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Mycelium: A Tool To Unleash Brilliant Ideas With Dan Holloway

Mycelium: A Tool to Unleash Brilliant Ideas with Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway

Audience: All Levels

Audience: All Levels

Of all the tools that are important to authors, nothing is more important than our own creativity. Can it be nurtured so we can produce more good ideas, more often? Yes, says Dan Holloway who has invented a tool to do just that.

This is a three-part presentation.

  1. Watch the video above to hear Dan talk all about complex problems, the need for creativity and the approach underlying the Mycelium game.
  2. Download the accompanying slides here.
  3. Listen to Dan being interviewed by Orna Ros about the accompanying book, Our Dreams Make Different Shapes. And all things creative!


Download your FREE set of Mycelium cards here.

This is a post from the Tools and Techniques SelfPubCon. SelfPubCon (The Self-Publishing Advice Conference) is an online author event, run free twice-yearly, in association with the Alliance of Independent Authors. Join the conversation on Twitter: #selfpubcon

Session Transcript

Orna Ross: Hello,  it is my great pleasure to be here today with Mr. Dan Holloway, who is, as many of you will know, our intrepid newshound, who does the self-publishing news for ALLi every week and has done for, how many years now, Dan?

Dan Holloway: At least four, I think, if not five.

Orna Ross: Probably heading for that, oh my God, time goes so fast.

Dan Holloway: I do remember, I was there in 2012 in that rather obscure room when they shoved us right at the back, right at the top, I was there on the panel with you at that very first event, which was fabulous.

Orna Ross: The very first event, absolutely, I was going to reference that, so that's 2012. So, we go back to at least then. I think I met you before that, when I went down for Not the Oxford Festival-

Dan Holloway: Yeah.

Orna Ross: Not the Oxford Literature Festival, or not the Oxford Book Festival, or whatever, which was brilliant, in that beautiful bookshop, which is sadly no longer with us.

Yeah. So, we've had lots of adventures along the way, and for a long time, we both shared this interest in creativity, from slightly different angles but for a long time we've been talking about all sorts of different aspects of creativity, and I'm really delighted to have you along today to talk about this topic, which is so huge.

And you've written this amazing book, but tell people, first of all, where does your interest in creativity come from? Tell us a little bit about yourself and your own background and how you got here today.

Dan Holloway: That's really, really hard to keep it linear. Anyone who listened to my interview with Howard, which we really, really, desperately attempted to keep it linear, and utterly failed.

So, there are two stories which are very different. The first is how I got interested in creativity as a, sort of a, discipline or a 'that's the simple  answer', and that was through a column that Bill Hartston used to run in The Independent, and that was in the 1990s, and anyone who doesn't know Bill Hartston, that's probably anyone who isn't my decidedly ancient age.

In the 1970s, he presented a program called The Master Game. It was mainstream television about chess, which is the kind of stuff that you just don't get these days. And then two decades later, he had a column in The Independent, which was about creativity, and he would set a puzzle each week. Each week you'd send in answers and the answers he picked as being the best ones, you'd get a copy of the Chambers Dictionary.

And this was always a really big draw for me because I was a Scrabble player and, as I'm sure all our listeners will know, the official dictionary for playing Scrabble in the English language is the Chambers. So, that was how I got a sort of a steady stream of Chambers dictionaries, was from writing into The Independent book column, to go on the bookshelf, alongside my shorter Oxford dictionary, which I got from being on Countdown, which was another game show that gave away dictionaries. So, it was clearly the thing to do in the 1990s was to giveaway dictionaries.

And then in 1997, the first Mind Sports Olympiad happened, and Bill Hartston ran the creative thinking world championships, right back at the start of this. It was a massive thing then, in the Royal Festival Hall, sponsored by BA, with thousands of pounds of prize money for every competition, and I sort of bumbled along and got a bronze medal in the creative thinking, and I've sort of been doing it ever since then. So, that's creative thinking as a, sort of a, discipline, which is really odd, because that's not very creative.

But you get some fabulous questions, so, my favorite round is the patent round. So, what he does is he will pick objects or patent applications from the 19th century Swedish patent office. He'll get the drawing and he'll strip out all the texts. So, you're just presented with this ridiculous drawing, and you have to fill in what this was a patent application for.

And, obviously, as the meme goes, wrong answers only. So, it's that kind of thing that you have to do.

Orna Ross: Brilliant. Okay, that's creativity as a discipline. We'll be talking about it from different angles as we go through the interview today, but a little bit more about yourself. So, obviously you were the kind of boy who wanted to win dictionaries, you were also the kind of boy who loves extreme sports, and some people might think that those two are an unusual combination. So, tell us a bit more about yourself, and just your professional background, as well as that.

I'm really struck by that, the fact that you're so into both of those things.

Dan Holloway: Alright, well, I have a really weird CV, obviously.

I think the thing that I always wanted to be, which is the sort of thing that holds it together is, ever since I watched, this shows my age perfectly, I was eight years old when Cosmos came on television, first time around, not the second time around, and I got the books for Christmas and I read the book, and the chapter that really struck me was the appendix, it's called the square root of two. It sounds really, really uninteresting, but it absolutely enthralled me. And I basically decided I wanted to be Carl Sagan and I think many, many people my age decided they wanted to be Carl Sagan and that sort of communicating ideas, basically getting people excited about ideas.

So, that's something that's been with me now for more than four decades. The next sort of step is, I did a theology degree. I spent 10 years studying theology, it was Puritan marriage sermons, but it was actually about the ways that people organized knowledge and the ways that people thought about knowledge and the categories they put knowledge into and the taxonomy, cataloging systems, different ways of thinking about how you classify things. So, that was absolutely fascinating and got me into thinking about how we think about the world. But at the same time, I hated sport at school. I really, really hated sport because I hated team sport, and then at university, when I was doing my master's, I was in the same building as a 24-hour gym in the basement. And one night I just decided to turn up to the gym and see what it was like, and I went in there, and you know how you get that feeling when you walk into somewhere and you know you've come home?

So, it was just the smell of the iron and the noise that the plates made. It was a proper sort of spit and sawdust gym, even though it was in the basement of a modern college building. And I got into power lifting at that point and I really, really loved, and in fact, my next book, which is coming out on August the first, is about this. It's about extreme sport, and how extreme sport can give us a focus and flow. And that's what I found with weightlifting. I found that having 200 kilos on your back, for example, when you're doing a squat, it's that you have to be absolutely in that activity, because if you get it wrong, you will you'll snap your back.

So, it literally, it focuses the mind, and the long-distance running sort of goes with that. So, I run a hundred kilometers or more, and that eventually gets you into that same place, where you forget everything about you, and especially when you're running at night, because literally all you can see is the couple of feet in front of you.

That's just really liberating.

Orna Ross: So, that's kind of (inaudible), and of course you also work at Oxford University. Talk to us in a little bit about that, because your experience there, I think, really informs how you've learned some of the things that you're talking about in the book.

Dan Holloway: I started off, as I say, as a student, I had a breakdown just before I finished my doctorate, and ended up working in a carpet warehouse for two days of the week which, as I tell people, is still the job I love more than anything else I've ever done, as paid work, for an employer, because you just got to lift. So, I would lift hundred-pound bags of underlay all day, every day and that was just wonderful.

And then I came back to Oxford as a facilities manager, and now I'm the head of administration at the linguistics faculty, which is an incredible place to work. I still get to be part of the research network and part of the future thinking network. So, we do events which are all about the future from an interdisciplinary point of view.

We've got people who've studied science fiction, we've had Kinga from PublishDrive come and talk to us, we've had people who have made a profession out of the academic study of Westworld. We have people who work on AI, all kinds of things, and I work on disability as well. I work on disability in the future, and smart cities.

So, my experience of being a disabled employee has very much shaped how I write about creativity. That experience of knowing you don't fit, and then knowing that the world is set up in a way that it doesn't really understand you and you don't really understand it, and what that interface means.

So, a lot of the book is about communication, as much as it is about coming up with ideas.

Orna Ross: Just before we get into the book proper, just how you came to writing and, of course, you're also an accomplished publisher of your own work. So, talk to us a little bit that.

Dan Holloway: Well, again, there are lots of stories. It started when I was four, and there's a story that my mother came home one day after I'd been at school and told me this story about how someone had stopped her in the street, and told her that her child would make a fortune with pencil and paper, was how it was put to her. So, this is, sort of, the foundation myth, and captured my attention.

For years I wanted to be a stationery magnate. So, that was how I thought that was going to play out, because I was addicted to buying notebooks as I think a lot of us who subsequently became writers were, and probably still are, you know, new notebook syndrome. So, that started it.

I wrote my first novel when I was eight, and sent it to my teachers and, that sounds really swatty, doesn't it? I sent it to my teachers and then I went through the usual phases as a teenager of writing that sort of melancholic goth poetry. I was a teenager at the time when The Cure were in their prime. So, I was that sort of goth teenager. You know, Emma Barnes, don't you? Who I think is much younger than me, but also has similar feelings about things like The Cure and that sort of goth background.

So, writing melancholy poetry, and then yes, I started writing a thriller when I started at Oxford again, based on my undergraduate days at Oxford.

So, I wrote it in my lunch hour and that was how I really got into writing, and then I got into self-publishing through a website called Authonomy, which many of us got our first experiences on, and started a self-publishing collective on, I think it was January 1st  2009 that we, sort of, launched ourselves onto the world.

It was a classic interdisciplinary thing, as everything in my life tends to be, because it all goes together with the not being able to pin things down or be linear. So, we did performance events, we did combined events with musicians, we did online exhibitions, and we also self-published our work.

Orna Ross: Let's just get into this particular book. So, it's been quite a while in the writing, I think, and when did you know you were going to actually put together a book about this huge topic of creativity?

Dan Holloway: That's a really, really difficult one. It's something I've always wanted to write about. I guess I first knew I wanted to write a book about it about 10 years ago, when I knew that I actually enjoyed writing non-fiction more than I enjoyed writing fiction, because it never occurred to me before then that I might's almost, you can imagine that they're really sort of arrogant and weird questions, is nonfiction really writing? Because I had this thing that writing was writing fiction and maybe poetry, and then I discovered, sort of, creative nonfiction, almost certainly thanks to amazing writers and ALLi, and people like Joanna Penn and you.

So, as soon as I knew I loved writing nonfiction, I thought, I have to write a book about creativity. It was almost impossible because, how do you structure it? So, I could sort of stack from here to the moon the pile of different ways I've tried to order the book over the years, with absolutely no luck until I was talking-

There were two things that happened. First of all, I was talking to an academic colleague of mine, Kate West, who is professor of visual criminology at Oxford Brooks, and she runs a site called, and is an advocate for neurodivergents in the workplace. And her big thing is to talk about how to destabilize and de-center the paradigm of the journal article, and how the idea that research and nonfiction and serious academic output looks like a linearly presented journal article, and that was an incredibly freeing experience.

Just realizing that, well, actually serious research might not look like this, it might look like something that looks like a spider diagram, or it might look like something that's multidisciplinary, it might, for example, I'm friends with, readers will probably know the writer, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who started off as a poet and has become a multiple award winning children's book writer, and now a writer of literary fiction, and her husband, Tom de Freston, who is an artist, and together they put together this remarkable retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, which is a poem, it's a graphic novel, it's a video, it's a series of live performances, it's a series of interleaved essays, and they all go together to make the overall work, and there's nothing linear about it. There's nothing about it that you would recognizably say, this is a serious piece of work, other than the fact that it's absolutely mind-blowing. So, those experiences were, were really helpful in freeing me up from this idea that I had to sit down and I had to start at the introduction and I had to end with the bibliography, and I have to have some sort of sensible way of getting from one to the other, which is obviously a very uncreative way to write a book.

Orna Ross: Yeah, exactly. It's fascinating what you're saying about the academic journals. I mean, so many side issues but yeah, go ahead.

Dan Holloway: Then the other thing was a random encounter on Twitter with one of my favorite people, Jen Ashworth, I don't know if you know, Jen, she's absolutely wonderful, and she was doing a writing everyday thing and I decided, oh, why don't I have a go? And so, I set myself, it was 300 words a day, and for some reason that seemed to stick. So, I was able to write it by just no plan, no anything. So, I scrapped all the things where I'd set out a schedule that, this is how I'm going to order it, and just thought, well, I'll write 300 random words a day and see where it gets me. And it got me to the book.

It's a very similar method to, Haruki Murakami, who famously, he has a very idiosyncratic style of writing very short chapters, which are more like, so his novels are more like a series of vignettes, and this happened because, when he started writing, he worked in a jazz bar and he got half an hour off between shifts, and so he'd write in his half hour off between shifts as much as he could, and that was a few hundred words. And so, his books ended up as being a series of things you could write between sets in the jazz bar.

So, it sort of has ended up that that's actually something that suits the subject matter a lot better than sitting down and trying to write many more words at a time or in a structured fashion.

Orna Ross: It's so interesting when form does, I think, reflect the creative conditions under which the book is created, and for me it was like circling around and around and around, in different ways, almost like stepping into different boxes and different lenses, I think, to look at the topic in such, you know, divergent and different ways, that added up to this far more coherent whole than any, I think, any other book on creativity I've read and, let me tell you, I have read them all, I think.

Because a lot of books about creativity are about one aspect and necessarily, I understand, I mean, as somebody who has tried to do writing on creativity myself and had to unpublish the whole series of it, you know, because it didn't just do it and take it back and kind of narrow it all down.

It really is, and rightly, a very nebulous, impossible to take hold of topic, and I think form really is one of the outstanding things about this book, and one of the things that makes it such a pleasurable read.

Dan Holloway: It is hard though, isn't it, the form, that you feel like you're constantly standing in a field on a windy day, trying to grasp at something that's constantly being blown away from you.

Orna Ross: I really do think it's very, very difficult, and I think you've nailed it. You know, I think that's one of the great things about the book, and the other thing is that it has  (inaudible)  so many deep and interesting and challenging questions for us all, for anybody, no matter what your work is, what discipline you're in, what your interest in creativity is, which angle you're coming in on, they're very human, important questions. And it seems at the moment that everybody who talks about creativity talks about it in terms of brain response, in the neuroscience of creativity.

You tackle all of this in a chapter. Talk to me a little bit about your reservations about that and the main, but at the same time, the really interesting and fascinating stuff is (inaudible) that research.

Dan Holloway: Yeah, they are absolutely fascinating. I guess there are two things that sum up my response to neuroscience. The first is my direct experience of it, as a participant in a study, it was a study about religious imagery and social recognition. One of the great things about working in a university is you get to be a participant in all sorts of very fascinating research projects.

So, you get paid to sit in an MRI scanner, and MRI scanners I love, because it's this sort of cocoon. So, I got paid to sit in an MRI scanner and be shown pictures, and they looked at what happened to my brain when I was shown these pictures, and some of them were religious and some of them were secular, and it was, this is why I didn't put it in the book, it was the worst designed experiment I have ever come across.

It reminded me of my days as a student, when you couldn't read a philosophy book without reading about physics, in particular cosmology or quantum, and these days you can't pick up a humanities book without reading in some way, shape or form about neuroscience, and the research that is done is absolutely dreadful and people don't know how to put together an experiment, or not an experiment that will find a meaningful answer.

So, that's one way my reservations came in, was that people just misused science. People in the humanities are very bad at this, we've always been very bad at it. If you go back to the first half of the 20th century, it was evolution and everyone was using evolution and getting really excited about it to come up with these quite ridiculous things, especially in my (inaudible).

Some of the phenomenology of the early 20th century is truly dire. And then it was cosmology and now it's neuroscience, and so, the misappropriation of science and creativity, obviously people working in creativity follow in that long humanities and social science tradition of not really getting the science.

But it's more fundamental than that, the problem with neuroscience, because neuroscience is about looking at correlations, but then the narrative that gets on top of that is all about causation. So, neuroscience can tell you what's happening in the brain when something is happening in the outside world, but it can never tell you about whether what's in the brain is causing what's happening in the outside world or whether by what's happening in the outside world is causing what's happening in the brain, or any other kind of causal relationship.

So, it can tell you that creative brains look like certain things, and the best people working in this field will admit the shortcomings, the, sort of, our equivalent of Malcolm Gladwell, the people who write the populous books about it, will tend to overreach, and they will start to talk more about causality, and that bothers me because it's making leaps that aren't justified. The correlations are really fascinating though but trying to derive some kind of causality from it isn't overreached.

Orna Ross: Fascinating. Yeah. Wow.

Dan Holloway: So, yes, I do talk about some experiments, to come back on topic, in the book. There are some very famous ones. The most famous one is the cabbie experiment, and that's the one that showed that, I'd better explain this for people who don't know, London black cab drivers have to undertake something called The Knowledge, before you get your license. And this involves learning the map of London, or learning the routes around London, such that you can find the quickest route from any one place to any other place within London, including knowing, not only the one way streets, but where all the roadworks are, where all the rat runs are, all the side routes, all the bits that are more or less trafficked. So, it's an incredible working knowledge of a particular route that you have to have, and they get this by spending hours and hours, usually on motorcycles with a map, just driving around London learning these routes. And what neuroscientific studies have shown is that before and after you undertake the knowledge, your brain is different. So, it actually changes the structure of your brain so that in its resting state, your brain has a larger amount of gray matter in your associative cortex.

And the experiment they used was actually a really, really good experiment because they tested cab drivers and they tested bus drivers against each other before and after training, and they found that the training that bus drivers undertook had led to no change in the brain, whereas the training that cab drivers undertook did, because it was all about not learning a particular route, but learning how to use the information about a map to create your own roots, and so that's, what's so particularly interesting about it.

Orna Ross: And a similar sort of brain change has been observed in the memory app that you write about quite a lot. So, talk to me about one of the bits of the book that I absolutely loved and will stay with me at a very practical level, is the memory palaces. Tell people about memory palaces, I had no idea.

Dan Holloway: Well, memory palaces, they originated in ancient Greece. There are all sorts of myths about how they originated. There's this poet who was at a dinner party in a temple, and then the temple collapsed and the poet had managed to survive because he had gone out to the loo, or something, and he was asked to reconstruct where everyone was sitting so they could identify the bodies. So, he remembered by going around the table to place people at their seats, and then this is the technique that then got taken up by, in particular, speech makers, as a way of remembering the parts of your speech.

So, what you would do is you would take the things that you wanted to remember, and then you would link them to things that you already knew, in particular, to buildings or journeys that you were very familiar with. So, for example, one thing I use a lot is the quad of the Bodleian library, makes a perfect memory palace. The Bodleian library general makes a wonderful memory palace, but there are some notable statues and windows and gateways and entrances in there. So, you know these places, you see them every day if you're in Oxford. So, you deposit bits of information in the order you want to remember them on this journey, and then when you want to remember them, you simply go back to the place that you know very well and see what's there.

It became popular again in the late 20th century, when memory, sort of, became a competitive sport and then it was made really, really popular through, it was both Hannibal and Sherlock.

So, I first came across it in the book, Hannibal, which is my absolute favorite fiction book, and in the appendices to that, I discovered the work of Francis Yates, who was the 20th centuries biggest scholar on memory. And she wrote a whole series of books, which have been subsequently brought out in mass paperback, about early memory systems, about the occult traditions that do them, hermetic traditions of the middle ages, all sorts of fascinating things to do with how people use memory, and then also how it fell out of fashion. And then it stopped being used, this technique, despite being incredibly effective in the 1600s and stayed, not being used, for another four centuries.

And that was all to do with the people I did my doctorate on, who were the Puritans, and so, that's where I came back to what I was doing with doctorate on, which is how people thought about knowledge and classified knowledge. And the Puritans famously didn't like using images. So, this idea of using images in your head to help you memorize things you've seen is a very, very dangerous thing to do.

Orna Ross: Okay, we are running out of time, unfortunately, and there is just so much in this book. I really wanted to ask you this question though, and not let you go without it. You have a chapter, I think, called, Creativity Is Not Enough, and I'd love you to explain that and also to tell us, you know, what would be enough.

Dan Holloway: Right. So, again, I think a lot of literature and talks that you'll see on YouTube and TED Talks about creativity, teach you how to be creative, how to come up with new ideas. The problem is that most people who have brilliant ideas, you need to put those ideas into action. You need to be able to implement them. That's fine if you have an idea for a painting. It's fine if you maybe have an idea for a book. It might even be fine if you have an idea to reinvent a type of stapler, but the kind of problem that I'm interested in with creativity, which is global wicked problems or society level, really intractable issues, is that you can have the best idea in the world, but if no one does anything about it, it's not going to change anything.

So, the analogy I use, and I'm sure it must be used all the time but I've not found it used in many places, is of Cassandra, who is the Trojan princess who was famously cursed always to tell the truth and never to be believed. And as a creative, this is often how it feels, that the people who have the best ideas are least likely to be listened to. And there's almost a logic to it, because if the problems that you are trying to solve have been caused by a society that thinks in a certain way, then the only people who will be able to change that at a practical level are the people who are at the highest level within that society.

But that means that they have succeeded within a group whose parameters are the ones that have caused the problems, and the ones that you're trying to challenge. So, not necessarily maliciously, but just at a, sort of, very basic cognitive level, they will be the least likely people to understand what it is you're trying to say.

So, that leads to this whole section of then, it's not enough just to come up with the good ideas. You've got to communicate those ideas in such a way that people will not only understand them but will understand them in their full groundbreaking complexity.

Orna Ross: So, essentially stimulating their creative curiosity. Fantastic. And I'll just say, because we didn't have time to talk about all the things I wanted to talk about that you're looking at, things like, you know, universal basic income and the open access movement, really big stuff when you're talking about the kinds of problems that we need creativity to solve. As I said, not enough time.

So, where can people find out more about you, more by the book and access what's going on?

Dan Holloway: The website is

Orna Ross: Marvelous, Dan. Fascinating. Fabulous. People read the book. It really is amazing. Yeah, we look forward to part of, sort of, a twin production with this interview will be a video where you get into some of the more technical aspects that are in the book because, as I said, there's just so much there. So, we will let people know how to access that.

And thank you so much for being with us today.

Dan Holloway: Thank you.

Orna Ross: Take care now. Bye, bye.

Dan Holloway

ALLi Self-Publishing News Editor

Dan lives in Oxford, UK and writes about creativity alongside running the ALLi News Desk. His latest title is Our Dreams Make Different Shapes: How Your Creativity Could Make the World a Better Place and Why the World Will Try to Stop You. Tweet to him via @agnieszkasshoes

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