Tuesday, April 8, 2014
The Creativity Myth
I have always wanted to be a writer, just assumed that eventually as I grew up, along with everything else I did, I would write. Regularly. And get published.
And yet, I didn’t realize, as I grew older, I absorbed some myths about writing. I believed that I had to wait, for some mythic inspiration to strike. I thought I was waiting for when the words would come, not knowing that simply sitting at the computer typing would make at least some of the words come. And that would make more progress than aimlessly waiting for inspiration to knock on the door. Or in my case break down the door with a sledgehammer, because even when inspiration regularly knocked, I neglected to write down the snippets that I got. I have no clue what I was waiting for. I sometimes got entire paragraphs of text, and ignored them, let them go.
I guess I thought writing stories was very very different from writing research papers. With the latter, you did research, typed up some tentative stuff, moved paragraphs around, did some more research, and cobbled together a piece. With art on the other hand, you sat at the pad or computer, and someone whispered in your ear, and you simply wrote swathes of beautiful prose, tidied up the grammar a bit, and voila, you had a manuscript. And since that never happened to me, I never completed anything. I started many things, but since it didn’t flow completely in one session, I never bothered to complete them. I guess I thought talent was something divine, not something you can hone.
Even last year when I read The Talent Code, which discussed deliberate practise and the ability to develop mastery, not just chance upon it, it didn’t make me rush to the computer. I instead spent time trying to come up with the perfect deep practise drills, like there was some magic exercise out there that would turn me into a great writer.
Over the past year however, it has been dawning on me very slowly that it’s this, this willingness to write down everything that occurs to you, and trying different combinations, putting yourself out there. Putting blood sweat and tears onto paper or screen. This is what turns you into a writer. Experience. Patience. A bit of luck. That comes after spending hours trying to find the right words. This is very similar to what I do with research papers – I put down all the words I can think of, in all the combinations I can think of. And then I delete what sounds the worst, move things around, revise as much as I can.
In my current WIP (work-in-progress), I just couldn’t find a way to put down the words. I wanted to circle back to the same scenes, the same emotional truths over and over. Seeing that as a fatal flaw in my writing process, I simply stopped working, hoping that magically one day I would know exactly what to write, how to fill in the gaps. Perhaps what I needed instead was to write the same scene over and over in various ways. I have since read about writers, both contemporary and classical, who have experienced this same feeling of going around and around in circles, like a dog chasing its tail. Maybe I should have gone with it, and it would have helped me to settle down into my work; which is really what the dog is doing as well, evolutionarily programmed to make its grassy bed.
I read a blog post by Jamie Todd Rubin, in which he mentioned his writing method - he first writes one draft telling the story to himself, and a second draft where he tells the story to his readers. It’s such a simple and yet powerful way of breaking down the writing process. Reading this made me feel that my myth of the writer effortlessly breezing through the story from beginning to end in chronological order, with all plot twists and turns neatly worked out in one fell swoop was, just that, a myth. Writers get the kernel of an idea, and then they must work hard at it, to turn that kernel into a crackling good tale.
This probably applies to endeavours beyond just writing, or even broader than art. I imagine that students might believe that successful students sail through the examination in chronological order, when in reality many, myself included, jump back and forth between easy and difficult questions, answering as much as possible. A finished presentation may look seamless, but from experience I know, execution is often patchy and chaotic, everything falling into place at the last minute. As I mentioned in a previous post, making whatever little progress you can, can set up a cumulative effect, building on itself.
Maybe creativity isn’t a flashy designer, with bolts of silk, fashioning a garment from large pieces of cloth. Maybe creativity more closely resembles a weaver, weaving a complex tapestry from small pieces of thread, intertwined over time into something that absorbs the individual fibres, which is munificent enough to accept any and all bits into its fold.
Update: I apologize, the previous version of this post omitted the links.