What I Learned About Writing by Arguing with the White Queen

An image of William Wordworth's house in the isolated hills of the English Lake District. Wordworth, one of the first Romantic writers, personifies the idea of the isolated, romantic writer, alone in nature with his thoughts. This represents only one way of getting one's writing done, yet it is the dominant trope of what it means to be a writer, even today.

An image of William Wordsworth’s house in the isolated hills of the English Lake District. Wordsworth, one of the first Romantic writers, personifies the idea of the isolated, romantic writer, alone in nature with his thoughts. This represents only one way of getting one’s writing done, yet it is the dominant trope of what it means to be a writer, even today.

I’ve been off the grid for quite awhile because I was taking courses from a school in England. Unfortunately, England and I have very different ideas, beliefs and values about writing, and because my beliefs are set in cement, England and I are parting ways.

I had forgotten that England is the purveyor, par excellence, of doing things the way one’s granny did back in the day. Yet the rest of the world has, to a large extent, moved on, and no longer practices, for example, the limitations of Current-Traditional pedagogy’s valuing of product over process, ‘perfect’, error-free copy over depth or meaning of content. To be more precise, of course there are those who hang on to certain facets of Current-Traditional pedagogy, but there are options nowadays, even if not everyone knows they exist or has learned to value writing process theory

Just last week, in merry Olde England, I was dragged into an argument by an unwitting proponent of Current-Traditional theory. Although she didn’t know any of these terms, there she was, espousing the rationale of the Dark Side I’d learned to (mostly) discount a long time ago. Suddenly I found myself inarticulate, unable to adequately explain certain rather simple and otherwise easily explained facts I’ve learned through the years about writing and writers. The irony for me was that virtually everything I take completely for granted as obviously True and Good and Right was being challenged, and because I take the underlying beliefs for granted, adequate responses did not come easily.

Plus I was taken aback at how vehemently my opponent fought her corner; rarely have I ever dealt with someone so little prepared to listen, who was, at the same time, so ill-informed on this particular subject and also so angry and defensive. Typically, when engaged in this kind of emotionally-laden contretemps, the subject is politics, not writing. To me, writing is not a subject to have an impassioned fight about, it’s something to help other people with, and to enjoy in my off-hours, when I’m wrestling with the Greeks and their murderous ways.

I also need to add that this ‘argument’ was not a true argument in the sense that I normally use the word; it was not well-reasoned, with assertions building on each other and proofs offered to defend one’s assertions. It was an argument in the sense that we were mad at each other, and I was particularly angry because I felt rather hopeless in the face of so much old-think.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘old-think’. Back in the days of yore, about 50 years ago or more, when there was no such thing as “process” writing theory, Great Authors were emulated and extolled as virtuous and worthy of highest regard, and no new thinking had emerged for a Very Long Time about how to write, or about what it means to be a writer (let alone who gets to think of themselves as writers). The norm was that people engaging in the task of writing worked on their own; there was no collaboration or discussion or sharing of writing.

The expectation was that if you shared your writing, you would either plagiarize, or you wouldn’t have your own ‘original’ thoughts, and so, to privilege originality, collaboration of any kind was discouraged. This included talking with one’s teacher, which was also discouraged except to ask questions about the subject, but never about how to write about the subject. You were expected to understand the form the writing would take because you’d read essays and such, but there was little-to-no discussion about how one constructed a piece of writing, what has come to be considered the architecture of writing (a term I really should, now that I have raised it, explain further in a future blog post).

And, god help you, no one ever shared their writing during the process itself; to do so was tantamount to handing your ideas away. What the other person was going to do with your ideas, I’ve never been able to figure out, but you were not supposed to show anyone your writing, ever. Since I was raised with this model (educated originally by the British in international schools) I remember it well.

Thomas Chatterton, a rather infamous writer, whose writing and tragic life inspired romantic poets for awhile. I worry that aspiring writers worry that this is what will happen to them if they pursue their writing, but this kid had problems larger than life as a writer could address.

Thomas Chatterton, a rather infamous writer, whose tragic life inspired romantic poets for awhile. I worry that aspiring writers worry that this is what will happen to them if they pursue their writing, but this kid had problems larger than life as a writer could address.

“Originality”, genius, and the idea that only “true” writers can produce a worthwhile product (perfect copy, no errors!) were all privileged over the concept that “real” writing can and does coexist with error, revision, discussion, and inspiration from outside the self (as can happen when you emerge from your garret to talk to others). In other words, writing had long been romanticized as a solitary activity best left to “real” writers—those who sought and found inspiration only from their ‘Muse,’ never made a mistake, never revised, and certainly never needed help. 

If you cannot sense elitism at work here, I can, and for me, that attitude doesn’t fly, Orville. Yet elitism is at the heart of why this woman’s response was so strong and so defensive. Once you remove elitism from writing and turn it into something people can do if they know how, you’ve also removed the cachet of specialness about being one of the few writers who “attain” publication, since not everyone is “good enough” to get published—or so goes the prejudice about writing and writers.

When the rules about writing are held in secret—when the act takes place behind closed doors, where no one can see you perform the mysteries—the elitist rules of who is, and is not, allowed to be considered a ‘good’ writer are more easily maintained.

Traditional educational systems excel at perpetuating and maintaining ritualized rules, based on outdated ideas and practices. Although initially the rules might not have been intended to intimidate, that’s the effect they have, since the fact of their existence convinces many people that they shouldn’t even try to attain the ‘status’ of those who comprehend—and maintain the rules of—the ‘mysteries’. Therefore, these rules are about power, and maintaining ascendency over ‘lesser’ people, which I object to as inherently wrong and undemocratic.  

This is the point at which I become vituperative and bitter, though, so I will move on, since the elitist, isolationist view of the writer is primarily a construction of Modernist and Romanticist devising, and has claimed its share of believers. Sadly, people like Ernest Hemingway, in my opinion, were victims of this ideology’s pernicious untruths about what it means to be a writer.

I don't know if Current-Traditionalists and proponents know this, but an unstated rule underlying their pedagogy declares that above all, seek perfection in your writing. I hope you see the problem with this, but if not, I will write more about the downside to seeking perfection in the future.

I don’t know if Current-Traditionalism and its proponents know this, but an unstated rule underlying their pedagogy declares that above all, seek perfection in your writing.

The gorgon with whom I was caught up in heated debate began her parry and thrust where most people who understand the rules of debate would only arrive at eventually, after the crucial step of hearing out their opposition. Early on in our discussion, though, she informed me, in no uncertain terms, that my argument (not that I’d had a chance to formulate one) was “specious.”

The outrageous suggestion I’d proposed, provoking this umbrage, occurred when I said that it would be nice if students (meaning the two of us, for example) could share our writing with each other, so that we could see what other people were doing, and at the very least, get a sense of the style and format the essay should be in to get a good grade. In my world, this statement is akin to asking if you remembered to buy milk.

For her, asking to actually see her writing-in-process was like telling her her first-born child had just exploded. She went as near-ballistic as I have seen someone who is not a) American in an election year or b) forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh at any time. The amount of defensiveness was rather extraordinary. “Of COURSE you cannot see my writing!” she yelled.

It turned out her writing was about to be published. “You can see it when it’s published,” she declared. Her voice was wonderful, by the way; she had a rich, strong voice, quite beautiful to listen to, with a cultured British accent. Unfortunately, the words coming out of her mouth were making my face go numb, and it was hard to think clearly.

So then she said the most interesting, and also disturbing, thing. When I tried to explain that seeing a piece of published writing rather defeats the purpose for the student-writer, who is still struggling with subject matter and writing format, not to mention teacher expectations, and therefore sees the published piece as the work of an experienced professional, not to mention a professional writer, my interlocutor declared that she was not a writer.

As with the backward White Queen, for whom life is lived in reverse, Alice is told to believe six impossible things before breakfast. I believe she spurned this idea.

The backward White Queen, for whom life is lived in reverse, tells Alice to believe six impossible things before breakfast, an idea Alice is wise to spurn.

Now, this was pretty much the point where my head started spinning, like in the Exorcist, because when you tell me a piece you’ve written is about to be published, but then you tell me you’re not a writer, I can’t make both those statements compute. I did have a fleeting thought that as in Alice through the Looking Glass, I was now expected to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but it was 9 p.m. and I was thinking about getting some dinner, which this woman and her oddly impassioned and defensive response had interrupted.

It turns out that she equates creative writing with being a writer (this is a core belief for many people, I’ve found). I forget exactly what labyrinthine turn the conversation took to uncover this connection in her mind, but if you’re not a creative writer, apparently, you’re not a writer. I responded that there are all kinds of writing, and in each case, whether you’re a technical writer, or you’re a reporter, or are writing an essay that’s just about to be published, you’re a writer.

Ultimately, the interesting thing from my perspective is how this one woman encapsulated so many misunderstandings and antiquated beliefs about writing. These misunderstandings persist even though writing theory has moved on. Even so, it’s clear that not everyone’s thinking has kept up with the changes. The damage that can be done to the psyche of a student who has to contend with the negatives of Current-Traditional theory, however, with its perfectionism and error-free product, discouraging of revision, and power imbalance of teacher expectations and assessment privileged over student learning, is my biggest concern, and one of the reasons I wish I’d been more articulate in this situation.

The key problem for students—a problem which, unaddressed, leads to writing apprehension for too many—comes when the student needs specific help with style, form, or any writing-related issue, but when they seek help, they find that these kinds of concerns are ones that teachers do not willingly address.

This is so largely because the teacher takes for granted that the student should “just know” how to write, since they’ve read the same type of (published) essay over and over. Importantly, too, the teacher doesn’t get where s/he is as an educator if s/he can’t write, and therefore is usually blind to the gravity of the problems students present. This usually means the structure of the writing, as a learning tool, is never questioned by the teacher, but the student is left baffled by the teacher’s expectations, since the student is never allowed to see another student’s work, and cannot write like a professional (published) writer. Where is the model s/he needs to see to understand the work expected of her or him? It doesn’t exist in the Current-Traditional model, and that’s why students in this system fail or grow discouraged and accept lower grades than they deserve.

Students are caught between a rock and a hard place, for they know that teachers have expectations about writing that are not always adequately articulated. Then the teacher has the job—and the temerity—to judge the student’s writing ability, when the student never adequately understood the rhetorical situation in the first place. This is how otherwise good students are left behind, and are too often left with persistent writing apprehension.

Unraveling the Mysteries of the Writing Brain

The Creating Brain: Click on the image to watch a TED video about how the brain works

The Creating Brain: Click on the image to watch a TED video about how the brain works.

In writing process theory’s recursive “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” discussion, cogitation occurs before the act of writing.

It might not be conscious cogitation, but your brain is most definitely engaged, and it’s precisely the cognitive complexities involved in writing that make it not only the most complex skill humans possess, but also, not coincidentally, the most glorified.

Society puts writers on pedestals, granting them what French philosopher Pierre Bordieu calls ‘cultural capital,’ largely because we’re impressed when anyone can make something so seemingly difficult look so easy. We are also daunted by the mystery of writing; since we don’t know where inspiration comes from, we imbue it with magical properties.

In terms of what you’ve been told is true about writing, you are both conscious and unconscious of the societal influences you’ve been raised with. Your beliefs provide a mirror for the things you’ve been told. You aren’t going to believe or agree with everything you hear, but quite often, you’re not consciously aware of all of the messages you received, most of which are subsequently reinforced by society, just as they might be reinforced by your own life experiences.

The question when it comes to the brain, though, is where do these beliefs reside? It turns out that memory and memory-retrieval play a large part in forming our unconscious thoughts. These unconscious thoughts influence us much more than was previously believed.

Long story short, you and I, everyone in Western society, as a matter of fact, were taught to believe quite a few things about self-expression and creativity. Some of those things aren’t true, and in fact, the things that aren’t true only serve to limit and restrict you when you want to express yourself. Nowhere is the stigma cast by society as strongly negative as it is on the writer.

Once you honestly believe that only some rare and lucky people are innately talented, you’ve closed the door to your own potential. Although it is clear from research on the brain there is such a thing as an innate ability, that isn’t the endpoint, it’s only the rawest of beginnings. Our brains are all innately programmed for language skills, for example; how will those language skills be developed? How many neural connections will be encouraged by the people around us as our brains form?

One of the myths we’re told to believe is that it’s a mystery how creative geniuses can be significantly more inspired than the average person, with prolific flow that somehow never falters until the day the person dies. One of the things that’s wrong with this idea about how creativity functions is that the people who continue to write about “genius” not only sound star-struck, they typically write about the “genius” ahistorically and acontextually. This one simple fact does everyone who is creative a disservice, and I’ll explain why.

A recent example of this fault in researcher’s perceptions about creativity is to be found in the otherwise extremely helpful book about neuroscience’s role in understanding creativity, The Creative Brain by Nancy C. Andreasen.  

Andreasen provides a handful of examples of what genius looks like. Unfortunately, the creative people she chooses all come from the Romantic Era, which automatically means they describe their own creative abilities in the requisite dramatic, inexact, and emotionally-laden metaphors of their era. (To rephrase in once-popular parlance, the Romantics were extremely emo.)

Andreasen, predictably, relies on Amadeus Mozart as an example of creative genius. Not for the first time in creativity research is Mozart used as a fertile example of what we mean when we use the word ‘genius’. Unfortunately, Andreasen, a medical doctor and Ph.D., but not a “Freudian or psychoanalyst,” as she points out, cannot expand her subject to include environmental influences Mozart was surrounded by as he matured.  

In spite of the fact that it’s less popular to assert, it is nonetheless accurate to say that competition and collaboration, the kind found in a family of musicians, leads to spurred creation. In addition, no one has ever been able to analyse the myriad emotions that led to Mozart’s renowned desire and interest in learning everything he could about music.

It’s rare for these environmental factors to be taken into account when individual genius is assessed, because, for one thing, it’s less glamorous to revision the creator as anything but a demi-god. However, it’s also much more complicated to speculate that Mozart might have been more competitive than his siblings. He also clearly had one important personal characteristic that has more to do with creative output than any other: he was curious, with an insatiable desire to learn everything he could about music and composition.   

Everyone starts somewhere, even musical prodigies. Mozart's earliest compositions were vetted and criticized by other musicians, and the young composer was surrounded each day by music.

Everyone starts somewhere, even musical prodigies. Mozart’s earliest compositions were vetted and criticized by other musicians, and the young composer was surrounded each day by music.

Surface clues into the ‘mystery of genius’ Andreasen focuses on about Mozart are those we have all been taught to privilege when it comes to what ‘genius’ means: productivity and uniqueness.

It’s as though, when assessing Mozart’s creative force, it’s assumed he never left his room, never listened to anyone else’s music, never practiced, never had a bad day of composing when he threw everything away. In other words, his real life experiences are elided to perpetuate the myth of smooth, flowing, “pure” genius.

Later in the book, however, Andreasen does begin to unravel at least some of the mystery surrounding how the mind creates that all-too-elusive moment of inspiration that has been imbued with metaphor, myth, and mystery for far too long, when she gets to the meat of her neurological research. Andreasen tells us that

“most of the time we speak, we are producing a sequence of words that we have not produced before—in fact, that no one has produced before . . . we are producing language that is novel.  We make up coherent sentences “on the fly,” listening to ourselves speak while we are speaking, and planning what the next words will be as the words and sentences are produced” (Creative Brain 63-64, emphasis mine).

This one fact alone has profound consequences for writers. If we took our speech acts more seriously, we’d naturally do what I’ve suggested to writers for many years, which is read each other’s writing aloud, so that we could consciously hear what we’ve written, and respond verbally, all the while taking notes. We’d also take collaboration more seriously, since speaking our thoughts aloud is part of a series of necessary events in the writing process, but it is one that is not privileged by the old paradigm of the writer writing in isolation, speaking only to herself.  

Even though neuroscience is still unsure about the role each region of the brain controls, we all rely on various forms of memory-retrieval. The memory-retrieval skill of particular interest to writers is called “episodic memory,” which is used for free association, and it may be the source of

“information that is stored deeply and is therefore sometimes less consciously accessible. It draws on those freely wandering and undirected associative thoughts that constitute primary process thinking. It is a resource not only for the creative process but also for meditational states, religious experiences, and dreams” (Creative Brain 71-72).

The implications for writers in the above information has to do with understanding ourselves as creators. Instead of seeing the various acts of creation, especially the moment of inspiration we’ve imbued since the Ancient Greeks with the mystery of the Muse sitting on our shoulder, we can begin to free ourselves of our superstitions about writing, and replace our doubts with wisdom. No longer is the ‘wandering mind’ a negative state; it is, instead, crucial for creativity.

No longer will we think that information we’d otherwise wait to passively receive exists outside of ourselves; instead, now we can take responsibility for the fact that although we don’t know precisely where the thought came from, it is, nonetheless, stored in a part of our mind. Inspiration no longer resides in the ‘divine moment,’ it doesn’t belong to some long-dead lyrical Ancient Greek ‘Muse’—it is ours, it was always ours. This knowledge gives us ‘agency,’ which, not coincidentally, means we have power to act, speak, write, and best of all, to be free from limiting myths about creativity.

Woven together by an internal, seamless socially-inscribed ‘logic’, the myths that control how we think about writing are nonetheless not transparent, not natural, not fact. They are cultural artifacts, tattered remnants of a tapestry woven long ago by people who attempted to explain a phenomenon that seems mystical because it is so poorly understood: how a human being learns language and then uses that language to reflect emotion, impart wisdom and acquired knowledge, entertain with humor, incite a populace to war or to tears. And the myths exist in your unconscious memory; they influence your beliefs even now, unless you consciously choose to erase them and reframe them.

Grid structure of the major pathways of the brain, created by using a scanner that's part of the Human Connectome Project. Click on image for more information.

Grid structure of the major pathways of the brain, created by using a scanner that’s part of the Human Connectome Project. Click on image for more information.

When Albert Einstein’s brain was autopsied, it was found he had more neural connections between both hemispheres than the average person. It is important to recognize that he wasn’t born with those neural connections—they developed over time, and with effort on his part to constantly learn new things. The reason his brain could develop in this way has to do with the innate plasticity of our brains, and in this plasticity lies hope for anyone who wants to unlearn what you were told when young.

For example, recent discoveries have demonstrated that “cortical maps are subject to constant modification based on the use of sensory pathways” (Kandel & Hawkins 86).

This means that learning how to do something new literally changes the architecture of the brain.

We not only grow more neurons in response to learning (and the creation of a memory); we create an entire neural network that facilitates future learning, changing the brain’s cortical ‘map,’ or network of neurons. This has ramifications for those who believe our neural paths are fixed or predetermined, for it indicates that the act of learning itself changes the brain’s functioning.

Once the brain has learned and has formed new neural networks, the possibility for interaction between spheres increases, adding to the potential for increased intelligence. Increased neural networks allow for increased categorization and subcategorization of conceptual linguistic material such as metaphor and abstraction. 

What makes this learning possible in adolescents and adults is the brain’s neuroplasticity:

“[c]ontrary to the notion that the brain has fully matured by the age of eight or twelve . . . it turns out that the brain is an ongoing construction site . . . [m]aturation does not stop” (Schwartz and Begley, 128).

The tripartite interconnection between areas of the brain is facilitated, not by mystical intervention, but by learning, memorization, and experience, which creates “abilities that stick around if they’re used but wither if they’re not” (128).

Please contact me for details about the above references; since I have been researching this subject for more than 20 years, there’s a lot of data I can share with you, from the writer’s perspective.

Taking the romance out of writing

Although it would be tempting to place all blame on Plato (ca. approx. 424-348 BCE) for the idea of the Muses and the power of divine inspiration, he inherited the emotive power of those beliefs from his culture.

I don’t yet know of anyone who was raised to think that writing is primarily a cognitive and behavioral process we can consciously control.

Perhaps that day will come; perhaps the process movement will one day supersede the romantic mythology we’ve been taught to believe is true about writing.

The romantic legacy stems from the influence of the Ancient Greeks, whose belief in the idea(l) of divine inspiration and reliance on one’s Muse was appropriated by the Romantics in the 1800s, and, over one hundred years later, the Expressivists who were, arguably, neo-Romantic in their emphasis on individual ‘voice’ and the need for self-expression.

Hesiod (ca. 750-650 BCE) was the first we know of who wrote about the Muses. Apparently, he encountered them one day while herding sheep. According to Hesiod, the Muses ‘appeared to him,’ inspiring him to become an oral poet.

Not coincidentally, the expressivist ethos fit very neatly into the sociopolitical climate of the self-exploratory 1960s and ’70s, just as the Romantic ethos fit very neatly into the sociopolitical climate of its time.

Although the Romantics would have thought some of my own teachers (who taught from the models of neo-historicism or psychological theory) to be rather bloodless in their need to deconstruct texts—picking apart each word, looking for hidden meanings, attempting to ‘locate’ the text, contextualising it, and placing it at a specific moment in history—I rather suspect the Romantics would have loved the Expressivists, who taught us to ‘let it all hang out,’ encouraging us to explore nature and write a lot of freeform poetry, preferably while sitting in the middle of a forest.

The message from this painting by C. D. Friedrich sums up the Romantic ideal; the individual faces the tempestuous sea (symbolising his emotions). The individual, dwarfed and alone against the power of nature, is the controlling trope of Romanticism, a concept that affects writers even now.

Unfortunately, the Romantics taught us to believe that we do not, cannot, and most importantly for self-discipline, should not expect to have control over our writing.

The Romantic period endured from approximately 1790 to 1840, at which time the rise of Industrialism and Scientism overwhelmed the poetic vision, forcing it, to some extent, underground into the collective subconscious.

Writers of that period were captivated by the idea of being swept away by emotion, passion, and forces that lay outside the self. This idea, that one’s emotional nature should overwhelm the individual, leaving us ‘helpless’ against the whims of ‘our Muse,’ continues to permeate our beliefs about writing and writers.

To the extent that we continue to buy into Romanticism, we perpetuate their attachment to drama at the expense of following a schedule, while we wait for ‘our’ Muse to wander through the inner pastoral landscape, and for creative inspiration to strike us with the power of Zeus’ lightning bolt.

That writers of the Romantic period latched onto the emotive appeal of the feeling of loss of control does not help today’s writer, who has the opportunity to integrate cognitive-behavioral, psychological, scientific, and postmodern beliefs about writing.

Today’s writer has the responsibility of using research currently available about how the brain works. It’s my belief that this research will help us eliminate a few fears and doubts that stem from lack of knowledge about our potential. Not all fears and doubts about one’s skills or abilities as a writer can magically be eliminated by research, of course, but for the first time in history, we’re free of the emotive power of the Muse, if we choose to be. Research into the creative process encompasses a number of areas, including psychological insights into how creation works, and where the creative force emanates from.

Neurological and psychological research attempts to understand and explain cognitive and behavioral elements of the writing process. In his book Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), Dr. Albert Rothenberg explains what he calls the “Janusian Process,” which he contends lies at the core of the writer’s cognitive process. He named this “creative cognitive sequence” after the Roman god Janus, overseer of doorways and transitions, because it sums up the necessary ability to see antithesis as logical, which is a crucial element of creativity.

The essence of the Janusian process is that it encompasses ideas that, on the surface, seem automatically illogical and antithetical. In other words, the person having these thoughts is tying together a number of otherwise disparate ideas to come to a synthesis that we have been taught to think of as creative inspiration, a mystical phenomenon that has long defied explanation.

He claims that although this process seldom appears in the final artistic product, it occurs at critical points along the way.

Janus, the Roman god of transitions, doorways, beginnings and endings. He represents the ability to embrace dichotomy and oppositional beliefs.

Contrary to the romantic notion that creativity grows largely out of inspiration, the Janusian process is conscious and entirely rational.

“The janusian process lies at the heart of the most striking creative breakthroughs . . . multiple opposites or antitheses are conceived simultaneously, either as existing side by side or as equally operative, valid, or true.” 

In an apparent defiance of logic or physical possibility, the creative person consciously formulates the simultaneous operation of antithetical elements or factors and develops these formulations into integrated entities and creations.

“The conception contains opposing and antagonistic elements that are experienced and understood as coexistent.” It leaves the mark of “implicit unexpectedness and paradox” on one’s work (15).

Dr. Rothenberg’s findings indicate that there is no mystery (hence, no romance) to this process. Instead, it makes sense for the writer to think in terms of synthesizing influences. Once you break this cognitive process down into its component parts and understand how it works, the idea that we should wander through life waiting for inspiration to strike feels pointless.

Instead, what Rothenberg and other researchers show is that synthesis of ideas comes from looking at ideas from all different perspectives. Focusing on writing as a cognitive and behavioral process offers us the responsibility to read more frequently, to talk to others; to spend more time thinking, and to work with more conscious awareness of our own process. The goal is self-reflexivity, and bringing our previously unknown ‘romantic’ depths to consciousness.

Rethinking cultural myths about creativity

Creative expression encounters obstacles, both internal and external, and rarely flows smoothly. In 1888, Gauguin and Van Gogh spent nine weeks together, painting in the latter's Yellow House in Arles. During this time, Gauguin became increasingly disillusioned with Impressionism, and the two quarreled.

One of the most limiting beliefs we bind ourselves with is the thought that we are not creative. If we’re not constantly being innovative, applying paint to a canvas, writing our memoirs, or coming up with new approaches to a problem, we cannot be creative—or so we tell ourselves.

Part of the problem lies in our definition of what creativity is, and what it isn’t.

When we think of someone who is creative, we rarely picture the kindergarten teacher illustrating organic evolution by finding a spider’s nest in a classroom window frame, and having her students observe the birth process over many weeks.  We also don’t think of the college student struggling to grasp a theory, who then turns his ideas into a three dimensional graphic, making it easier for everyone in the class to understand. Or the mother who invents a new method of color-coding her calendar, augmenting her family’s organizational skills.

In other words, there are a lot of creative people in the world, but we don’t think of them as particularly innovative or unique, largely because we do not value what they have done. The only people we think of as creative are those we have heard of. They’re usually representative of “high forms of art,” which creativity expert Dr. R. Keith Sawyer says in his book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, is a bias that “must be discarded” if we’re going to recognize and value creativity.

His basic thesis is that analyzing creativity is necessary, both to recognize creativity when you see it, and so as to understand that everyone has unique, creative talents, whether or not those talents have been recognized as such by society.

He knows that when we narrowly define what it means to be creative, many otherwise brilliant, productive people are discarded or marginalized, their talents and abilities ignored. This is damaging for the individual, but one could argue that it’s worse for society, which develops intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually through innovation and change.

How should we think about creativity, then?

Here are some conventional myths about creativity Dr. Sawyer refutes:

  • Creative people get a unique idea in a flash of inspiration, and then simply act on it. Orville and Wilbur Wright were not the first to try to build a flying machine. They spent years perfecting their design, as did Thomas Edison, who had many failures before some of his inventions were patented. In fact, forgotten inventors who have never received credit for their work would counter the assertion that creativity is as easy or simple as receiving a ‘flash’ of divine guidance. It can take years to develop an idea.
  • Creative people always have great ideas. Charles Darwin, for one, came up with many ideas that lead him down false trails. When he returned from the voyage on H.M.S. Beagle, he spent years thinking about his experiences, continually updating his theories. Only after thirteen years and many moments of insight, some of which came about through mistaken ideas, did he reach a coherent theory of evolution by natural selection.
  • Creative people have radical new ideas that seemingly emerge from out of nowhere. Many innovations build on the ideas of others, in combinations previously unconsidered.  The majority of patents are in fact “combination” or “improvement” patents. According to intellectual property attorney John Lindsay“people frequently create new machines or articles of manufacture based on existing technologies. It is rare that someone creates something as new as a transistor or another fundamental building block technology.”
  • Creative people ignore convention because their inspiration springs ‘full-blown’ from their subconscious.

Abstract artist Jackson Pollock was thought to have flung paint onto the canvas in bursts of spontaneous inspiration pouring forth, untrammeled, from his subconscious. In fact, Pollock spent years learning to control his pours and splatters, to achieve the effects he sought.

The overall theme I notice when it comes to cultural bias about creativity is the lack of conscious control attributed to moments of creativity; the idea that inspiration is mysterious, a God-given gift.

This ‘god’ sometimes chooses the most unlikely people to express himself through, it seems… would that it were so; would that God, or a god, randomly shot his bolts of inspiration at you, like Zeus hurling thunderbolts across the firmament. If only creativity were that sudden, spontaneous, and mystical! It might seem to be so, but not if you spend years of your life working on your ideas, struggling to make sense of them. 

This idea of a divine source for creative inspiration takes us back to Plato, and the Greek notion that one’s daemonion, or genius loci, or genius, as the word has evolved over time, overwhelms us, compelling us to obey. The myth begins with the belief that we have no conscious control of this force, we have no idea where it comes from; we are helpless against it. When the ‘spirit calls’ or the muse summons us, we must follow. This is both a romantic, small ‘r’, and Romantic—as in the historical period—idea of how creativity works, but it’s inaccurate.

The ability to be creative stems from one's education; you cannot hope to drink from an empty cup. But it does not have to be a formal education to be effective. Largely self-taught, Van Gogh gained his footing as an artist by zealously copying prints and studying nineteenth-century drawing manuals and lesson books.

Worse, it’s culturally biased and misleading, causing many otherwise creative people to give up on their ideas long before they should, because society has taught them to undervalue their own hard work. They also give up on themselves in the process, sometimes leading to depression and despair.

This means we need better ways to communicate about creativity, ways that are not dependent on mistaken cultural biases we learned from the Greeks, only to be reinscribed in later years by the Romantic poets.

Dr. Sawyer suggests instead that we learn to take risks, and be prepared to make lots of mistakes. He also says to ‘do what you love, because creative breakthroughs take years of hard work.’ One of his suggestions that I encourage is to collaborate and brainstorm; through the simple act of conversation, as in the days of Gertrude Stein‘s artistic salons, wonderfully creative ideas can emerge from what Dr. Sawyer calls “freewheeling” discussion.

Most of all, one must forget the idea that being creative is all about being ‘artsy and gifted’. It’s not. It’s about hard work, and giving one’s ideas enough time to incubate. Later on, in the life process of an idea, creativity is about taking risks, showing it to others, and talking about your ideas.

It’s more productive, therefore, to think of creativity as having a lifespan (an organic process model) than it is to think of an act of creation springing upon one, unannounced, waiting for the right moment to strike (the Divine Intervention model, which happens so rarely, you might as well go outside now and hope for lightning to hit you—which, by the way, is an apt Greek metaphor for Zeus’ ‘bolts from the blue’).

A new beginning for The Collaborative Writer!

The Collaborative Writer, a website I’ve been developing for quite some time, is finally up! Please visit, and consider becoming a member to join the community of writers who want to work with one another collaboratively, not competitively.

The goal of The Collaborative Writer is to help you rediscover yourself through your creativity.  Expressing your creativity is a process of rediscovery. As you allow yourself to explore your potential, your new self emerges. The Collaborative Writer’s supportive community exists to help you develop as a writer. Contrary to belief, writers are not born, they emerge over time.

This metamorphosis occurs more smoothly when you interact with other writers who can provide encouragement and reinforcement. Frequently, the biggest stumbling block to creativity occurs long before you ever start writing. Your own beliefs about what it means to be creative might be holding you back. We can explore these blocks, finding ways for you to visualise yourself as a writer.

Learning to believe in yourself and value your need for creativity is an ongoing process. Making time for this might seem to be a luxury, but self-expression is a necessary part of feeling whole. Through group interaction via the forum, the collaborative blog, or with me through one-on-one counseling, your identity as a writer will be strengthened. You’ll find contacts, friends, and resources at The Collaborative Writer that will guide you on your way to self-expression.