Face To Face With The 2nd Step by Richard Stine
I’ve got what I think is a genius idea for a plot, some genuine, interesting characters and just over 12,000 words. Sometimes my writing voice still feels as though it’s coated with phlegm but I am making progress. I’m still way behind on the word count, however: I should be somewhere in the 25,000-30,000 range right about now. NaNoWriMo is designed in part to help writers (professionals and avocationals alike) develop the discipline and find the motivation to churn out a first draft. After all, the myth that creativity only happens during fleeting and involuntary moments of inspiration is among the first to be debunked by prolific creative writers.
I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp. ~ W. Somerset Maughum
If it’s such a struggle, you might ask, then why on earth are you doing it? Well, the paradoxical truth is that I want to. The exhilaration that I feel when I’ve written something that might be good is intoxicating. It’s similar to how I feel onstage, firing on all cylinders. My motivation is intrinsic: that is, it comes from within rather than for some external goal like the pursuit of a degree or an award or financial gain. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly wouldn’t turn down an advance from a publisher and of course there is a part of me that hopes the work will be published and bring accolades and royalties. But I don’t expect to regret the time and energy spent on the project even if it never generates any income. And so I’ve been wondering, in those moments when the temptation to tweet, or check email, or book a weekend in Mexico shatters my concentration, how strong or pure my intrinsic motivation will prove to be and how the NaNoWriMo artificial deadline affects creativity.
The goal of NaNoWriMo participants is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Some writers simply see it as an opportunity to check off an item on their Bucket List, others feel that the community atmosphere will help them stay motivated and complete a project that has been on the back burner for too long. Some hope to publish the work as is, others will refuse to allow anyone else to read a single word. My (only) writing buddy Gord McLeod sees it as an opportunity to build the block of marble from which he will carve his David over the course of the following months. This smorgasbord of motivations and goals reminds me of the work of Teresa Amabile, who studies the effects of motivation on creative output and is on faculty at Harvard Business School. Having studied and thought about the interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and creativity for decades, she will be the first to admit that the relationships are complex.
In a recent review simply titled Creativity, published in the Annual Review of Psychology, Teresa, along with Beth Hennessey at Wellesley College, sums up the latest research findings by suggesting that when people feel controlled by their situation, as is the case in many workplace environments, rewards for creativity undermine intrinsic motivation and paradoxically, suppress creative output. For example, if employees are asked to create posters and are told that the person who comes up with the best one will get a monetary bonus, research suggests that the final products will be less creative than if the bonus comes as a surprise, rather than an expectation. When intrinsic motivation is already strong, however, rewards can further enhance it and lead to more creative output. Specifically, when rewards confirm competence or provide support in the form of a manager’s kind words or extra resources, creativity flourishes.
So the bottom line seems to be that intrinsic motivation is necessary, but not sufficient, for creative output. And extrinsic rewards can be helpful, so long as they don’t destroy the sense that we are being creative just because we want to. Those NaNoWriMo guys are on to something, but as Beverly Sills has said, there are no shortcuts to any place worth going. And that’s enough procrastination for Day 18.
When we were shooting the episode of Miracle Detectives that deals with the story of 9/11, I came across this statement by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center:
'The World Trade Center should,' Yamasaki said, 'because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness.'
I’m not the first to point out how eerie it is that his vision has become reality as a result of unimaginable horror. My scientific career has been built on the study of autobiographical memory: how we remember our past and how our memories of our experiences shape our identity, our imagination, our decisions and ultimately, our future. But even if I had chosen a different topic, I suspect that I would still have been struck by the central place that remembering occupies in the landscape of the aftermath of the terror attacks.
We interviewed many people while we were preparing for and shooting the episode; survivors, first-responders, grieving family members, health-care practitioners treating victims and their families, writers and artists. Time and time again, I was struck by how important it was to the first responders and survivors in particular, to tell their stories. Even now, on Twitter, the vast majority of the conversation is dominated by reminiscences. Faced with random acts of violence, our notion that life is fair and just was turned on its head. As we try to make sense of what happened, we rearrange our worldview to accommodate this new information.
Faced with evidence that humans can cause such destruction, we swing the pendulum in the opposite direction: we become selfless, generous, kind and creative. In a city notorious for its ruthlessness, the citizens of New York, in particular, outdid one another with random acts of kindness and sacrifice. All over the city, the stories are being told, in pictures, in words and in acts. We are reshaping our memories and creating new ones with the same objective: to connect with those who were lost and with those who remain. Our experiencing selves panicked, despaired, fought but our remembering selves have the power to console, create and rebuild.
There are countless events today to choose from, but I chose to participate in Music After because my dear friend Danny Felsenfeld, a Brooklyn-based composer, along with his friend Eleonor Sandresky, are emphasizing the creative output triggered by 9/11. Losing so many different people in one day is a blow to the community. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 includes a refocusing on the importance and power of communities and connections between people. This concert, free to anyone who wants to come and listen, is one example. Meetup, a site that was created by New Yorkers in response to 9/11, and now has 9 million monthly visitors in 45,000 cities, is another. My heart goes out to all those who experienced loss first-hand a decade ago, and my performance today is my humble gift to this great city. May it never sleep.
I have come to believe
that defining creativity in one comprehensive sound
byte is at best unnecessary and at worst potentially
harmful, if we ever want to truly understand it. What
if we applied that same strict criteria to an equally
complicated cognitive construct, such as memory? I
often use the following definition of memory when
asked to provide one, which is both unsatisfactory
and strictly true: the change in behavior that comes
with experience. I have developed muscle memories for
singing after 15+ years of training and my behavior
has changed as a result of that experience. I have a
long autobiography of vivid events that I can summon
at will to affect my current actions. My experience
of the visual realm affects the way that I interpret
what I see today. Although accurate, the definition
glosses over the very aspect of memory that piques
the curiosity of most people who want to discuss the
topic: the fact that we can search through a vast
repository of information that we gathered over a
lifetime and use it to our advantage. How it works is
much more interesting than what it is.
The very same is true for creativity. Creativity, like memory, is a collection of many processes and behaviors, with many different motivators and mechanisms. Like the study of memory, the study of creativity would also benefit greatly by a shift away from definition and towards understanding how it works under different circumstances. We talk about the differences between memory for events and motor skills or habits. In the same way, we should talk about the differences between creativity in writing and creativity in dance.
Often, when I’m not doing a particularly good job of sharing my enthusiasm for science and instead am caught up in academic jargon or the minutiae of some esoteric argument, I see the eyes of my conversation partner glaze over with boredom. It always surprises me because I’m clearly interested in what I’m talking about. But then I remember that what fascinates me is not what I know, but, rather, what I don’t know. Delving more deeply into a topic as wide-reaching and humanistic as creativity only raises more questions. And that is what drives interest. We flock towards the mysterious, towards things that we can’t seem to explain because curiosity leads to knowledge which leads to better decisions and, dare I say, the reproduction of those genes that underlie curiosity (for a paper on a potential curiosity gene, you can read about great tits, though not the kind you’re thinking of, unfortunately).
We hate boredom: it’s a highly uncomfortable state, as evidenced by our knee-jerk reaction to pick up a smartphone or even look out the window. And we love information: twitter thrives because it promises a never-ending stream of information about our world and its co-inhabitants. The bigger the mystery, the more surprising the cliff-hanger, the more complex the visual scene, the more interested we remain. Provided, of course, that there is some pattern or some hint of a pattern that suggests it’s not completely random. Because randomness is unpredictable and therefore useless information. Creativity, that new interpretation of ourselves and our world, is arguably our most powerful instinct. Only by understanding how it works can we ever hope to understand what it is.
Creativity is a slippery process: first, you have to gather all the necessary information and skills, second, you try to combine what you know or can do in a new way, then you generally need to step away from the problem or task and let it simmer for a bit, and finally, the new idea or way of expressing yourself seems to ‘pop’ into your mind. That third stage is called the incubation period. Understanding exactly what’s going on during that incubation period is arguably he Holy Grail in the study of creativity.
This week I came across two interesting studies of incubation that were published within a few months of each other in 2009. Sio and Ormerod reviewed a number of empirical studies of incubation in the journal Psychological Bulletin and found that when someone needs to consider a large amount of information to come up with a creative solution, the incubation period is particularly important. When the problem is visual rather than language-based, incubation is only effective if the person has undergone a long preparation period and has hit a creative block.
Denise Cai in Sarah Mednick’s lab at UCSD wondered whether dreaming, or rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, when our brain is busy consolidating what we’ve learned while we were awake, might be the critical component in incubation. She had her subjects take Mednick’s Remote Associates Test (RAT), a commonly used test of creativity, in which the goal is to figure out how three items are related (e.g. cookies, sixteen, heart - once you’ve had a chance to think about it, scroll down to see the answer below) and then she randomly assigned them to one of two conditions: full-on napping (measured by a polysomograph) or resting quietly while listening to instrumental music. Turns out that napping did, in fact, improve performance significantly more than rest when they were tested again on the RAT in the afternoon.
How important REM sleep is for memory consolidation remains fairly controversial, but there’s no question that sleep affects memory, especially the deepest sleep, called slow-wave sleep. Many professional classical musicians take a nap in the afternoon: napping helps their bodies recover from a long morning practice session and prepare for an evening concert but it’s also likely that their brains are consolidating the motor sequences that they have been learning while their conscious minds are at rest.
Whatever the relationship might be between sleep, memory consolidation and creativity, one thing is clear: there is something still magical about incubation. This weekend, my dreams were filled with waterfalls and butterflies, and new ideas are bubbling in my brain. It will be a while before I underestimate the importance of taking time off again. Oh and the answer to the RAT item above is sweet. Literally.