Saturday, November 17

The Nature of Creativity: Science And Writing: Don't Edit Yourself

The Nature of Creativity: Science And Writing: Don't Edit Yourself

Sometimes characters refuse to do what you want. You finish your outline, complete with a heartwarming theme and everything looks great. Then you sit down to write and ... Nothing. Your characters refuse to cooperate almost as though they had wills of their own. Damn them.

Other times it's as though your characters are acting in a play you didn't write. They do wonderful and interesting things, unexpected things. All you have to do is write down the story unfolding in your mind.

I've had both these experiences, as I'm sure you have, and we all prefer the second type. Especially during NaNoWriMo when we don't have a lot of time to coax characters to play nice.

The point is ... yes, there is one! ... that our characters often behave, for better or worse, as though they have a will of their own.

Science Is Beginning To Understand Creative Processes

Recently Science has shed some light on this phenomenon and, in the process, revealed two things I believe are of special interest to writers:

1) When characters act as though they have wills of their own, they kinda do.

2) All things being equal, it's probably better to pants your first draft.

Let's take each of these in turn:

1) Pants Your First Draft

Neuroscientists Siyuan Liu and Allen Braun recently put rappers inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine and asked them to freestyle. (That's one sentence I never thought I'd write!) Why? Because they're trying to understand the creative process.

Specifically, Liu and Braun were wondering whether the areas of the brain which regulate its own activity would be MORE active or LESS active when a subject was engaged in creative pursuits. It turns out they're less active, far less active.

What does that mean? Braun says, “We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity.” [1]

In other words, stepping back, being uncritical--just letting it happen--is what creativity is all about.

What does this mean for writers? All things considered, try to pants your first draft. 

You can still have an outline, but don't let it get in the way of your creative flow. Just let it happen. If you have to throw out your outline, do it! After your first draft is done, or even after you've finished writing for the day, you can go back to your outline and adjust it as needed.

2) Your Characters REALLY DO Have Wills Of Their Own ... At Least It Seems That way

Liu and Braun think that decreased activity in certain areas of the brain, those involved in self-regulation, could explain why artists sometimes have the sensation of their performance having “occurred outside of conscious awareness”. For instance, those rare times when it seems your story is unfolding of its own accord and all you have to do is write it down.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if science could give us tips on how to make this happen more often?

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NaNoWriMo Update: I have 31,010 words and am shooting to get up to 33k tonight. I'm starting to feel we're nearing the end. Yea!! :-)

Other articles you might like:

- Pixar Luminary Andrew Stanton's TED Talk: Make Your Reader Care
- Time Management For Writers: Nanny For Chrome
- Tucker Max's Advice: Become Your Own Publisher And Triple Your Royalties


1) Brain Scans of Rappers Shed Light on Creativity, Daniel Cressey and Nature magazine. Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for a link to this article.

Photo credit: "shadows on the wall" by AlicePopkorn under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Very interesting. The rapper thing was on TED Talks not so long ago.

    1. Ah! Thanks for mentioning that Terri! And thank you for your comment. :)

  2. Fascinating post, Karen! I'm actually researching creativity at the moment, so I'll definitely check out this article!

    It's comforting to know that it may not be writers just being imagining it or making it up when their characters act seemingly of their own accord or their stories "write themselves." And if we can understand a bit about creativity and how to enhance it, it makes our lives as writers that little bit easier! :D

    1. Creativity is such an interesting subject; so elusive.

      One of my favorite talks on the subject of creativity--what it is and how to become more creative--was given by John Cleese. Predictably, it was terribly funny, but useful too.

      Thanks for your comment, Skye. All the best in your research. :-)


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