need to create it. And her story would be full of choices that are the sum total of who she is.

In this goal, she said she soon felt like a wrinkle in a smooth sheet…someone was always trying to smooth her over and convince her to accept the status quo. She mentions hearing advice such as, You cannot make a film with a black female lead. Nobody wants to hear about slavery, it makes people uncomfortable. There is no audience.

However, she has always refused to accept that. And with that background, she asks the audience, what story do you have to tell? Your story will never be made unless you choose to put it out there. And so begins the author's journey.

Sagay was eventually successful in her endeavor, with the 2013 British drama Belle, which she wrote in 2013. The film tells the story of Belle, the daughter of an enslaved African and a British admiral. It delves into the untold stories of African descendents, especially women, in British society in the late 1700s. It was Sagay's Jane Austen on screen, just like she was compelled to write when younger.

Now as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sagay is also a member of the Wolfe pack: a group of 50 leading female screenwriters working in Hollywood seeking to draw other women into the screenwriting business.

Simon Van Booy: How To Write Your Novel In Under 20 minutes

Don't let the title fool you—this is not a discussion of how to write a novel in 20 minutes (that's impossible). However, in this 20-minute discussion, author Simon Van Booy answers the question: Why should anyone write a novel?

Some background on Van Booy: his short story collection, Love Begins in Winter, won the 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. He is also a best-selling author of nine fiction titles, along with three anthologies of philosophy. He founded Writers for Children in 2013 and through it, helps young people build confidence in their storytelling abilities.

For this particular TED Talk, he begins by noting that being a commercial success is not the same as being a literary success. In fact, in many cases, the literary "greats" were unsuccessful during their times. But one thing they did, he notes, is that they followed their core—that inner voice that guides you as a writer and becomes stronger and clearer the more you write. Writing frees you from fear and with wisdom comes autonomy. Being a commercial success isn't anywhere in that equation.

For his specific advice for getting a novel written, he offers these six steps:

  1. Create a unique place, time and conditions for your writing to take place. He suggests that you have a place that's exclusively yours and that no one else uses, or a place in which you do nothing else but write (so no Internet surfing!). He advises that you treat it the way priests treat sacred relics. Your work is a holy object and the location you write is where you're going to give birth to and kill your characters. It is where you're going to exorcise your demons.
  2. Since all writers need to read, don't read anything you don't love. Don't read what you think you should read, make sure that the book on your nightstand is something that inspires you and sparks your spirit. He notes that being inspired is such an exciting part of life.
  3. Sketch and sketch often, just like artists. Take a notebook with you, sketch things, put a paragraph there, go out, go into the woods, visit thrift stores, go nowhere for no reason and write things down that move you in your heart.
  4. Character and plot are easy if you make it real. As you're writing, be sure to include bits of real life and weave it together while getting rid of the seams. Merge the character's life with your own.
  5. Only tell 20% of what happened. Your story doesn't need to be a character's complete life, it can be only part of it—but a year that changed the character in some way.
  6. Keep rewriting until you stop changing things. If a chapter can be removed without disrupting the flow of the story, it is superfluous. If it cannot, congratulations, you have a good chapter—and only after multiple revisions and rewriting sessions will you find out which.
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