Exploring Creativity, Writing, and Idea Management with Kevin Dickinson | Glasp Talk #7

Exploring Creativity, Writing, and Idea Management with Kevin Dickinson | Glasp Talk #7

This is the seventh session of Glasp Talk!

Glasp Talk delves deep into intimate interviews with luminaries from various fields, unraveling their genuine emotions, experiences, and the stories that lie behind them.

Today's guest is Kevin Dickinson, a staff writer and columnist at Big Think, where he explores and shares complex ideas in accessible ways, touching on everything from science and philosophy to education and technology. His insights challenge our perceptions and push the boundaries of conventional thinking.

In this interview, Kevin delves into his unique journey to becoming a writer, sharing how his initial path as a teacher transitioned into a fulfilling career in writing. He offers a behind-the-scenes look at his creative process, discussing how he generates, manages, and synthesizes ideas from a wide range of sources. Kevin also explores the role of curiosity and continuous learning in his work and the collaborative nature of writing. He provides valuable insights on the impact of technology, including AI, and shares his thoughts on the importance of maintaining the human touch in storytelling.


Host: Welcome to Glasp Talk, and today we are delighted to have Kevin Dickinson with us. Kevin is a staff writer and columnist at Big Think, where he explores and shares complex ideas, touching on everything from science and philosophy to education and technology. So, we would like to ask him how he gets ideas, manages ideas, and synthesizes ideas. Kevin, welcome to Glasp Talk.

Kevin: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Host: Thank you. So, first of all, could you introduce yourself briefly? Some of the audience might not know you yet.

Kevin: Yeah, so my name is Kevin, as you mentioned, and I'm a staff writer at Freethink Media, which means I split my time between two different websites. On one hand, we have freethink.com, which is a website that explores the future. It looks at the technologies, ideas, and science that are looking to make the world a better place. And then, the other half of my time is spent on Big Think, which is a bit broader. You can kind of think of it as the non-fiction section of the bookstore on the internet. We cover astrophysics, psychology, books, business—just if it's non-fiction, then we cover it on Big Think.

Host: Yeah, I like the concept of Big Think, like, you know, making people smarter faster. And could you tell me why did you choose to become—or, you know, did you like writing or reading, you know, in childhood?

Kevin: Yeah, I took kind of a circuitous route to becoming a writer. So, originally, I wanted to be a teacher. I always loved books, writing, and stories. I got my degree in English and writing, both a bachelor's and a master's. I originally went into teaching, but what I discovered was that when you teach, you kind of have to go where the teaching jobs are. Around the same time, I also had my first child, and my wife and I wanted a little bit more room to raise our child where we thought he could have the best upbringing and we could develop the kind of lifestyle that we wanted. So, I'd always been writing a little bit on the side to make some extra income, and slowly that side gig started to become my main gig, and teaching started to fade away. One day, I just woke up and found myself a writer; all my income was coming from the words I was putting onto a page.

In terms of the subject matter, like most writers, I just started writing where people would pay me, and doing what I could. Over time, I developed a bit of a generalist specialty, where I can write on many different subjects, and that brought me to Big Think, which, as I mentioned, covers a lot of ground. So, it was just a natural fit there.

Host: Yeah, you know, you are covering a lot of topics at Big Think, and we've been following your articles. To become a general specialist is pretty difficult; you need to cover a lot of things. Where do you keep learning all those things?

Kevin: Well, part of it is I'm kind of lucky in that regard. Working for a company like Big Think, you get to cover a lot of ground, read a lot of great writers, and talk to a lot of great people who are specialists in their field. You get to learn from them every day, and that helps. The other thing is just having curiosity in a whole bunch of subjects, reading broadly in a bunch of different subjects, and enjoying speaking with people who have a wide variety of different interests. In time, you just pick things up. Another important thing is knowing what you don't know and being willing to accept that and constantly learning how to fill those gaps in your knowledge. They say one bit of advice is "you write what you know," but I've never been lucky enough to write what I know. Every assignment is me really writing what I can discover and learn in the amount of time I have available to me.

Host: Yeah, if you need to learn something, you are kind of forced to learn something to tell it right. It's the best way to learn something. I was just curious, when you are coming up with ideas to write something, you mentioned speaking with people. But for me, I cannot imagine what kind of people you usually talk to come up with these ideas.

Kevin: So, it varies. I have a lot of different people I speak with. In some cases, it's a publicist reaching out to me. You know, I have an author who just wrote this amazing new book; they'd love to speak with you. I jump on those opportunities. I'm lucky enough that I have a whole bunch of publicists that I've worked with for a long time now. We've developed really good relationships, and they're always cueing me into good ideas, interesting ideas, and interesting people. It's actually gotten to the point now where there's just too much. They're always dangling these shiny, interesting objects in my face, and I have to be a little more picky than I used to be. Sometimes my ideas come from just conversations I have with people, maybe just hanging out at the bar. We're just having a conversation; someone will mention something in an off-handed comment, just like throw it out there before they get up to get another round, and then I'm just sitting there jotting a note down like, "That's an article; that's an idea."

Sometimes it comes from just work. My editor, Mike, or my other editor, Steph, will have an idea, and we'll kick it around back and forth until it solidifies into something that we think will work. I always feel kind of bad that my bylines just read, "Written by Kevin Dickinson," because it's really written by Kevin Dickinson and a whole bunch of other people—people I've spoken with, people who have helped me edit the work, people who have listened to me drone on about how difficult the writing is when I'm in a slump. It really is a collaborative effort. Any article that ends up getting published, it's not a solo effort at all. So, it really is just immersing yourself in people and ideas, and books. If you just feed enough raw material into your subconscious and have enough conversations with people, eventually interesting ideas will bubble up from all those neurons firing in that black-box way that they do.

Host: Totally makes sense. And also, I recently realized that ideas also have a network effect. The more you collect bits of ideas, eventually, someday, they connect automatically, naturally. And also, as you mentioned, writing is kind of a collaborative work of many people, and that's really inspiring. Sometimes it's years down the road; you'll have a conversation with somebody, and for whatever reason, years later, your subconscious will fire that neuron in a way that's unique. It'll connect with something else, and then there's your idea. You didn't even know that idea was being worked on in your subconscious until, boom, there it is in front of you. If you're lucky enough, you write it down, and you have a place to explore it like I do.

In terms of ideas, you said if you come across any interesting areas, you jot down the ideas. Do you use any tools like a note-taking tool or knowledge management tool, or do you just use paper and a pen?

Kevin: Yeah, I have a few different tools. I do use just paper and a pen. I have a notebook that I jot ideas down in, and I also have a document on OneNote. Eventually, things migrate from paper to OneNote if they stick around a little bit, if at some point I don't scratch them out because that wasn't actually a good idea. But yeah, first paper and pencil, and then eventually they migrate onto a document.

Host: I see. Then do you review them, like look back at what you jotted down or took notes on later? Because if you take a lot of notes, some old notes might be hard to find, and then they go somewhere and don't come back. Do you intentionally look back at what you took notes on?

Kevin: I'd say I unintentionally intentionally do it, which means I always end up getting back there and looking at them, but I need to be more rigorous and scheduled about it. I just kind of have these inklings sometimes, like, "Oh, I should go over my notes," and then I go over them. I need to be a bit more rigorous about doing it on a schedule and having a more formulated approach to it. I have to admit that I'm a little sloppy in that regard. Sometimes it'll be years; I'll find a notebook years later. Just the other day, when I was cleaning out my closet, I found one from my 20s. I went through all the notes and ideas I jotted down, and they were all embarrassing. None of them were salvageable, but I had completely forgotten I had that notebook until I found it while cleaning. So, one thing I'm looking into is more apps that allow me to do keyword searches on my notes. I'm looking into Obsidian at the moment as a potential app, but then there's always that inertia you have to get over because you have that momentum of the way you've been doing things. Stopping that momentum and moving in a different direction, it's so hard. I know I need to do it, but it's hard.

Host: You should have a lot of knowledge, and it takes so much time. Just curious, how do you take notes? Because you take notes regularly, so do you use tags or keywords? What do you put, like the date, as a title? How do you take notes?

What kind of notes are we talking about? Like research notes for a project I'm writing or...?

Host: Both.

Kevin: I developed a system in college for taking notes, and it's a two-column system. On one hand, I have quotes that I want verbatim, and so I'll write them down. Each one comes with a title, like, "This book, this is where these notes come from," or "This website, this article." On the left-hand column are quotes that I want verbatim, and I write those down myself. I type mostly these days, but in college, I did a lot of handwriting. Handwriting helps the brain remember it a little bit better, my understanding of the research suggests. But nowadays, I'm old, I'm a professional, I'm a father, I'm a dog owner, I'm a husband. Typing's faster, so I go for typing. Then I'll put a page number so I can find that quote again in the context that surrounds it. On the right-hand column, I have my notes, which are usually keywords, key definitions, thoughts I had while reading the work, maybe a few highlights here and there that I don't need verbatim but I really want to highlight this particular idea or aspect. That goes on the right-hand column in a bulleted format, and again, with page numbers so I can reference the material again when I need it. I'll also hyperlink on that side as well in case something from this book connects to an idea I read in a New York Times article. I'll have a little note and then hyperlink it there.

Host: Interesting. That's like, you know, project or research notes.

Kevin: Yeah, and then notes... I kind of have a journal system as well, which are just more freeform notes, like, "Here's an idea I had that could make for an interesting fiction story," or "Here's an idea I had that could make for an interesting project. Make a note to myself to do more research." That I put in a journal, which is more of a traditional journal, just written down in quick and easy jots. No penmanship, no style, just get it on the page so that your brain can remember to start working on whatever that idea is. I have to kind of trust my subconscious that if eventually an idea kind of drops off, it either means it wasn't a good idea to begin with, as my 20-year-old journal made very clear, or it's an idea I'm not ready for and it'll come back when the time is right.

Host: When it comes to writing, we understand how you manage ideas, but then when you write something, how do you start writing? Do you write down headlines first and then put in the bodies later? I'm just curious about your writing flow and how you work with your editors. What do you do in the back and forth?

Kevin: I know people that like to have a headline before they go; I can't do that. I like to name the baby after it's born. The process for me, unfortunately, the first draft is the most painful because it's just awful. My editor, Stephen, and I, we call them vomit drafts. It's just a purge of ideas, words, and thoughts on a page that always need fixing. I kind of have a bit of a perfectionist mindset. I like to get the phrases just right, the sentence structure perfect, and the ideas in an order that's easy to follow. That first draft is none of those things, so it's always the most painful for me. Getting started is always the most painful because I know that once I have a draft down, then I can begin the editing phase, which for me is the delight of writing. You're taking those poor sentences and making them better, improving word choice, and streamlining ideas in a way that's easy to follow. Every edit improves the draft, and it's in that process of seeing the ideas and writing improve that I derive the most joy from. The other issue for me is stopping that process because if each draft's getting better, then I only need one more draft to get it just a little bit better. At some point, my editor has to come in and say, "No, Kevin, it's fine. It's good. Stop. We're cutting you off."

After that, I give it to my editor. They read it and make wonderful notes, helping me in ways that's kind of interesting. I'll have a phrase that I'm not happy with, and I won't tell my editor that because I don't want to prime them to look at that phrase as wrong. But if I'm not happy with it, almost all the time, my editors will pick it out and be like, "This phrase is wrong, Kevin. Let's work on this phrase," or "This is the wrong word, Kevin. Let's work on this word." We go back and forth until we have the strongest draft we possibly can have, and then we put it up there for people to read and hopefully enjoy. My goal is to always write something in a way where the reader feels like they're having a conversation that's fun and interesting about an interesting topic, and that they can learn something when they come away from it. It's not for me writing to show people what I know and to pass on that knowledge. It's writing with a sense of discovery because I'm discovering these things as I'm writing, and I want the reader to also discover those things as they're reading at the same time. It's a dual, communal discovery project for me.

Host: That totally makes sense. You can choose a topic to write on because Big Think needs to keep consistency. You want to write something you want, but how do you balance it?

It's hard because, like I said, publicists, editors, and people I'm talking to are giving me all these wonderful ideas. At some point, I have to pick one to actually write on. Sometimes that process is just my editor or their boss coming down and saying, "We need this article, Kevin. Can you write it?" I'm like, "Yep, I can write it. You pay my salary; that's what I'm here for." Other times, it's me pitching an idea to my editor, saying, "Here's an idea I really like. What do you think?" Sometimes they'll say, "Yep, green light, go," and sometimes they'll say, "It's a little squishy right now. Let's see if we can work on it, find a better angle or a more solid footing," and then we work on it. Other times, my editor will have an idea, and it'll be the other way around, where I'll work with them to find the angle I want to pursue based on their initial idea.

Again, it's kind of messy; it's very collaborative, but that spontaneity keeps things fresh and interesting. I don't know if I have the personality type where if I woke up every day and it was just, "Kevin, you write AI stories. You get to work at nine o'clock, start writing an AI story until five o'clock, get up the next morning, and it's the same thing." Not that AI isn't interesting, but I have that shiny key personality where I want to touch on so many different topics as deeply as I can. The process of having that amount of people and that freeform brainstorm session, collaborative relationships, is really valuable when it comes to not only coming up with ideas but figuring out which ideas are the strongest and which ones you want to pursue.

Host: You touched on AI, and you said the first draft is kind of the difficult part in your writing process. Nowadays, ChatGPT is getting really great. Do you use AI tools for your work, like the writing process, editing process, or as your brainstorming partner? What's your thought on AI, and how has it changed your work or the entire content industry?

Kevin: It's tricky. I have a love-hate relationship with AI. I love AI; I use it less as a writing partner and idea brainstormer and more like a semantic search engine. If I don't know what keywords I'm looking for but I have an idea, I'll pop onto AI and ask it a question, see what it comes back with, and use that information to inform how I search for ideas and research down the road. For example, if I want to know if I'm using the right word but can't remember the word, I'll go to AI and be like, "What's that word that means at the heart of the matter?" AI will come back, "Oh, you mean germane." Yes, I mean germane. Germane goes in the document.

As far as writing is concerned, I know a lot of people have had difficulty with AI because people have been using it as a shortcut to generate a lot of content very quickly. That just doesn't work for me because, as wonderful as a tool as AI is, it doesn't comprehend the meaning behind the words. It just knows that statistically, this word comes after this word, and if you combine them together in a sentence, you will create something that resembles a sentence. But it doesn't understand the concept behind the sentence, the lived experience, or the psychology behind it that makes communication between two people so valuable to us as a social species.

Just to give you an example, when I was playing around with AI in the early days, I asked it to write a story about my cat Charlie, just to see what it came up with. It wrote this story about this fun-loving cat that liked to go on adventures and was black with green eyes. Charlie wasn't like that; he was a curmudgeon. He was not a black cat and didn't like to go on adventures; he liked to sit in the window in the sunshine. AI doesn't understand the concept of a cat, me, or that these words have meaning in the outside world behind them that we derive understanding from. You need that as a writer to communicate with other people in a valuable way. I think people who are trying to use AI to shortcut that are doing themselves a disservice because they're not learning, discovering, or making connections with other people. They're seeing everything through the lens of content, not communication. As a tool to check your grammar and help you find information, it's an intelligent tool, but it can't do the hard work for you because the value is found in that work.

Even then, in its current form, be careful. I've caught it making things up. We've all heard the hallucination stories. If you're going to put anything you get from AI into an article you write, be sure to double-check it, or you're setting yourself up.

Host: That totally makes sense. Some media companies are suing some AI companies nowadays, and copyright is an issue in generating AI. What are your thoughts on copyright in AI?

Kevin: I think, again, it's because AI doesn't have that understanding. It doesn't understand plagiarism. There's that old adage that if you copy from one author, you're plagiarizing; if you copy from two or more, you're researching. As a writer who understands and wants to communicate ideas and connect them to conversations that happened in the past, you do your research, read other writers, quote other writers, and understand that you're part of this long chain of communication that these ideas are connected to. You write in such a way where you credit ideas where credit is due, present your new ideas where they're new, and build on that. It's a collaborative, communal effort that writing really is. AI doesn't have that, so it doesn't know that when it's lifting wholesale from other sources, it's doing anything called plagiarism. It doesn't have a concept of plagiarism.

If the best way to answer your question is to just copy-paste information from the New York Times or some Reddit post, it'll do that because that's the shortest route, which does lead to the issue of copyright. I think writers and artists of all kinds should get credit for their work and be paid for their work. If you're going to copy someone's work to create your program, you need to have an agreement with them that you have the right to do so. Just because it's public doesn't mean it's copyright-free.

Different companies are going about this in different ways. I know Google made a deal with Reddit; I think OpenAI just recently made a deal with Reddit too, to train their AIs on their data. We'll see how the courts rule on this one. It'll be interesting because there's a lot of new ground to tread and a lot we have to figure out now with these new technologies. Courts are notoriously conservative and look to precedent, and there's kind of no precedent to look to right now. We'll have to wait and see how things pan out. My general sense is that if you're going to train an AI on someone's work, they not only need credit, but you need to have an agreement to do so with them. I just don't know how feasible that is, given the vast amounts of data you need to train any useful AI. It'll be interesting.

Host: I'm not sure if you can answer this question, but at Big Think, is there any AI tool allowed to use for a specific flow? For example, Grammarly is okay to use for reviewing, and ChatGPT is okay to use for brainstorming. If you can answer this question, is AI allowed by the company or by the editor?

Kevin: To the best of my knowledge, we let writers use the tools they find useful. We're generally a very tech-optimist company. We think technology will ultimately be beneficial for the future, but there will be challenges between now and that future. To the best of my knowledge, we allow writers to use the tools they find most useful, as long as they're doing it in a way that's professional, ethical, and leads them to present their work to the best standards. Like I said, I use Google AI and Perplexity as semantic search tools. I use them as a way to find information I need to begin my research, to kick it off. I never take anything from the AI at face value. I always write it down as a little note and then double-check the information. If I find it correct, I credit a source that the AI helped me find. Maybe the AI would give me some keyword that I can then put into Google that'll let me start doing some research, and I'll find an expert on that particular idea, and then I'll quote that expert on that particular idea. But it started because the AI helped me by helping me find the keywords that I needed to put into the search engine, that kind of stuff.

I know some people who use it to help them edit their work; I don't. I find that I have to edit the edits of the AI myself, so I haven't found it useful in that regard. Everybody, it's one of those multipurpose tools where I think people will have to come to find the best practices for the tools. I don't think the best practices are self-evident right now. I think we're all really exploring and playing and figuring it out. In time, through all this wild experimentation, we'll start to discover the best practices as organizations, individuals, and hopefully as a society.

Host: Yeah, but readers need to understand if AI was used or if it was written by AI. Like asking creators if the video was created by AI or not. Media needs to ensure that readers know if AI was used to protect readers. Let's see how the law will change and how the court will judge on this matter.

Kevin: I think that's the other important thing too, like you mentioned, and I forgot to mention that as well, is being very clear if the information or the image or the video, whatever it is, is produced by AI. Being very clear on that is very important because it's different than if it's produced by a human being. Again, AI doesn't have a comprehension of reality, ideology, concepts, or meaning behind what it produces. It just produces it. A tokenized version of it just happens to have some semblance of a human product, but it doesn't. Being clear about that is very important. Agreed.

Host: Back to the topic of writing and becoming a writer, I wonder, for you, what does writing mean to you? It's a big and open question, but I'm curious. I'm not a professional writer, and I like writing, but I keep a diary every day. For you as a professional, what does writing mean?

Kevin: That's a big one. It's a couple different things. Let me bounce and connect to the AI discussion we had. Writing for me is my way to connect with the world in a meaningful way. Everybody will have their own way of doing that. For me, it just happened to be this. The reason it's my way of connecting with the world meaningfully goes back to what we said earlier. I get to learn about all sorts of interesting things in the world. I get to talk with all sorts of interesting people, and in doing so, it only makes my writing, and I get to work with amazing editors, and it only makes my writing stronger as a result. It's a way for me to connect with the world. I just love words too. I love playing with words, creating a nice turn of phrase, and reading words. That moment where you just read something that's very powerful, and you have to sit with it for a while, I'm fascinated by the power and use of words. That connection for me is what's important in terms of writing.

Going back to the AI conversation, that's why I'm hesitant to adopt AI for anything more than just a semantic search engine, because I feel like that would take away that connection. I'm just letting some statistical algorithm generate words that sound good together, and it disrupts that connection. It breaks it apart for me. I don't know why anybody would want to just have an AI write for them in any meaningful way. For me, that even goes to emails. I know emails are a pain; we all hate them. They're awful; we get too many of them. But when you send somebody an email and it comes from you, and you wish them a good day, and they email you back, like, "You know what, man? I really needed somebody to wish me a good day. I was having a rough time, and it's just nice to know that someone out there took the five seconds it took them to wish me a good day. Thank you for that." That came from me. It didn't take me much, and I didn't have an AI write it and jot it down for me. Words are a way to connect, learn, and discover, and I wouldn't want to outsource that because that's such an important part of life.

For other people, it could be different things. To connect with the AI, it could be image generation, art of some kind, or video creation, whether that's a YouTube video or a movie. For my wife, it's plants, nature, and gardening. She's part of a communal garden, so she connects with people through their desire to grow things. Whatever that is for you, for me, it's writing. For other people, it's other things. One thing we have to be careful of when we're developing these tools is to develop them in a way that augments that ability and not outsource it.

Host: That totally makes sense. I'm really enjoying talking with you, by the way.

Kevin: Thank you so much. Thank you for giving me the chance to answer these questions. Like we said at the top, we were just going to see where this conversation took us, and I didn't even know I was feeling some of these feelings or thinking some of these thoughts until you asked me. This has been a very interesting, kind of confessional interview for me. Thank you for the opportunity.

Host: Thank you. Before ending, do you have any advice or life lessons for aspiring writers? Our audience includes writers, aspiring writers, creators, and influencers. If you have any advice or lessons for them, we'd love to hear it.

Kevin: Yeah, a couple things. The first thing is, if you want to write, you have to write, of course, but you also have to read. You have to read widely and deeply. Pick up books on subjects just to try them out. Read writers that you don't care for and really think about, "Okay, what is it about this writing that I don't like?" Write it down, dissect it. Pick up writing that you love. "What is it about this writing that I love?" Dissect it on a macro level—what is it about this story or book that I love? Dissect it on a micro level—what is it about the sentence structure that works? What is it about the word choice that works? Why does it work?

The other thing is, just like anything, it's difficult. One thing that can get into a lot of people's heads is we only see the finished product. We only listen to the piano player when he's already good enough to play in the symphony hall. We only read the writing after it's been through 12 drafts and however many editors to get it into that state. When we're writing our first draft, going back to my vomit drafts, it can get a little discouraging to read your work and be like, "This is awful; this is bile." But you have to work through that, get to the editing, and find the delight in improving your writing, not just in having written something amazing. Enjoy the process of making it amazing. Easier said than done. As my wife can tell you, I don't always take my own advice there, but it is good advice. If you can take it to heart, really love it, then yeah.

Host: Thank you so much for joining today, Kevin.

Kevin: Thank you for having me. It was great. You know where to find me if you ever want to reach out for any other projects. I'm open. If your listeners are interested in anything I'm writing, they can find me on bigthink.com and freethink.com.

Host: Thank you so much.

Kevin: Thank you.

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