On humans and the creative mystery (also, TED Tuesday)

ted1This week’s talk is from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat,Pray, Love” and many others and is a must watch for all writers or anyone who loves a writer (or artist for that matter) and would like to understand them a little better. Let me explain. Each week from 7-10pm Sunday GMT (5am Monday, Japan time) there is a Tweetchat under the hashtag #writechat for which I often make sure I am awake. This week’s conversation quickly moved to the idea that, in some way, stories write themselves - that writers know we are “in the zone” when it seems we are not fully in control of the story we’re writing. When in this zone our characters talk to us, they do things which surprise (shock, delight, horrify) us and will even refuse to do something which we know might propel the story in a certain direction but would not be authentic to who they are (and thus prove to be better storycrafters than those of us trying to push a character into an inauthentic action!)

This is not something we writers will easily discuss in mixed company because we know it sounds a little mad (meaning ‘insane’ for the Americans reading) but, for the most part, #writechat is a “safe space” and it became one of the most lively and open discussions since I’ve been participating. It was clear that some of the writers were admitting this for the first time and that they were feeling the joy and relief that always accompanies that “it’s not just me” moment.  I hope that some of them are reading this and will watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk and feel even more vindicated/appreciated/confident.

A couple of individuals did suggest that we sounded mad and even declared that the notion that “the story writes itself” was simply wrong – the writer writes the story. For the most part, we ignored these comments, for one thing they were from people who we know don’t write, nor particularly respect those who do write, fiction (fiction was the topic, in honor of nanowrimo) and because we have heard these views before, from our non-writer friends and family, and know that it comes from a lack of understanding rather than any desire to be nasty. Perhaps we hoped that they might come to understand by simply listening to the conversation but it was probably a little unfair to expect that when we were talking on a level that assumed that understanding. It is possibly more honest to say that we ignored them because few of us wanted to jump out of the general conversation to explain what we meant to just one or two people, so let me attempt to remedy that a little myself and then I will introduce Elizabeth Gilbert who brings the process to life most beautifully in her talk (and also writes memoir and non-fiction - so it's not just fiction writers who go through this).

The “you’re mad/insane” reaction comes most often when we say things like “the characters speak to me” or “do things which surprise me.”

The characters-speaking-to-us thing is really not that hard to understand. Let me ask those of you who think you don’t understand to think back to any time when you have had an humiliating experience and, on the way home, what you “should” have said “came to you.” Did you not hear yourself saying it in your head? Did you not ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the reactions that you would have preferred your audience give you? In that moment of regret – you have become a creator. The ‘you’ in your fantasy is not really you but a character based on you (because you weren’t that awesome in the actual moment, were you?) nor is the audience that reacts to your better comeback real (because it didn’t really happen and you don’t know for sure that they would even react the way you think/hope they would), again, you have created some characters. I would bet that you don’t actually think to yourself “and then Milly would say ‘wow you’re awesome’ and Chris would applaud” – you’re a pretty odd person if you don’t simply see the scene in your mind’s eye, like a film (over and over as you try different comebacks lol). This is all we mean by our characters speaking to us, that the scenes unfold to us, the diaogue ‘comes to us’. It all happens in our ‘mind’s eye’ - we don’t actually see them standing in our room in front of us (we hear them as though they are standing behind us sometimes but we know they aren’t lol.)

I have to grant that the “characters do things that surprise me” is a little harder to explain and/or accept. First of all, of course, when I say they “do things that surprise me” I mean that my own fingers type out their ‘doings’ onto my page and that I am not consciously aware of what I am typing until I read it off the page a millisecond afterwards. I am not fully aware that I am typing at all, in the same way that, when I read, I become unaware that I am reading, unaware of my surroundings and the book in my hands and aware only of the story unfolding like a film, assuming it's written well enough (I know not everyone has this experience when they read but I’m sure enough do to understand this).  When I write, when it is flowing, I am in a limbo space between the visualization of the story and the page - I experience what the character, whose POV I am writing from, experiences while at the same time recording it in this other, real, world. It is a split-brain kind of thing but it’s not multiple personality!

This is why our loved ones come home to find us out of breath or in tears or grinning like an idiot at our monitors after we’ve written a particularly emotional scene (and they should all have plenty of emotion!)  It’s also why I can’t write with my back to a door because I will NOT hear anything going on around me in the real world and will be shocked out of my tree if anyone appears behind me! I have been known not to realise Superman is calling me to dinner until my characters start talking out of context: “Dinner’s ready! Do you want juice or water?” Huh? Oh. Ahem.

The less mystical or just cynical of you can argue all you like about whether I “really” don’t know what’s going to happen but what I definitely know is that, in those moments, I have gasped out loud, had tears come suddenly to my eyes or had fear shoot through me as surely as someone had appeared in my doorway holding a gun. I also know, from experience, that it is when I don’t allow myself to sink into this limbo space that the writing stops flowing. When, usually out of fear of failure, I try to bring the ‘craft’ into the first draft writing (and this is ALL about first draft writing – again, we were discussing nanowrimo) I get stuck, nothing comes.  I have been known to describe this as the muse withdrawing because I don’t trust her anymore – and it would be picky and defensively-skeptical to attack the idea of “a muse” rather than focusing on the concept that I feel I have stifled my own creativity by “thinking too much”.

Of course, we must do our best to provide our brains with as much information about the world into which we want to go and about human nature so that our characters are believable – that we cannot write what we don’t know at some level, is true - but I don’t believe it’s possible for the human brain to consciously juggle all the elements required to make a story, a world, a character real in the moment of creation.  We must trust our brain, our muse, or whatever we believe is responsible, to perform the subconscious alchemy that is creativity AND (and here’s the big assertion) we must not pursue conscious understanding of how it works – not if we want to be artists, anyway.  Why not, you might well ask? Shouldn’t everyone who wants to be an artist be hunting down what is going on there? If you knew how it worked wouldn’t you be able to ‘master’ it?

For that I would point you to Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk.

If, after listening to Elizabeth’s talk (and listening again if need be) you still insist on being so very, pragmatic and asking the above questions then I would say this: I believe understanding the neuro-physiology of creativity will, at best, help us to create as much as understanding the physiology of breathing helps us to breathe. We know it’s important to keep our air clean and our blood vessels healthy but thinking about the thousands of complex processes which make it happen does not help us to perform the act in any way whatsoever. In fact, to even attempt to consider those processes in real time is not only impracticable but would take up so much brain power as to render any other thought impossible - let alone creativity.

But I’m sure none of you will ask those questions after viewing her talk :) Enjoy.