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Choosing to Be Great

Creativity Comes from Grit


Creativity Comes from Grit


"The non-professional has to work the hardest." What creativity requires most is not inspiration but discipline, like bestselling author Giddens Ko, who continually challenges himself with extreme rules.



Creativity Comes from Grit

By Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 524 )

It was another Tuesday night. A booze-fueled academic confab had finished, and one of his classmates lay passed out beside the toilet.

Unperturbed, he continued hammering away on his computer. This was his ongoing struggle.

A little tipsy, he leaned in closer to the screen so as to type more accurately. He wrote through the night till dawn, the alcohol slowly wearing off.

That is a vignette from his grad school days, when author Giddens Ko was just getting started in creative writing. Even before he became famous, it was a Tuesday night ritual for Ko to work on his fiction through the night to be posted on the Internet the following morning.

"I didn't really care whether there were very many people reading it, but I had the feeling there were," Ko says laughing. At age 35 with a close-cropped head of hair, Ko is direct and resolute. As the Chinese saying goes, "A person is as they write."

After 14 years honing his craft, Ko is now a bestselling author with more than 60 published books under his belt.

In 2011, Ko (whose Chinese pen name literally means "Nine Knives") took his first crack in the director's chair, adapting one of his works into the film "You Are the Apple of My Eye," which took in NT$400 million in domestic box office receipts, making it the fourth highest grossing film in Taiwan history. The film went on to achieve box office success in Hong Kong, Singapore and China as well.

Non-Creative Types Can Be Writers Too

Many view Ko as something of a creative freak, possessing an inexhaustible wellspring of inspiration. Not according to him. He insists that non-creative types can actually be writers too. The key, he says, is in the way you tell your stories.

He's spent countless hours painstakingly researching narrative methodology, with particular attention to Japanese manga.

He turns on his computer to show part of a slide presentation he's recently used in university script writing classes. There are two slides from the Japanese manga series known as One Piece:

"Attack … that flag!" "Yessir!"

"Wipe out that flag!" "Roger!"

It's the same visual image with two different translations, giving the characters different personalities and a different sense of tension. He asks his students to discuss which one they prefer and why.

It turns out the comic book-junkie in him drove his meticulous analyses of the ways in which comics are framed and translated, and even their visual angles and the editorial sequencing as to when a page is to be turned.

Although these analyses were initially driven by the requirements of his work as a teacher, they have now been internalized as creative nutrients in his mode of expression and have been put to use in creating the storyboards and writing the scripts for his movies in recent years. That's because when working with ever larger crews on his projects, the writing must be all the more detailed and clear, while maintaining that degree of tension.

The 5,000 Characters Per Day 'Rule'

On the Internet, Ko is now known as Dao Da ("The Big Knife"). His youthful followers are legion, and they appreciate his drive, passion and forthrightness. The reality is that he's generally more pragmatic and cautious than most people would imagine.

He gradually made his name upon finishing graduate school.

He laid down the law to himself: each day he would write a minimum of 5,000-8,000 characters. That's the difference between a hobby and a job: you have to do your job even when you don't really want to, and you have to cultivate such an attitude and ability in yourself.

To survive, you need not only discipline, but also practicality. He initially calculated that, with ordinary luck and a single print run for each book, he could earn a steady income if he turned out a book every month or two.

"If occasionally a book went to a second print run, well then, that would be my year-end bonus," he says with a chuckle.

This extremely challenging regimen went on continuously for nearly two years.

With his recent forays into film making, he has kept up the discipline, staying true to his routine.

For example, Ko recently signed with Fox International Productions to co-finance the adaptation of his novel Kung Fu into a motion picture, which he will direct. The film will begin shooting next year and is scheduled for release sometime in 2015.

Unlike "Apple of My Eye," Ko's "Kung Fu" will be an action picture, with considerably more complex special effects, sets and action sequences, along with an initial budget of NT$200 million.

In February of last year, Ko called together the cast and crew from "Apple of My Eye" at a hotpot restaurant where he announced that shooting on "Kung Fu" would begin in two years. He told those gathered he hoped they would hone their skills in the interim.

Later that year, in November, they gathered once again, as Ko spent NT$4 million of his own cash to shoot a three-minute trailer that would clarify how he wanted the acrobatic scenes to be shot, how the cabling for the "wire-fu" scenes would be suspended, selection of the city in which the film would be set and how long set construction would take.

"If you shoot once with NT$4 million, when the time comes to deal with NT$200 million, there will be a lot less ambiguity," Ko says. "Non-professionals have to work the hardest."

After confirming that Kung Fu would indeed be made into a film, he gathered a group of potential collaborators and signed up for Taekwon-Do lessons to better understand the dynamics of the fight scenes. There he trained until he tore the ligaments in his right knee and had to be carried from the dojang.

"You all remember that guy on the podium prattling on about his dream of strutting his martial arts stuff," he says. "But the real battle didn't begin until I walked away from the microphone."

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy