Shakespeare’s Daily Grind

Bard of Avon, Elizabethan poets, Jacobean poets, plays, poetry, Shakespeare, sonnets, Uncategorized, William Shakespeare
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.
William Shakespeare (April 26 ,1564 –April 23, 1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in English. His works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, a couple of long narrative poems, and other verses, some of uncertain authorship.
Shakespeare was a genius. No rational person would dispute that. But how did the Bard of Avon achieve the fantastically inventive output that he produced between his debut in the early 1590s and his curtain call in the mid-1630s. He was an actor who understood actors and, more importantly, understood the dynamics of stagecraft and audience interaction. He was a member of a company of actors who performed his own plays many times for the delectation of the public. You might think that with such a task he would do what many other playwrights of the time did, which was to produce crowd-pleasers without any substance. Instead, what Shakespeare did was to produce plays that were stimulating on both the popular and the intellectual level. This was a choice of necessity for  him. He was in the acting and playwriting business, not just for laughs, but for some lasting legacy. He is, in fact, one of the few Elizabethan or Jacobean poets whose works are still part of the curriculum of any self-respecting English department in a university that values its status and academic standing.
The practicalities of how Shakespeare wrote his plays is lost to history, but we can assume, given the fact that he was an actor himself in his own plays, that he changed the script several times before the final version was arrived at. He would come offstage after a torrid performance of Henry V and bury his head in the text, striking out infelicities, and scribbling alternative dialogue above the main text. He would ad lib during the performance itself (how could he not, being such a dynamo of creativity) much to the annoyance of the other actors. He would elaborate, modify and fiddle with the script as the show went on, and subsequent performances would be impacted by the changes he had made, until the play was just right. It is amazing how a playwright under such pressure could still produce lines that are, at times, so sublime that they almost make you cry.
But William Shakespeare was also a poet. His 154 sonnets are a tour de force of invention. Working within the very strict formal conventions of the day, with which, in fact, every sonneteer was familiar, he managed to produce immortal lines that are quoted even now after five hundred years. Again, his work ethic and routine for writing sonnets are lost to us in the swirling mist of time. But many of his sonnets are intricate mechanisms of miraculous artistry and beauty that defy full analysis. Certainly, he must have penned some of them late at night as the mood and the ale took hold, but every one of them speaks of fine tailoring and meticulous polishing. So he must have continued to work on them during the day, in breaks from the performances, in the hiatus between writing and performing one play and beginning another.
He died at the age of 53. Not a bad stretch for somebody of the time. On the other hand, how much did the stress of juggling writing, acting, directing and the precarious business of staging and advertising plays contribute to what would be considered now an early demise? Shakespeare spent himself in writing works of genius, and thank God he did. But was the cost too great? Did the spewing forth of works of literary brilliance consume him before his time. Again, we will never know. But however he managed to produce his output we are glad he did, even if the weight of it might have felled him in the end.


The Creative Gene

corpus callosum, creative gene, Department of Neurology and Neuroscience at Cornell University, Geoffrey Hill, Kenneth Heilman, serotonin, Uncategorized, William Shakespeare, writing process
According to Wikipedia, the famous infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will, all things being equal, type out the complete works of William Shakespeare. The theorem is, of course, preposterous since the chimpanzee would almost certainly be paralyzed by repetitive strain injury long before the completion of the task, and in any case we already know that it was William Shakespeare who penned the works in question, not some hyperactive, key-punching primate…
Despite the ludicracy of the proposal, and the reason, in fact, why Shakespeare did not take billions of years to produce his plays and poetry comes down to quite a simple statement: the man was a genius. When you think about it there are only 26 letters in the alphabet and those letters can only be combined in a limited number of ways. Why is it then that when Shakespeare combined those 26 letters they came out not as plain prose, or gibberish or the Maastricht Treaty (but I repeat myself…) and instead came out as:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
“To be or not to be. That is the question.”
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”
There are some skills that seem defy analysis and Shakespeare had them in spades. There is a  process that allows the abstract thought that germinates in someone’s mind to articulate itself in words that are memorable, beautiful or poignant. And that process is called creativity and it is present more intensely for artists, writers, and musicians. But creativity occurs not necessarily when the writer or artist or musician comes up with new ideas, but also (and far more usually) when they combine together things that are already known in order to create a new entity, a song, a painting, a novel.
Not all of us are gifted in this area. Some of us find that our comfort zone is in analyzing data, others in understanding mathematical formulae, others in performing repetitive tasks to perfection, others in relating well to people, and still others in leading and managing groups. The traditional definition of the creative profession is, by and large, not for everyone.
This interesting article discusses the possibility of there being a genetic component to creativity:
“Two years ago Kenneth Heilman and his team at the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience at Cornell University discovered that the brains of artistically creative individuals have a particular characteristic that may enhance creativity.
“The brain is divided into two halves, or hemispheres, that are joined by a bundle of fibers called the corpus callosum. Writers, artists and musicians were found to have a smaller corpus callosum, which may augment their creativity by allowing each side of their brain to develop its own specialization.”
Several studies support the possibility of a “creative gene” existing. And often highly creative individuals have a bipolar element to their psychological makeup. Churchill, Beethoven and Hemingway all had bipolar tendencies that allowed them during their “up” periods to be highly creative.
The creative person, according to recent studies, experiences an increase in serotonin levels from creating something. Geoffrey Hill, an English poet who in his early days was lucky if he managed to write one poem a week, now states that his average is one poem per day. This phenomenal level of output would be remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that creativity is like a drug. The will to create can often come from what amounts to an addiction to the emotional “high” that results from writing something new, creating something that has never been seen before.
In fact, without the addiction, many would-be writers fall at the first fence and never get further than penning the first chapter or two of the blockbusting novel that lies dormant within them. Individuals who are addicted to the drug, plow on and produce novels, poetry, plays and any piece of writing that can give them the emotional boost they crave.
For the would-be writer who is not an addict of that creative uplift, there is a down side. It is all very well coming up with a brilliant plot for a novel, but the actual manual labor of writing out the dialogue, interspersing it with action, structuring the book, and generally changing the initial thought into a piece of writing that lives and breathes is a different matter. For the serotonin addict all the writing that goes into a novel or a poem or even a nonfiction book feeds the habit.
For writers what is required is not just a genetic predisposition to writing, but an enjoyment of the process itself, a certain joy that comes from discovering that you have produced something new, a character, a plot, a situation, a turn of phrase that has not been used before. Yes, there may be a creative gene, but how we nurture it, use it, feed it is up to us.





So if you think you have the creative gene, that you are blessed with the ability to create and combine words in unique ways, that you are enamored of the writing process itself and you would write even if there was no monetary result, and if you are addicted to the serotonin boost that comes from creating a new piece of writing, what are you doing about it? What can you do that couldn’t be done by an incredibly long-lived and sore-fingered chimpanzee?