Imagine: how creativity works by Jonah Lehrer is the perfect read for those who like to explore and observe the creative process. But, for those who fear something magical will be ruined by analysis look away now!
Lehrer has surveyed the latest research from the branch of neuroscience that explores what the brain is doing when we are making things up – be that music, poetry, novels, inventions or new products.
If the fearful, the believers in magic or divine inspiration, were to dip into the introduction they'd soon see that such a view of creativity is false. And that the umbrella term ‘creativity’ misleads us as to what is really going on. Creativity, it seems, is not separate from other kinds of cognition. What is required to create something new and original is, ‘a variety of distinct thought processes.’ There are, Lehrer argues, a ‘set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts.’
It's as well, then, to know which mental process is required and when in order to avoid banging our heads against a brick wall.
What I loved about this book was that, for me, it confirmed what I’ve observed intuitively through my own practice and through observing other creatives, both in my writing about the visual arts and in mentoring writing students.
It’s always seemed to me that the key to developing as an artist, in whatever field, is to understand your process. When writing a novel you have many stages to go through, some are routine and mundane, others do seem to come, unbidden, from nowhere. It's worth being mindful of where you are, at any given time, in that process.
At the start of a novel you may simply glimpse an image or a character or a series of events – how can anything be made of these? There is some connection you haven’t yet seen. Finding the connection that will let you see the story potential is not achieved through hard slog. The bit of the brain that will solve this dilemma requires time to mull on ‘remote associations.’ You may feel frustrated and blocked, and want to give up. But if you let that process take its course the thing you want is most likely to deliver itself when you've forgotten you were looking for it and are doing something else – taking a shower, peeling the spuds, do the ironing. Be ready to grab it when it arrives.
Trying to force a solution to this kind of creative problem is counter productive. Instead, prepare the mind by showing it the problem then get out of the way.
But writing a novel isn’t all Eurkea moments. A sudden insight that connects character and events might give you the outline. It seems that once that initial breakthrough has occurred and you have a good outline of your book, then you need a different bit of the brain.
Lehrer talks of ‘grit,’ persistence is all. You now need to call upon ‘working memory.’ You have an idea of how the chapter will end, you sort of see it but it’s not quite there. The scientists call this having a ‘feeling of knowing.’ Turn up at the desk, revision your characters, put them through different moves and that feeling of knowing will gradually turn into the arrival at a resolved scene. Each time you try to complete the scene you will know a bit more until you see the whole.
Lehrer quotes nueroscientist Nancy Andreasen, who reckons that those who succeed in finishing a book are ‘like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down.’
This comes as no surprise anyone who has completed a novel.
I think it's useful to know when you need to find a ‘remote association’ and when you need to feed your ‘working memory.’ It can make your writing sessions more effective. And, of course, these processes don't follow on in a straight line. Writing a novel can mean moving between each stages, back and forth. Having this understanding helps in developing a flexible practice and planning precious writing time to be suited to the task in hand.
Lehrer has more to say about ‘flexible attention’ and the creative potential of being in a city. Far from dispelling the 'magic' I found seeing the brain’s processes from a scientific point of view enthralling both in relation to my own practice and to my teaching.
Lehrer is a great story teller, this is not dry science but a compelling read.