Writing is Bad for You?
By Geoff Nelder
I gave a talk on Releasing Your Inner Writer to an appreciative audience of 60 retirees in Ruthin, Wales, making up their branch of U3A: the University of the Third Age. Simple, right? Not when I did the research. The two attributes required to be a writer are writing skills and a creative spark. The first is important but relatively easy to acquire whereas do we all have creativity? Unless you are run by a predetermined computer program you need to make decisions all the time. What to have for tea? Which way to cycle today? I used to think we all have a book in us – that story we have an urge to reveal even if it is just a different way of telling an old story, but it seems I am wrong. Only half of that audience thrust up their hands to say they are compelled to write a tale.
Is creative writing open to all? Talented English teacher friends agree they might have the writing skills but are too much in awe of Kate Atkinson et al and are stymied by them. Writers on the other hand read them and find inspiration. Fay Weldon (85), literary writer on feminist issues, is blunt with aspiring writers with zero talent: Do you knit? Too harsh? Yes because you don’t have to be a solo writer or creator. Some people are at their most creative in a brain-storming group – me as an editor of Sheffield University Rag magazine in the late 60s. Around a table in the Student Union we’d come up with hundreds of awful gags in an hour. I still see them circulating but with no credits nor royalties.
Assuming you have it in you, we are back to those two basic requirements: (i) knowledge such as writing skills, grammar, “rules” that you can break but best know them first, and (ii) Creativity.
Naïve creativity can be brilliant. eg On TV news in the mid 1980s I watched Sir Keith Joseph bend down to talk to an infant schoolgirl. He asked her, “Little girl, what are you drawing?”
“But no one knows what he looks like.”
“They will in a minute!”
Now I rolled around laughing but the commentator didn’t comment nor has it been mentioned in the media since. Creativity in a flash can happen any time to ordinary people.
The creative spark or divergence is alluded to in William Blake’s Ambiguity of Innocence:
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour’.
Is creativity the result of a tortured mind or the other way round? Lord Byron: “We of the craft are all crazy.” True that many gifted writers, artists, scientists, dancers etc have an element of schizophrenia and are twice as likely to commit suicide than non-gifted people! (Kyaga et al 2012) However, two times a low number is still low. The suicide rate among retired people in the UK is around 8 per 100,000. Twice that means the suicide rate among writers is 16 per 100,000 so breathe easy.
What appears to be happening is that creativity goes with both divergent thinking and being able to associate thoughts from disparate areas of the brain. If you want more precision then let’s mention recent research on the precuneus area of the brain: gleaned from Beautiful Minds: the real link between Creativity and Mental Illness (Kaufman, 2013).
The PRECUNEUS is an area of the brain that displays high levels of activity during bodily rest. It’s linked to self-consciousness, retrieval of personal memories and self-related mental representations. An inability to suppress such cognitive activity might help creative people generate new ideas. They find their minds wandering, become easily distracted, can’t sleep easily – but not like most people, because new ideas result. Gifted creative people are more intuitive than most, but also more untidy and care less about appearance. “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” – Albert Einstein.
High intelligence doesn’t mean high creativity. There’s a threshold of intelligence required but divergent thinking is needed too. Can we measure creativity? Should we want to? It is easy to measure basic creativity. A common test is to name as many possible uses of a single brick in five minutes. Most of the U3A Ruthin group came up with more than 5 uses. Half produced 10 or more uses. None produced more than 20 but several came up with different uses than the 40 uses I read out to them afterwards. My 40 uses of a brick are at the end. Easy then to test divergent thinking, however, most new ideas spring out of the blue and so can’t be tested. eg Henri Poincare (he predicted gravitational waves before Einstein) in 1905 solved a tricky mathematical problem while stepping on to a bus. Imagine the conductor yelling at Henri while the professor froze mid-step. Dépêchez-vous !
The idea of ARIA came while riding a bike up Horseshoe Pass. I was thinking of mother suffering memory loss after a stroke and I thought – thank goodness amnesia isn’t infectious but imagine the ramifications.
The exuberance of springing an original idea is wonderful but luckily many readers enjoy a familiar story explored in different contexts.
Is being creative bad? Yes, partly because of the paradox between having intelligent creativity but not being able to control it. However, on a personal level if you can weather the rejections, dismal sales, enjoy an alternative income and ignore the ‘twice as likely to commit suicide’ statistic, enjoy writing if you dare.
40 Uses of a brick
- DOOR STOP
- WEIGHT EG PAPERWEIGHT
- ORNAMENT /ART
- PROP ON PUPPET SHOW
- USE TO MAKE SMALLER BRICKS / DUST
- BLOT OUT A HOLE
- FINISH A WALL / HOUSE
- START A WALL / HOUSE
- AS AN IRON
- SEAT FOR INFANTS
- PRACTISE POSTURE WITH IT ON HEAD
- SLIDE DOWN A SLOPE TO MEASURE FRICTION
- REDIRECT A STREAM
- SOIL RETAINER
- OUTDOOR BAR
- GUN MOUNT
- OUTDOOR ALTAR
- STAND FOR AQUARIUM
- DISPLACE WATER – ARCHIMEDES EUREKA / REDUCE WATER IN CISTERN
- NUMBER 1
- LETTER L
- PILLOW IN A CELL
- BRIDGE FOR MODEL RAILWAY
- MEASURING STICK
- TETHER A BALLOON
- PENDULUM / PLUMBLINE WEIGHT
- LIFEGUARD TEST BRINGING UP FROM BOTTOM OF POOL
- TO CREATE A TILT FOR A PLANK ETC
Kaufman, S (2013). Beautiful Minds: the real link between Creativity and Mental Illness Scientific American
Kyaga S., Landén M., Boman M., Hultman C., Långström N., Lichtenstein P. (2012). Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study Journal of Psychiatric Research XXX 1-8
Sussman, A (2007). Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the Tortured Artist Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, Volume One
Exit, Pursued by Bee, mystery science fiction
Escaping Reality, humorous thriller
Hot Air, thriller
Science Fiction trilogy: ARIA
Xaghra’s Revenge, historical fantasy to be published in 2017.
Other Nelder News
Last month Solstice Publishing released my short story, The Chaos of Mokii as an ebook. It’s the first short for which I had to write a blurb, acknowledgments and select a cover art. Previously, I’d done all that for novels of over 80,000 words rather than a tale of only 3,400 words. The blurb? Mokii is a city existing only in the consciousness of its inhabitants. Olga is sitting in a train while her minds negotiates past Mokii’s bouncer and relaxes into the entertainments and infrastructure of the mind-city. She discovers a thief about to usurp the city in order to take its lucrative telepathic advertising. Does she thwart him? Yours for 99 pence or a dollar 22 cents to find out!
Grab it on Kindle mybook.to/Kaos
One of my favourite short stories is CLOCKWORK. It’s a historical fantasy in which I’ve cheekily grabbed a day out of the life of Sir Francis Bacon in 1617 and made him and his dog experience an Earth-saving moment he had to pass on down the ages. A link to it is http://www.fictionmagazines.com/shop/realm-issues/new-realm-vol-04-no-12/
Links to buy ARIA and other of my books are on my Amazon author page http://author.to/Amazonauthorpage
ARIA: Left Luggage is only 99p give or take a few pence at the moment on Kindle so grab it at smarturl.it/1fexhs
Or via other formats http://geoffnelder.com/project/left-luggage-arial-trilogy-part-1/
Geoff facebooks at http://www.facebook.com/AriaTrilogy and tweets at @geoffnelder