Thursday, 31 March 2016

Creativity and writing

Are writers difficult to live with? In "Creative people's brains really do work differently" it says

Frank X. Barron found that "the common traits that people across all creative fields seemed to have in common were an openness to one’s inner life; a preference for complexity and ambiguity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray; the ability to extract order from chaos; independence; unconventionality; and a willingness to take risks." Barron wrote that the creative genius was “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.”
It may be because they engage with the full spectrum of life—both the dark and the light—that writers score high on some of the characteristics that our society tends to associate with mental illness.

In my "Poetry, Madness, and Cure" article I look at how some mental illnesses may be confused with (or conducive to) creativity. The article about Barron's work tries to apply more recent theory to explain how these traits might be productive -

"The executive network helps us focus our imagination, blocking out external distractions and allowing us to tune in to our inner experience. The creative brain is particularly good at flexibly activating and deactivating these brain networks, which in most people are at odds with each other. In doing so, they are able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought — cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous."

In my "Attention, Agility and Poetic Effects" article I try to incorporate the default mode network into explanations of how we interpret poetry. "The Organised Mind" by Daniel Levitin (Penguin, 2015) also mentions the executive network, pointing out that

"In many tasks, both creative and mundane, we must constantly go back and forth between work and evaluation, comparing the ideal image in our head with the work in front of us.
This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do. We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture. We like what we see or we don't, and then we go back to the task, either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake" (p.174)

The limitations introduced by constraints needn't be viewed as obstacles. Often they help. In "Need to create? Get a-constraint!", lab experiments involving poetry are reported upon -

Consistently, these studies show that encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.
And this returns us to poetic form. The artificial requirements of the sonnet are just another cognitive obstacle, a hurdle that compels the mind to think in a more holistic fashion. Unless poets are stumped by their art, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line.

Another concept oft-mentioned in this context is flow (or "being in the zone"). In "Flow states and creativity" it's defined as an

“optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It’s also a strange state of consciousness. In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates—meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened—and that includes creative performance.

In "The Organised Mind" by Daniel Levitin (Penguin, 2015) it says

"Creative people often arrange their lives to maximize the possibility that flow periods will occur, and to be able to stay in flow once they arrive there ... The singer and songwriter Neil Young ... pulls over to the side of the road, abruptly leaves dinner parties, and does whatever it takes to stay connected to the muse, to stay on task. If he ends up getting a reputation for being flaky, and not always being on time, it's the price to pay for being creative" (p.207)

I'm sure most writers develop ways to maximize the conditions for the emergence and exploitation of Flow. In his article in "Magma", "Poetry in Practice: Creative Flow", Mark McGuinness interviews some poets on how they deal with flow. He uses the word "muse", which is apt. I wouldn't be surprised if age-old advice about The Muse could be translated into Flow terminology.

  • Inducing visits by the Muse - Writers come to know what increases the chances but there's no guarantee. Early morning and long journeys often work for me. Having a standard place and time to work helps others. Rituals (or just habits) may do the trick. Avoid having to be aware of the time. Workshop exercises don't work for me.
  • Making the most of the visits - Coleridge's "Person from Porlock" is now a nuisance call. Reduce the risks of interruptions - no e-mail or phone.
    Your job or lifestyle may give you a chance to take a break whenever the mood takes you. If not, having a notepad handy may suffice. It helps if those around you understand why you sometimes retreat to somewhere quiet. It's no good them saying "The shopping will only take an hour. You'll have loads of time afterwards to write". It doesn't work like that.
    Experience will also help you decide what tasks to focus on when you're in the flow. Proof-reading probably isn't the best use of the opportunity.

See also

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