Tag Archives: creativity

Better All The Time?

By Mary Gillgannon

Some of my writer friends enjoy revising. They’re excited to have the first draft done and begin polishing the story. I, on the other hand, dread that part of the process. I much prefer the thrill of having the story unfold in front of me. The adrenaline rush of having my characters come to life and make things happen. That’s what keeps me writing.

Of course, it’s not always like that in the first draft. Sometimes my characters refuse to tell me what the story is. Or they take me off on a wild goose chase and I end up re-writing half of the book. But still the initial process is very often exhilarating.

And yet, I eventually get to the end and have to begin the important work of cleaning up the mess that is my story. It’s a seriously cringe-worthy process: Oh, my God, I didn’t really write that! No! I didn’t really use the word “really” about a hundred times. Not to mention “pretty” and “that’ and a dozen other bad habits. And then there are the doubled words (which Word never seems to catch) and the missing words. The logic problems. The occasional “homophone”; I didn’t mean “there”, but “they’re”!

And of course there’s the process of “quieting the ripples”. Because when you realize the middle part of the book is crap and try to fix it, you inevitably affect plot points throughout the story and have to fix them, too! And my beginning sucks! And why didn’t I think about that earlier in the book?

I always get through it. But it’s not fun. And I especially get discouraged because I’ve been writing for so long. I think: Why isn’t easier? Why aren’t I a better writer after 20 books?

Well, according to a research study, I am better. A scientist studied the creative process by tracking brain activity with MRI’s. His research subjects included both novice adult writers and “expert” writers (they were enrolled in a MFA program). To separate out the creative part of writing, he had them first copy something already written to get a baseline for the actual writing process. Then he did MRI’s as they brain-stormed an original story and wrote it.

He found that novice writers used different parts of their brain even while brainstorming. The novice writers had more activity in the visual center of the brain while the expert ones had activity in regions involved with speech. When the two groups began writing, there were other differences. In the expert writers a region in the brain called the caudate nucleus became active, while in the novice writers it was quiet.

The caudate nucleus is involved in skills that are learned through practice, such as piano playing, basketball or even board games. When a person begins learning these skills, they have to consciously think about what they are doing. But as they become more expert, the caudate nucleus takes over and coordinates these complex skills.

There has been a lot criticism of this study by other scientists, who are skeptical that it really shows where the creative process takes place in the brain. But I found the results encouraging. It suggests that as writers we do become better and more efficient in the writing process. We start using parts of the brain that are involved in more complex functions.

Maybe the problem for me is that as I get better, I also raise my expectations and become more critical. I have to tell myself that even though I still find stupid mistakes when I revise, at least I know they are mistakes and can recognize what needs fixing. So all the years of doing this have paid off and I really am becoming better at this.

At least I’ll believe that until I have to revise the next book!

You can read more about this study on the creative process in this New York Times article.

A Muse By Any Other Name

By Mary Gillgannon

In a post a couple of months ago, I was discussing the creative process and mentioned my muse “not speaking to me”. Afterwards, I began to think about the concept of a muse, what it means to me and why I think of mine as female.

The word probably originates from the Greek word mosis, referring to desire or wish. In Greek mythology, the muses were nine goddesses, all daughters of Zeus, who were said to have power over inspiration. The term has come to mean someone who has a deep influence on another person’s creative work. Historically, it was most often used by male artists to describe women they loved and made the subject of their work. But nowadays, the term doesn’t necessarily refer to a relationship, person or even an entity. The word can be used simply to describe your own inner source of creativity and inspiration. It’s a tangible term for an intangible process. A way of personalizing and making real something that no one really understands:  how the creative process works.

Being writers, we want to assign words to the process, to find a way to describe it. Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of metaphorical descriptions. People talk of “dipping into the creative well”, as if there was some sort of subterranean pool in our subconscious that we could drink from. James Joyce wrote that all the real creative work was done by “the nigger in the basement”. A more politically-correct writer, Barbara Samuels/Barbara O’Neal, uses the term “the girls in the basement”, to describe the source of her creative ideas. Another writer friend once described it to me by saying there was a wall separating her from all these wonderful, magical ideas and that once in awhile, she felt she could reach under that wall and pull things out and use them in her writing.

I suppose I see my “muse” or the source of my inspiration and ideas, as being a remnant of my childhood self, the little girl I was before I learned to focus on what I was supposed to focus on, rather than letting my thoughts roam free. That’s probably why I think of my muse as female, because she represents the fanciful, imaginative child I once was, who sang and told herself stories for hours and hours.

I think almost all children are naturally creative. Daydreaming and making up stories is a huge part of how they learn and interact with the world. But the ability to tap into that fluid “anything is possible” outlook gets damaged over time. When a child is chided for daydreaming or simply told to “pay attention” in school or when doing chores, they start forming the habit of focusing on the “real” world, the things they can directly perceive through their senses and through reasoning. Their connection with that fertile, free-flowing part of themselves gets cut off, and gradually what was once a constant rich flow of creative ideas slows to a mere trickle.

Years later, when we decide to take up a creative pursuit, we may find it difficult to access what was once the very essence of our world. Instead of having all sorts of fantastical ideas swirling in our heads, we get trapped in our mundane reality. We suffer from writers’ block. We get stuck and the words won’t come. The well hasn’t run dry, but we no longer have access to it. Instead of a river right beside us, our creativity hides in a deep dark reservoir, buried far below all the layers of the responsibilities, demands and distractions of our lives.

Over and over, I find myself using water metaphors to describe creativity. Perhaps that’s because, like water, creativity and inspiration aren’t something you can grab onto or really contain. It keeps moving and changing, like the process that defines it. My muse is a water sprite, skipping over the waves, glimmering in the sunlight. Sometimes I catch sight of her for long enough to capture a bit of her magic and use it in my work. I wish she wasn’t so elusive and that I was better at creeping up on her so I would have time to really study her. But like a lot of enchanted beings, she remains always on the move and a little out of focus, lost to the all-too-sensible and realistic lens through which my adult self views the world.

Keep Your Eyes Open

By Yvonne Montgomery

Yvonne MontgomeryAs I draw near the end of my current project, A Signal Shown, Book Two of the Wisdom Court series, I’ve reached one of my favorite phases of writing a novel, what I call the Gifts from the Universe stage.

All writers are scavengers, gratefully and greedily snatching what we can find to flesh out the narrative. We eavesdrop on conversations and watch interactions among strangers, squirreling away precious bits and pieces to adorn our stories. Everything is grist for the mill, and someday that episode will find its place in a story, said Louis L’Amour. The man knew writing—and writers.

What I’m talking about is a little different. When you’ve been eating and breathing your work in progress, you come to a state of hyper-awareness. Perhaps it’s an inevitable tip into creative madness, maybe just a turn of the kaleidoscope making everything you encounter take on the characteristics of your particular focus. I prefer the idea of a generous, creative force presenting me with extra elements of completion for my manuscript.

One pre-dawn morning this week I was lying in bed and I saw a small triangle of light overhead. As I watched, the light skimmed across the ceiling and disappeared. Undoubtedly it was a stray shaft of light from a car driving through the alley.

But my novel is about a haunted place where strange happenings are eroding the comfort of its residents. The light floating along the surface of the ceiling set off my imagining another room where the moving glow was a sign of an eerie presence. The scene I wrote later in the day informed the chapter I was working on, and it had a little extra chill to it because of what I’d seen and felt that morning.

As I’ve mentioned my work lately, some people have generously related shivery anecdotes of otherworldly events I’ve found both evocative and worth stealing. (Of course I always ask their permission.) I’ve stumbled across reminders of ideas I’d forgotten, resurfacing now when I need them the most. A few weeks ago my grandchildren badgered me into watching a kid-TV show with them, and an element of its story let me see how a point-of-view shift in my narrative would enrich one major character. Pure gift.

We RMFW members are well aware of the creative community resulting from interaction with fellow writers, from attending critique groups, from combining our energies in conferences and educational programs. With each novel I’ve written, be it mystery, saga, or metaphysical thriller, I’ve had the additional, lovely experience of being a part of a realm in which those inspiring energies surround me. Whether generated in my fevered mind, lobbed my way by benign writing partners in the ether, or as a result of the overwhelming desire to be done with this book, I take great pleasure in these Gifts from the Universe. Their appearance truly means I’m nearly at the end of telling myself this tale. Before long the fervor of its creation will subside and I’ll be looking for another story to write.

Keep your eyes (and ears and minds and hearts) open to the creative gifts available to us as writers. They’re all grist for the mill.

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Montgomery_Scavanger Hunt Yvonne Montgomery lives in an old three-story house in Denver’s historic Capitol Hill. Its nooks and crannies and odd noises in the middle of the night have inspired her latest works, Edge of the Shadow and A Signal Shown, Books One and Two of the Wisdom Court series, to be e-published in early 2014. Her e-books are widely available, including at Amazon, B&N Nook, iBooks, Kobo.

Yvonne is the author of two mysteries, Scavenger Hunt (aka Scavengers) and Obstacle Course, and co-author of Bridey’s Mountain, a Colorado saga awarded the Colorado Authors League Top Hand Award for Best Book Length Fiction of 1993.

For more information, please visit Yvonne’s website, Writer in the Garret. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.