Building Blocks

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure

Many of us played with building blocks, or similar toys, as children. Lego bricks, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets were common during my childhood, and they’re all still available to kids today. I never had Lego sets, but I did have Lincoln Logs and an Erector Set. (The Erector Set was put aside after I tried to connect the battery-powered motor to an electrical outlet. There was some smoke, but, thankfully, no fire.)

Recalling these childhood toys, in conjunction with writing my previous blog post, I started thinking that building blocks offer a simple model for nearly any system or object. If you want to build a person, you combine the building blocks of organs, blood, etc. You can start at a more fundamental level with smaller building blocks of cells or molecules. If you want to construct a building, like the Eiffel Tower, you assemble the structural components of beams, rivets, and so on.

Eiffel Tower in Paris with scattered clouds in sky
Even the Eiffel Tower was built one component at a time

Building a creative work like a painting or a novel is no different. At its most basic level, a novel is just a collection of paragraphs made up of the smaller elements of sentences. A photograph is comprised of its compositional elements, as well as exposure, contrast, and so on.

However, there are really two stages to this building block model. The first is conceptual, the second is tangible. For example, before you get to the cells and organs in the tangible model, you can’t build a human without the conceptual building blocks of anatomy, chemistry, and so on. The conceptual stage of the Eiffel Tower requires architectural blueprints, a knowledge of physics and structures. Writing a novel requires the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, setting, character, plot, etc., before you begin “construction” with sentences and paragraphs.

The conventional sequence begins with a desire for knowledge, which leads to mastery of the conceptual building blocks. Then a specific idea or (to the use language of the novelist) an “inciting incident” inspires one to apply the conceptual knowledge by using the tangible building blocks to create a final work. (Sometimes the desire for knowledge might be triggered by an inciting incident – for example, Joyce Carol Oates began writing when her grandmother gave her a typewriter at the age of 14; this followed an earlier inciting incident, when Oates read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and called it “the most profound literary influence of my life.”)

Diagram of building block creativity model

Clearly these examples are not comprehensive, but this building block model can be applied to almost any undertaking. One lesson from this is summarized by an old parable a former boss reminded me of on extremely busy days: “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, of course, is, “One bite at a time.” Since I don’t advocate the consumption of elephants (or any other harm of elephants, for that matter), maybe a better question is, “How do you write a novel?” The answer is, “One sentence at a time,” but the qualifier to this is to remember where you are on the building block model. If you’re still learning the concepts of narrative, plot, or character development, a better answer might be, “Don’t start writing your sentences too early.”

Photo of architectural detail of Eiffel Tower in Paris
The Eiffel Tower was built one girder at a time – the same way you “build” a novel, a painting, or any other creative work.

In other words, there’s rarely a shortcut. I wrote several novels during my twenties. They will never see the light of day, and that’s a good thing, because in hindsight those were practice for later efforts. Mastering the conceptual building blocks is necessary. Some endeavors might offer quicker routes to mastery, but it’s still an essential part of the journey.

Don’t take shortcuts in creative work. Because when you build your Eiffel Tower, you want it to be strong, and you want it to stand a long time.

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