Creative Minds At Work

This month we published The Creative Writer’s Mind by Nigel Krauth. In this post the author discusses the ways in which writers do their thinking and uses science to help us understand how they do it.

The news in early April told us that two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks, stolen 22 years ago, had been returned to the Cambridge University Library in an anonymous gift bag. A photograph showed a page from one of the notebooks. On it was a sketch depicting Darwin’s early thinking about the evolutionary Tree of Life – an array of straight lines comprising a central stem with twiggy branches leading off – done in ink.

The diagrammatic Tree of Life captured everyone’s attention in this news item. But for me, the focus of the notebook page lay in two words Darwin wrote above the diagram to introduce it:

‘I think’.

With these words Darwin revealed how his mind worked. He thought in pictorial, conceptual terms. He made images in his thinking, and he transferred them to the page. His great discovery was done with both visualisation and verbalisation as key aspects of the process.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is recognised now as a creative masterpiece. And in Darwin’s notebooks we can see ways in which scientists and creative writers come together. They meet at the point where minds operate creatively – where neural pathways are forged in innovative ways, and original ideas take shape.

I used creative writing notebooks to map out plans for my novels. Often my mind produced tree-structured diagrams to assist in understanding where I thought my plot would go, how a character might develop, and how the narrative structure would reflect the ultimate concerns of the fiction.

None of my notebook pages led to anything near as stellar as Darwin’s final product. But I take consolation from knowing that the workings of Darwin’s mind were just like those of ordinary people. His rough sketch shows how mortally marvellous the man was. And in the face of immense cultural opposition, he humbly asserted: ‘I think’.

In my new book The Creative Writer’s Mind, I delve into the ways writers do their thinking, and I use science to help understand how they do it. I engage with cognitive psychology, neuroscience, literary studies and creative writing research, to map what goes on in writers’ heads when they write.

Like any creative writer, I have used my mind extensively in producing the novels, short stories, plays, memoir pieces and poems that make up the body of my work. My mind provides me with the basic equipment for creative writing production: an internal screen on which I preview settings and action; an inner sound stage where I hear character voices; an internal whiteboard where I configure plot and character arcs; and a personal mixing board where I try out routines of word choice, rhythm, figurative language, dramatic effects, and the particular array of sensibilities that typify my work. Additionally, there is an archive workspace called memory where I access re-runs of settings, action, conversations, and the plethora of sensory events I have experienced previously in my life.

I do not claim that exploring my own mind in The Creative Writer’s Mind is something new for a creative writer to do. Many through the ages have produced acclaimed poetry, fiction, drama, and exegetical writing by conscious investigation of their thinking and imagination. But I do claim, in the academic context of the book’s research, that my adventure sets out to do something new in a sustained way: to study not only the products generated in this personal production studio of the mind, but also the studio itself.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Discovering Creative Writing by Graeme Harper.

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