A Reflection on the Creative Process

This past semester I started a new master’s degree (having previously been in an MBA program) in Science, Technology, and Society. I’m excited about this new master’s degree because it will give me the freedom to pursue personal interests. I took a class this semester called The Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Human Enhancement Technologies which focused on some extremely interesting stuff like genetic engineering, cognitive enhancement, and cyborg theory. I wrote a couple of papers for that class that were hugely challenging and for which I will seek publication in the coming months.

I also took an elective class not strictly related to my research interests called The Creative Process, which focused on the subject of creativity and the processes creatives use to bring their works into fruition. What follows is a reflection I wrote at the end of the class as part of my final projects for that class, detailing some of what I had learned in the class about the creative process in general and my own creative process in particular. It is not a polished piece, and the writing is sloppy, stiff, and unedited, but I nonetheless wanted to share it here on my blog.

Over the course of the past semester I read a number of texts, engaged in classroom discussion, and analyzed various pieces of art that all shed light on the issue of creativity and the creative process — what is creativity, exactly, and how do creative works come to be? I conducted an “ethnography” of a local creative, and undertook a creative project and subsequent introspective analysis of my own creative process. In this reflection I will detail some of the ways that I have engaged in the course material, projects, and discussions and how all of these relate to my own burgeoning understanding of my own creative process.

The nonfiction texts covered in class included Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, Howard Gardner’s Creating Minds, Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. We also explored the issue of the creative process itself through a number of creative works including poetry by Ilya Bernstein, John Logan’s play Red, the ballets The Masque of the Red Death and Dracula (with particular emphasis on the musical scores by Mark Scearce, who also served as a guest speaker), the movie Song of Summer, among many others. We enjoyed guest lectures by Mark Scearce, composer; Ilya Bernstein, poet; and Tara Mullins, dancer and choreographer. We also learned about the creative process through a number of projects, including the introspective “Creative Autobiography” following prompts from the readings from Tharp, analyses of the life and work of famous creatives from Gardner, and the aforementioned ethnographies of local creatives — for which I spent time with and got to know a local science fiction writer and Nebula and Philip K. Dick Award finalist, Lew Shiner.

Personally, I am a writer and I have spent considerable time in my life writing, learning about writing, and (hopefully) helping others learn about writing. Though I’ve read dozens of books on the craft of writing — some favorites of mine being John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Ursula K. Le Guinn’s Steering the Craft, Stephen King’s On Writing, and (a new favorite) Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story — I have spent less time considering the nature of the art, science, and process of creating other forms of art. Of course, I appreciate all forms of art and have spent time learning about them — including having been fortunate enough in undergrad to take courses on art history and Shakespeare during a study abroad experience at Oxford University. But aside from some classes I’ve taken in drama, art, and guitar, I haven’t spent much time considering how lessons learned from the study of other artistic crafts could inform my own.

For my culminating project in the class, I wrote a short story. This is nothing new to me, but in order to get the most out of what I had learned in the class and to align the course outcomes with my objectives, I aimed to try to design a new creative process for writing short stories that would get me out of a short story rut.

As an aside, I use the term rut here slightly different than how Tharp uses it. The reality is that I haven’t really written a short story in a number of years. This would ordinarily be defined as writer’s block. However, I have been working on my novels. So I have been writing. But something about my circumstances and my creative process as it now exists has gotten between me and an act I greatly enjoy, which is the writing of short stories.

I’m on a tangent now, but per Nachmanovitch’s advice I am going to improvise and see where this tangent takes me. You see, I have been writing since I was a kid. In fact, I trace my writing habit back farther to a place familiar with everyone who was ever a child — I trace it back to the childhood construction of elaborate narratives and backstories for the toys I played with. Every child does this, of course, but as Picasso would say (per Gardner), “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once [one] grows up.” What is prose fiction, after all, except the diligent dictation of lucid waking hallucinations about make-believe toys living in one’s head? To write fiction is ultimately an elaborately infantile act. If a child held up a doll and told you the doll’s name, what the doll’s life has been like up until this point, and narrated for you stories about the doll’s friends, you would be cold-hearted and cruel not to encourage this undeniably creative behavior. However, if an adult did the same and you are like most people, you would find this behavior specious at best. Is this not the same thing as the act of writing fiction? The only differences are that the doll is replaced with imaginary characters that live in one’s head and the stories are typed on paper using words like “elaborately infantile.” If the adult puts away the doll and continues narrating in the doll’s voice, simply putting the words to paper, and he uses words like “Call me Ishmael…” we think he’s a genius. The act of writing is as much (and perhaps less) about crafting plot and narrative, character development, beautiful sentences, and style as it is the act of desperately retrieving and rekindling an artistic pursuit that comes naturally to any child. Writing is a culturally accepted form of playing with your toys and constructing narratives for them. This is the heart of what I’m trying to recapture when I write — to get back to a simpler, formative time when life’s possibilities seemed boundless and the responsibilities negligible. A child is (or should be) free to play with his toys, much as a professional writer is free to play with his. They’re just — on the part of the writer — all in one’s head.

Taking a step back now, closer to the point at which this particular tangent separated from the central spine (as detailed by Tharp) of the paper. Writing short stories has been a part of my life since I was a child. I remember that I used to stay up late after my parents went to bed or I would wake up in the middle of the night and, unable to sleep (a problem which plagues me to this day), I would go to the family computer in the living room and write down details about my dreams. This habit became even more frequent when my parents entrusted to me a computer of my own in my bedroom. It was even easier to stay up late or to wake up and open up Microsoft Word and type whatever came to mind. I remember one “story” I wrote when I was about 11 years old. I was taking guitar lessons at the time. It was completely devoid of plot or character development — something I would not recognizable as a short story as an adult. But I had a dream where I was playing guitar on the beach when this giant floating amorphous metallic blob — like a huge free-floating lava lamp blob made out of mercury — came around and enveloped me and transformed into this ancient Roman-coliseum-like amphitheater around me. Now, this wasn’t meaningful or prophetic or anything because I promptly got bored with guitar and quit taking lessons after I learned how to play Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” But, at the time, I was satisfied with the result. I’d like to get back to the point where I can finish writing something and say, “Yeah, that was awesome.” 

This habit of writing down my dreams is the genesis of my current writing habit. I’m working on my second novel, an ambitious project I’ve been working on (and haven’t been able to stop thinking about) for about 3 years now. This is somewhat at the expense of, or perhaps instead of, writing short stories. Writing a novel and writing a short story are, after all, very different processes. A short story is a short, impactful vignette full of subtext and meaning where the bulk of the story is actually told not in the written words but somewhere in the smoke left over from the millions of tiny explosions of synapses and neurons that fire in the reader’s brain when encountered with a sentence like, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” A novel, on the other hand, is a long-term arrangement you make with your reader to keep them entertained and hypnotized for a certain number of hours. You have the time to explore your elaborate backstories (like a child with a doll), subplots, drama, politics, setting, history, and relationships — reasons, actions, and repercussions; all culminating in a slow burn that builds mass and momentum over time like a snowball only to result in an avalanche of emotion and deep understanding that can do wonderful things for your reader that no other art form can. Or, at least, you hope. As much as I enjoy the challenge of learning how to write a novel (and hopefully a decent one), I do miss working on those short impactful left-hooks to the reader’s jaw that are short stories.

So, I set out to try to design a new creative process for myself for writing short stories. It had to be something different than how I used to write short stories — waiting around for inspiration only to lash out into a feverish insomniatic bout of writing that would leave me exhausted the next morning, which is not sustainable for my current life. I wanted to design a creative process for short stories that would be more similar to the method I’ve developed for writing my novels that allows me to crank short chunks out over time. In fact, as I realized early on, if this new process works for me I may be able to apply it to my novels. I based a lot of this creative process work on the interviews I did with the local science fiction writer Lew Shiner.

When getting to know Lew, I was impressed to find that he had an ability to talk objectively about writing in a way that almost no writer I’ve ever met before has been able. Like most creatives, writers seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to their own process. It’s as hard to know where your ideas come from or what motivates you or how you really go about creating a story as it is to know exactly what causes a particular emotion or why you have a craving for some particular food. But Lew was able to speak to me about writing with uncommon clarity of thought. From Lew I learned one very important lesson — specifically, how to revise. This may sound silly, but I never really understood revision or rewriting until I sat down for lunch with Lew and started chatting with him about writing. I’ve had many teachers who and read many books that espouse the importance of revision or rewriting — polishing and improving draft after draft until it magically transforms into something complete — but oddly enough I’ve never had a teacher who was able to very clearly communicate exactly how one is meant to sit down and do a rewrite. Lew was able to tell me how, and it’s beautifully simple. Here’s an example:

Step 1: Come up with an idea. (This is still a mystery, but I do have some thoughts.)

Step 2: Write a draft of just plain, sloppy description of the plot (what happens).

Step 3: Print it out, set the plot draft next to you, and manually retype it — this time adding details about scene, setting, and character, all the while improving upon the sentences you wrote previously.

Step 4: Same as Step 3, but with dialogue.

Step 5: Same, but just make it prettier.

It may sound silly, but this was actually revelatory for me. As much as I knew how important revision and rewriting was, I hated doing it. But I also now realize that I didn’t really know how. This important lesson from Lew gave me ideas for how I can better manage the process of writing a short story and how I can improve my drafts and write better stories and novels. I actually had in my brain for the first time a clear understanding of exactly what I had to do in order to revise. More important I knew what I shouldn’t be doing, which is going back through a Word Document and changing things here and there. This is at best editing, if you’re lucky and thorough it’s simply proofreading, and at worst you’re just reading your draft. It’s not helpful and it’s not a sustainable practice. I now had a spine to latch the rest of my creative process on to.

What I ended up with was a new approach to writing a short story. Instead of waiting around for inspiration, I would diligently record ideas and inspiration that came into my brain that seemed worthy of recording. This is very similar to what Tharp describes as scratching. In order to come up with new ideas and inspiration, I would need to be open to new sources of inspiration and ideas. This is actually part of the reason why I decided to start this new master’s program. In order to keep track of these ideas, I would need to keep them in something like Tharp’s box. Since I always have my phone with me and I’m technologically savvy, I decided to make use of the Evernote app as my virtual box. Once these ideas and inspirations started to coagulate and whatever muse (or demon) that lives in the back of my head (or in the walls of my writing room) started to weave these loose threads into a cohesive concept, I would write down a short summary of the plot, or a treatment. Then, I would flesh out this treatment into a rough draft that deals with just the plot. Then I would print out the draft and go back, rinsing and repeating as needed per Lew’s recommendation or whatever I felt was write for the new draft.

This ended up working out pretty well for me. I came up with an idea and most of a complete draft for a short story about a man who loses his faculty to perceive technological things. This idea came to me while reading a book called The Metaphysics of Technology by David Skrbina which is essentially a textbook about philosophical understandings of technology as a metaphysical force like gravity or evolution. I had ideas about vertigo and eye strain swishing around in my brain — learning about a friend’s vertigo symptoms (which are kind of like an ability to properly perceive gravity), and reflecting on my own experience with rapidly deteriorating vision from eye strain (that soon got better, thankfully) during a particularly stressful time at my previous job — and these eventually formed into a nucleus of a story. The basic idea formulated, the stage was set for what I now recognize as an important part of writing, improvisation.

I didn’t quite realize this while initially reading Nachmanovitch, but while working on my short story it dawned on me that improvisation is actually an extremely important part of writing, even if you have a pretty darn good idea from the beginning of exactly what your story is going to be about. This is simply because not even the most brilliant writer in the world has a 100% clear idea of every single detail that will make it into their story, and in fact a large number of a writer’s ideas (at least in my case) come to him or her seemingly spontaneously while sitting down and working on drafts. Some things came to me almost perfectly naturally that hadn’t occurred to me at all when I wrote down the basic treatment for the short story, like the names of the characters (Marc and Helen) or the idea that each scene would flip back and forth between the two character’s perspectives, which was actually a beautiful development because it gave me an opportunity to explore how Marc’s deteriorating ability to perceive technology itself would be perceived by an observer who may question his mental health, which would then in turn cause Marc to question his own mental health. It ended up being a really nice development for the story and some extra flavor that occurred because of the improvisation that is central to the craft of writing a short story.

Another form of improvisation that occurred during the act of writing the story is that the process itself changed as I got into the swing of things. What I ended up doing — which actually is a nice little development that additionally helps with my goal of crafting a new short story writing process that allows me to chip away at one over time rather than staying up all night to finish it in one sitting — was that, after I had written the treatment for the story, I divided the story into the beginning, middle, and end, and tackled each piece of the story using the drafting process described above. What this meant is that I had a fairly fleshed out idea for each “chunk” of the story before moving on to the next one. The grand result? Well, I’m still stuck on the ending. So maybe this wasn’t the best improvisation for the process after all. I’ll take this into consideration on the next story I work on, for which I already have an idea (that’s two in my opinion good short story ideas in a matter of months, which is more than I’ve come up with in a long time).

 

So, what lies in store for me next? Armed with this newly renovated creative process for writing, I plan to tackle the last part of my novel, which is roughly the last ⅓ of the plot. It has been a daunting task for me even though I have a very clear idea of how I want it to pan out. Now I know I only need to write a rough description of the plot and then go back and add detail and layers over and over again like a painting, and I’ll be left with a mostly final product. I also have some new ideas I want to incorporate into my novel. Specifically, I think I’ve finally come up with a very good motivation for the main antagonist in the novel that will make him less two-dimensional and which I can reveal at the end in a kind of satisfying twist. I’m looking forward to seeing it come to fruition. I also have an understanding for how I can tackle the rough draft of the first ⅔ of my novel and improve upon it. I may even go so far as to “dewrite” some of what I’ve already written (such as replacing dialogue with descriptions of what the characters have to discuss in order to move the plot forward) so I can go back and build it back up afresh.

Something else that I aim for is to re-establish a healthy and regular writing ritual. Both Tharp and Elizabeth Gilbert talk about a writer’s ritual, though in the latter case with somewhat more spiritualistic undertones. I particularly enjoyed how Tharp talked about how having a ritual allows the creative juices to start flowing. In fact, a number of books on writing I’ve read have said similar things. I believe Stephen King, no doubt channeling Raymond Carver, talks about how a writer must make it clear to his muse that he’s serious about writing by sitting down every day at the same place at the same time and just writing something. This way, the muse knows where to find you and if you do it long enough it knows you’re serious, so it grants you inspiration. Tharp would probably say that this muse really is just your own subconscious, and Gilbert would agree with it from the perspective of inspiration and persistence, and how creativity is like a religion. Personally, I think there’s something to the idea that the muse is something somewhat external. It’s a nice way to think about it, and it takes some of the pressure off yourself. This may actually have a psychologically counterintuitive effect of allowing you to be more creative by freeing yourself of the anxiety to create.

One way that I will reestablish a writing routine is that I now once again have dedicated creative space. When I worked on my first novel I lived in a crummy, roach-infested two-bedroom apartment — but it was my crummy, roach-infested two-bedroom apartment — and more importantly I could afford to not have a roommate, so I turned the second bedroom into a writing room. Now I’m even more fortunate and lucky in life and I along with my partner have bought our first house (as of October), and it’s big enough (four bedrooms) such that we each have been able to take one of the spare bedrooms and turn it into our office. Hers is nicer and better decorated than mine, of course, but mine has important things like 12 feet of desk space (two 6-foot commercial grade desks I got for free from a company that was giving them away), my favorite 20-year-old La-Z-Boy recliner (with a recliner handle that has long since fallen off, so I’ve replaced it with a locking Vise Grip plier), a bookshelf full of some of my favorite books, a printer, and a lamp. It’s a perfect little creative space for me, and in fact I write this very paper in my writing room sitting in my old recliner and I can feel the muses and genies taking up residence in the walls around me.

References

  1. Gardner, H. (1993). Creating Minds: An Anatomy as Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham and Gandhi. HarperCollins Publishers.
  2. Gardner, J. (1984). The Art of Fiction. New York: Alfred A.
  3. Gardner, J. (1999). On Becoming a Novelist. Ww Norton & Company.
  4. Gilbert, E. (2016). Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Penguin.
  5. Kafka, F. (1948). The Metamorphosis. Schocken Books.
  6. King, S. (2000). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.
  7. Lamott, A. (2007). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor.
  8. Le Guin, U. K. (1998). Steering the Craft. Portland, Or: Eighth Mountain.
  9. Logan, J. (2011). Red. Dramatists Play Service.
  10. Nachmanovitch, S. (1990). Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. Penguin.
  11. Tharp, T. (2008). The Creative Habit. Simon and Schuster.
  12. Wendig, C. (2017). Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools and Architecture of a Powerful Narrative. F&W Media, Incorporated
  13. Wood, J. (2008). How Fiction Works. Macmillan.
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