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26 July 2009

The Eureka Experience

The creative process fascinates me for reasons both personal and scientific. In a few weeks I will be making lots of noise about my newest book. Today I want to concentrate on the writing itself and when the creative process works and when it fails and fails miserably.

From the beginning the book was a challenge. I was so worried I would miss my deadline (yet again) that I started writing before I knew the characters. The result was a book that needed much editorial help and a long revision. The whole process was such a challenge that I had one of those "When this is done I quit" moments. Since I am well into the next book I can assure that feeling did pass. By the time I wrote the last chapter I was delighted with STRANGER'S KISS and can't wait to share it with readers.

With that miserable experience and almost failure in mind, I decided that I would not start the next book until I KNEW my characters. There followed six weeks filled with all kinds of work related to writing plus reading, ironing, gardening. Deep down I worried that I was wasting time.

At week four, when I was about to cave and start something -- anything -- I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal. The headline read "A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight." I am going to quote from the article because I want to get it right and I think you might find it as reassuring as I did.

Did you know we spend "about a third of our time day-dreaming?" The good side of all that "wasted" time is that "our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments." (If there are any blog readers still in school -- print out the article and give it to your teacher the next time he/she tells you to "Stop daydreaming!"

Remind your teacher that Sir Issac Newton was sitting in an orchard "daydreaming" when he saw an apple fall and according to the WSJ velcro, post-it notes and ice cream cones struck the inventors in what WSJ Science Journal columnist Robert Lee Holtz calls "Eureka moments"

Thanks to a recent study researchers have been able to "document the brain's behavior during Eureka moments by recording brain wave patterns and imaging the neural circuits that become active as volunteers struggle to solve anagrams, riddles and other brain teasers."

This is what they found -- that you need more than methodical thinking to solve some problems. "Solving a problem with insight is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically". Personally, I can't decide if this is stating the obvious or not, but it is such a validation of my six weeks "off" that I cannot resist sharing it.

How many time have you stepped away from a crossword puzzle and when you come back the answers have moved to the front of your consciousness? How many times have gone for a walk and come back with the answer to a plot issue?

There is another intriguing fact that scientists discovered as they explored the way the brain transmits these eureka moments. In two different studies of brain wave patterns, the testing scientists discovered that the brain apparently knows the answer for a period of time before "the volunteer experienced the insight." This is not news to me. At some point in the process of writing a book, I know what the last scene will be and write it. That final scene written is a message to my conscious self that my subconscious knows the story to the end, well before I am aware of it. Now I have a scientific way of explaining something I figured out instinctively several books ago.

In fact this article is one more way to look at the creative process. Neuroscientist Dr Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia had the last word in the article: "We often assume that if we don't notice our thoughts they don't exist,when we don't notice them is when we may be thinking most creatively."

To which I respond, I knew that.....Take a minute and share your creative process (even if you're not a writer) and your favorite "eureka moment."

20 Comments:

Anonymous MJ said...

Fascinating article! Here's the link:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124535297048828601.html

7:13 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks MJ. The Wall Street Journal has some fascinating non-financial articles. Last week there was on the Queen's swans....

8:42 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This makes so much sense to me, Mary, and goes a long way to explaining my long pauses between books. Moreover, it explains why, when I talk about a solution to a plot or character that's been bugging me, I always announce it as though I knew the answer all the time.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I'm on the third major rewrite of a manuscript because I started too soon. Normally my ideas stew on my mental backburner for a year or two before I start writing them. But in this case I wanted to take my writing in a new direction, so I went with an idea I'd had just a few months previously, thinking I could push the stewing process along. Instead, I wrote almost a whole draft before I realized I had the wrong protagonist, and that three of my major characters weren't working at all.

So I wrote my second major draft during NaNoWriMo last year, confident that I at least had the protagonists, but not quite as secure in my antagonists.

That draft gave me a good beginning and ending, and I like the relationship between my protagonist and his best friend. But as I looked at the plot, I realized the only way it made sense was if my principal antagonist was very evil and kinda stupid. Unfortunately, he's supposed to be extremely intelligent and more ambitious and ruthless than evil-evil, so I had to rebuild just about everything between the first and last chapters to work with an intelligent antagonist rather than an over-the-top villain.

This process has taken two years, and I think I'm finally approaching a good first draft.

As for eureka moments, I have a lot of them in the shower and quite a few during second service on choir Sundays. Our church choir sings on alternate Sundays, and we stay through two identical services. During the first, I listen, but during the second I only pay enough attention to know when the next song is coming. So those daydream times definitely work for me!

9:33 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks Pam -- I know *I* always feel better when there is some kind of explanation for the way my creative process works. I think I am becoming more of a plotter than an organic writer -- how about you?

Susan -- I feel such sympathy for you! Persevere and all will reveal itself. Love the choir as a sight for aha moments. I have quite a few in church too -- the quiet helps, I'm sure.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

Thanks, Mary! I'm glad I'm not the only one who has aha moments in church. It's a little embarrassing how often when I'm supposed to be praying or reflecting or listening to the sermon, I'm actually thinking, "What if they escape by BOAT?" or "Yeah, my critique partners are right. Sally doesn't serve a story purpose, so I need to cut her from the next draft," or whatever.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

i like to think they are divinely inspired ideas, Susan. Look at it like this -- have they ever been wrong?

11:33 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, I love this post! I tend to spend a lot of time "day dreaming" and always feel guilty about it, except I keep telling myself that I'm allowing the characters to take shape in my imagination and envision scenes in my heads. I just finished several weeks of extensive historical research for a novel I hope to sell. During a 17-day cross-country motorcycle trip with my husband, when we weren't sightseeing I spent most of the daylight hours sitting behind him with only my imagination (and, okay, the ipod) for company as we rode across America through untold deserts, salt flats, and state after state of cornfields. So there came a point every day when my imagination was no longer competing with the scenery.

Although I despaired of not getting all the work done that I had brought on the trip (probably 5 pounds worth of handwritten notes and photocopied pages of research) and worried that I would be horribly behind schedule when I got home, I kept telling myself that actually I was working, that I was letting all the research I'd done settle into my brain and begin to metamorphose into the shape of a novel.

After we got back to Manhattan last week, I wrote the book proposal in 2 days, then took another 2 to revise it. I emailed it to my agent last night and she replied that it just may be the best thing I've ever written and couldn't wait to send it off to my editor.

So ... I guess all that "doing nothing" and "day dreaming" paid off. Keep your fingers crossed for me that the synopsized fruits of my imagination turn into a sale.

Here's another anecdote about a friend of mine who is a playwright. A journalist came to interview her while she was at a writers' retreat. The dramatist was lying on her bed, ostensibly staring at the ceiling. "Why aren't you working?" asked the puzzled journalist. "I am working," the playwright replied.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Amanda I love that line -- I can't count how many time I've told my husband that "I'm working with my eyes closed" --

Did you cross Kansas on your motorcycle trip? Talk about lots and lots of corn! Once on a trip back from skiing our family spontaneously broke into cheers when we crossed the state line and finally reached Missouri, which in those days, was home.

Get your daydream validation here! Read one blog post and Amanda's response and it's yours to believe in!

Keep us posted on the progress of your proposal Amanda.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Great post, Mary. I am SO glad to know that I am not the only one who lets things stew for a bit before putting them on paper. Of course my coworkers laugh at me because I always have a pocket full of notecards at work. Things come to me about my stories and I am always afraid I will forget them so I write them down. It is so true that if you stop consciously thinking about something a solution will slowly wind its way to the front of your brain, tap you on the shoulder and say "Excuse me. Is this what you were looking for?" I LOVE moments like that!

5:32 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I was hoping this would be a public service to all writers who mull things over. I myself had a productive writing day but it was flat. I went swimming and in the middle I realized what was wrong. I love moments like that!

Louisa, how did I miss you at the RWA Conference? I saw you once as I was on my way to an appointment. We cannot let that happen again!

6:15 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

We didn't go through Kansas, Mary, but over 3 days we did go through Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Corn, corn, corn. Most of what we saw isn't for human consumption, though, except as corn syrup and ethanol. I saw some show a while back, probably on the Food Network that mentioned how corn has replaced other staples (such as all the waving wheat and amber waves of grain I expected to see) because of the prevalence of corn syrup in so many products and it pays for farmers to grow corn in preference to most other crops.

Louisa, I carry a little notebook with me in my purse all the time. It seems that I get some of my best ideas for plot points, character quirks, lines that pop into my head, while I'm riding on the bus .

6:46 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Amanda, those amber waves of grain still exist -- try the Palouse Valley near Walla Walla WA -- it was one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen --driving the interstate where, just before harvest, it looks exactly as you would imagine. If you Google Palouse and go for Google images it will give you a vague idea of the majesty of it.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I know, Mary! I can't believe I didn't see you! We had the best time last year in San Francisco with our little personal high tea! We must be sure to see each other in Nashville!

8:01 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This post is a real service, Mary. Because while it's true that romance writers are hard-working, matter-of-fact professionals about deadlines and such (which is a very good thing), there's also that hidden, unpredictable brain action going on.

We don't want to get too full of ourselves and our fancy-pants creativity. But it's certainly good to nod in that direction once in a while.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I think the "lulls" and pauses for reflection are endemic to every creative medium from invention to authoring. In addition to the woman I mentioned in one of my previous replies, I know another playwright who mulls for weeks, months, as long as it takes, until he hears every line in his head. He never writes drafts. Once the idea is fully "cooked" in his imagination, he bangs out the entire play and what he types is the way it stays.

I should think it would be odder to imagine a creative person who doesn't take time to reflect and to let the muse in, so to speak, no matter how prolific they are.

I'm always fascinated by an artist's process (well, anyone's process, whether they're a cabinet maker or an advertising copywriter).

4:41 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Exactly Amanda. The great thing about the article is that it applies to the creative process used by everyone whether the field is producing the TODAY show or finding a cure for cancer.

4:51 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Now I can even take my past anecdotes one better. Spoiler alert: for those who despair of TMI, please stop reading.

The proposal I just submitted was for an as yet untitled novel and not having a great grabby title was driving me nuts. I've been thinking about it for weeks with no success. However, during my bikini wax this morning I was staring at the pretty moldings and the plaster bas-reliefs of cherubs, flowers, and vines on the ceiling, (the salon is in a townhouse that once belonged to someone rich and famous several decades ago) and -- perhaps because the designs reminded me of a ceiling my heroine would have seen, or perhaps because I needed to distract my mind from the pain -- (or a bit of both), the title came to me like gangbusters.

On the bus enroute to the salon I came up with something; but I realized that it wasn't quite there. And I'm one of those authors who, even when the book hasn't yet sold, has to have the title in order to have a clearer sense of the novel as a whole.

Then, eureka! I have been wanting the title to be a single word with a double edge. And then, in the most unlikely of places (or maybe not; I bet Pam would have some marvelously erudite comment about connecting it to our deepest and most primal place of creativity), it came to me!

8:27 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post! Sorry to be chiming in late again-=I'm at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Speaking of time to let one's mind wander creatively. The writer friend I'm here with, Penny Williamson, and I have great discussion over brunch and drinks and dinner inspired by the plays we're seeing.

I frequently resolve plot problems while driving or vacuuming. And I also find that the more advance thinking I put into my plot and characters, the less I usually end up having to revise.

12:51 PM  

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