The Godlike Mystery of Creative Writing

Adam, creation, creative writing, fMRI, Martin Lotze, Michelangelo, Uncategorized, University of Greifswald
A couple of years ago researchers, led by Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany, ran an experiment which monitored, using an fMRI machine, what happens in the brain when someone is composing a work of fiction. The subjects being tested were given the opening sentences of a story and asked to come up with what happened next. They first had one minute to brainstorm ideas and then two minutes to write down what they came up with.
What they found was that the areas of the brain that came alive during the brainstorming part of the experiment were associated with vision, as though the subjects were “seeing” the story in their mind’s eye. The hippocampus, which deals with retrieving factual information, also came into play during this period. However, Dr. Lotze was not satisfied, mainly because the people being tested in the experiment had no previous experience of creative writing. So he ran a second experiment on a group of experienced writers and found that a completely different area of the brain was activated, to do with speech, as though the subjects were forming words in their mind. The two groups also differed when it came to the actual writing part of the experiment, the more experienced group activating a region related to practice and repetitive action.
The experiment has received some criticism because some think that the type of activities tested were not focused enough. It should have been testing the difference between writing a story and writing a fact-based essay.
In a sense, experiments like these can never really uncover the mystery of how someone can sit down at a desk and come up with a story that no one else has ever written before. We know this instinctively without having to conduct scientific experiments. When you are “making stuff up” there are a huge number of interrelated details held in your brain that you combine in a unique way to produce story elements. And of course none of this even touches upon the skill involved in retrieving the information you need to form words and write in complete sentences with correct spelling and form those sentences using logical grammar. It is clear to anyone who has ever made up a story and written it down that it is a complex task involving multiple skills that have been learned and new images and ideas that are the product of combinations of information in your brain.
There is something mystical about creative writing. We could even go so far as to say there is something godlike about it, in that the writer appears to create a whole world and peoples it out of more or less nothing. It is a strange but happy thought that in some way we can come closer to God by participating in creation through creative writing.


Finding Time to Write

bestsellers' list, creative writing, distractions, finding time to write, publishing, Uncategorized, writing
One of the reasons a lot of people have never written a novel, or completed any other writing project for that matter, comes down simply to the fact that they can’t find the time to write. But there are various different attitudes strung along that continuum. Some say that they can’t find the time because their social calendar is full. In this case, each social event is weighed up against the desire to write and, after the briefest of punch-ups, writing takes a dive in the first round and is once again put on the back burner. Others say that whenever they sit down to write they are too easily distracted by other things: TV, the Internet, finishing a crossword, reading a book, staring out the window. This is a common complaint that is easily remedied by a bit of objective examination of the circumstances. But there are people on the other end of the spectrum, who believe that everything should be sacrificed in order for you to achieve your writing goals. I have even heard more than one well-known writer maintain that he chooses writing over his wife and children and has no trouble abandoning them to concentrate on his writing…
One aspect of writing that makes a difference in whether or not you ever achieve anything at all, is whether you take a professional attitude to your writing projects. If you view them merely as pastimes or hobbies, then there is little to stop everything else impinging on your writing time (although you could argue that there are many people who take their hobbies more seriously than they do their day-time jobs!). If you say to yourself, “Self, you must be serious about finishing writing projects and take steps to guard the time allocated to them,” then you are well on the way to writing success. It’s a good start at least. Never just dabble, never merely “dip your toe” in the waters of the writing life. If you ever want to achieve something as a writer you have to have a decent amount of commitment to see it through.
If you happen to be married, then it helps enormously if you can obtain the agreement of your spouse. All it takes is sitting down together and discussing what is reasonable in terms of time commitment and effort. This is often a two way street and you may have to make some reasonable concessions of your own before an agreement can be reached. There is no use insisting upon your writing time if there is nothing in it for your partner. The mistake that the aforementioned guy who put his writing before his family made was in setting his priorities wrongly. It is the same with any career choice. The time you spend with your spouse and kids is crucially important. If you skimp on that, you do not get the time back, and you cannot make up for the kids’ lost time by choosing to spend time with them when they are adults and you have several bestselling novels under your belt. No, without doubt, when compared to almost everything else in your life, family should come first. On the other hand, if you examine your schedule you will probably find that you can cut some slack here and there from other less important activities and still find time to write, without stealing time from your family.
Taking time out of your downtime is often a good place to carve out a writing life. That is not to say that you should lock yourself away and never communicate with another human ever again. All it means is that, if you are serious about wanting to achieve something as a writer, then often you have to make sacrifices elsewhere. There is all sorts of time that is easy to spend on watching sports activities and TV shows, that, with some shrewd management and a modicum of discipline, could add several hours of writing time to your average week.
So, say you hack away at your schedule and miraculously chisel out an hour a day. What do you do then? Well, first of all you need to find a place to write that is not prone to distractions. This is preferably in a room on your own. Some people can write better while listening to music. I’m not one of those people. I’m easily distracted. Similarly, if you find yourself peering through the slatted blinds at the traffic passing outside your home for hours on end, maybe you should turn your chair/desk/writing surface so that you can’t be distracted by that.
You may even find that when you sit down to write, you are too drowsy and no amount of coffee will shift that. Everyone has his or her own circadian rhythm and each person is more drowsy at certain times of the day and more alert at others. It’s worth experimenting with this to find out when a good time for you is. I know that I begin to slump some time between 3.30 and 5 p.m.; for others it may be different. Then again, if you find you are drowsy no matter what time you choose, then you may not be getting enough sleep. There’s no point is waking up after half an hour slumped over the desk and drooling into the keyboard of your laptop. For some, lack of sleep can be accounted for by the fact that they are getting up several times a night to tend to a newborn infant. In that case, there is nothing you can do about it and you either have to stumble on and make the best of it, or regretfully wait for a few months until you’re back on your game.
Whatever time or place you choose, what matters is whether you are serious about wanting to achieve something in your writing. So to sum up:
  • Be professional
  • Get the complicity of your family
  • Prioritize your social activities
  • Choose a conducive place in which to write
  • Eliminate distractions
  • Get enough sleep
  • Choose a time to write that works for you


After that, all that is required is for you to come up with a few interesting projects to work on. You will find, if you can sustain a regular work ethic in writing that, in time, you will be able to complete even the most complex of projects. Before you know it you will be sending off manuscripts and book proposals to publishers and eagerly awaiting the sudden appearance of your new novel on the New York Times bestsellers’ list. (Or wallpapering your bedroom with rejection letters, depending on how good you are – but that’s another topic.)


Hemingway’s Daily Grind

1920s, adventurer, American fiction, creative writing, daily routine, discipline, drunkenness, gambling, Hemingway, Paris, suicide, Uncategorized, unfaithfulness


Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Ernest Miller Hemingway (July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961) was one of the most celebrated American authors of the twentieth century, a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. His short sharp writing style had considerable influence on twentieth century fiction writing. But though he has had many imitators no one can quite pull it off the way Hem could. Most of his work was produced from the 1920s to the 1950s: seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction books. Many of his works are considered classics of American fiction and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
When Hemingway lived in Paris in the 1920s with the first of his four wives, Hadley, and their young son, there was not enough room in their Spartan apartment for him to work. So he would often go and sit in one of the bistros or cafés nearby and write quietly in a corner.
“It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with   other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.” (A Moveable Feast)
Often he would become completely absorbed in what he was writing so that he didn’t notice either the time, or anyone else around him and would come to much later as if he had been sleeping. Then he would order, say, a dozen oysters along with a half-carafe of the local dry white wine and dawdle over that until it was time to go home or go on to meet friends.
After a while Hem and his wife moved to larger premises and there he would get up a daybreak when it was freezing cold in the apartment and begin writing as he gradually warmed and the sun shone through the windows. If he was writing a short story or a novel, he would write until about midday and finish when he knew what was going to happen next in the action. In other words he would stop short just before a key moment. So the next day, when he sat down to write, he would read what he had written the day before, making any necessary changes, and then just continue where he left off. He always said that the agonizing thing about writing was waiting for the next day to come around.
In many ways the rest of his life was a bit of a mess. He was unfaithful to his wife, drank to excess, gambled away his money, was something of an adventurer, and eventually committed suicide a few days before his sixty-second birthday. But he was always disciplined when it came to writing. It was as if he knew that it was his one most important talent and that it had to be nurtured and protected.