Thursday, 28 March 2013

Lightbulb Moments: a cognitive neuroscientist talks about creativity

Anish Kapoor's mirror: a problem solved?

There is a fundamental problem with bringing people together to talk about creativity, which is that we rarely agree on what exactly it is. Personal definitions are likely to be shaped by the domain in which we are creative ourselves, or our areas of interest; start by picturing a painter, musician, writer, sportsman, or scientist, and your description of creativity or the creative process will be different for each. Whatever is happening as a violinist improvises to a chord sequence, or a poet finds a unique expression for a universal, or a scientist suddenly makes a new connection between ideas, these processes do not at first glance look the same.

Despite the talk I attended being named ‘Lightbulb Moments,’ neuroscientist Vincent Walsh said he saw creativity as a process. That in itself is not a problem, but sat uncomfortably beside his admission that current techniques in neuroscience can only examine moments in the brain. Also causing some discomfort in an audience that was clearly dominated by creative people was Walsh’s focus on sportsmen and scientists for his examples to back up his notion of creativity as a kind of problem-solving-by-experts. He settled upon the following components: years of practice and experience in a given field, the opportunity for a breakthrough, and the moment of unique problem-solving by an individual. The key example, for Walsh, was Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy to beat George Foreman in their Rumble in the Jungle. Not, perhaps, the best way into this subject for a musician or writer.

Kenan Malik, chairing, asked some excellent questions in the face of Walsh’s mix of definitions, ideas and science (he was open about his instinctive lay ideas about creativity not fitting with the science he does). For example, was Ali being creative, or just clever? We might add to this: does creativity have to be about a big breakthrough? Can’t creativity be continuous? In what sense is musical improvisation a form of problem-solving? If creativity is just a form of problem solving, are creative people better problem solvers generally?

It is possible, I think, to shoe-horn some kinds of creative practice into a problem-solving description. With writing, then, we might say that the writer continuously attempts to solve the problem of how best to express ideas, stories, or moments, in a way that achieves some other goal: emotional reach, originality, concision, or whatever.

However, many people associate imagination with creativity, which is no accident (in my non-scientific opinion). Even if an excellent writer solves the problem of verbal expression in astonishing new and original ways, they have set themselves that problem in the first place by having (a) an idea, and (b) the desire to express that idea using words. If the image, or character, or sentence, never pops into one’s head, and if the receiver of this idea has no desire to express it in a particular way, then the problem solving part never even begins. It seems to me that creativity for a writer must include all these things.

Some excellent questions came up right at the end of the talk, which Walsh did not really answer. One was about creativity in play – something we think we see children demonstrating, but many artists and even businessmen argue that play is critical to producing new ideas and solutions. Another was about group creativity – do many brains together create in a different way from one; can they do better; and in such a setting, can creativity become contagious?

These are exactly the kinds of fascinating subjects that unfortunately Walsh’s cognitive science lab is not equipped to address, limiting experiments to word association tests whilst stimulating various parts of the human brain. It would have been great to have a panel for this talk, made up of other kinds of experts on creativity alongside a neuroscientist. Even with Malik’s excellent interjections, it rather felt as though Vincent Walsh was getting away with narrowing creativity down to fit his own evident interests: science and sport.

Having said that, Walsh produced some interesting insights into the importance of downtime to the creative process, be that a nap, a change of activity, or simply allowing time to pass. These are the times when, instead of neural connections being reinforced, new ones can be forged. The next time you get the answer to a crossword clue halfway through washing up, that is what is happening. So for writers, the message is: don’t work too hard, take a rest! Though it doesn’t have to be by doing the dishes.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Authenticity, dialect and voice in fiction

How do we frame a world to make it authentic?

Authenticity has been a concept riding high in the zeitgeist of late, touching upon aspects of life from food to the self. Authenticity in fiction may seem like an awkward idea. If it’s all made up, or is even – as some people like to put it – just lies, surely authenticity is irrelevant?

I think it is relevant in various ways. I once debated long with David Constantine on the right of an author to write about places, events or people. He took the view that unless an individual was sufficiently close to, say, experiencing world war two, either through personal experience or absorbing enough report from someone who did experience, it, they had no right to fictionalise it. This causes problems for any writer hoping to transport readers to places they have not been themselves, not to mention the implications for anyone writing fantasy or fiction with elements of the impossible.

Another type of authenticity in fiction is that of voice, or dialect. Can a born and bred southerner effectively create, for example, Northumbrian voices on the page? Should they even try, according to Constantine’s stance? Whatever the answers to those questions, there is something powerful about a voice in fiction that feels authentic to the reader, and sustains that feeling. One of my favourite examples is the act of ventriloquism achieved by Peter Carey in True History of the Kelly Gang (see John Kinsella’s commentary on it here). I was gripped by Ned Kelly’s voice throughout, and when I found Kelly’s original letters online, which Carey had used to create the style of the novel, it sent shivers through me.

Original and authentic voices can be conjured by rhythm as much as dialect. Examples abound amongst Irish writers; my mother, a keen observer of narrative techniques, is fascinated by the cadences of Sebastian Barry’s The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, which, even for a reader who cannot do a passable Irish accent, magic up a voice that colours one’s reading of the whole book. These touches can be subtle. I read the story ‘Shovel Kings’ from Edna O’Brien’s collection Saints and Sinners this week, and even the addition of a definite article here and there where we would not use one in English speech kept me alongside the immigrant Irish labourer as he reminisced with the narrator.

The story that got me thinking about all this was another I read this week: ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ from Sarah Hall’s insanely good collection The Beautiful Indifference. The writing and the subjects in this book are so wonderful you should read it anyway, but that story seduced me in particular because of the flecks of language throughout that I could never produce myself.

Sarah Hall was born in Cumbria, which perhaps provides her with the vocabulary (as well as the right to use it), but the way she uses it is in itself a wonder, adding an extra dimension to the sinister feel of the story. Threatening another girl, the terrifying teenage Manda says, “You’re a lajful little tuss.” Manda’s eyes ‘were what my granddad would have called ower glisky – bright after the rain;’ her father calls his son a ‘goodfernobbut twat,’ a ‘runty mutt.’ These terms evoke otherness, perhaps enhancing the sinister but also adding a strange kind of glamour to the violent gypsy family to whom the narrator is in thrall. But most of all, they evoke a real world, even as we know we are reading fiction, grounding characters in a world we feel is being given to us whole, rather than created piecemeal in our own heads.

In my own stories at the moment I am trying to create a world that is not our own, nor anybody’s, but that will have a ring of authenticity in it; much of this relies on building up a consistent rhythm and vocabulary in my characters’ speech, and in their cultural references and expressions. Margo Lanagan is one writer who achieves this in fictional fantasy worlds, through language and names, but I wonder about how much the creator of completely ‘made-up’ communities and places can learn from writers who have a direct line to unique dialects and isolated cultures. My hunch for now is: a lot.