I am talking about the Muse, I suppose, who can be considered a kind of tutelary demon of writing. Although I love writing, some days it seems like hard work, and I strain to produce one word, one sentence that has any life. At other times, it just flows, and I am possessed – by the story, by the characters.
So I am still considering the ideas about creativity discussed in the Jonah Lehrer book, Imagine – which I have talked about here before.
In the first couple of chapters he uses two examples to illustrate what he sees as different forms of creativity. The first is Bob Dylan. He describes the time when Dylan was creatively blocked and retreated from the music world, determined to give up writing. He was tired and stale. But after a few days in retreat, he was overcome with a compulsive need to write. In Dylan’s words “I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long” – the song that was to become one his most well known, Like a Rolling Stone.
“Vomit” Lehrer suggests, is the key word here. This kind of creativity is like a force of nature, it simply spews up from the unconscious mind – a stream of images that make the same kind of sense that dreams do. Intuition and emotion are needed to grasp them, much more than reason.
The other example, of a different kind of creativity, is the poet W H Auden. His approach was very different, and was more focused – to the extent that he turned to drugs like speed – Benzedrine – to turn him into a “writing machine.” Lehrer explains the science behind how this particular drug works – check the book out if you are interested. So this focus is what allowed Auden to concentrate for hours and perfect every word, every syllable of his poetry.
What interests me, is that these two examples seem to me to represent stages in the creative process – and both stages are surely always necessary. It can be understood by the concept of right brain and left brain – vomit and focus in Lehrer’s examples.
I think in writing fiction, these are for me two necessary stages. And one process comes to me much more easily than the other.
I’ve never had much difficulty (at least not until the current medication) in concentrating on what I’m doing, for extended periods of time. As a writer, I’ve always loved the editing phase. I like considering the structure of the story, and of the sentences. I don’t mind taking out huge chunks and adding new scenes.
For me the blank page, the first draft – that is what is so difficult for me. That’s the part of the process that does not come easily.
But when it does come, it is exciting. It happened when I was writing the first draft of my novel – when I was writing every day and pushing myself to do it without an outline – there was no safety net.
For the first time I found that my characters did run away and create a story apparently without my conscious help. All the way through I was fretting about one particular character. I had mentioned her in several places, and yet I had no idea why I needed her or what she was doing. I kept telling myself that it was okay – that I could edit her out later. But right at the turning point of the book there she was – she turned up in Eastbourne living under a fake name and working in a nursing home.
I’ve read a great deal about writing and I know a lot of writers object to this idea – you cannot let your characters run away and do their own thing. It is up to the writer to stay in control of the story. Of course, that is true – but what I found to my surprise and delight, was that the unconscious writer had more ideas about how to create an exciting story than the conscious one.
Of course, the next stage of the process, editing and rewriting, also has to do a bit of work to tidy up after the unconscious vomit. I guess even Bob Dylan did a fair bit of judicious pruning – if he cut down twenty pages of vomit, to the eloquent elegance of Like a Rolling Stone. And Auden must have faced the blank page, or he would not have had a rough draft to polish.
Still, here I am writing the second novel, and I have yet to get to the point where it all starts to flow. That first draft is still causing me problems. But a week ago, I had a moment where it all seemed to work again, and I rewrote five hundred words of prologue. Now all I need to do is write eighty to a hundred thousand more….
This way of looking at the creative process works for me, although I am sure that others would disagree. I just wish I knew a way to become completely possessed by the characters in my work in progress… There’s nothing feels quite like it, except perhaps the rush of being in love – and your characters are always there for you.
Image of Bob Dylan borrowed with thanks from Wikipedia.