A Quick Note

The Leeth Dossier is a sci-fi/fantasy series about an unusual girl, set in our world about 50 years from now: and 25 years after magic unexpectedly returns. It opens with the book Wild Thing (2015), and continues with Harsh Lessons (2016), Shadow Hunt (2017); then (Violent Causes) (2018?), Lost Girl (2018/19?)....
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Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Creative Process and the Unconscious

I'm fascinated by the creative process, and I've had a few pieces of luck, perhaps, in getting some insights into it.

I'm right now in the middle of watching a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) which I found on Shannon Ellison's absorbing blog at Nearly Eloquent (more specially in Four Tips on Writing Well), about the creative process.

(image courtesy of Pexels)

Elizabeth's talk is great (as so many TED talks are!), and I think would resonate with most creative people. She speaks of the pressures that the creative writing career (and creative careers in general) place upon the creator: two of the big ones being "My work is crap; what if I never achieve success?" and if you're lucky enough to have a big success: "What if for the whole rest of my career, I never produce anything anywhere near as good as that first big success?"

She goes on to say that only in the last 500 years or so did the notion that all the creativity came from within the individual arise — the idea that that person, and that person alone, was owed all the (narcissism-inducing) glory of the success, and all the (soul-destroying) acid for all the failures. She said that the ancient Romans idea of genius was a spirit that lived literally in the walls of your home, and which came out and assisted the creator invent. So, the burden of both success and failure was a shared one. She told fascinating stories of interviewing the great American poet Ruth Stone when she was in her 90s who spoke of being able to sense when a poem was on its way: to her it was like a thunderous wind barrelling toward her across the plains, like a great storm. And unless she could get inside, get to a pencil and paper, by the time this might storm train of a poem crashed through her, she would lose it. So she'd run for the house: and if she got there in time, she could capture the poem and copy it down to the paper, but if she was too late, it would surge through her and past, and be lost. But if she could grab a pencil before it had passed completely through her, she could kind of reach out and spear it with the pencil tip, and drag it back inside her body, gripping it until she could find a piece of paper, in which case she would then haul it back inside her, word by word, transcribing it onto the paper. And most fascinating of all, it would be in reverse: word for word, backwards.

She also spoke of also interviewing the musician Tom Waits, who had similar experiences, until in middle life he did something novel one day which changed his whole process. She tells how he was driving on the freeway in Los Angeles, unable to stop, and suddenly heard in his head a most delightful melody, and he knew he needed to capture it at once, or it would be lost. So all the usual stress and tension started building up. And so, she said, instead of panicking, he looked up into the sky and said out loud "Excuse me, do you not see that I'm driving? Does it look like I can do anything for you right now? So, either you come back later, when I can give you the care and attention you need, or go and bother someone else; go and bother Leonard Cohen."

And she told the story of one of the depressing times while working on Eat, Pray, Love, when she became convinced that what she was writing was not just going to be the worst book she'd ever written, but the worst book ever written. And she remembered what Tom Waits had said to her, and leaned back in her chair and spoke to an empty corner of the room, and said, "Look, you and I both know that this isn't all just on me: I'm doing the best I can; I'm putting everything I have into this; but it needs the both of us. So if you're not going to do your part… well, I'm going to sit here and keep working. But I'd like the record to show that I showed up for my part of the job."

Elizabeth's thought was that by putting all the credit for success and failure on the shoulders of a single person, we're putting incredible pressure on each creative individual, and it's this awful pressure that leads to the so well known stories of writers and other artists literally dying: if not through conscious suicide, then often through disabling addictions or disastrous life choices. That by acknowledging a spiritual dimension to the process, that huge burden can be shared.

Now, from what I've read on the web and from seen in interviews and heard in conversation from other writers, most would agree, and welcome that. I think I'm an oddity: I don't seem to be assailed by self-doubt, but nor do I feel overweening pride in my abilities. I think I have a talent, but I think I'm far, far from the best, and still far from the best that I can be. But I'm learning and improving, and I don't need to be the best: it's not a competition, and anyway, what strikes one reader as genius will quite likely leave other readers cold and unimpressed. There are two parts to creating and appreciating artistic works — there's creativity on both sides, not just the artist's. As much, perhaps, goes on inside the reader as it does in the writer, as words or pictures resonate with the receiver's own life experiences and they add their own layer of meaning to the picture. So there is no "best writer", there are only "the writers who best resonate with some set of readers". My guess is that it would be hard to even find two readers who agreed completely on which set of writers they'd collect in their "best writers" bag.

So all this is just by way of saying, I think I'm a realist when it comes to evaluating my own work. I generally like it, and often even love it; I can see flaws in it — undoubtedly, not all the flaws — but when I do, I work to fix them. But I rarely (never?) look at something I've written and say "That's crap." Maybe because I tend to write from the heart, and I try to always write with honesty. And if I don't have anything that I feel driven to write, well, I either don't write, or don't put it in the same box as I do with the stuff I care about. If it's just a cooking recipe, or a note about how to fix some problem on my computer, or an email about some practical matter, then that's all it is. I know that not everyone will like what I write. I know I can't please everyone, and that I shouldn't try. I've set my bar for success, with just a little thought, as "If my writing generates more hours of reading pleasure than hours of writing effort, I'll consider myself successful." So for me, I don't think I place a huge burden on my shoulders: I write the best I can, and try to learn and improve, and if that's not good enough to please some people — that's okay. And if I'm one day lucky enough to have a best-seller — well, I know that there is luck involved, and that there are many other writers equally worthy of such success. Writing is not a rare talent, there are hundreds of thousands of good writers around the world, all working away to create literary wealth for the human race. I'm just a drop in that ocean. So I think that knowledge is enough to ward off the narcissism which success could all too easily induce.

One of the lucky events I experienced was a talk from a successful self-publishing writer and illustrator, where I was fortunate enough to be able to ask the question "How do you avoid the danger of becoming self-indulgent, and stay open to criticism?" And instead of taking the question in the spirit in which it was intended, he took offence and said that he knew better than anyone what he wanted to create, and had learned to ignore criticism. I'd been thinking of the astonishing and unfortunate level of misogyny that his work had developed following a bitter split up with his girlfriend; and he proceeded to demonstrate that, yes, the danger of becoming self-indulgent was all too real. (I think it's an even bigger risk for self-publishers, since they really can choose to have complete creative control.)

And my viewing of Elizabeth Gilbert's talk came just days after watching a TV documentary on Philip K Dick. I hadn't known that he was troubled by visions, that he dabbled in counter-culture stuff — maybe including drugs — and maybe even had some mental problems. But there's no question that he had enormous creativity, and genius, and has been hugely and deservedly influential in Western culture. Many people credit him (through Bladerunner, initially), as being the person who made sci-fi palatable and even desirable to Hollywood, and through it, to mainstream culture. Today, it's mainly only the literary crowd who really look down on and turn their nose up at all genre fiction, especially sci-fi and romance. But until Bladerunner, and probably Star Wars, sci-fi was commercially uninteresting to Hollywood.

Anyway, the thing was, that many of Dick's ideas for short stories or novels came to him from a place that seemed outside himself. He spoke of being hit by a beam of pinkish-red light from the crystal piece of jewellery around the neck of a young female Christian visitor one day, that knocked him into an altered state of consciousness. He spoke of being hit by a beam of ultra-bright pink light on later occasions too, that seemed to pour cosmic knowledge into him. He "intuited" a medical problem in he and his wife's young boy, and urgently insisted on taking his son to a doctor, and tests showed that he was perfectly correct, and the appropriate treatment was applied. It was around that time, and IIRC while stalled while trying to write "The Man in the High Castle", that he started using the I-Ching to solve his plot problems. When faced with a problem, he'd cast the sticks, read the appropriate entry from the I-Ching, and then apply that to his novel. Apparently he used that technique from then on, since he found it worked so well.

In a similar vein, I'd read advice about creating plots for role-playing adventures in which you used a deck of Tarot cards to lay out pieces that would be used to create the characters and the threats for a session or a whole campaign, kind of in a similar way to using them to read someone's fortune.

Now, all these stories sound very much like spiritual interventions, or tapping into some mystical well of creativity or knowledge, right? After all, such stories are part and parcel of human history through the ages. And it could be what's happening: I can't disprove it. And it would be a very comforting thing to be true.

(image courtesy of Pixabay)

But I think there is an alternative explanation, and it's simply rooted in possibly the most amazing thing in the universe: the brain, and its ongoing process, the mind. Another piece of serendipity was receiving a day of training on creativity, on innovation in the workplace, at the R&D company I worked at for many years (hi, CiSRA!). This training was unusual in being science-based, drawing on research into how the mind worked, and what influenced creativity. It was run with a mixture of lectures and workshop exercises in small groups, and all of it was fascinating — from the theory to the practice to watching how the group dynamics affected all this. One of the key pieces of the theory was about the unconscious or sub-conscious, as opposed to the conscious rational part of the mind.

(Just as an aside, my understanding of things is that brain is the hardware for our thinking, affected of course by our proprioceptive senses, hormones, chemistry and health — as well as external influences like very strong magnetic fields, flashing lights, or pounding beats and heart-swelling chords — and the mind is what emerges from processes running on that astonishing hardware.)

The rational mind is basically a single process (in the computer sense: if you're not into computers, you could think of it as a connected series of mental tasks, a series of logical steps in some chain of reasoning). Rational thought is pretty logical, and proceeds step by step in a line that can be straight or meandering and even looping. Unconscious thought, in contrast, uses huge amounts of parallelism. I don't think we yet understand how much cross-connectivity and echoing and rebounding resonances operate to simultaneously evoke memories and form new connections; but we do know that in addition to that complex process, there are somewhere around fifty different processes at work, or available to work, on certain kinds of problems. Some of these, I assume, are tied to sensory input, but not all. All this complexity and richness is I think why the myth of people only using ten percent of their brain developed: it's because we have areas in the brain specialised to deal with certain problems. Just as parts of the visual system break sight down into pieces, some recognising horizontal and vertical lines, other recognising movement, some (I'm sure!) evolved to detect an eye pointed in our direction, and so on. All layered together in a hierarchy or network of networks. All able to cross-communicate. So using all parts of the brain would only happen if we were being flooded with all sorts of sensory inputs, as well as facing challenging problems.

But the rational mind, being serial in nature, and tending to be logical, is the only part that can handle certain problems: like counting and working out sums, and purely logical reasoning. Whereas the unconscious is great at making connections between ideas, weighing up pros and cons, relating one memory to another, matching patterns, and so on. There are some fascinating research papers about this, which you can find by Googling "Unconscious thought theory." One way of applying the theory to solve problems, especially creative problems, is basically this:

1) Learn or revise as much as you can that is related to the problem at hand.

2) Consciously pose yourself the question you want to answer or the problem you need to solve.

3) Distract your conscious/rational mind for at least ten minutes, doing something like a crossword puzzle.

4) Return to the question, and then, as quickly as you can, pick from the available options, or jot down an answer to the problem, without trying to analyse or reason it out.

I have confidence that this works, since it worked on the day of our training to solve a good range of problems, and I've used it often since then when I faced creative problems in my writing. On numerous occasions I had plot problems, or needed some creative idea that satisfied a whole web of logical and emotional issues. Often, they were daunting, and I wondered if there even was any solution at all. But I simply set aside the fear and self doubts (thank you, ratbag cops from Perisher Valley back in about 1983, for forcing me to learn that lesson), and let my subconscious churn away it; sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. And then, when I felt the time was right, I'd sit down or lay down with pencil and paper and start writing: sometimes with a brief note explaining what needed to happen, sometimes then picturing in my head various options, sometimes just writing down bits and pieces that might help, sometimes a mix of all those things — and in short order, suddenly the plot and/or story would flow, with the actors and action unfolding as I wrote.

So, all I'm really saying here, is that we each carry around inside a fount of creativity that we can tap into quite easily. It's sensitive to our moods, it's sensitive to and absorbing facts and impressions, sights and sounds and smells, from the world around us; it's synthesising ideas and joining facts together, juggling things together and looking for patterns, and best of all, if something is important to us and we consciously pose a problem, that mighty unconscious array of mental powers can be put to work at solving the problem.

Go and watch Elizabeth's TED talk (Elizabeth Gilbert on Genius): even though she comes to a quite different conclusion to me, I think her idea would work as well or better than mine, for many people. Her idea is more romantic than mine, and I think more appealing for many people. But for me, the idea that this creative genius can be inside all of us is just as exciting.

And now, back to work on book 3...


  1. Great post, Luke, I found that really interesting, hadn't heard of unconscious thought theory.
    Coincidentally, I had a character in one of my books using the I Ching. Rather than decide what result he would get, I threw coins myself to see what came out. It fit the story so well, I just used it. Maybe the I Ching is so deliberately vague that it can be applied to so many situations - but it definitely helped generate ideas.

    1. I think you're right, Kay. Anything with enough complexity to resonate with a wide range of possibilities can be used as fuel, allowing sometimes quite surprising connections.