By Writing Excuses | June 5, 2011 - 5:00 pm - Posted in Career and Lifestyle, Theory and Technique

One of our most popular guests ever, Mary Robinette Kowal, finally joins Brandon, Dan, and Howard as a full-time cast-member. And now that she’s with us, we’re going to go back and revisit the very first topic we attempted to record (in a lost episode you can only hear in the bonus material on the 1st Season CD), which is whether or not creativity can be taught.

Mary says aspects of it can be taught. Howard’s inner Zen master says nothing can be taught, but anything can be learned. And from there we dive all the way in.

And you know what? Mary totally rescues the discussion, bringing perspectives that we were missing in that first session back in 2008. Especially right at the end, where she gives us some awesome creativity exercises.

Welcome to the team, Mary Robinette Kowal. We’ve needed you for three years.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1 by George R.R. Martin, narrated by Roy Dotrice

Writing Prompt: Take one of the creativity exercises and run with it. Alternatively, use this mash-up: “The Silence of the Mexican Herbie Part 2: The Two Towers.”

Pearl of Wisdom Not To Be Taken The Wrong Way: “Stealing from children is an awesome tool.”

Liner Note Link: Here is the narration and context exercise Mary mentioned.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, June 5th, 2011 at 5:00 pm and is filed under Career and Lifestyle, Theory and Technique. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. June 5, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

    Oh, now that’s not even playing fair.

    Posted by Wm
  2. June 5, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    So glad to have this podcast! It’s awesome, another great episode too. I’m going to check out that context exercise for sure.

    Posted by Mike
  3. June 5, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

    I sometimes have jazz students who tell me they aren’t creative and can’t improvise. I then ask them if they get a script every morning to tell them what they are going to say for the rest of the day. Just the act of getting up and out of bed forces us to be creative, but to be able to apply it into different fields takes practice.

    Your suggestion to take unrelated things and mash them together is excellent. I think that is something that many of us creative types do naturally.

    Posted by Berin Stephens
  4. June 5, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

    ” I then ask them if they get a script every morning to tell them what they are going to say for the rest of the day. “

    That’s brilliant, Berin.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  5. June 5, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

    Mary was always my favorite guest, so I’m looking forward to more. That said, how will this affect bringing in guests? 5 people seems like too much for a 15-20 minute discussion, so will you leave guests for when one of you can’t make it?

    Posted by Matt
  6. June 5, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    @Matt: We’ve talked about this, and I agree. Sometimes we’ll do guest episodes when only two or three of the usual hosts are available (like we did with Brandon and I at Penguicon, and like you’ll hear from Dan and I in a month or so.) But sometimes we’ll ALL be there, in which case we may take turns bowing out for an episode.

    Or maybe we’ll run long.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  7. June 5, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    My writing goal for the week is to post an exultant congratulation for all involved, but avoid the risk of having it come across as a backhanded compliment.

    Posted by Kizor
  8. June 5, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    Welcome Mary!! We love you, so it’ll be awesome to have you on the show.

    Posted by Matthew Watkins
  9. June 5, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

    It is great to hear that Mary Robinette Kowal will be a regular.

    Now with four regulars you should consider a 20 minute podcast.

    “Twenty minutes long, because you’re not in that much of a hurry, and we’re just a little smarter.”

    Posted by Derby
  10. June 5, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

    Fantastic! Welcome to the podcast Mary!

    Posted by Brent
  11. June 5, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    Thanks all! I’m delighted to be on board. The fellows are wicked smart and it’s fun to talk to them.

    Posted by Mary Robinette
  12. June 5, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

    Just when you thought Writing Excuses couldn’t get more awesome. Too bad I’m not on a computer with decent sound right now. Something to look forward to, at any rate.

    And, as an added bonus, we get more #marygoround whenever it’s time to record again.

    Posted by Jonathon Side (Jace)
  13. June 5, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

    Awesome! Good to have a female point of view on topics and someone to keep these guys in check. xD

    Posted by Mike
  14. June 5, 2011 @ 8:17 pm

    Awesome! I’m really excited about having Mary on the podcast…I second Derby’s comment. Surely Mary’s brain makes you all at least 5 minutes smarter. 😛

    Posted by André
  15. June 5, 2011 @ 8:49 pm

    I agree with the above posters who want y’all to go long. Besides, nothing against the rest of you guys, but Mary’s more pleasant to listen to, too. 😉

    Posted by Alastair Mayer
  16. June 5, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

    I’ll echo the other commentators–Mary Robinette Kowal is a great addition to an all-ready terrific podcast. The first five seasons have been excellent, but season six looks to top them all. With Mary Robinette on board, revisiting some of the other topics the ‘cast has covered would be worthwhile–characters, POV, brainstorming you name it. At the same time, I’m sure you have plenty of topics have yet to be covered. Can’t wait for this season to unfold.

    As always, thanks guys for all your time and effort.

    Posted by Dale Ivan Smith
  17. June 5, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

    Full time cast member? Awesome!

    I mean, I love you guys and all. But Mary is totally super awesome.

    Posted by Sean
  18. June 5, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

    I look forward (listen forward?) to your best season yet. Mary is an excellent addition to the podcast.

    Posted by Eric James Stone
  19. June 5, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    I agree with Berin, a lot of writers naturally mash unrelated ideas together to make new ideas, new characters, and new stories. I’ve done it several times. When I was a kid, that’s all I would do with my toys–have GI Joes team up with He-Man and Han Solo so they can fly around in space together.

    I’ll repeat so many others and say Mary Robinette Kowal is a great addition. She’s been a good addition in her guest appearance, is full of great ideas, and has a fantastic voice.

    Posted by Len Berry
  20. June 6, 2011 @ 1:13 am

    Yay more Mary!
    The episode on Puppetry is still my all time favorite.

    Posted by Chris`
  21. June 6, 2011 @ 2:42 am

    adding Mary Robinette Kowal to Writing Excuses is like adding chocolate to peanut butter. Two awesome things becoming exquisite when combined.

    Posted by Minnie Pearl's Hat
  22. June 6, 2011 @ 4:10 am

    Having Mary as a full-time cast member totally makes up for last weeks (IMO) lackluster show (Again, not the guests fault).

    Posted by CM
  23. June 6, 2011 @ 4:16 am

    And now that I have listened to the ‘cast, all I can say is: awesome, inspiring stuff.

    Posted by Jonathon Side (Jace)
  24. June 6, 2011 @ 4:37 am

    Such a great Podcast for the season opener; that’s an excellent context exercise, helpful when I find I’ve just penned an adverb for dialogue (he said lamentably)
    I found this podcast to be in the same vein as the “This Sucks…” podcast. So now Mary’s onboard I guess we can expect more Life Day references and more Pride and Prejudice and Zombies jokes?

    Posted by Rob Morgan
  25. June 6, 2011 @ 4:52 am

    Hmmmm, so with a female perspective as a full time cast member, perhaps now you can all actually do the episode that scares Dan? “How To Write Women” would certainly be handy to a lot of us. :p

    Also, hello and welcome! Please, help keep them crazy!

    Posted by Kurt
  26. June 6, 2011 @ 6:37 am

    Welcome Mary!

    “‘What happens if I do this’ – is the first step of combining the familiar with the strange.”

    I agree this is an early step, but at the risk of being overly semantical, my first step is always asking, “what if…”

    Marvel did this fabuously and had a great crossover line of comics. In addition, I think it’s best to, like comics, combine two items, each being familiar or each being strange, that one does not normally associate. From this method have we receive, not only, shorts like Hulk Verse, characters like Wolverine (who likes to fight and can heal, which works ultra well because it gives character motivation), but Video games like Wii Fit or Angry Birds, food like lemon and fish, and websites like Groupon.

    In closing, you’re mashup exercise, was awesome advice as allows for an easy pitch to agents, “It’s a great story, it’s like Silence of the Lambs meets Herbie.”

    (Thanks guys!…and gal!)

    Posted by Josh Cole
  27. June 6, 2011 @ 6:54 am

    […] Writing Excuses 6.1: Can Creativity be Taught? » Writing Excuses. […]

  28. June 6, 2011 @ 6:55 am

    Welcome to the show Mary! I love the idea of taking a fairy tale and changing one element at a time until you have a story. I think one of the ways Writing Excuses has most helped me is showing that writing isn’t this intangible muse thing. Creativity and good storytelling can be approached very logically.
    Welcome to the show Mary!

    Posted by Tyler Mills
  29. June 6, 2011 @ 8:08 am

    Welcome to the show, Mary. This podcast didn’t NEED to get better… But it has.

    Posted by Mark VanTassel
  30. June 6, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    Nice to have you on the podcast Mary. Excellent episode, though now “Easy Avatar: The Life and Times of an Intergalactic Tavern Wench” may be written, and I’m not so sure the world is ready for that yet.

    Posted by June Faramore
  31. June 6, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    So does this mean Mary will have to read Hero With A Thousand Faces? Because dangit I bought that audiobook on your recommendation and I expect a podcast on it this season!

    But seriously, thanks for all the great advice you guys have given over the last 3 years ,and I’m sure things will get even better with Mary Robinette on board.

    Posted by Rob Coston
  32. June 6, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    […] Excuses – Their June 6 update, v welcomes Mary Robinette-Kowal, a frequent guest podcaster in the past, as the fourth official […]

  33. June 6, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    Welcome Mary! Glad to see some girl-power added to the podcast (not that it wasn’t great before, guys =). I loved Shades of Milk & Honey and always looked forward to your guest appearances on the podcast. And now you’re permanent! Yay! I know you will be an awesome addition. Looking forward to future episodes!

    Posted by Jane
  34. June 6, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    Tackle the Monomyth in fifteen minutes? now that would be an extraordinary feat.

    I think that in terms of looking at Hero with a Thousand Faces in the format of WE it would really be a similar breakdown to Chris Vogler’s work and really that just puts the Monomyth into the three act structure simplified. Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale is much more interesting than the Monomyth anyway.

    Posted by Rob Morgan
  35. June 6, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

    You messed up my season 45 episode 9 dialog exercise by adding a member! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

    Posted by Duke
  36. June 6, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

    […] Brad Wheeler — Leave a comment June 6, 2011 I was listening to the most recent episode of Writing Excuses, and I was intrigued by a throwaway mashup that Brandon Sanderson mentioned: Goldilocks and the […]

  37. June 6, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    Welcome aboard, Mary! With four voices, I have even fewer excuses not to write.


    Once upon a time there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She wandered into the woods, and found herself suddenly trapped in the cabin of the Two Bears. They stood in front of the exits, towering over her, and wouldn’t let her go.

    “You have to pick which on of us you like the best,” the first bear said, a large brown grizzly.

    “Or we’ll eat you,” the second bear, also a large brown grizzly, added.

    “Would you eat me?” Goldilocks asked the first bear.

    “Of course I would. I’m a bear.”

    “Would you eat me?” she asked the second bear.

    “Of course I would. I’m a bear.”

    Both bears padded around her, examining her as much as she examined them. She tried to watch them, but lost track of which bear was which as they went around and around.

    “Your fur is softer,” she said to what she thought was the first bear, “But you growl whenever I touch you.”

    “My fur is only for looking at,” the bear replied.

    “And you,” she said to the second one, “You don’t bare your teeth at me, but you smell like death.”

    “I eat just as much, but only when no one is watching,” the second bear said.

    Goldilocks trembled. “I’m ready to decide. I pick–”

    The bears stopped circling, and both faced her. “We’ve already decided for you,” they said, closing in on her, lips drawn back from teeth.

    “But you said you wouldn’t eat me.”

    “No, we said pick one of us, or we’ll eat you.”

    “Pick one of us, and we can still eat you.”

    “After all– we’re bears.”

    Posted by Lorne
  38. June 6, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

    Time has been rewritten.

    Posted by Jace
  39. June 6, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

    Duke: Clearly I will be on vacation for season 45 episode 9.

    Posted by Mary Robinette
  40. June 7, 2011 @ 5:12 am

    At the risk of being strangled by the rest of the community,

    I’m afraid that if you plan for 20 minute episodes they’ll soon turn into 25 minutes or longer. Don’t get me wrong, Writing Excuses has quadrupled my knowledge of writing and has been better for me than any book or class ever, but part of its great value lies in being short and concise.

    Besides…I really am in a hurry.

    Posted by Michael Winegar
  41. June 7, 2011 @ 5:21 am

    …but if you started posting 15 minute episodes TWICE a week, that would certainly be something nobody could complain about.

    Howard’s inner Zen master sounds like ancient wisdom about leading horses to water, and I totally agree. Learning has to be about desire, not methods. Fortunately, great teachers increase the desire to learn as well as provide effective methods.

    Thanks for all you do, WE! So happy to have such a preposterously charming addition.

    Posted by Michael Winegar
  42. June 7, 2011 @ 5:33 am

    “Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale is much more interesting than the Monomyth anyway”

    It IS the Monomyth but with more steps. In a way, the monomyth is a “slightly” simplified version of the Morphology based on a wider sampling of myths.

    Posted by CM
  43. June 7, 2011 @ 5:37 am

    “…part of its great value lies in being short and concise”

    The problem is that they sometimes stumble around a bit and the actual info you get is less than 15 min worth. I’ve always thought it would be better if they had “most” of the questions before the cast started and had their “general” answers ready beforehand.

    Posted by CM
  44. June 7, 2011 @ 5:53 am

    […] Writing Excuses S06 Ep01 – Can Creativity Be Taught? One of our most popular guests ever, Mary Robinette Kowal, finally joins Brandon, Dan, and Howard as a full-time cast-member. And now that she’s with us, we’re going to go back and revisit the very first topic we attempted to record (in a lost episode you can only hear in the bonus material on the 1st Season CD), which is whether or not creativity can be taught. […]

  45. June 7, 2011 @ 7:31 am

    The REAL question is where was Mary in Episode 632. Did the guys decide to time travel without you?

    Posted by Klimpaloon
  46. June 7, 2011 @ 9:50 am

    Welcome, Mary – and I add another vote for going long (I support anything that encourages more random humor riffing. :-))

    Posted by Laurie
  47. June 7, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

    I honestly feel like I was sitting over here with my little cup of awesome, when all of the sudden, someone gave me a bigger cup, with even more awesome in it. AND, not only is it MORE awesome, but there are new flavors in the awesome. That’s right, somebody just poured awesome sauce all over my heaping helping of awesome.

    Hmm, I wonder if anyone will be able to tell that I’m excited about Mary being added to the podcast.

    Posted by WEKM
  48. June 7, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    I mean no disrespect but Mary’s voice is very sexy. And much nicer to listen to than a bunch of guys (by which I mean no disrespect either).

    Keep up with the good work, people!

    Posted by Maki
  49. June 7, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

    My first thought when the mashup prompt came up was Star Wars meets Indiana Jones. Jedis! Nazis! Then I realized it would just be Where Eagles Dare. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Posted by Sam
  50. June 7, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

    @Marie –

    Normally I’d worry about people being more reserved in a mixed-sex environment, but these guys are G rated, unless Howard starts Anthony Weinering pantless pics. You’ve always been a welcome addition, and I look forward to you being around for the duration.

    I’ll admit that I was hoping for the tagline to change to “20 minutes long, because there are 4 of us and together we form a headless Voltron.”

    Posted by Duke
  51. June 7, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    Whoops! Y did I think it was IE?

    Posted by Duke
  52. June 7, 2011 @ 9:54 pm

    Loved this post. I actually thought about toddlers the whole time. If being curious, asking questions, and looking at objects in new ways is creativity, then it’s not something we need to acquire — it’s something we forget and regain. Little children (well, mine) don’t look at a block and say “oh, this is just a toy.” It’s also a cup for Cheerios, or a penny depository (stack the blocks up with the pennies in the middle to hide them from Mom), or, unfortunately, a chamber pot. That one probably doesn’t merit more explanation, but I’m just saying, little kids look at the world differently than us old people and seem to constantly test how it works (like jumping from a couch with blankets, and then without). They’re always asking “what if” because they don’t think they have all the answers yet.

    Posted by MKHutchins
  53. June 8, 2011 @ 4:52 am

    While that would sometimes be nice, the casts wouldn’t be half as much fun.

    Posted by Jonathon Side (Jace)
  54. June 8, 2011 @ 7:26 am


    Obviously Jordo forms the head of the Voltron.

    Posted by Michael Winegar
  55. June 8, 2011 @ 8:13 am

    @Jonathon Side

    That’s why I said “most” of the questions and “general” answers. I would still like them to have room to riff. I would just like them to have a little more focus given the limited time.

    Posted by CM
  56. June 8, 2011 @ 9:34 am

    Regarding a 20-minute cast:

    1) If we say “20 minutes long” then we’ll run to 25. BLOAT.
    2) The existing tagline is too awesome to discard. We can riff on it a little, but we can’t actually CHANGE it.
    3) 15-20 minutes is still the right length for this ‘cast, regardless of how many people are talking.

    And the BIG reason:

    4) Just because we have a fourth voice doesn’t mean we have 33% more to say. The overlap among our opinions and experiences is such that what we ACTUALLY get with a fourth voice is a 33% greater likelihood that what is said will be perfect.

    In short, you’re not getting an extra five minutes. You’re getting a BETTER fifteen minutes. Unless we run long, in which case you’re getting a better twenty.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  57. June 8, 2011 @ 5:47 pm


    Nobody wants to mess with a really good thing, but we can dream.

    Posted by Duke
  58. June 8, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    So Howard you’re saying the podcast will not be longer but denser, molecularly speaking.

    In terms of creativity, is there a particular exercise you (and I’ll put it to the other casters too) that you use if you become stumped for plots or ideas?

    Posted by Rob Morgan
  59. June 8, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    @ Rob Morgan

    I may not be one of the casters, but I heard a solution from Rohan Wilson, who recently won the Vogel prize (top Australian writers award).

    When you are stuck for a character reaction or plot point, draw up a 3×3 grid. In each box write an idea. They don’t have to be good ideas. Rohan said filling the last few boxes can be hard, but that it’s really important to do them all.

    Next, go through and see which ideas make no sense for the plot. Put a little cross by them. Then go through and see which ones are the most emotionally powerful and put a little tick.

    Finally, pick an option. Sometimes we might have to change the plot to fit a really emotional event. Other times we might have to give a logical event more emotional power. We might even take Rohan and the casters’ advice and consider putting two ideas together.

    First time I tried it, I realised my protagonist should try to sell one of his kidneys.

    Posted by Heath
  60. June 9, 2011 @ 12:26 am

    Rob: I’m rarely stumped for plots or ideas.

    I’m often forced, however, to carefully consider all the characters in a given story and how they might most reasonably be convinced to do things that move the plot in a direction that provides my readers with lots of explosions. When I’ve done it right, the convincing happens through another character. When I’ve done it wrong something explodes for no reason.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  61. June 9, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    Heath & Howard: Thanks for the input, it really helped me see that my plotting had stalled because I was mistaking setting for plot.

    Posted by Rob Morgan
  62. June 9, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

    And here, for your reading pleasure… A transcript!

    Posted by Mike Barker
  63. June 9, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

    Aight, here you go. I feel like my students turning in homework. Good times.

    Posted by Nate
  64. June 10, 2011 @ 7:58 am

    Is she Mormon also? If so, this podcast is a conspiracy for the Mormons to take over my local bookstore…

    (this post is in jest btw)

    Posted by Josh
  65. June 10, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    @Josh: Mary is not a Mormon, but that data point neither confirms nor refutes your conspiracy theory. After all, conspiracy theories are designed around non-falsifiability. :-)

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  66. June 11, 2011 @ 3:53 am

    I thought they were designed around political agendas and paranoid ramblings.


    My bad.

    Posted by Jonathon Side (Jace)
  67. June 12, 2011 @ 2:40 am

    The real question is whether you believe that conspiracy theories are designed or not. If they are designed, then you might want to ask who is behind them — which might lead you to entertain the possibility of a conspiracy that is pushing conspiracy theories, or at least trying to make them seem unlikely. After all, it’s much easier to conceal your conspiracy if everyone knows that conspiracies aren’t real.

    Right? :-)

    Posted by Mike Barker
  68. June 17, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    […] Mary Robinette Kowal, the first non-Mormon member of the group, and they talk about the question Can Creativity be Taught and Internal Motivations.  Meanwhile, over at The Appendix they talk about Enhanced ebooks and […]

  69. June 24, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    I love the writing prompt for this ‘cast. Right now I’m working on a serial from it and sending it to friends, where Goldilocks is not called it based on her hair (she’s got short-cropped raven hair), but her expertise as an infiltrations operative. She’s being sent to Russia’s Khimki forest where three former KGB operatives are planning something (for those of us who remember the “Russian Bear”). They like the story so far and it’s been a lot of fun writing. Thanks for a great writing prompt and love the podcast.

    Posted by Nathan Garrity
  70. June 27, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    The following is a link to a video which explores the same topic, entitled “Everything Is A Remix”:

    I don’t know how to make it a clickable link, so you’ll have to copy and paste.

    Posted by K. Solomon
  71. June 27, 2011 @ 10:51 am

    … And it appears the site did it for me. Thank you, programers everywhere!

    Posted by K. Solomon
  72. July 14, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

    […] Wonder, amazement, passion; these are just a few things that come to mind when I see the words creativity, art, and inspiration. Oh, and did I mention hard work? There are definitely those prone towards being a “creative” as Sue put it. They’re the ones day dreaming about their projects, off in their own little world. Yet I believe it is the ones with a drive to create, more than the naturally gifted, who inspire with their art. Artists hear these phrases a lot, “I could never do something like that,” and writers hear “I could never think up something like that.” Many disagree with me, but to those comments I always say, “Yes you could! It would just take a lot of practice,” or “a lot of thinking.” With a little help self proclaimed non creative people can come up with great ideas. When it comes to ideas you just need to combine things to make something new, or start with something you know and change it or put a twist on it to make it your own. I love classical music, I also used to be in a heavy metal band where I played bass and provided screaming vocals. Now I’m trying to invent a new genre of music called Classicore by mixing Classical music with hardcore screaming vocals. If you’re brave, check out my first demo song Die To Self sometime. If you’re still not convinced that anyone can be creative, have a listen to published authors talk about it on the podcast Writing Excuses 6.1: Can Creativity be Taught? […]