Chapter one: Creative Writing
1.1 The road not taken
When trying to address the delicate subject of creative writing, one encounters numerous obstacles along the way. The first and possibly hardest to overcome is that of creativity itself as, from a point onward, all the information and research in this field slowly fades away into blank pages or unanswered questions. In this aspect, one finds himself in the posture of the pioneer, having the need to imagine the next step, to speculate on the possible perils that lie ahead and to invent the necessary tools for understanding the unexplored environment. It is a matter of uncertainty, doubt and even mistake, but it is also a matter of progress, courage and truth and that is a required part of life in order for it to prosper.
Historically speaking, creative writing as a field of research appeared only a few years ago, though, needless to say, people have been writing creatively for thousands of years. “Appeared” is, perhaps, an illusory term, considering the fact that it is still a highly disregarded domain with very little research conducted in any of its possible branches. The main reason for this would probably be that of competence, for, in order to fully grasp the intricacies and processes that lead to creative writing, one should be “well-endowed” in literature, psychology, physics, neurology and, on top of it all, it would surely help if the researcher were also a creative writer. Just as courage is hard to bottle, independent of what alcohol producers have to say, so is imagination hard to contain within countable limits. How can one constrain within boundaries something that is meant to break them? How can one rationalise, quantify and organise something that goes beyond everything one could ever envisage? Such questions have, perhaps, been the great wall that very few people dared to venture past. It is a disarming premise from which to begin a study, yet there are no other, more benevolent premises to choose from. The only soothing thought is that one doesn’t have to go beyond his wildest dreams, or, so to say, everything one ever imagined. He needn’t do anything of such sorts. One’s wildest dreams is precisely the sought destination.
When trying to find a simple and efficient definition of creative writing, one most likely has to find it within the contents of one’s mind, as written contents have not yet been able to identify what it means. Perhaps the simplest and most accurate I’ve come across is that creative writing is “writing that expresses ideas and thoughts in an imaginative way”. Still, it is a problematic definition, as, apart from the activity of the scrivener, every other endeavour involving writing should be called creative writing. To give an example, while writing a new law, the politician expresses his ideas in an imaginative way, as he needs to write it so as it is left to little or no interpretation and he also places himself in the posture of breaking the law in order to be able to come up with the consequences. He expresses ideas and thoughts in an imaginative way. But we all know that is not what creative writing is, so we are left with no answer so far.
Still, without a definition, we cannot continue on the path of understanding, so we need to go a step back and perform a vivisection on the term. I shall further speak of creativity and after that I will point out some aspects of writing, in the hope that, taken separately, the parts will shed light on the whole.
Though the term has been in use for a long time, there are still so many definitions available, each having their own implications. The Oxford dictionary says creativity is the use of original ideas in order to create, whilst the Cambridge one considers that the mere producing of unusual and original ideas is enough creativity as it is. This says different things about the creative process, but we shan’t linger in any of these prospects, as we will try to find a more suitable option.
Michael Mumford, director for the Center for Applied Social Research and professor of Psychology, states in one of his works that creativity involves “the production of novel, useful products”, while it can be defined as “the process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile” (Mumford, 2003, p. 110). A definition that is quite unorthodox and that presents little academic valence. Still, though difficult to say what is and what is not “worthwhile”, it is far more comprehensive than the two mentioned earlier.
When applied to the field of creative writing, Mumford’s definition has some flaws that are to be noted here because they might be of use later on. The use of writing, when considering belletristic literature, has little practical value and, not taking into account the guides on “How to…” do something, its usefulness as a product in the physical realm is irrelevant. One argument out of the way, we are left with the question: is writing the producer of the novel? It is an age-old question that reverberates from Ancient times, as Plato argues in “The Republic”: “Will we say, of a painter, that he makes something?”, Plato poses the question, then answers right away: “Certainly not, he merely imitates”. Until the Renaissance, the act of creation was believed to be solely attributable to God. Therefore, the question is: do people create when they write?
An obvious answer would be “no, they do not”, as we find in books all the things we can find in the world around us and nothing more. But the process of creativity occurs, nevertheless, even if, in order to prove so, we would have to change the definition of creativity itself.
If, let’s say, fluid intelligence is the capacity to solve problems and identify patterns in novel situations, without having acquired the knowledge to do so, then, especially when it comes to writing, creativity should be the capacity to project such situations and patterns with a certain, somewhat subjective purpose. In other words, it is the ability to create stable alternatives to current reality with the intention of saying something or pointing towards a particular aspect. With this newly definition in mind, we could go on to talk about writing.
Defining writing is easy, so there is no need to go into it, but what is interesting to observe is how writing has evolved, from the simple passing on of information to the creative side it has today.
It is generally accepted that writing started to form around 4000 B.C. As Daniel Nettle observes, this was not a stage of genetic evolution in the common sense. He states that, while “there are no evolutionary changes in the human genome that are there for reading and writing, reading and writing are there because they are able to flourish on the substrate formed by the evolved human mind.” (p. 101). So we see right away that, being a social construct, writing has changed alongside with the evolution of society, as sediments in the brain that made it advance naturally from one place to the other.
Still, how writing got to the point where fiction appeared is still a troublesome question, as there is a great leap from bookkeeping to, let’s say, Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. The same Nettle argues that not all “blame” should be placed on the need of man to empathize with the characters or to be able to experience a context that he can’t experience at the time. There is, indeed, this urge to empathize and escape, but it is a mere vehicle. The true understanding of the whole phenomenon would be to know why this has occurred along the ages. Where did the need of man to create worlds come from?
We are provided with a possible answer in Scott Barry Kaufmann’s “The Psychology of Creative Writing” where it says that the answer “must introduce three interlinked facts about the human way of life: our sociality, our theory of mind and our capacity for language”. This is further explained through the parable of the primate. Primates, with reference here to apes and monkeys, are social beings, this implies that they need to keep track and attend to a decent amount of social information, such as, in the case of apes, whom is paired with whom and so on. Because of this, primates have fairly large brains. Based on these facts, Robin Dunbar proposed a theory called the social brain theory, stating that human intelligence did not evolve as a means of solving ecological problems, but rather as a means of surviving and reproducing in large and complex social groups. This idea has a high degree of validity, considering the fact that the brain of apes and monkeys tend to be larger in larger groups.
Related to this theory is another, namely the theory of the mind. This refers to the ability of humans to reason about the mental states of others. In other words, it is the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings and beliefs from the other’s and thus be able to put oneself in the shoes of other people. It goes as far as, once in someone else’s shoes, one can more or less predict what the other believes. This theory has not been demonstrated, despite effort, in other species but that of humans, but even so, it proves to be of a great deal of importance in understanding the evolution of man towards creativity.
As for language and its origin, the same Dunbar introduces the so called “gossip theory”. This expounds that most of people’s conversations revolve around gathering information about the persons they talk to or about third parties. For Dunbar, the primary function of language is to exchange information about the social environment: who can be trusted, who has allied with whom and other such gossips. According to Nettle, this aspect of human language creates another problem, that of trust. “Why should one believe the assertions of other language users?”. A solution to this dilemma would be to act journalistical, and verify the information from multiple sources, or to develop a preference towards gossip partners that have repeatedly proven to be honest. These aspects are, as seen, extremely important in the understanding of how fictional worlds, and thus creativity, began and function nowadays. From this, in relation to language, creativity and our social nature, writing proves to be a tool for keeping a better record of our social environment and, when used for fiction, it produces that spark of pleasure at the idea that we are better connoisseurs, and thus better specimens, of our society.
Having all these in mind, I feel confident to go back to the concept of creative writing and, based on our findings so far, try to define it as it really is.
Creative writing is a social phenomenon through which the individual invents and overlaps a non-existing society where he is all-knowing to the one in which he lives, with the unusual end result that he becomes more knowledgeable in the latter.
I feel the need to explain the social aspect of the newly formed definition, as it might seem a bit farfetched. Creative writing, no matter how you put it, is the same thing as creative thinking. It’s creative thinking expressed through writing; it’s creative thinking expressed through imagination. With regard to this, it is safe to assume that, back in the old days, when folktales and myths were uttered and not written, it was still just another form of creative writing. Despite popular belief, writing does not require tools in order to exist. One could easily write a poem on a blackboard that only exists in one’s mind. It would be the same thing as a poem written on paper. So, creative writing started as a social behaviour, intended to pass on information about the past to future generations. It was a social phenomenon then, it is one now, when the same thing happens, only on a larger scale, with more ambiguous information and with a more exquisite style.
The end of the definition also needs some explanations. Creative writing works in multiple ways. It is produced by the imagination of the writer and while it is produced, it produces in its turn a higher degree of imagination in that writer. Another thing it does is it produces imagination in the reader. But that wouldn’t be the only thing that makes the user of creative writing a better person after the process is complete. There is also the better understanding of the environment. As I’ve said a little while back when referring to the theory of the mind, human beings have the capacity to place themselves outside of their body and in the skin of their peers and get to understand them better. This allows for a stronger grip on the handle that is society. With creative writing, this applies to everything. One could place oneself in everything that is around and have a more subtle perception of it. It is said that poetry captures the essence of things. It is true, yet the capturer is in fact the poet. Poetry is only a net.
Hopefully, this definition will aid us on the long journey that lies ahead, towards understanding how creative writing works and it will allow us to “separate the wheat from the chaff” when we will take a closer look on the requirements and must-have’s of creative writing in the following chapter.
Chapter two: The Creative Writer
2.1 Creative writer’s personality
After having defined creative writing we are inclined to think that anyone can write creatively. Within a broader sense it is true, as all people have a certain amount of creativity that is put to use in a certain way, but when related to writing pertaining to literature we encounter some, let’s say, elitist situations.
Studies have been carried out to show that creative writers share a decent amount of personality traits. It is like with basketball, for example, where you have to be tall in order to be good. Unlike other craftsmen of the arts, such as painters or musicians, who have their own unique personalities and eccentricities, writers follow a pretty similar mindset. Right from the top, I think this is a result of the tool the creative writer uses in order to express his imagination, namely writing, namely words. It is said a picture is worth a thousand words and, therefore, it is more efficient in transmitting the message it has to. In this regard, writing is harder to work with, harder to mould into something that enchants the soul, it is an insufficient tool for creating. Thus, writers need to have certain attributes in order to cope with this “unpleasantry” and turn it into something pleasant.
I will further depict some of these attributes in order to better comprehend the qualities that are needed in order to write creatively, if it is the case of such a situation. The following few pages do not intend to state that there is a fixed pattern for becoming a writer, more that there is a similar pattern left behind by those who have already become.
Many studies have shown many common characteristics in writers. In her essay, Jane Piirto makes a list: androgyny, insight, imagination, creativity, intuition, introversion, openness to experience, overexcitability, motivation, perceptiveness, persistence, preference for complexity, resilience, self-discipline, self-efficacy and volition. It is by no means a complete list, neither here nor in Piirto’s essay, but it contains the most important traits that can sketch the outline of the writer within.
I will add some more later on, but I just want to draw a little bit of attention towards some of these. As pre-explained in the first chapter, androgyny is a shared characteristic of the creative writer due to his necessity to put himself in the shoes of both the female and the male sex. It is a required characteristic in order to have no limits while writing. Openness to experience, overexcitability, perceptiveness and resilience fall in the same category. What is new here are two groups of attributes, those consisting of willpower and introversion. Each of these contain a number of subdivisions, as Piirto explains. For example, introversion is linked to neuroticism and depression, all common traits of creative writers. I will refer to these later.
“I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. deMaupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendahl… But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better” (Hemingway, p. 549). Plenty of such examples of statements exist throughout the public lives of many authors. Ambition and envy are two interconnected characteristics of writers, one leading to the other, that are caused by several factors, some external and some internal. The external ones could include the hardship writers tend to endure when trying to publish something, the internal ones would be the desire to succeed and the problems writers seem to have when dealing with inspiration: some have more than others. This will also be discussed in this chapter.
In her work, Piirto describes a lot of personality inclinations of writers, such as their concern with philosophical issues and their frankness, often expressed through political and social activism. The latter just goes to show what we pointed out in the first chapter, that creative writing is a tool for becoming a better social specimen, thus explaining the writers’ attraction towards such social behaviour. Still, some of the traits mentioned by Piirto, though interesting, do not make the point of this paper so I will skip ahead. This is said in order to clarify that there is a far better established connection between all creative writers’ personalities.
“The writers appear to be both sicker and healthier psychologically than people in general… The face they turn to the world is sometimes one of pain, often of protest, sometimes of distance and withdrawal, and certainly they are emotional” (Barron, 1968a, p. 244). Barron gave writers personality tests and found out that they suffered from several psychological malfunctions. The tests indicated that they were manic-depressives, schizophrenics, depressive, hysterical or psychopathic. Also, they did not have strict sex role expectations, but we cleared this point earlier.
Another study, this time by Jamison (1989), compelled of 39 writers and 8 artists showed that 38% had been treated for affective illness, a condition that affects the mood, while in the average population this was the case with less than 5%. Most of them also reported cases of mental problems in first-degree relatives and research has shown that almost 50% of relatives had worked in a field that involved creativity. This implies that, perhaps, creativity is a factor that is genetically transmitted.
It also implies that mental problems are transmitted genetically and the odds are not in favour of the writers. Writers, especially women writers, especially poets and, subsequently, especially women poets have the highest rate of suicide of all artists. Such high is this rate compared to the rate in other fields that, if one ever feels like killing oneself, it is most probably a sign that one should start putting words on paper, not just as a goodbye note. During tests that spanned for longer periods of time and that were meant to determine susceptibility to suicide, some authors actually committed self-murder, on the one hand aiding the researchers and on the other balancing the scale to a negative conclusion. This is mainly known as the “Sylvia Plath effect”, but it might as well have been called the “Woolf method” or the “Heming way”.
Many famous writers have been and are known to suffer of mental illnesses and most of them suffer deep states of depression and anxiety. Writers described depression as being the more horrible, as one knows one can’t do anything to get rid of it. True as it may be, many tried to evade it by means of alcoholic euphoria. William Styron said that alcohol is “a shield against anxiety” without which “the shadow of nightfall seemed more sombre, my mornings were less buoyant, walks in the woods became less zestful”. John Cheever said that “the excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar”. This is an important aspect of the traits mentioned so far, as it might portray the writer in various ways: as a shamanic initiate, drinking a potion in order to reach a higher state of creativity and consciousness, as a weak man, slave to his most primal urges, or as an unadapted party to this world, an escapist trying to do anything that goes in order to elude this reality: create a separate one, alter the brain’s perception with alcohol and drugs and, if the others don’t work, free one’s spirit from the vices and limits of the body.
It is a dark and gloomy view on the personality of the writer, it appears to be a sad and egotistical one, so it comes as a surprise that Piirto concludes her essay with two unusual, as compared to what we’ve seen so far, characteristics that writers share: empathy and a strong sense of humour. These, though, are easily understandable in relation to the activity of the writer, for, in order to understand the people and the environment around one needs empathy, and, to be able to see anecdotes or puns even in the plainest of endeavours, one has to have a refined sense of humour.
With these said we will continue with some other writer related phenomena.
2.2 The “social” writer
Quite a curious situation, that the writers’ main theme when writing is precisely the thing that isolates them and in which they do not seem to fit no matter what: society. It is even more curious that those who best depict the society in which they live are those who live outside of it.
In this regard, the writer is subject to every little aspect that society considers “anti-social”. Not out of want, or not always or necessarily out of want, but out of the very core of his intrinsic nature. In other words, the writer does not become a writer by choice, he is, let’s say, born this way. He is born to stand out in the crowd or, better yet, to stand out of it.
In their paper, S. Pourjalali, Skrzynecky and James Kaufmann speak of dysphoric rumination when it comes to writers and the way they become “problematic”. Rumination is an effect defined as a compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to focusing on its solutions. It is a mental construct similar to that of worrying, with the difference that the last one concentrates on the potential inconveniences of the future, whereas rumination focuses on the bad experiences from the past. Dysphoria is the opposite of euphoria, namely the state of feeling unwell and unhappy.
A lot of writers, based on studies and tests, were affected by dysphoric rumination, some even to the extent of not being able to write. This, mostly, was related to writers whose stories and poems were inspired by their own gloomy life. There is a distinct separation between two types of rumination, self-focused and symptom-focused rumination. The self-focused one is described as having repetitive thoughts on the self and on the symptoms of depression, while the symptom-focused one concentrates on the symptoms of depression. The first one appears to be a personality trait most associated with neuroticism, so it can easily be found in people that do not suffer of depression. The type of rumination that is present in writers depends on their type of writing.
When writing, dysphoric rumination appears during the process of revision, when the author ruminates phrases, word choices and the logic of the events he portrays. Though this is good when it comes to organising one’s thoughts and emotions into blocks of words that fit, it has been observed that it also comes with a negative side. Self-dysphoric rumination is related to increased depression, poor problem-solving and a decreased goal achievement. To explain this the easy way, if the writer happens to write about some bad events in his life, then, while revising his work, he basically performs dysphoric rumination on those events, reliving them and being affected all over again. This leads to further depression and further psychological problems. Hence, were there no evil in the world, writers would be a tad more sound of mind. Anyway, the point is it all goes down from there, based purely on the theme a writer writes on. Additional effects of rumination also include an external locus of control, negative self-evaluations and hopelessness.
The locus of control is a theory in psychology explained simple by means of example. There are two types of locus of control: internal and external. The internal one is defined as the persons’ believes that they can control their own life, while the external one suggests the opposite, that those who are struck by it consider that their lives are controlled by environmental factors which they cannot influence. While some may argue that we are never in control of our lives and that we always depend on the environment to influence us so the writers’ external locus is a natural thing, it is important to add that these theories have no relevance to the subject. It is obvious that, given the negative influence the writers receives while being affected by dysphoric rumination is not made easier by the fact that they lose the feeling of control on their lives, be it real or not. To an extent, this external locus of control comes natural, as writers experience a lot of pressure from editors and publishing houses, with deadlines they have to respect and inspiration they have to receive.
Furthermore, there is a correlation between rumination and revenge and a negative correlation between rumination and forgiveness, thus leading to the conclusion that negative rumination is a possible catalyst for anger and aggression.
Some may ask themselves what about the cases where writers write about positive things in their lives. Indeed, with these cases, there is a smaller degree of susceptibility to mental illness, but then again, most writers do not write for reasons of happiness. And this gets us to the modern motive for which writers are as their names suggest. I’d like to call this “the journal impulse”, where, from young age or not so young age, writers start journals. They do not start them to express their content with life, nor in order to celebrate the joyous occasions that living installs, but because of their difference in behaviour and thought with the rest of the world. They start these journals to express their sorrows, their frustrations and their unusual thoughts. They start them to express the things for which they find no comfort or understanding while trying to explain them to someone else. This further leads to stories, poems and plays, but the base of it is made up of a number of negative emotions and thoughts. So, no matter the degree of amusement or happiness that derives from a writer’s work, it is safe to assume that he got to writing it after having passed through the negative-based journal impulse and therefore is still more prone to mental illnesses than the normal individual, just slightly less so than the writers who animates his negative experiences.
If writers were to write out of happy thoughts, the rate of suicide wouldn’t be so high. Several studies undergone in various countries showed the same thing: artists have a greater suicide rate than the average population. Furthermore, among the artists, it was observed that writers and poets have even higher suicide rates than painters or musicians. This act of suicide has a touch of aggressiveness in it, pointed either towards the self or towards those that left behind. What should be taken into account is the fact that, although artists who commit suicide are considered poor problem solvers, they do seem to have a well-executed preparation beforehand, making us think that their intellectual side remains intact. And, as Kaufmann said (p. 29), “it can be argued that the artist, through a cycle of depression and rumination, may be taking aggressive action against his or her persecutors (e.g., a spouse, publishers, one’s self ).”
So, as we see, writers are not the most evolved social beings, unless being an evolved member of society means constantly feeling depressed and trying to end one’s life, to which point writers would be the next link in the evolution chain. It is, then, a wonder and a paradox that what they produce is, as we’ve decided, a social phenomenon. But, if given some thought, it is understandable why this happens. To give a random example, during the Romanian revolution, the participants did not have a clue as to what was going on. Who was shooting who, who had started the mutiny and all that. But the other countries knew just well about everything that was happening, because they were seeing things from afar. In the light of this example, the instinctual furthering of the writers is logical and practical. They have to not take part in the events in order to see them, understand them and explain them to the common public.
This is, nevertheless, a social behaviour, one that traps writers and shortens their lives, but also one that is able to depict society and help it understand itself through the vehicle of the written word. As food for thought, one should ponder on the path and grandeur of society, if those who are made to observe it soon get sick and die. We have learned a valuable point with this part concerning the writer’s personality, that there are some specific boundaries that confine an author to a certain side of society, but most importantly we have understood that the personality traits of the writer are not something that one can learn and make one’s own, they are either there or they aren’t.
2.3 The writers’ block
It can be argued that personality is not the most important factor when dealing with artistic preoccupations or any sort of occupations to that matter, as each person has their unique and distinct character and different types of people have the same job and manage to do it well. A fast and temperamental snooker player isn’t better or worse than a slow and mellow one. A painter as positive in behaviour as Dali isn’t better or worse than the one-eared van Gogh.
It is therefore necessary to approach the side of the writer that deals more closely with the act of creation. We will, as continues, see some aspects of the processes that get writers to start writing. They are, as the ones before this, psychological aspects that pull the trigger and make the writer do his job and, while it is not mandatory that everyone follows the same procedures, the procedures have been observed to be followed by most, if not all, writers.
2.3.1 Moody blues
Brîncuși once said something along the lines of: doing things is very easy, the hard part is getting in the mood to do them. This statement is the more intriguing and relevant as it comes from an artist and it comes as a result of his experience with his work. It is needless to say that mood is an extremely important factor when trying to do anything. If the right mood is not present, the endeavour becomes either an obligation and a painful experience or, in the happier cases, it does not even start to exist.
Same thing goes for writers, with a slight difference of amplitude. As with all other psychological factors, they do not take mood lightly. They swing it as fast as they can and, why not, if they’re already there and have the means, they make it bipolar and turn it into a disorder. With writers, a thing as simple as “I think I’m in the mood for ice cream” becomes an untreatable illness.
Mood swings and bipolar mood disorder have been acknowledged to be connected with creative writing and creativity. Many writers go from exhilaration to depression in mere minutes. This heats them up and rattles their creativity and makes them come with complex plots and complicated worlds on the one hand, while offering them a view from both sides of the story on the other.
Research has shown that a positive mood offers a higher level of creativity on the writing side of it, with a better word association than is the case with bad moods. This goes beyond the realm of creative writing and into that of creative thinking, as the research has encountered better results in creative problem solving tasks when a positive mood was induced. This has been regarded and put into practice with all the great corporations of the world, such as Google or Apple, who try to give their employees the best mood possible in order to get the best creative results.
We may ask ourselves, then, how come writers have such a good level of creativity if, as we’ve seen earlier, they mostly suffer of negative moods? The answer comes in yet more research that was conducted and that had a totally different result from the aforementioned. Positive moods only cover one portion of the quality of the creative process, while the negative one goes further. To explain this, good mood enriches creativity and comes up with a lot of creative solutions when there are satisfying conditions that are being fulfilled. On the other hand, negative mood works the same way without any necessary conditions, with the sole difference that those who suffer of it come up with fewer creative solutions to problems, yet the quality of the solutions has proved to be, in some studies, higher than that of the positive mood ones. Furthermore, negative mood leads to problem finding, which is the first step to solving them.
This does not only go one way, meaning not only mood influences writing and creativity, but also writing manages to influence mood. Of course, it is a positive influence on it, thus proving what we said earlier, when talking about the “journal impulse”. Writing is a therapeutic method that helps writers feel good about themselves. An unanswered question would be: are writers unstable people that write in order to contain their condition, or do they become unstable because they write? It is, nonetheless, a vicious circle, for no matter the answer, they are bound to writing one way or another.
It is important, though, what is written about. Tests have concluded that if people write about themselves and about possible traumas they experienced, the effect on mood is negative. At the same time, if they write about imaginary traumas, the effect is again positive. It is another possible answer for how fiction appeared in the first place. It may be an answer to both why we write fiction and read fiction.
2.3.2 The actual writing
A distant model of the writing process suggested there are three main cognitive activities that occur when writing: planning to write, generating text and editing the text. The first one is similar to mood, but we will approach it from a less psychological point of view and from a more practical one.
During the planning process, the writer establishes the goals of the written texts’ content and decides on how to achieve those goals. This process may also contain the skeleton of the text. The generation process relies on the cognitive effort of putting flesh and soul around that skeleton. It involves memory, associations, emotions and thought. It has been observed that this process is usually formed around a primary generator. “With me a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what caused it to follow”. The words belong to William Faulkner and help fund the theory.
The primary generator is then transformed, through association and with the help of memory, into a more complex story. It is indicated that the richer the primary generator is, the richer the associations and, thus, the stronger the generated text. The revision process implies comparing the generated text to the writer’s ideal text, observing the differences and trying to remove them so the text resembles its goal.
According to Todd Lubart, these writing processes occur “in two problem spaces: content and rhetorical ones.” (p. 152). The content one holds the writer’s knowledge and beliefs, while the second deals with verbal representation. He further states that the writing process “involves a constant movement between the two spaces.”
Later on, a slightly more accurate model of the writing process was proposed with stages of writing including: reflection, text production and text interpretation. Reflection stores planning, problem solving and decision making, production means turning mental representations into words, while interpretation implies reading, listening and creating internal representations from linguistic and graphic sources and revision. It is important to say that, though seen as three different processes, they mostly occur at the same time. They also differ from inexperienced writers to expert one, whereas, for example, when revising, a novice would concentrate on one sentence at a time, the expert would apply the revision to the entire text.
It is a simple and clear path to writing a literary piece, at least in theory. In practice, writers have to overcome a series of obstacles in order to get to the end of the road.
Where do ideas come from? How does inspiration work and why do writers have it in such abundance and why does it go away at times?
Several less conformist theories exist. One of particular interest is that of the Nooshpere. The Noosphere was a concept introduces by Teilhard de Chardin and is considered to be the sphere of human thought, layered around the planet as is the atmosphere, the biosphere and all the rest. To explain it, just as everything around us does not disappear, but suffers a process of transformation, the same thing happens to our thoughts. We emit them and they exist. Once this happens, they cannot disappear, even if we stop emitting them, like a flashlight sending out some rays into space. So, the theory suggests that they are all collected into this Noosphere. From here on, they can be accessed by the attuned mind. A further example would be that many people think of ways to screw a light bulb easier and come up with five different ways, meaning five different thoughts. All these go into the Noosphere and the next time one thinks of ways to screw a light bulb, one will find these five ways as if they were one’s thoughts.
When being inspired, writers either have an idea in mind, to which point his brain is tuned to the frequency of all the similar ideas that ever existed and needs but pick one, or he does not have any idea in mind, with the result that he will write about something that comes as a surprise to the audience and to himself as well, as he will tune to a random thought in the Noosphere. In this respect, the expression “to get an idea” is more accurate than “to have an idea”, though both do not imply that the idea came from one’s own creation. It came from somewhere in the first place.
This further goes hand in hand with the concept of preoccupation without occupation. It is a curious thing that one never gets brilliant ideas when strongly thinking about something. It is while eating a cake, while taking the kids to school and, the best known example, while sitting on the toilet seat. This happens because one is preoccupied with the subject, while he is occupied with something else. Once turned on, the brain continues to vibrate in a certain tune, thus calling for ideas with similar vibrations. This is one way of understanding how inspiration works.
With this ideas came another part of the writing process, which got the name of incubation. During this one, the conscious mental work on the problem is stopped, but the unconscious mind still tries to find solutions, forming associations. The following stage is called illumination, considered to be frail and easily disbanded by the merest distractions and soon after comes verification, where the writer has to re-evaluate his work so far in the light of the new idea.
Some authors place frustration as a part of the writing process, it occurring right after the preparatory stage, when the mind is drained of all conceivable solutions. Frustration may often lead straight to incubation and can overlap it, often making the writer start all over again. This is the basis of the so called “writer’s block”.
These processes are each segmented into many other smaller processes and, in a more extensive paper and in one with a greater ponder on the psychology of the writer, this should be studied and observed. But it is not the intention of this paper, as I’ve merely tried to paint the large picture. When considering the writing process described above, one should also bear in mind the personality traits that writers share and that make the process a far more interesting thing.
The problem, or a problem, when trying to analyse writers and the processes they go through when writing is their contradictory personality. With a subject as fluid and elusive as creativity, every part of the mechanism should be taken into account. But with writers this is almost impossible to do, as the many sides of a writer turn every test, no matter how specific and complex, into something flawed.
With all the studies, the research and the tests, there is no scientific saying as to how writers write. One can only observe similarities, deduce processes and intuit what goes on inside the writer’s head, but when compared to a classical scientific study, it all becomes a guessing game.
2.3.4 The actual block
Writers are never happy with what they produce. Their self-critique goes as far as the eye can see, so much so that the third party appreciation, no matter how bad, becomes a light and pleasant review in comparison. Sometimes, the writer’s impression on his work is so negative that he cannot write anymore. This impression is one of the reasons for writer’s block.
Another cause of this blockage would be the high awareness that there is a reader. It has been argued that, although the writer has to keep in mind at all times that there is an audience, he must not overthink on this subject or he is susceptible to get paralyzed and stop writing.
Although belonging to the writer by name, the block is not something specific to writers alone. It can happen in all sectors of art and in all fields that require creativity. Given the aim and subject of this paper, the block is important because it helps us understand what a writer is.
Is a writer still a writer if he’s suffering from a bad case of writer’s block? What makes a writer be one? These are all important questions and the answer may come in the strangest of places: that where there is no writing and where the writer’s qualities are reduced to nothing.
There are four types of blocked writers, each with the same condition but expressed through different behaviour: the dysphoric type, the guilty type, the constricted type and the angry type. I shan’t linger in any of the descriptions available for each of them, it is but necessary to see that there is a categorized division of these “tormented” writers and to know that each is faced with a block in certain aspects of the creative process. This goes to such an extent that, in the case of the constricted type, there is a blockage in creativity itself. Also, the length of the block can span for as long as the duration of years.
How is one then, if not creative, still a writer? The possible answer could be that once a writer, always a writer, and that if someone has written something of value at one point, even if that person got stuck afterwards, the properties of being a writer did not vanish. And, from the behaviourist point of view, this is true. Blocked writers have the same similar traits as active writers, some of them even better defined than the writing writers themselves. The blocked ones tend to be even more negative and more perceptive to negative states and events than the usual writer. The only thing that is missing is the actual writing.
But that should not matter, as we do not think of a retired woodcutter that he is not a woodcutter in essence. He is simply not performing any longer. This goes further, and another question arises: if one has all the attributes of a typical writer, but never writes, is one a writer or not?
At this point, opinions divide. If one is endowed with the skill and wit necessary to excel in a field, let’s take gastronomy for example, to such an extent that one behaves like being part of that field, then I would consider he or she is a latent cook, but a cook nonetheless. On the other hand, if no one were to perform in the field most true to their nature, what would, then, become of the world we live in? Everyone would be something they are not. Everyone would be named wrongfully. Perhaps future research conducted in this paper will shed light on this dilemma.
Singer and Barrios propose a method of going over the writer’s block; such is the degree of fixation of this mental issue that it only resolves itself with the use of hypnotic programming. Thus, the subjects that took part in the study were subdued to semi-hypnosis, with the aim of helping blocked writers produce natural imagery and creative daydreams. However, this method, not available to everyone, is mostly applicable to experienced writers who are already experts in their field.
Another way of getting to the same result, according to the same authors, is by constantly replaying in one’s head the thoughts that are oriented towards achieving the goal of writing. This, they say, can lead to an impasse or to frustration, but it will get the subconscious working day and night to produce the images and associations relevant to the goal.
In contrast with the first method, this one does not present itself as a viable solution, as the writer’s block is defined through the same process of mental fixation on ideas and on writing, with no actual outcome. In other words, the second option simply states that a blocked writer should do the same thing he did when he became blocked, with even more intensity if possible. In this case, the antidote is shown to be the disease itself and, while this may work with other similar problems, it is a risky shot when applying it to a mental blockage of this amplitude, as the result could be only a higher state of frustration that may further lead to all the other problems that a writer must overcome, such as depression and even the lack of desire to live.
2.4 The medicine of writing
An Oriental saying concerning communication states that a word that is not uttered when the time is right, eventually turns into illness. It is indeed the case with writers, as we’ve just seen in the former subchapter. The inability to write may lead them to desperate solutions, such as drinking and self-murder, just as the ability to do so holds all the negative emotions that the writers are prone to at bay.
From young age, the writer puts his thoughts and emotions in either journals or short stories or poems. The journal is clearly a therapeutic process, being the equivalent of a psychologist and so is writing fiction, being the equivalent of reading a fairy-tale as a method of escaping reality. Though writing fiction can be, as we’ve seen earlier, both enchanting and depressing, depending on the topic of the writing, it is necessary to add that, as a child, the writer who comes up with stories and poems does not pick, intuitively, negative subjects, or even if he does so, he does not perceive them as negative.
It has been observed that writing about traumatic events, describing the feelings and emotions one went through during the period in which the events happened, works as therapy, increasing the psychic well-being of the people who do this.
Writing as a therapy method is not therapeutic for writers and writers alone, but it can be verified and it has with people from random fields and work domains, all with a positive result. The days of shock after a trauma are reduced and the missed work days’ number has decreased.
Writing does not come as a therapy only on the psychic level and what is most interesting is that the subjects who took part in studies concerning this subject were less likely to get sick if the studies were conducted in the flu season between autumn and winter. It has been observed that there is a connection between writing and the level of white cells of the blood. Research showed that, while writing on a regular basis, the number of white cells somehow grows and there is a change in the level of cortisol in saliva. Cortisol is a hormone usually released by the body if there is a case of stress.
Other improvements on the physical side have been noted in general, as there was a decreased number of medical visits and in particular, as the medication and pain had lowered in the case of asthmatic patients. Also, the days spent in hospitalisation after surgery became fewer, there was an improvement in both types of blood pressure and in the quality of sleeping.
The answer to why this happens is easy: everything comes from the brain. And if the brain is healthy, so does the body become. The answer to why does writing affect the brain in a positive manner, has made people come up with several theories.
The emotional inhibition theory states exactly what the saying from the beginning of the chapter does, that not talking about something important comes as a result of inhibition. This inhibition is not just a momentary phenomenon, but a constant one, as the brain continuously works at keeping that event far in the background. This leads to a long-term mild stress that eventually accumulates.
The second theory, called the emotional expression theory is the same thing as facing your fears when you have a phobia, as you are forced to be exposed to the event for as long as the writing process continues. In time, this reduces the symptoms of trauma.
A third theory suggests writing improves the individual’s self-regulation, namely the ability to recognize and control one’s feelings and emotions, as it involves describing them in as much detail as possible and uncovering their essence. No matter which of these theories is correct, the conclusion and the important factor is that writing works as a healer for multiple psychic and physical disorders.
Chapter three: Shakespeare in the Park
The last chapter has taught us a great deal of things about what it takes to be a writer. Never have we considered writing to be an easy endeavour, but perhaps we treated it as being less difficult than other arts. In the light of this information, things may have changed; nevertheless, the ultimate question of this paper stands: can anyone become a writer and learn how to write creatively just by following guidelines?
Until now, we have entered the minds of the writers by means of scientific data and collective research and we were able to justify most of our suppositions with verifiable facts. Depending on where we situate ourselves, things are now becoming a little dimmer or a touch brighter. Now, we are going to enter the minds of the writers not through the aid of the researcher, but through the writers themselves, and through the way they have decided to present themselves to us.
This may or may not be a closer approach due to many causes. First of all, there is no reason for us to believe that the author is telling the truth about himself. The same thing goes for the scientist, but with the case of the scientist we are presented with some facts that are deduced from observation and we can form our own opinion on the matter. There is no reason to believe that the writer would present facts without distorting them. After all, he is the creator of his own image and of his own universe. Another thing is that people usually tend to know themselves very little and, even if one considers he is telling the truth about oneself, that may not be the case.
On the other hand, facts are not always the best path towards finding answers. Facts can also be misleading and pervert the truth and they are only conclusive in normal circumstances, where everything happens in the same way if identical conditions are met. Whereas with imagination and personality, things may not act accordingly. Also, there is a saying arguing that no one can get inside your head unless you allow them to. In regard to this, the scientist can extract just as much information as the writer allows him to, so it’s all the same in the end. One last argument is that along with the experienced writer, the one we are going to study in this chapter, comes a high level of introspection and psychology that is not to be found in the regular person. From this, we can deduce that, if the writer means to be frank with the public, he will be so from head to toe, with the most accurate of descriptions.
With this in mind, we can continue on our path and see what writers think about their own writing abilities and about the whole of the writing process as they have developed and perceived it. In the second part of the chapter we will parallel our findings with a number of books that claim to teach anyone how to write.
3.1 Writing creativity and creativity in general
George Bernard Shaw once said that “the best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for him there”. This statement appears as a mysterious one and many have tried to explain it in a number of ways, most of them in regard to the peace and serenity that a garden has to offer.
Romantic as they may seem, the explanations are far from true. To fully understand what Shaw meant, we will need to go to another writer, more recent in years, but just as mystical as the first, Paulo Coelho. At one point in his novel “The Pilgrimage” he gives an example of an intuition increasing exercise that goes along like this: “Make a puddle of water on a smooth, nonabsorbant surface. Look into the puddle for a while. Then, begin to play with it, without any particular commitment or objective. Make designs that mean absolutely nothing. Do this exercise for a week, allowing at least ten minutes each time.” (p. 104)
The important factor that is often taken lightly in Shaw’s words is the verb “to dig”. As the earth opens up and the gravel unravels in a myriad of shapes and patterns, our brain is bombed with information and energy. Through the eye, the brain records every shape and every pattern and places them in the subconscious. There, in time, it makes associations and from that point on there is a high probability of coming up with new ideas.
Just as with Coelho’s exercise, the digging exercise means to stimulate the brain with the purpose of achieving “divine inspiration”. Thus, in Shaw’s statement, God is the equivalent of creativity.
It would appear that there is a method of enriching creativity, by looking at continuously-changing patterns, but it is important to notice that Coelho does not refer to the exercise as being a boost to creativity, but to intuition. It is, then, interesting to notice the similarities and differences between the two terms. From a psychological point of view, intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without the use of reason. Both creativity and intuition come from the same right brain hemisphere and are, in this respect, closely connected.
The question that may pose a problem is the following: is intuition a form of creativity or is it the other way around? The answer may be, of course, that none of the two things is the other. The best example for understanding the two terms is to answer the question without knowing the answer. My intuition says that one is part of the other, most probably creativity is a part of intuition. Creativity has helped me in coming up with this self-explaining example that becomes self-explaining just now.
Using intuition as a means of discovering truths is what the writers we are discussing in this chapter have done throughout their writing careers. As we will see, most of them do not have the theoretical knowledge on how to write creatively, but they do it with high standards. “We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.” (On Writing, p. 8), or “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.” (On Writing, p. 11)
Ray Bradbury has a poem related to this aspect, from which I shall present a few lines, that are conclusive to the topic.
“I do not write—
The other me
Demands emergence constantly.
But if I turn to face him much too swiftly
He sidles back to where and when
He was before
I unknowingly cracked the door
And let him out.”
“He Phantom is, and I facade
That hides the opera he writes with God,
While I, all blind,
Wait raptureless until his mind
Steals down my arm to wrist, to hand, to
“Yet tease I do and feign to look away,
Or else that secret self will hide all day.”
In his book concerning the craft of writing, Stephen King, who, if nothing else, is a lucrative author, combines creativity with a side of autobiography, which is helpful in understanding how the first one works. When referring to the first idea that came to his mind and that was unique, he states that “good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” (p. 37) This is where intuition and observation come into light. To see the spectacular in everyday life requires an attuned observation and to be able to spot the story in the spectacular is to have a mix of creativity and intuition. One could say that, all in all, creativity is intuition set free and it is indeed set free with the writer.
King then goes on to presenting the idea and what triggered it. Though I will not transcribe the entire story here, it is interesting to point out the direct references his story has on the environment he lived in, personal history and most of all on the moment of inspiration. The moment of inspiration is to be taken into account because it is reproduced in the story exactly how it happened, the sole difference being that the people in real life were replaced with imaginary ones in the story. Along with all the other details that were put there as a result of verifiable events in Stephen King’s life, such as the fact that the main protagonist wanted to get a house, when in real life King’s family did not live in one of their own, is an important aspect in discerning what is creativity in connection to writing and how it works. This, though, remains to be discussed in another, ampler paper.
Writing creativity develops as a form of imitation. Many writers were known to have started their writing careers by simply transcribing other texts, in their exact form. “At some point I began to write my own stories. Imitation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse tablet, sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.” (p. 27) It further develops by narrating witnessed events and adding only a slight personal touch to the story. Other evolutionary steps appear later.
At this point, it is important to differentiate between writing creativity and creativity in general. When confronted with writing, creativity suffers a number of changes, as it does with all fields in which it is required. These changes are specific to the craft of writing and, despite general belief, they cannot be pinpointed. One can only experience them and intuit how they work.
In opposition to this mystical view come a great deal of books and articles about how to be more creative. There is a multitude of tips on how to write creatively. Browsing through a decent number of articles, I’ve realised that all these tips can be placed in four, maybe five categories.
The ‘General tips’ category includes advice such as: “Relax before writing”, “make sure you are sitting up straight”, “if you are lying in a bed when you are writing, make sure your shoulders are up so you don’t injure yourself”, “know your theme”, “have a passion for what you are writing” or “convey emotion in your writing”. It is a miracle that so many books that claim to teach writing have this kind of advice from beginning to end and it is a curiosity that someone actually finds this information useful. If we consider the tips mentioned above, we could assume that any relaxed army fellow with a passion for war could become a Sven Hassel.
There is almost no need to argue that these are not helpful tips at all, as they have no practical side to them. They are merely sketches of a poorly portrayed mood that is required in order to write and, moreover, they are the end result of some processes. There is no actual guide towards achieving these results, you are just told where you should be in order to write. In other words, these tips provide a general description of the writer and his state of mind and, while this is quite an interesting thing to know, it does not help. If one is given an insight in the mind of a serial killer, it does not mean that one can become a serial killer based on the acquired information. This category is useless for everyone. It does not help those who have never written and are trying to and it does not help beginner writers evolve in any way. Needless to say, it comes as a joke for professional writers.
The second category would be that of ‘Personal tips’. These may vary from “come up with a topic and plot beforehand”, “show your works to others”, “don’t think of anything troubling that is on your mind” to “read a lot of Chekhov”. I included them in this category because not all writers were known to have written after a predetermined plot, many of them having invented things along the way; because not all writers feel comfortable with showing their work to someone else, some writers were known to have kept their writing secret even from their families; because, as we’ve seen, many writers get their inspiration exactly from the “troubling” things that are on their minds and because not everybody feels Chekhov in the same way.
This category is not entirely useless, as one may happen to come across some advice that is exactly what one needed. For example, one could find that the tip to read a lot of Chekhov is quite useful, if one does so and gets inspired by the famous author. But other than that, it’s all a matter of subjectivity and subjectivity is not a matter from which a universal recipe can be concocted, so it is still no good.
The next category would be that of ‘Technical tips’: how to start a story, by “having a catchy first paragraph”, how to build the plot, the characters, the suspense, how to give better descriptions and all that is related to the technical side of writing a story. Not all the advice that is given in this category is relevant and most of it is obvious, but this is the most helping one out of the ones mentioned so far. The only problem it has is that it reduces itself to the technical aspects, not keeping in mind the state of mind that is required in order to get to the techniques.
The ‘Authorial category’ does not do much good either. It seeks to depict the state of being a writer but it too falls into the trap of subjectivity. So, while one author could say that, in order to write, one needs to stay focused at all times, another may differ that it is more important to let go of trying to write, and let it come to you. Some writers consider that they share their craft when writing about it, others argue against this from the start: “Not how one writer was made; I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by selfwill (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package.” (p. 18)
3.2 The mysticism of writing
It is, I consider, a good idea to regard all the aspects of the craft of writing. In this concern, as with possibly all crafts, there is a transcendental side to this. Writing has been acknowledged as a method of initiation and improvement of positive attributes. At the same time, there are alternative means of inducing the state of writing. All of these can be understood as a fifth category of tips, yet this is the strangest of them all and it is quite difficult to argue for.
The painter’s brain is heightened by the vibrations of the colours he uses, the musician’s brain develops synapses with the help of sounds, but how does writing improve a writer’s brain? Every other field of art produces only one result: the musician produces music, the sculptor produces sculptures, the painter produces paintings. However, it is not usually said that a writer produces writing. It is known that he is the creator of stories and that stories are the product of his art. Yet, when we open up a book we are not struck with the sight of the story, but with that of the writing.
Of course, in modern days, this aspect has no more value whatsoever, as more and more writers use computers in order to convey their stories. Nevertheless, a somewhat forgotten way of developing writing skills is through writing itself. I am, of course, referring to the art of calligraphy.
From ancient times, calligraphy has been seen as a path towards illumination. Bushido, or “the way of the warrior”, required the mastery of calligraphy as well as of swordsmanship.
Paulo Coelho, in one of his novels, summarizes the transcendental aspects of calligraphy. “My way of approaching Allah—may his name be praised— has been through calligraphy, and the search for the perfect meaning of each word. A single letter requires us to distil in it all the energy it contains, as if we were carving out its meaning. When sacred texts are written, they contain the soul of the man who served as an instrument to spread them throughout the world. And that doesn’t apply only to sacred texts, but to every mark we place on paper. Because the hand that draws each line reflects the soul of the person making that line.” (The Witch of Portobello, p. 76)
Another thing worth mentioning is the alteration of perception in order to see the essence of things. Writers and artists in general have been known to ingest certain substances in order to reach that state of delirium that is often associated with a free stream of consciousness. Whether we are talking about absinth, mushrooms, cacti, seven-leafed plants, or good old-fashioned beer (this last one in greater amount than the others), writers have constantly tried to trick their brains into seeing things differently.
The general public appreciated this as being a social situation: a drinking problem or a drug problem. Yet, despite what we’ve seen in the chapter about the weaknesses of the writers, there has always been a different side of the story with regard to these, let’s say, pastimes. As we’ve seen, in order to write, writers have to have a great deal of discipline and self-volition, but then this opposes the idea that they drink and do drugs out of a weak personality. But if we take into consideration this mystical supposition, then it is all made clear.
Then again, this would not be the best tip to give to a novice writer: to drink and get high in order to hallucinate. Still, these are not the only methods of altering one’s perception and achieving a rapid flow of consciousness. When discussing ways of entering a state of trance, Coelho writes the following: “Of course, and that happens not only through dance, but also through anything that allows us to focus our attention and to separate body from spirit. Like yoga or prayer or Buddhist meditation.” “Or calligraphy.” (The Witch of Portobello, p. 98)
So, as it appears, writers have had the power of discovering a separate reality right through the mechanics of their craft, but this power is no longer used, thus making the mission of the writer even harder today. And, of course, this aspect offers a crossroads on the path of writing that makes writing different from other arts. A violinist playing an overture does not only convey sound, but the story as well. A composer does not create sounds, but stories. One cannot be considered an artist if one simply plays notes on an instrument. It is not the case with the writer. The writer performing calligraphy can become an artist by simply writing the letter ‘a’. This works exactly like the Indian mantras, where repeating a sound as ‘om’ can put one in the state of trance.
So there is a double craft embedded in writing and one comes in aid of the other, as calligraphy teaches discipline, sensibility, rectitude and many other attributes that may fill in the gaps of a writer’s personality on one hand, and on the other it offers a proper environment for an altered perception, allowing for the writer to spot the unusual in the plainest of circumstances.
These tips, however, are even more obscurely explained than those of the other categories aforementioned and, due to the level of encryption that revolves around them, it is safe to say that they are inaccessible to the general public. And though we cannot find arguments to deny their plausibility, we may say that they belong to another state of consciousness, one that may improve the writers and their craft, but one that is not necessarily vital to the perpetuation of writing as art.
3.3 “The Terminator” writes back
In the pursuit of finding an answer to the question: “can a strong set of techniques turn a plain individual into a prodigious writer?” we may need to remove the individual from the equation, as there are too many variables that can change the result of the research and simply focus on the technique.
To do such a thing, meaning to focus on the technique without any human presence, requires the use of machines, robots and computer programs, as someone or something has to produce the technique. In this sense, the internet provides a wondrous palette of possibilities as it offers online poem generators or online haiku generators.
In this chapter, we will observe a few computer generated haikus and see if there is any artistic valence to them. If the answer will prove to be positive, the implications that will arise may even question the very essence of writing and, furthermore, the purpose and motor behind art itself. If a program has no feelings but can convey them through writing techniques, what is then the difference between a machine and a person? If, given enough time and a typewriter, a monkey could reproduce all of Shakespeare’s plays what is then the effort of Shakespeare, other than that of saving time? And, to this matter, is art but a series of repetitions, revisions and accidents that aim at creating something beautiful?
In choosing the best haiku generator, I have studied several programs but I finally narrowed my search to one specific generator that claimed to offer one hundred trillion haikus. After reading the description of the program, I found out that one hundred trillion was a bit of an understatement, as it actually offered an infinite number of poems, and I was told that, if I ever come across a good haiku, I should write it down somewhere, as my life was too short for the chance of ever stumbling upon the same haiku again.
Of course, out of the many generated, many were either bad or made no sense at all. I will give a few examples in order to make things clearer.
“shady slender plain
watermelon quibbles, blithe
blowing moose braying barren
final barfly chirps”
But the meaningless ones grow pale in comparison to the actually good ones I’ve come across:
“janitors fall, sad
knives smile, jangly dinosaurs
frightening merchant haunts, warm
somnolent loose nymph”
grimly, falcons ricochet
wives flailing lost sleek”
And these are only a few of them. In the way literature has evolved today, there are quite few of the generated haikus that cannot be interpreted as something meaningful. I will not give an interpretation to these haikus as interpretations are victims of subjectivity, I merely want to point out that these haikus leave a clear path towards interpretation, and by the unusual associations that are made, one could also state that they are fairly artistic. And although I have not found a generated haiku that can be deemed as a fabulous piece of art, it only happened because I did not give it enough time. Needless to say, the ones I found assured me that the possibility of a work of art lies within the capabilities of the generator.
This gives birth to a huge number of questions, but we will not address them all in this paper. We are interested in one in particular, namely: “Is art and, subsequently, writing a process that depends entirely on the brain and on its ability to make fast associations or is emotion and feeling involved as well?”
If emotions are not necessarily involved in the process of writing, then all that we tried to prove in the second chapter, when we discussed the state of being a writer, is dismantled and we could say that anyone with a normal functioning brain can write.
To answer this, it is important to observe that the haiku generator is not aware of the complexity of what it generates, as it simply follows commands that were integrated in its system. Another thing to be noted is the definition of art. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects”. Though it appears that the word “conscious” was placed there precisely with the intent of separating what an individual can do from what a program can, it is still a good definition. The aesthetic value of an object cannot be appreciated by an emotion-free program and, therefore, it cannot be considered art if there is no one to consider it.
With this in mind, we can determine that, as long as the machines won’t grow a consciousness and pull a “Matrix” on us, they won’t be able to write creatively. The human brain, on the other hand, has this ability. Yet, it is also endowed with the rare gift of consciousness and, when consciousness comes in, it does not come alone. It brings the good tidings of feelings and personality. And as great as they may be, feelings and personality behave in the same way a spoiled child does. They want this, they want that, they don’t like this or that. And, as we’ve seen in this paper, the real writers do not have the luxury of choice. They are condemned to be writers even if they do not profess.
From what we’ve seen so far, to still argue that anyone can become a writer is to undermine the craft of writing and to disregard the talents of the writer. Art is not something to be taken lightly and therefore writing should not be viewed as something frivolous. It comes to us with great expense and it comes to the writer with even greater cost.
Many articles entitled “Can anyone be a writer?” suggest that writers are made, and that they are not born writers. After stating this, they go ahead and give a list of personality traits that one needs in order to write. As if one could change one’s personality just like that, depending on the situation. Such self-contradicting articles can be found throughout the field of creative writing and they are encouraged and taken into account by the general public as being true. The aim of this paper was to deconstruct such ideas and to place the universe of the writer into a much more favourable light.
To achieve this, we’ve seen what creativity is, how writing has developed along the years and what the aim of creative writing is. We then plunged into the mind of the writer and observed him not only as an artist, but as a human being as well; we compared the writer with the normal individual; we bathed in the intricacies of his psychic processes, we’ve seen the destructive powers of dysphoric rumination, depression and low self-esteem; we got stuck in the writer’s block and after that we tried to find a cure. Towards the end, we had a little chat with some writers and listened to what they had to say about their craft; we considered a series of books on how to write and appreciated their content; we inhaled the mind-altering fumes of transcendental writing and, still dizzy from the smoke, we participated in a creative writing workshop led by robots.
Unconventional as it may have been, our journey has carried us to one of the many possible truths of creative writing. Just as David Eagleman created the theory of possibilianism starting from a small collection of creative writing exercises, theory that states that we should keep in mind several possibilities of the universal truth, as we know too little “to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion”, we too are faced with the same problem.
Creative writing has been studied too little for us to be able to posit something that cannot be otherwise contradicted, but there is enough information for us to be able to spot quite a few possible paths.
The path of this paper is not to be understood as the path of destiny. By saying that a writer is born and not made, we do not mean to prophesize about the theory of destiny in opposition to that of free will. We simply state that the writer comes into this world with a certain genetic structure, courtesy of his predecessors and with a certain predisposition towards the way he sees the world. And these genes and this predisposition cannot be taught to no one by no one.
A possible, but not recommended, conclusion to this paper is that, if one ever feels the need to become a writer, but does not share the writer’s state of mind, one is much more likely to get it from a pint of beer than from a book about how to write.
There is a lot left to say, but it is left for other, more extensive papers. Hopefully, this one has done its job and writers can now breathe a little more easily, as they are still needed, since not anybody can be a substitute for them.