Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Transplants: What Is Creativity?

The act of artistic creation has puzzled artists and philosophers for centuries. The Ancient Greeks even invented an entire branch of deities to explain it: the Muses. Where does creativity come from?  Is creativity a mental process, or does it spring from the unfathomable well of inspiration? Or does it come from something else entirely? To misquote Shakespeare, “Where is creativity bred, or in the heart or in the head? How begot? How nourished?”

Jungians ascribe creativity to the “collective unconscious” – that vast sea of socio-psychological quasi-consciousness shared by all of humanity. According to Jung, this is the place where all thought originates. Anthropologists would call this “culture” −− a largely unquestioned set of shared values, beliefs, and norms formed by variety of social factors. Mystics of various stripes would call the act of creation “divine,” inspired by otherworldly forces −− gods, deities or, perhaps, demons.

The first short story I ever wrote was probably the result of  brain damage.  

Normally, when I am writing fiction, I “see” a scene. I play it in my head like a movie until it reaches a stopping point. Then it’s merely a matter of describing what I “saw.” When the next scene appears, sometimes in a dream, sometimes while I am driving or in the shower (water is wonderful for getting the creative juices to flow), I repeat the process. Fiction, which relies on imagining, is bred in my heart. 

Nonfiction requires an entirely different process. It relies on thinking. As I ponder what I want to say, phrases pop into my head. When they begin to form sentences, I start to write them down, and as I am writing, a logical sequence of thought presents itself. Nonfiction, which is a product of structured thought, is bred in my head.

But once – and only once – those two processes merged. Instead of envisioning a scene, I saw the words, literally. I woke up one morning, and in my head I saw words on a page, as if I were reading. And I didn’t just see a few words, there were whole pages. I felt a sudden compulsion to write the words down, so I got up, went to the computer, and started typing. Seventeen pages later I had “transcribed” a complete short story. It was my first work of fiction, and it left me utterly drained. It was as if I had been possessed by a demon.

At the time, I was suffering from a severe case of myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known by the absurdly inappropriate misnomer, “chronic fatigue syndrome”). ME is a neurological disease that in its severe form can be life-threatening. My case was nearly fatal. For six weeks, I had been in a hospital, where the doctors could do nothing to stop the dramatic weight loss that was killing me. Nor could they relieve the constant burning pain that made every moment unbearable. The doctors informed my mother that I was dying. She took me home, an emaciated remnant of my former self, to die in my own bed. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t die. But that’s another story.)

In this state of extremis, it is perfectly plausible that my brain’s language centers, which separately process written and verbal language, “shorted out.” (This is a gross over-simplification of how the brain processes language, but "crossed circuitry" will do nicely as a metaphor.) Instead of using my visual circuits to imagine scenes, which could then be translated into language, my brain simply transformed the act of visual imagining directly into words.

I have never repeated that creative experience, for which I am grateful. (Being possessed is not as much fun as it’s cracked up to be.) And once I had recovered from it, I was a little embarrassed by what I had written−−after all, I hadn’t composed it, some brain glitch had. So, I put the story away and didn’t make an effort to get it published. Then, a few weeks ago, a writing contest held by Backchannels caught my attention. And because I had recently won first place in the Tell Your Story writing contest for my South American memoir excerpt, “They Will Try to Kill You", I was feeling cocky. So, I entered “Transplants,” my first story, now considerably shorter than its original seventeen pages. "Transplants" didn’t win, but the editors decided to publish it anyway in their contest edition.

Why am I telling you this long story about a short story? My point is that regardless of how we create− whether the source is mystical, cultural, or the product of a neurological glitch, the origins of creativity will probably always remain a mystery. Even when we dissect the process of writing, and try to expose the inner mechanisms of creation (or its pathogenesis), we will never truly grasp the driving force that compels us to assign words to our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. No matter how we approach the process of writing, it is the compulsion to write that makes us writers.

We can't resist it.

You can read Transplants HERE.

You can read They Will Try to Kill You HERE.

(Image: Antonio Mora "En Las Nubes")


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