Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Magical Thinking and Creativity

Sometimes my friends spark ideas for blog posts, like Pat's post about magical thinking. Because I didn't want to clog his comments with my endless fonts of frustration, I skedaddled over here to talk about it.

Magical thinking is a logical fallacy: specifically a causal one, where the relationship between cause and effect becomes blurred. Common examples include the traditional belief that plants shaped like a human body part would have healing properties for that body part, thinking that speaking of the Devil invokes his presence, and thinking that writing is reliant on a muse.

Sometimes it can be difficult to write, or difficult to write well, when one is not in the right mood. I usually just work on something else - a different project, art, knitting and watching Battlestar Galactica. This is not because of some elusive muse. This is because I am cranky and, nine times out of ten, too lazy to go through thinking exercises to get into the right mood for a particular project. If you are less lazy than I, reading about Feeling Rational or How To Be Happy or The ABCs of Luminosity might give you tools to consciously take steps towards being in a mood more conducive to writing. If they don't do that, they will hopefully at least distract you: I consider rationality articles a worthwhile distraction, because they add to my knowledge base.

Another common piece of magical thinking is to trust the story. This is a mixed piece of advice. If I am sitting down with no idea in mind but an image, I can write that image, but not a story. If I start on a story, it goes nowhere and is generally awful. I have yet to encounter anyone who is able to write a story just trusting it, with no active planning on their part. On the other hand, if I have thought through what I want to happen at the end, how I want characters to interact, how things will interact, I feel like I can trust the story and just write without consulting an outline frequently (or sometimes at all). If I have thought it through, the story is my creation, and I am trusting myself to follow through on my idea.

I do not 'listen to my characters,' as I do not experience psychosis. If I am having difficulty with having a particular character do a particular thing, I sit back and take a moment to examine my characterization. Is this in line with this character's motivations? Abilities? Am I taking an unexplained and rapid shift in character? Sometimes I have misstepped in characterization, and then I go back and fix it, but it is a matter of recognizing it as a flaw in the writing, not as making imaginary people do what they don't want to do. There is frequent talk of characters and having them live in ones head, but I really don't like that, because of my next point:

Creativity and mental illness are frequently conflated. There is some science to a correlation between creativity and some mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, but correlation does not imply causation. Feelings of alienation in general, which can sometimes stem from a feeling of other-ness caused by diagnosed mental illness, give people something to write about. Alienation is impetus to connect through art. But mental illness is not the only way to be alienated, and alienation is only one form of impetus. So people really need to shut the fuck up with "all writers are crazy" as their tittering justification for affected eccentricities. Not only does it otherize creative people it diminishes the import of a diagnosis, and also contributes to the proud declaration of mental illness from teenage writers who have nothing more diagnostically viable than Teen Angst. Teen writers loudly declaring their darkness of soul make it harder for teenagers actually sinking into a pit to be noticed. Cultural narratives of mental illness and creativity as synonymous are damaging, and we need to stop it. Eventually I will have a post entirely about cultural narratives, but today is not that day.

I've already written about Writing What You Know, which is not always magical thinking, but is still an aphorism frequently bandied about to limited good effect.

Another piece of magical thinking is that drugs or alcohol or otherwise altered states help with writing. Some of this can be blamed squarely on Jack Kerouac and the Beat artists. Altered states do not intrinsically help with writing or other creative efforts. The only thing they might help with is in lowering inhibitions. For example, I have been known as of a summers evening to sip Kahlua and hammer through a bunch of critique. The critique is snarky, but it goes quickly, because I don't second-guess myself. I try not to write like that, though, as I have to go around cleaning it up in the morning, which is boring.

Are there any frequent instances of magical thinking that I've missed? Let me know below.

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