Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

18 OCTOBER, 2013

Ray Bradbury on How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity

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How to feel your way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of your skull.

Susan Sontag argued that lists confer value and guarantee our existence. Umberto Eco saw in them “the origin of culture.” But lists, it turns out, might be a remarkably potent tool for jostling the muse into manifesting — a powerful trigger for that stage of unconscious processing so central to the creative process, where our mind-wandering makes magic happen.

In Zen in the Art of Writing (public library), one of these ten essential books on writing, Ray Bradbury describes an unusual creative prompt he employed in his early twenties: He began making long lists of nouns as triggers for ideas and potential titles for stories:

These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.

The lists ran something like this:

THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.

Bradbury would later come to articulate his conviction that the intuitive mind is what drives great writing, but it was through these lists that he intuited the vital pattern-recognition machinery that fuels creativity. Echoing Einstein’s notion of “combinatory play,” Bradbury considers the true value of his list-making:

I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

So he went on making lists, hoping they’d spark these fruitful associations that the rational mind tucks away in the cabinets of “useless knowledge”:

THE MEADOW. THE TOY CHEST. THE MONSTER. TYRANNOSAURUS REX. THE TOWN CLOCK. THE OLD MAN. THE OLD WOMAN. THE TELEPHONE. THE SIDEWALKS. THE COFFIN. THE ELECTRIC CHAIR. THE MAGICIAN.

Out on the margin of these nouns, I blundered into a science fiction story that was not a science-fiction story. My title was “R is for Rocket.” The published title was “King of the Grey Spaces,” the story of two boys, great friends, one elected to go off to the Space Academy, the other staying home.

Bradbury, who has since shared timeless wisdom on withstanding the storm of rejection, recalls:

The tale was rejected by every science-fiction magazine because, after all, it was only a story about friendship being tested by circumstance, even though the circumstance was space travel. Mary Gnaedinger, at Famous Fantastic Mysteries, took one look at my story and published it. But, again, I was too young to see that “R is For Rocket” would be the kind of story that would make me as a science-fiction writer, admired by some, and criticized by many who observed that I was no writer of science fictions, I was a “people” writer, and to hell with that!

I went on making lists, having to do not only with night, nightmares, darkness, and objects in attics, but the toys that men play with in space, and the ideas I found in detective magazines.

Susan Sontag's list of her favorite things, illustrated. Click image for details.

But more than merely sharing the amusing story of his youth’s quirky habit, Bradbury believes this practice can be enormously beneficial for any writer, both practicing and aspiring, as a critical tool of self-discovery:

If you are a writer, or hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.

He offers himself as a testament:

I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.

Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, “That’s me”; or, “That’s an idea I like!” And the character would then finish the tale for me.

It began to be obvious that I was learning from my lists of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone, if I gave them their heads, which is to say, their fantasies, their frights.

He urges the aspiring writer:

Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness … speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page…

Shortly before his death, Bradbury speaks to his official biographer, Sam Weller — who also conducted Bradbury’s lost Comic Con interview — and revisits the subject of list-making in a Paris Review interview:

Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.

(That’s exactly what Roland Barthes did in 1977, to a delightful effect.)

Zen in the Art of Writing remains a must-read in its entirety, and a fine addition to the collected advice of great writers. Complement it with Bradbury on writing with joy and this fantastic 1974 documentary on his fantastical mind.

For more wisdom on writing, see Stephen King on the art of “creative sleep,” Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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17 OCTOBER, 2013

The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth

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“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.”

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,” William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit, ”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.” As we’ve seen, one of the most insidious forms of such habitual autopilot — which evolved to help lighten our cognitive load yet is a double-edged sword that can also hurt us — is our mercilessly selective everyday attention, but the phenomenon is particularly perilous when it comes to learning new skills. In a chapter of Maximize Your Potential (public library) — that fantastic guide to making your own luck, the sequel to 99U’s blueprint to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine — science writer Joshua Foer explores the mechanisms that keep us from improving and the strategies we can use to disarm them. He sketches out the problem:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.

And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” — the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.

Color restoration of archival Einstein photograph by Mads Madsen

The challenge, of course, is that we can’t get better on autopilot. Fortunately, psychologists have found a number of strategies to help us overcome this stagnation by overriding our auto-mode — and it turns out the benefits of reflective failure and the art of making mistakes play a key role, something to which J. K. Rowling has attested. Foer writes:

Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.

Foer first bumped up against the OK Plateau while working on Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (public library) — the fascinating record of his quest to dramatically improve his memory’s capacity using a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science. After spending several months learning to memorize a deck of playing cards, he rapidly plateaued, but his memory-mentor assured him this was the standard course of improvement. Intrigued, Doer dusted off the work of psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, the researchers who had discovered those three stages of skill acquisition — cognitive, associative, and autonomous. The autonomous stage in particular was what interested Foer the most:

During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the “OK Plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

Early psychologists, Foer tells us, used to believe the OK Plateau signified the upper limit of one’s innate capacity — in other words, they thought the best we can do is the best we could do. But Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson and his team of performance psychologists, who have studied the phenomenon closely, found that the single most important factor for overcoming the OK Plateau to become truly exceptional at a skill is the same thing that turned young Mozart into a genius and that drives successful authors to their rigorous routines. Foer writes:

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

And yet, Foer is careful to point out, the mere amount of practice has little to do with improvement — it is, rather, its deliberateness that drives progress. In fact, studies have shown that in areas of expertise as diverse as basketball and chess the number of years one has spent honing the respective skill correlates only weakly with the degree of mastery and level of performance. What Ericsson found, rather, is that the best way to transcend the OK Plateau and reboot the autonomous stage is to cultivate conscious control over the thing we’re practicing and, above all, to actually practice failing:

Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

Complement Maximize Your Potential and Moonwalking with Einstein, both excellent reads in their entirety, with philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to make mistakes that improve us and some of today’s most celebrated contemporary creators on how to break through your creative block.

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14 OCTOBER, 2013

The Art of “Creative Sleep”: Stephen King on Writing and Wakeful Dreaming

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“In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”

“Sleep is the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” a wise woman once said. Indeed, we already know that dreaming regulates our negative emotions and “positive constructive daydreaming” enhances our creativity, while a misaligned sleep cycle is enormously mentally crippling. But can a sleep-like state in waking life, aside from lucid dreaming, actually enrich and empower our creative capacity? According to Stephen King, yes: In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft (public library), which also gave us his case against adverbs, the celebrated novelist explores the similarity between writing and dreaming. He considers the role of a daily routine — something many famous creators use to center themselves — in inducing a state of self-mesmerism that produces the paradoxical alchemy of disciplining our minds into unleashing their unrestrained creative potential, something King calls “creative sleep”:

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule — in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk — exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.

King likens the creative process to a kind of wakeful dream state. Just like sleep shapes our every waking moment, King argues this dozing of the waking mind shapes our creative capacity by releasing our repressed imagination:

In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night — six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight — so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

Ultimately, this “creative sleep” is what allows us to cultivate our own worlds while writing — something stymied by the barrage of distractions that fill the spaces of everyday life. King offers some practical tips on warding those off in order to create the kind of still space necessary for wakeful dreaming:

The space can be humble … and it really needs only one thing: A door you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world that you mean business. . . .

If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. If you continue to write, you will begin to filter out these distractions naturally, but at the start it’s best to try and take care of them before you write. … When you write, you want to get rid of the world, don’t you? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.

King’s advice, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt: As E. B. White poignantly put it, “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” — a sentiment Charles Bukowski echoed in his fantastic poem “air and light and time and space,” titled after all the conditions whose presence or absence he thought irrelevant for the true writer, an excuse rather than a necessity.

Still, On Writing remains an indispensable trove of wisdom on the craft and a fine addition to the collected wisdom of famous writers, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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