Slow! by Alex Smith, Creative Commons licence

The slow brain theory of creativity

I’ve always been in awe of writers who can turn out a book every year. It’s often a contractual requirement for writers working in genres like crime and thrillers, but some literary fiction writers too are immensely prolific, from the firmly established like Joyce Carol Oates to the up-and-coming like Iain Maloney, whose latest novel The Waves Burn Bright is on top of my towering to-read pile.

Myself, I’m a slow writer. Sometimes – often – I find this frustrating. At every stage, from the emergence of a new idea and the first scribbled notes and maps to the multiple rewrites and edits, my progress is slower than that of most writers I know.

Recently, I listened to a repeat of Grayson Perry’s On Creativity and Imagination, an exploration of what we mean by creativity and how we might encourage it. I like the way Perry talks about art: he has a fine sense of the ridiculousness of much creative endeavour, as well as its importance, combined with what seems like an endless curiosity about the world around him. In this programme he describes the sign he has hanging over his workspace that says CREATIVITY IS MISTAKES – which dovetails neatly with my own favourite mantra, NOTHING IS WASTED (okay, that short story really didn’t come out like you meant it to, but look at it from another angle and there may be the germ of a novel in there, or at least a 1000-word flash fiction; and yes, you may have spent years working on an unpublishable novel, but you needed to write that mistake in order to write the next success).

But what really struck me in Perry’s exploration was a piece of research that suggests the most creative people may be those who think more slowly than others. The hypothesis is that the neurons in our brains are wrapped in white matter largely made up of fatty myelin sheaths, and the lower the integrity of this white matter the more slowly our neurons transmit information in the region connecting the pre-frontal cortex to the thalamus.  This slowness is associated with greater divergent thinking – a common test of creativity.

That a ‘slow brain’ should be particularly creative seems at the same time both counter-intuitive and absolutely spot on. We tend to associate creativity with a quick intelligence – and indeed it seems this ‘slow brain’ creativity can co-exist alongside higher integrity white matter in the cortex, associated with increased intelligence; so the same brain can be both fast and slow. But a slow model of creativity makes sense of much ‘pre-writing’ activity which we might otherwise see as procrastination. Sleep. Daydreams. Meandering walks. Andrew Motion’s mild flu and Lem-Sip. All of these more or less passive activities can work as active strategies to allow material to emerge, to give our brains the space to start making new patterns, new connections.

What does this mean for how we organise ourselves and our work? It might help in understanding our relationship with deadlines; when they might be helpful, and when they’re more likely to be counter-productive. For me a deadline can be incredibly useful, forcing me to commit my words and thoughts to paper or screen – but this is only possible once the slow, organic phase has done its work. Until then, the only thing I’ll produce to a deadline is stress, tantrums and ultimately failure.

As well as a slow writer, these days I’m also a slower reader than I used to be, and at times I feel I’m a slow thinker too, taking a while to build up ideas and arguments and to process new pieces of information. The idea of a slow creative brain makes me feel better about this. It’s only by allowing the time for unexpected connections to occur that later – in the act of writing – I can learn the shape of the new thing I’m making, and understand what it is that I mean to say.

Image illustrating ideas

How to have ideas

Over the years a number of people have told me how they’d love to write a book – only, they don’t have an idea to write about. I used to be fairly dismissive of this. My view was that if someone doesn’t know what to write about, they don’t want to write but rather (lord knows why) to ‘be a writer’.

The longer I teach creative writing, though, the more sympathetic I’ve become to this attitude.

We are born creative creatures – as children we know how to play, how to make-believe. If you’re lucky, you’ll have encouraging parents and a good teacher or two; if you’re lucky, your creative instincts will survive and even thrive into adulthood. But for many of us, creativity is something that is not nurtured, is not developed. Pressures on schools to deliver academic results above all mean creative subjects are often sidelined (and sometimes, as by UK Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, actively discouraged). For many, by the time they leave secondary education, those creative instincts that were once so strong have been all but forgotten.

So when someone says they want to write but they don’t have anything to write about, they’re voicing a genuine need – an urge toward self expression which, carefully supported and nurtured, might well develop into an ability to write for a wider readership.

When I run creative writing sessions, my work often centres around helping participants to rediscover their creative skills – and when it comes to generating ideas, there are plenty of techniques that can help. Some of the activities I use involve striking two dissimilar things together (a snippet of overheard conversion, for instance, with a childhood memory of a place you once visited) to make new sparks; freewriting, using the prompt ‘I don’t want to write about…’ (this comes from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones); asking ‘what if?’ questions (What if London was flooded? What if a computer virus became conscious? What if sugar was banned?).

Even reading widely and noting what catches your eye can be a useful approach. In a recent series of workshops on creative writing about science and technology, we used copies of the New Scientist as source material. We selected interesting stories and news items, and made notes about possible themes that might emerge from this material (for instance, a theme of watching and being watched emerging from a news item about surveillance technology) along with any personal experiences that connected with our chosen material. By the end of the session the room was buzzing with scores of promising ideas.

Of course, some people have the opposite problem: they want to write, but they have too many ideas and can’t decide which to pursue. What then?

One option is to combine them all in a single project (probably a novel, since that form is stretchy enough to contain all kinds of disparate ideas). In her guide to novel writing Monkeys With Typewriters, Scarlett Thomas describes how she uses matrixes to harness all the ideas that are currently interesting her.

Or there’s another option, one I prefer: with each idea you have, pay close attention to your own reactions. I find this helps me distinguish between a promising idea that might be perfect for another writer but is just not for me, and one that feels like mine. If I can practically feel my pupils dilating, my mind’s eye focusing, I know I’ve got something worth exploring. In Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, Adam Marek describes how he experiences this particular sensation: ‘It’s a feeling a bit like delight, a bit like surprise, a bit like weightlessness.’

Once you’re attuned to this sensation, it becomes far easier to recognise an idea that really resonates with you, and to become generous with all those ideas it feels like anyone might write. You can become profligate: spread them around, give them away … and what you give you shall receive, tenfold.

Virginia Woolf, edited page

Surviving the rewrite

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been absorbed in rewrites of my next novel. It’s not the first set of revisions, and perhaps my writing process is unusually inefficient: it’s not until the second draft that I’ll share the work-in-progress with a couple of trusted writer-readers, then the third draft goes off to my agent, and comes back for more (thankfully, relatively minor) amendments.

Writing is hard: all writers say it (sheepishly, because it’s not like we’re working down a coal mine). And some days, rewriting is the hardest thing of all. Every word, every sentence, has to be hauled up from the deep, to lie motionless on the page – if not dead, then at least in a critical condition. I worry that if I’m boring myself I’ll certainly bore the reader; I know every word will have to be rewritten yet again. But as I tell my students, you can’t rewrite a blank page – so there’s no choice but to carry on.

When it’s a slog like this, when everything I write seems flat and awful, that’s when I find myself wondering if it’s too late to retrain as a gardener or a dog-walker. Something useful and energetic, with plenty of fresh air.

But then … then I reach a part of the book where it’s like I’ve remembered all over again how to write. And the difference is in the unexpected. It’s about whether or not I’m surprising myself – with the turn a conversation takes, or a connection I hadn’t known was there, or just a sentence that has energy and voice, that seems to write itself rather than lurking around half-formed until I clumsily patch it together.

This is why some writers prefer not to plan their novels at all: knowing where they’re meant to be going takes away the sense of adventure and the joy of discovery. If you know what you’re going to write, what’s the point in writing it? And even though I’m a planner, I still need that sense of unexpectedness. Making minor changes to a scene may seem more efficient than rewriting that scene from scratch, but I’ve realised it’s actually harder and more time-consuming – because if you’re tinkering round the edges of something that already exists, there’s less room for surprise, less pleasure in making something fresh and new and alive.

And as with most things I learn about writing, I’ll forget this – and have to discover it all over again when it’s time to rewrite the novel after this one.

Halfway up the mountain

Resolutions for writers

The start of 2016 has been particularly grey. Something about the low cloud and the near-constant rain makes it difficult to look up, to look ahead. I’ve been reminded over the last week of Douglas Adams’s planet Krikkit, where the sky is so completely featureless that it never occurs to the planet’s inhabitants to raise up their eyes: they have no concept of sky, or of what might exist beyond their planet.

But today has been mercifully clear, low sun in a high blue sky. It feels like the horizon of the year is suddenly visible, twelve months away from here. So I’ve been looking up, considering the shape of the year to come.

Though September has always felt like the month of new beginnings  more than January, I’ve dabbled with new year’s resolutions in the past. Often these resolutions were to do with writing goals: finishing this draft, getting those stories accepted for publication. Writing goals can be great motivators, of course, but they can also set you up to fail. One problem is that for writers so many of our markers of success are largely outwith our control – dependent on agents, publishers, markets, judges. ‘Publish novel’, for instance, is an achievable goal now in a way it wasn’t even in the very recent past, but for writers in pursuit of a traditional publishing contract so much is about luck – getting the right book in front of the right person at the right time. And optimism can be another problem; though mine has kept me writing through the last ten years, it means that even when I think I’m erring on the side of caution my goal-setting is hopelessly over-ambitious.

When I think of goals, achievements and the year ahead, I see myself climbing a mountain. Here I am, halfway up: I can look back at the view, feel a sense of satisfaction at how far I’ve come – then turn around, and gaze up at the distance still to climb. Does anyone ever feel like they’ve reached the summit? And if that ever happens – what next? Is the descent all that’s left?

But it strikes me that this image is not quite right. It wants a shift of perspective. Perhaps the mountain doesn’t represent success. And perhaps it’s not a single mountain. Zoom out, and it becomes a mountain range. My half-way up position is not so much about goals achieved or out of reach; it’s about time. About the span of a life, and a life’s work.

In January, the years seems long – but they’re not, of course. They fly past anti-clockwise / like clock hands in a bar mirror, as we well know.

Cover - Underworld, Second Toughest In The Infants

Music to write books by #3

Underworld’s second album, Second Toughest In The Infants, has just been re-released as a super deluxe four-disc box set, and I’m pretty sure it would gain a place on my Music to write by playlist. The original version was released in 1996; compared with its predecessor dubnobasswithmyheadman, it took me a while to get this album. Now, it makes me think of brutalist architecture: abstract, uncompromising and starkly beautiful. And it’s ideal listening when you need to concentrate fully and write fast. The vocals are sparse and fragmented enough not to hijack your train of thought, and the first track ‘Juanita / Kiteless’ is filled with a building, nervous energy. The skittering, snapping snare and tight beats kick in straight away, grab you by the collar and say: enough procrastinating. Get on with it now.

So – what are you waiting for?

Het Lab - three dancers

Get over yourself, stop worrying, and persevere

I’ve just published the latest artist interview in my This Is How We Make It series: choreographer Erik Kaiel is an articulate and generous interviewee, and his reflections on pursuing creative work have applications far beyond the world of dance.

With four interviews now online, covering performance, writing and visual arts, I thought I would pull out some of my favourite thoughts from Erik, Iain, Viccy and Jayne.

On why we make things…
‘There’s something that doesn’t exist in the world that needs to be out out there, and even after you’ve made a piece it’s there a bit, but it needs to go further, like it’s not present enough. There’s something that keeps you going, that need to make and to put out into the public space.’

On the value of teaching…
‘I think teaching is returning to learning, and deepening your practice and your understanding. And I definitely think those years of teaching, even though I didn’t want to be a teacher, I wanted to be a dancer and a choreographer, it made me better at those things.’

‘I get a lot back from it. It energises me I suppose – and because making work can be a selfish thing in a way, so with teaching you feel like you are giving something back a bit to people, and passing on your skills.’

On how to make good work…
‘If you really want to be an artist, you have to not say, what does everyone else do? Not say, I need to have this and that and the other thing; or, I need a two-week vacation and then if there’s time over I will make art. Instead you say: I need a place to sleep, I need to eat, and I need to support my art-making – and then organise the rest of your life around that.’

‘If I want to have a good day I know the first thing I need to do in the morning is focus on the work.’

‘Winning prizes is important in giving me motivation, and that incentive to carry on … I rely on entering competitions to confirm that what I’m doing has some worth.’

On opportunities…
‘I like risks, saying yes to things and seeing where they go. But when I say I’m good at taking risks, I’m good at having things in place to take risks from.’

‘Basically everything I’ve done has come from a period of volunteering or doing little bits and pieces, and that developed into something more.’

‘Residencies have been key to inspiring new ideas, and developments in technique. Time away helps you to make leaps in your work, to move it forward.’

‘If you’re an upcoming comic artist and you’re not on Twitter then you’re making a mistake.’

Advice for our younger selves…
‘Advice to early-me: probably, get over yourself. So, as soon as you think you’re doing something because you’re a writer – oh, I stay up late, I don’t get up in the morning and write cos I’m a writer – or anybody who’s resistant to editing, get over that romantic view that you write and that’s it done.’

‘I used to worry more when I was younger about other people, about being current, and contemporary – but as you get older you start to think, actually, I’d rather just do what I’m interested in.’

‘Just because you can’t draw as well as artists in the comics you like, you can still make comics.’

‘I wish somebody had said, it’s important to keep going. I’m a great believer in, if you keep plugging away at it… I know you’ve got to have something there, some talent or something, but I don’t think talent is the half of it sometimes. It’s perseverance. I wish somebody had said don’t give up at the slightest rejection! You’re going to be rejected, probably over and over again, but then within that you’ll have some successes.’

You’ll find lots more words of wisdom in the complete interviews – read on here.

Jane Alexander 26 sestude

26 Children’s Winters

What is it that prompts you to really pay attention to an object in a museum, rather than letting your gaze skim across the surface? It could be a well-written label – or perhaps it could be a story, an anecdote or a poem…

26 is a not-for-profit organisation made up of writers, editors, publishers and others who work with words. It pursues its aim of ‘inspiring a greater love of words, in business and in life’ through all kinds of activities, the most visible of which is a series of exhibitions and books that ask writers to respond to objects, places, artworks, stories and more.

26 Children’s Winters is the latest 26 exhibition, currently on show at the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood; I was one of 26 writers invited to respond to a specially chosen object from the museum’s collection. Each of us was asked to create a ‘sestude’: the signature literary form of 26, this can be a poem or a piece of prose, but must consist of exactly 62 words. It’s quite a challenge – especially when your allocated object initially fails to inspire! I’ve written here about the process of creating my sestude.

The end result took an unusual form that made things tricky for the exhibition designers – but as you can see they did a great job of accommodating my awkward piece:

Jane Alexander 26 sestude

And here’s one of my favourite sestudes, by writer Lucy Harland:

Jigsaw Piece sestude by Lucy Harland
Jigsaw Piece by Lucy Harland

The project will raise money for It’s Good 2 Give, a small Scottish charity supporting children and young people with cancer.  The sestudes are a really engaging way of encouraging people to look closely at each object, and prompting memories and personal associations – and you can see them on show until 31 March 2016.