Wednesday, March 30

Creative Writing - value to society (part 1)

On a day that the Arts Council England slashed funding for many small literature organisations, I thought I should post about how valuable creative writing can be.

The creative arts, when done well, are of course pleasurable and beneficial to both the artist and audience.  Many writers and artists, even amateur ones, benefit psychologically in terms of mood, feelings of accomplishment and self-esteem.

For this reason, the creative arts can be of great benefit to people with mental health problems. Art therapy is where people use a visual art form primarily for psychological treatment, and Chapman et al (2001) reported it to be helpful for child patients who had suffered traumatic injuries.

Writing therapy can be effective in reducing stress, improving health, increasing mood, and helping people to cope (Harber & Pennebaker, 1992).  What makes writing arguably unique among arts-based therapies is the potential of the written word to help people both communicate and re-examine aspects of their life.  Pizarro (2004) found that while art therapy led to more enjoyment, it didn't match writing therapy in terms of improvements to social functioning.

Creative writing has been used to help rehabilitation of prisoners by organisations such as the Writers in Prison Network, helping hundreds of people to transform their lives (and benefitting society as a whole).  Sadly, Writers in Prisons is one of 16 literature-related organisations to lose their core funding.

What can help to treat the mentally ill or rehabilitate offenders can no doubt have smaller-scale benefits for writers in more ordinary circumstances.  All in all, creative writing...  Fun?  Yes.  Valuable?  Very.

Chapman, L., Morabito, D., Ladakakos, C., Schreier, H., & Knudson, M. M. (2001). The effectiveness of art therapy interventions in reducing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
symptoms in pediatric trauma patients. Art Therapy: Journal of
the American Art Therapy Association, 18, 100-104.
Harber, K. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1992). Overcoming traumatic memories. In S. A. Christianson (Ed.), The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory (pp. 359-387). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pizarro, J. (2004) The Efficacy of Art and Writing Therapy: Increasing Positive Mental Health Outcomes and Participant Retention After Exposure to Traumatic Experience. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 21(1), 5-12.

Tuesday, March 29

Magnet poetry

Good old fridge magnet poetry - there's nothing like a limited selection of words to get the verbal creativity working!

Now available online :)

Monday, March 28

Characters going along with the crowd

How much do people follow the views of others?   'A lot' seems to be the answer from Psychology - especially if we have no idea what the right answer is.  A classic research study by Jenness (1932) used a jar of beans to test conformity.  Participants were asked to make individual estimates of the number of beans in the jar (this is actually quite hard to guess - my students have tried it and most people get it very wrong!)

Then participants discussed the number in a group.  All were in a state of ignorance, and therefore were open to the ideas of others.  After discussing, each participant gave a revised individual estimate.

Jenness found that estimates had conformed towards a 'group norm.'  Even though nobody knew the right answer, there was apparently comfort in sticking close to others.

In real life, people usually look to others if they don't know what to do - when travelling on an unfamiliar subway network, for example.  In fact, we conform even when we don't want to, and we know we shouldn't.  How much is this reflected in the behaviour of characters in fiction? Are characters influenced by others to a realistic extent?

Jenness, A. (1932). The role of discussion in changing opinion regarding matter of fact.  Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27, 279-296.

Wednesday, March 23

Ken Robinson 'Out of our Minds' book on creativity

I bought this book because I had vaguely heard of Robinson and it has some big-name reviewers too: Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (and bizarrely, John Cleese!)  It turned out to be a great buy - inspiring, easy to read, and very relevant.

Creativity is a funny old thing, with ideas tending to fall into two categories.  Psychology literature on the subject (which usually refers to it by the dry pseudonym of divergent thinking) is very narrow, focusing on problem-solving and on generating solutions to specific tasks - partly due to a lack of reliable ways of conducting creativity research.

Then, in the world of the arts, creativity is such a widely used term, but nobody seems too sure about what exactly it is or how it functions.  Are they even talking about the same thing?  Of course, there is a lot of really good advice for artists which no doubt works, but nobody really knows how.  My OU coursebook on creative writing has a short section on idea generation at the start, which is full of references to discredited psychological concepts (mostly Freudian).  Quickly, and with a certain relief all round, things move on to the craft of writing.

Robinson does a good job of bridging the gap, with a scientific take on creativity which is very much rooted in the real world.  He cuts through the waffle and tries to get at a simple clear definition of creativity.  Imaging, he says, is when we form a mental image of something - real or otherwise.  This is a basic step towards imagining, which is when we make a new image, putting together other images to think of something new.

For Robinson, though, imagining/imagination is a step short of creativity, because creativity implies that the imagination has a use of some sort in a real-world context.

Another great passage in the book is where he questions that validity of the current trend towards science and technology has very little validity - the assumption that these subjects are better than arts subjects is both narrow minded and unclear.  If people are to fulfill their potential and be successful, they need to harness all of their abilities, including artistic abilities and creativity.  He says:

If there were no more to human intelligence that academic ability, most of human culture would not have happened.  There would be no practical science or technology, no business, no arts, no music, no dance, drama, architecture, design, cuisine, aesthetics, feelings, relationships, emotions or love.  I think these are large factors to leave out of the account of intelligence.  If all you had was academic ability, you wouldn't have been able to get out of bed this morning. 

As a teacher, I couldn't agree more.

Monday, March 21

Bias for own initials - even when it harms you

It has been known for a while that people tend to prefer their own initials.  If you have to pick - well, just about anything - a cubicle, a seat number etc, you are more likely to go for one featuring one or both fo your initials.

This sounds harmless enough - but researchers Nelson and Simmons (2007) found that amazingly, this can actually link to worse educational grades, with a greater likelihood of grades 'C' and 'D' if those are your initials.

To test this, they ran a task involving a task followed by a choice of a buttons.  Participants were more likely to click the 'I have failed' button if it matched one of their initials.

I wonder what this says about people's choice of names - could it even be linked in, subconsciously, with the choice of names authors use for their fictional characters?  Are names with 'A's generally bright and successful?

Nelson, L.D. and Simmons, J.P. (2007). Moniker maladies. When names sabotage success. Psychological Science, 18, 1106-1111.

Sunday, March 20

Kurt Vonnegut on short stories

Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer, author of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) among other works.

This short video has some of his best advice on writing short stories, including some odd ones, such as: "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible."

I really like "every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action."  More surprising are: "start as close to the end as possible," and "write to please just one person."

Saturday, March 19

Sigmund Freud by Ogden Nash

Who's afraid of the big bad dream?
Things are never what they seem;
Daddy's bowler, Auntie's thimbles,
Actually are shocking symbols.
Still, I think, a pig's a pig -
Ah, there, symbol-minded Sig!

Wednesday, March 16

Writing, and the boundaries of memory

Whether it's a fiction writer using their life experiences as material, a biographer relying on recall of facts, or a poet noting an interesting nugget for use in a later work, memory is essential for any writer.  And yet, we know from research that for all its wonders, human memory is both limited and fallible.

One author sees the memory as a resource to be nurtured:
"By actively exploring your memory, asking imaginative questions of 'what really happened' and maybe doing some research, you will be tending to the soil, helping your memories to reveal themselves."
(Neale, 1993: 328)

Memory is major current research area in Psychology, although some basic facts were established over a hundred years ago: we have a short-term/immediate memory and a long-term memory, the short-term memory can only contain around seven items at a time (see Jacobs, 1887).  More recently, experts have tended to dismiss the simplistic idea that memory is the mind's storage area, instead viewing it as an active and flexible system.  A good example is Baddeley and Hitch's (1974) 'working memory' model.

According to the model, working memory is the part of our mind that we use for day-to-day processing, tasks and problem solving.  It is how you remember information while you are working on it.  It can achieve more than one task at once under the supervision of a processor called the central executive, which has a limited capacity, and is necessary for creative and non-routine processes.  When you divide your attention between tasks, or decide on which task to do, this is the central executive at work.  It controls the other parts, which are known as 'slave systems':

Sound and language are mainly processed in a slave system called the phonological loop, while the visuo-spatial sketchpad does routine visual processing. It is sometimes nicknamed the 'inner eye'.

Recently, researchers have suggested that there is a third slave system, the episodic buffer.  This is responsible for temporary integration of short-term processing with long-term memory storage, helping our experiences to form a coherent whole.  It helps to combine different types of information into discrete events, and also provides a link to LTM.

It will be interesting to see how research into the episodic buffer progresses, as it seems to be a key component of any task which involves recalling and making sense of past memories in a new context - a key process in any writing.

Baddeley, A.D. and Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In Bower, G.H. (Ed.) The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol 8. London: Academic Press.
Neale, D. (2006).  Using memory.  In Anderson, L. (Ed). Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings.  Milton Keynes: Routledge.

Tuesday, March 15

V.S. Naipaul - "I had an aptitude, but not a talent".

Often the best way of finding out about creative writing is through the ideas of successful writers - if we can understand them.  In a longish (40 min) BBC interview with the writer V.S. Naipaul, talks about the influences on his writing, and his own 'aptitude':

"I have an aptitude and I developed it….I didn't have a talent, because I required a lot of thought to arrive at the forms which I managed most naturally, the forms most suited to the material I was dealing with.  Even my understanding of my material.  All of that required a lot of time.  So, I had to learn stage by stage... It's a very slow process."

In the early section he explains He states that he has been unhappy with 2-3 of his books, and has gone back to put things right.  This is because he was 'mislead by the form,' trying to write a particular sort of novel rather than being true to himself. He states that
 new writers need to find their own form and originality rather than recreate someone else's work.  In striving for this , he controversially advises writers to read 'very little contemporary fiction'!

BBC (1994).  Face to Face with V.S. Naipaul [online].  BBC archive.  Available from:

Monday, March 14

Can you increase your intelligence?

General intelligence, or 'g', is a concept devised in the early 20th century, which derives from the work of  British psychologist and statistician Sir Charles Spearman. His research suggested that children have a single level of ability underlying their performance in all tasks.  Spearman also believed that 'g' was fixed and inherited, and American researchers who followed his lead took the same view.  All IQ tests aim to measure your 'g'.

The idea is not without its critics, however.  One of the main objections is the implication that because it is said to be genetically inherited, a person cannot significantly increase their level of general intelligence.  However, clearly we can get better at reasoning tasks.

Later researchers such as Raymond Cattell suggested that 'g' should be subdivided into two parts, crystalised intelligence or Gc and fluid intelligence or Gf.  Gc is a cumulative set of skills and strategies that can increase through life as you get better at tasks, while Gc is a more flexible ability level for novel tasks.  Gc retains the original idea of intelligence as innate, and researchers have tended to assume that it is fixed from early adulthood onwards.

This great blog post by Andrea Kuszewski in Scientific American provides an overview of more recent ideas about fluid intelligence, backed up by research findings which go against the idea that it is fixed.  In brief summary, for Gf to be increased you should:

  • Seek novelty ("it is no coincidence that geniuses like Einstein were skilled in multiple areas").  This stimulates the mind. 
  • Challenge yourself.  Work hard at something until you've mastered it - similar to the last point, getting really good at one thing will be of less benefit.
  • Think creatively.  Learning to think creatively not only makes you better at what you are studying, but it makes you better at other things too. Kuszewski refers to the work of Robert Sternberg (see previous blog post).
  • Do things the hard way.  It is counterintuitive - as humans we so often tend to choose the easy path - but taking shortcuts and relying on tools means we are not challenging ourselves and therefore not improving.
  • Network - use social networking to stimulate the mind and expose yourself to new challenges. 

I thought these were really helpful and thought provoking.  There was some quality research evidence, although evidence for the last two points was more anecdotal. Also, the first two points seemed rather similar.  Still, it was enough for me to want to share it with my students, who were blown away!

One of the comments asks if there is not a limit to how much it can be increased, and if so, is that not the true limit to Gf?  I would suggest that there is not a limit, but that like with so many abilities, improvements will get increasingly arduous and time-consuming to obtain, and the benefits will diminish, leading to a practical rather than theoretical limit.

It will also depend greatly on an individual's motivation to improve.

Sunday, March 13

The Dead Woman and the Lover by Dilys Rose

Rose has written several books of short stories; this appeared in the book of entries to the Scotland on Sunday short story competition in 1998.

An actress has to strip naked as she portrays a dead (possibly-murdered) woman in a mortuary; when having drinks afterwards with the director, cameraman and husband (as you would), she sees a famous, attractive actor (the ‘lover’), and is egged on by the others to invite him over.

I thought the prose worked pretty well; the beginning was a good example of not explaining too much to the reader and getting straight into the story, but the effect was diminished a little by providing too much back-story as it went on. I really liked the twin themes of the murder and the attractive actor, they made an interesting combination. Towards the end, parallels were drawn between the dead woman and the actress’s own life, but this could have been developed more.

Wednesday, March 9

My Muriel Spark Selection Box

I tend to read books by different authors; I move on. To have read, not just two, let’s say three or more books by the same writer - for me that is a big commitment!  I have to really like that writer and there are probably only a dozen or so who fall into that category. Muriel Spark is one of them.  She is of course best known for her novels, but she also wrote a fine set of short stories.  Here is my selection.

The Executor is typical of her style - witty, carefully constructed, and makes you smile all the way through, even at the nasty bits.  Overall, just a pleasure to read.  I have read quite a few of her short stories and this is one of my favourites so far, both accessible and gripping.  The premise is that the narrator’s uncle was a famous writer, and when she becomes a ‘literary executor’ dealing with his papers after he dies, she decides to pass off an unfinished novel as her own. There is a real moral and spiritual debate encapsulated into the few pages of the story, as well as believable characters, lots of black humour and lovely realist touches.  But I don’t want to give too much away, so I will leave it there.

The Snobs is another fine example.  Spark presents the tale like a personal experience so it’s hard to know how much is fact and how much fiction, but the characters of the couple (the snobs themselves) are brilliantly described, and I’m sure everyone would recognise the type!  They pitch up at a French chateau where the narrator is a guest, and once they realise that the place is a bit ‘special’, it becomes infuriatingly difficult to get rid of them.  Hilarious in an infuriating sort of way!

My overall favourite is The House of the Famous Poet.  I've read hundreds of stories, but this is one of only a couple that have made me think, ‘yes, that is what a short story should really be like’.  It is so elegantly constructed, so clear yet complex, that any would-be story writers should look at it as an example of how to mould themes together.  Having said that, it would seem a tricky task to do it quite as neatly and wittily as Spark.

The story: the protagonist is on a train from Edinburgh to London in 1944.  She dislikes the look of a young soldier, but he turns out to be very kind to both her and another young woman she is sitting beside.  She tags along with the young woman to where she is staying in London - a large, slightly shabby-looking house.  Again, her first impressions are transformed when she realises that it is the house “of the famous Poet” (unspecified which one!) and she has to look at the experience with new eyes.  This is all well and good but Spark weaves in yet another theme, the real point of the story, in quite a surreal but poignant way, which makes the reader reevaluate all of the events so far.

I don't like to over-hype a story, but the world will definitely be a better place if you read this one!

Tuesday, March 8

A Taste of Life by Sara Paretsky

Quite a nasty little story but a compelling one nonetheless; Daphne is an able worker but a compulsive overeater. Her problems appear to stem from her mother, who encourages Daphne’s anxiety in order not to be outshone by her.

Perhaps the most interesting idea here is the vicious circle that can emerge, with compulsive behavior leading leading to relationship damage, and vice-versa.  The descriptions of crazed eating were brilliant - food in every cupboard and drawer, shopping at several different stores in order to conceal her habits, pretending to be abstemious in company and then stuffing her face when alone. The mother was unrealistically single-minded in her selfishness, however.

Available as part of 'A Taste of Life and Other Stories'.

Sunday, March 6

The Man and the Book by D.N.A. Morris

Nice bit of flash fiction by a contemporary American author.  It's a simple but engaging scenario - a man is inspired to think by something he has read, but gets distracted.  Then - as will be all too familiar to authors out there - by the time he thinks of it again, the idea has gone.

Not sure why it refers to a 'typewriter' as it is not otherwise obviously historical, but other than that I thought it was very well-written.

"It was just before dawn when the man finished the book and slipped it back in its jacket and placed it gently on his nightstand. He looked at it lovingly then walked to his window..."

Read more on Word

Friday, March 4

On the Hook by Heinrich Böll

The love of your life will arrive on the 1.20pm train - but on what day?  The protagonist arrives at the station day after day for three months or more, and begins to develop delusional conspiracy theories involving the rail company, phone operators, even the blackmarketeers.

Heinrich Böll is a poetic and powerful writer, and relatively little known here in the UK despite being a Nobel prizewinner.  His sparse prose fits well with his tales of life on the Eastern front and particularly the bleak broken landscape of post-WW2 Germany.

His stories build emotion and suspense through ordinary lives and interaction, and here the paranoia and despair builds over the short simple narrative.  At first we are told that the man lives for one minute of hope as the daily train arrives and “for twenty-three hours and fifty-none minutes we balance on the razor’s edge…”, but later he says: “For that’s the terrible part about it: the minute is shrinking… I think it may be only thirty seconds now, perhaps much less…

This story comes from Böll’s short story collection ‘Children are Civilians Too’, which I first read fifteen years ago, so they deserve re-reading (I then lent the book to a good friend who has never quite got around to giving me it back, then bought another copy on eBay).  Great stories, short and quick to read, they build up a tough but at times very beautiful picture of his characters' lives.

Oddly enough, there is a Heinrich Böll cottage on Achill Island off the West Coast of Ireland, which has residencies for artists.  Böll spent time writing there.

Thursday, March 3

List of resources

What would we do without the wonderful world wide web?  Here are some of my favourite sites for writers: 

Listings with jobs and opportunities:

NAWE fortnightly bulletin - Writing jobs, competitions (mostly UK)
Duotrope's Digest - submissions to American and UK anthologies
Saison Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre - regular poetry bulletin.

Journals and ezines that accept email submissions:

Words with Jam
Smokelong Quarterly
Southword Online Journal
10 Flash quarterly
The Shine Journal
The Spilling Ink Review
Big Pulp
Plutonian Times
Underground Voices


British Haiku Society - Archive and regular competitions - Listing and back issues 
Poetry Archive - Huge online collection with both text and audio readings 
The Poetry Society - Events, local groups etc - News and events - Daily email of a poem by a contemporary writer

Short stories:

Campaign for the Short Story - Information, advice and link.
The Short Review - reviews of new and classic collections.

Some good blogs (see my profile for many more!):

howapoemhappens - poets explain how their work was inspired & edited
strictlywriting - a group of authors tackle all aspects of the craft
sixsentences - Publishing 6-sentence pieces of writing
buried in the slush pile - Author and editor with focus on children's fiction
agentinthemiddle - Useful agent advice
stroppyauthor - Detailed articles on book-related topics
notmuchmore - Diverse articles from a short-story writer
fictionbitch - Funny and insightful
awfullybigblogadventure - Topical articles by a range of authors
writerinthestorm - Lots on poetry and events
scribblecitycentral - YA fiction
writebadlywell - Funny parodies of creative writing 
vulpes libres - Literary articles and reviews


Scottish Poetry Library
Read Raw - Promoting creative writing.


WriteWords - Group for writers to share work etc
Backspace - Similar to the above
My Writer Circle - Similar, but more forum-based
National Novel Writing Month - 1-month write a novel challenge - Similar!
Noodle Tools - list of opportunities for young writers
Writers' Digest - Tips, prompts and publishing advice
BBC writer info - Archive interviews with big-name writers
Positivity Blog - Life, creativity, etc!

Please let me know any that I should have included.

Wednesday, March 2

Novelty on behalf of others

An interesting recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin:  Polman & Emich (2011) found evidence that when people work on behalf of others, they can think more creatively.

The researchers gave students problems which required creative thinking, and found that they did better when they were asked to solve the problems on behalf of a colleague than for themselves.  For example, they drew more original aliens when asked to draw them for someone else's story than for their own.

This could say a lot about the benefits of collaborative writing, and of course of author-illustrator partnerships.

"According to Evan Polman and Kyle Emich, we're more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves..."  Read more in the BPS Research Digest.

Tuesday, March 1

What is your creative style?

A bit of fun from Psychologies magazine: 'what is your creative style?' article.

I suppose these tests take the most common answer and give you a stock response ('mostly As' or whatever), but I could be wrong, perhaps it's more subtle than that!

But what I liked best is that it does hint at different ways of being creative, which could perhaps be labelled as ideas-focused, audience focused, process-focused and introspective.

Lower image: Self Portrait by Alexa Meade