Sunday, 3 October 2010

The fruitless search for creativity in the brain

My supervisor has been gently hinting that perhaps I should stop talking about my non-existent manuscript so much and actually start writing it. So this week I took myself up to the beautiful Sunshine Coast hinterland village of Montville to get started. I was staying in accommodation a few kilometres out of town, situated at the end of a long and isolated driveway, surrounded by the bush and beautiful views and not much else. It was the perfect place to write - no internet connection meant no distractions. (Its isolation also made it a perfect place to set a horror/thriller, but that's for another story).

And guess what - it worked. I started to write a draft of the story that I will eventually submit as part of my Phd in a few years time. But it didn't come out at all like I thought it would.

I set myself up on the front deck, got comfortable with my views of the hinterland reaching out towards the ocean, and started with some writing exercises (I did number 11 & 12). In the writing exercises I used characters from the story I'm writing for my manuscript. Although up until this point I hadn't written very much of the manuscript (maybe 1000 words) I had done lots of writing about stuff that may or may not eventually end up in the manuscript, so I've got a pretty good handle on my main characters.

The writing exercises immediately jump started my brain. Whether this was because of my location, the exercises I chose, the fact that I had given myself this time just to write and do nothing else or a combination of these things, the words started to flow easily and I gained some new insights into my characters as well as some interesting stuff that may find its way into one of the manuscript drafts at some point.

The exercises took about 45 minutes. Then, it was time to start on the manuscript itself. The first thing I noticed was that the 'voice in my head that tells me what to write' (yes I have one but I'm pretty sure I'm not insane) was being harassed by my inner critic/editor. The 'voice' was telling me one thing; the critic/editor was trying to tell me something else. It took a bit of shutting up. But after I'd started writing what the 'voice' said the critic/editor started to fade.

One of the reasons it was a bit difficult to listen to this particular voice was that it wasn't the one I was expecting. But it was the one that showed up so I had to shut up, listen and write. It doesn't always happen this way. Sometimes there is no 'voice' at all and I have to stumble along and do the best I can. Sometimes I'll be writing for a while before it shows up. Sometimes it's hard to hear and sometimes it's as clear and strong. But up at Montville I got lucky and it hung around for pretty much the whole time I was there.

In her book The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: a writer looks at creativity and neuroscience, Sue Woolf writes that there is " underlying assumption that all that's needed for creativity, or the study of creativity, is a knowledge of the brain's circuitry. That had always seemed to me too simplistic to reflect the enormous complexity of creating."

When I'm doing my research into neuroscience, I enjoy learning about how the brain works (or how neuroscientists are learning about what they think makes the brain work the way it does). The complexity of the brain's structure, the way it develops and grows, the factors that influence its development (both within the brain itself and stimuli external to the brain) are a source of endless fascination for me. I'm big on internal logic within a story and if a character behaves in a particular way I want to know why. Why is a character weak or good or a pushover or a bully or insensitive or blind to what is going on around them? What makes a character do what they do? For me, neuroscience and neuropscychology open up a whole world of possibilities in terms of character creation. But I never, ever think about this when I'm writing creatively. The purpose of creative writing, for me, is to just shut up and listen to the voice in my head that's telling the story. I let my neurons (or whatever) just do their thing.

When I came back from my short break and did a bit more work on my manuscript at home, the 'voice' was a lot weaker. This morning, although I wrote a fair bit, it didn't really turn up at all (but I kept writing anyway and not all of it was crap... I think). Writing was not as easy as it was up at Montville - I was back at home with the distractions of the internet and my daughter and the dog and the dishes and day to day 'life' and all of it quickly intruded in on my writing.

Montville was, in some ways, a 'false environment', as false as sticking a creative person into an fMRI and tracking their brain while they're being 'creative' to see what areas of the brain start firing. While there are no doubt some common elements in the creative process for artistic works, I believe a person's creative processes are as unique to them as their brains. Just as a human brain is a reflection of an individual's genes, body, environment and early experiences, so must our creativity be.  That is, the creative choices I make in my writing are in some ways already set because of who I am.

I think most writers can improve their creative processes by reflecting on them within a neuroscientificneuroscientists could stimulate a particular part of a brain and make a person instantly more creative.  But I think creativity is much more than the sum of our neurons, so I don't see it ever happening.

Besides, I'd rather holiday in Montville than have an electrode shoved in my brain.