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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.

Notebooks and tea

Right ideas, wrong time?

Every year at this time, I’m surprised by how much I love September. I love the quiet after the Edinburgh festivals, the sense of reclaiming the city. I love the earlier nights, evening walks through the gloaming, windows lit up and unshuttered. I have no expectations of the weather, so fine autumnal days are an unlooked-for gift, particularly after a shifty summer like the one we’ve just had. And the chill beneath the sun, the freshness in the air, takes me straight back to the autumn I first arrived in Edinburgh as a student; I’m reconnected to the thrill I felt, aged 18, moving to this amazing city – and to the start of all those academic years in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle.

So September is all about beginnings, and that’s probably why ideas for a new novel – or a new something, at least – are nudging me so insistently at the moment. Ideas can be such inconvenient things: they’re elusive when you court them, and when you’re positively not looking for them they’ve a tendency to bounce about your head like moths round a lightbulb. It’s not a good time for these new characters, settings, events to arrive. This autumn is for rewriting my next novel, for writing short stories and working on critical chapters for my PhD thesis, and for starting a new year of creative writing teaching. But at the same time, it feels unwise to ignore this new thing – what if it takes off in a sulk, never to return?

Besides, new is always appealing. Poet Stanley Kunitz said, ‘The poem is always perfect in the head,’ and novels are the same – they’re inevitably imperfect versions of the vision you had before you first put pen to paper. The unwritten novel, by contrast, is full of potential; it holds the promise that this time you might not fail. This time, you might achieve what you set out to do.

I can’t write this something now; I can’t ignore it, either. So I’ve bought a new notebook for my new project, a big, blue, beautiful Moleskin. The self-imposed rule is that I can add to this book with notes and images, but I’m not allowed to look back over what I’ve collected. Not yet; not until I’ve finally finished the novel I’ve been working on for the last three years. That might not be too long, now – tomorrow I’m off for a week’s retreat, just me and the rewrites.

In the meantime, I hope the new thing will wait for me – whatever it turns out to be.

writing desk

The room can write the book

A few weeks ago I took the plunge, and rented an external brain.

This is not the opening line of a science fiction story (though, hmm, maybe it could be…). My external brain is a studio: a corner of an industrial building, a partitioned space shared with eight artists. A bookshelf and a reading armchair, an office chair and writing desk, and a good long surface for laying out pages and making plans – plus a stretch of wall-space, so I can draw out structures and schedules on huge flip-chart sheets.

Reading chair
The reading chair

I first came across the notion of a room as an external brain in Vincent Deary’s How We Are. Early on in the book he recounts how, before he started to write, he organised his workroom: ‘collecting and ordering the books, papers and articles into one space. I mapped the shape of this book onto a wall chart … I filled a filing cabinet with files, one for each chapter …. I spent several years getting this book out of my mind, and then two months spreading it all over this little room.’ Now, he says, the room can write the book.

The room can write the book. What an appealing idea that is. I’ve been writing at home for a decade, decamping to libraries and coffee shops when cabin fever strikes. But with two all-encompassing writing projects on the go – a PhD and a novel rewrite – I needed the ‘cognitive prosthesis’ Deary talks about. I needed a space that was dedicated to reading and writing; somewhere I could make my thinking visible. I needed to be away from the easy distractions of radio, kettle, garden. Above all I needed to avoid the internet, with its seductive illusion of productivity (social media is promotion; aimless surfing is research). We’re all vulnerable to this: even big name writers like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen have to resort to extreme measures to keep themselves away from its temptations.

planning desk
The planning desk

Deary also talks about rooms as ‘spaces of embodied routines’; how repeatedly using a place in a certain way creates powerful behavioural cues. When I sit at my desk at home, it’s automatic to check email – but when I walk into the studio first thing in the morning, it’s automatic to flip open the laptop and begin work where I left off the previous day. And for me, sharing a studio with artists taps into older behavioural cues: having spent four formative years at art college, working in a creative visual environment somehow facilitates my own imaginative work in a completely different medium.

‘Without this room,’ says Deary, ‘I’m just a guy with a notion for a book. Equally, without me this room is, well, just weird. Together, the room and I can do stuff that alone would be impossible.’

Writer’s block? Why an art class might help…

Writing is necessarily solitary, and though I get to meet all kinds of interesting people through teaching creative writing, opportunities to share experiences with, and learn from, other writer-teachers can be hard to come by. So it was exciting to attend my first National Association of Writers in Education conference a couple of weeks back, and to find myself surrounded by hundreds of other professional ‘writers in education’. Over three days of seminars, workshops and presentations we covered subjects ranging from flash fiction for beginner writers, with the hugely enthusiastic Carrie Etter, to storytelling with military veterans.

One of the most surprising sessions for me focused on the benefits of integrating drawing with your writing practice. Though there are plenty of accomplished writer-artists (strangely, the examples that spring to mind are all Scottish: John Byrne, Alasdair Gray, Ian Hamilton Findlay…) I’ve tended to think of drawing and writing as mutually exclusive activities. Drawing is about looking – looking hard – and if I’m working on a piece of writing I’m usually oblivious to the detail of the world around me, because I’m so thoroughly absorbed in the world I’m imagining.

So what was surprising about the activities our experts (Patricia Ann McNair and Philip Hartigan from Columbia College Chicago) asked us to try? After some scribbly warm-ups, we made ‘blind mono’ drawings of something or someone in the room – line drawings made without looking at the subject and without lifting pen from paper. And while we drew, we were supposed to think about a piece of writing we were working on. Holding those two activities in my head at the same time was a challenge, and I didn’t feel I managed it very well. But then we turned over our paper and began a ‘blind writing’, working fast and covering up each line of text as soon as we’d written it – and I was amazed at how fluently ideas arrived for a a story that had been stuck for a while at the ‘vague inspiration’ stage.

Drawing with writing on reverse
My ‘blind mono’ drawing

Philip and Patricia suggested this effect may be to do with a physical openness, a loosening up that transfers itself from the physical process of drawing to the more static, hunched-over business of writing. Perhaps it’s as simple as using movement to shake the ideas loose, in the same way that going for a walk can unstick you creatively. And I’m not sure how it would work with writers who haven’t drawn since school, who might well have negative preconceptions about their ability to draw ‘well’. But – even though I’m quite pleased with my blind mono – this isn’t about drawing well: what I learned was that you have to let go of the idea of making a good picture, to make good writing.

Music to write books by

Apparently mild ambient noise can encourage creativity. This rings true for me: swapping my study or the quiet floor of the library for a  coffee-shop often lifts me into a writing zone. I’ve always thought it’s something to do with forgetting your self; sometimes silence is too self-conscious.

Rainy Day Cafe is a great alternative to spending a fortune on Americanos, and less likely to result in caffeine jitters. And music can work too – but it has to be the right music, which for me means no words, or words that are deeply buried in the music, or words in a foreign language. I’ve started a playlist of my favourite music to write by, and the idea is to add to it till I have a whole day of inspiration. So to start off,  Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (any of their soundtrack compositions work for me, but White Lunar brings together some of their best stuff, and is a great place to start listening); then, developing the Warren Ellis theme, a Dirty Three track from Whatever You Love, You Are.

Five reasons to be a writer-teacher

At a workshop last week I asked some of my creative writing students what they hoped to gain from their studies. You might think the answer would be obvious: I’d like to be a professional, published author. But interestingly, only one of a dozen students told me this was her goal, and the range of other reasons was much more wider than you might expect. They were learning variously for pleasure; to be able to use the skills of creative writing to enliven their academic or educational writing; to write a family history; to record their own lives for future generations; to try something new.

This diversity of ambition tends not to be considered in the conversation about whether or not creative writing can be taught. (As an ex-art student, I find it genuinely baffling that this is even a question when no-one seriously suggests that drawing, painting etc. might be unteachable; my favourite contribution to the debate comes from author Tim Clare: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick.)

Anyway, this made me consider the question from my own perspective: what do I hope to gain from teaching creative writing? The obvious answer is an income, and that’s certainly a factor. But in five years of teaching all different kinds of learners, at all levels, I’ve found there are other benefits, too.

1) It makes you a more thoughtful writer. When I began teaching creative writing, I had to become much more consciously aware of the techniques and strategies I was using in my own work so I could explain and illustrate them to others. This increased self-awareness is like switching on the light so you can see what’s in your tool-kit. There are still times when I find myself fumbling around in the dark – and a bit of fumbling has its place – but once you’ve got electricity, it’s hard to imagine how you ever built a whole house by candlelight.

2) It unsticks you. Just occasionally during a conversation with a student, a lightbulb appears above my head as I realise the solution I’m suggesting to them is the very thing I need to apply to my own work-in-progress. One story had been perplexing me  for years; then I had the lightbulb moment – to do with organising time – and it was finished that afternoon. And that solution worked for the student, too.

3) It makes you raise your game. When you realise how very many people there are out there who are talented writers bursting with inventive ideas, that’s a great incentive to work harder at developing your own skills – as well as a reminder that talent and inventiveness often need a third, less glamorous friend: persistence.

4) It gets you out of the house. Most of my days are spent reading, writing, thinking, procrastinating, going for walks and making tea – alone. I like alone, but I also like to be reminded from time to time that other people exist; that I exist. Teaching, especially with really varied groups, allows me to meet new people – to connect with the world outside my head.

5) It pays. Because unless you’re happy living in that garret, you’re going to need a day-job.