Thursday, 6 November 2008

Creative Energy

I hope you guys had a good summer! I had two weeks of being lazy and watching my husband fly fish -- great fun -- no, really, but I received some unsettling news just before my break. My US editor decided to embark on a new adventure and has left Penguin Dutton. It is an uncomfortable experience for an author to suddenly find herself orphaned. I will, of course, be appointed a new editor but it is still rather sad losing the support and enthusiasm of the person who had worked with you right from the start. Ah, well. Things change.
Anyway, on to another topic: Shortly before leaving on vacation, I had cause to visit one of my favourite places in London, the theatre at the Royal Geographical Society. The RGC has been home to adventurists since 1830 and whenever I visit, I am convinced I can sense the ghosts of Livingstone, Shackleton and Hillary lurking in the corners. A few years ago, I attended a lecture there by Sir Ranulph Fiennes after his attempt to walk solo and unsupported to the North Pole. During this expedition he sustained frostbite on one hand. Despite his doctor urging him to postpone surgery to see if they can't coax some healthy tissue back into the hand, Sir Ran decided to chop off his dying fingertips with a fretsaw in his garden shed. Somehow this seemed to me to be a rather splendid gesture and quite magnificently British. As a colonial myself, I do quite think that only someone with a name such as Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet OBE would be capable of such an act. These British explorers have always done things their own way. Think of Scott listening to Caruso on a gramophone in the heart of the Antarctic and jettisoning food in favour of fossil rocks to carry with him on his sled during his doomed excursion. Eccentrics? Yes. Gentlemen? Always.
But I digress. My visit to the RGC this time around, was to attend a seminar that was jointly hosted by PEN and The Medical Research Council. The topic was 'Creative Energy: What drives writers and scientists?' I am rather interested in this subject as I have a brother who is trained as a physicist and sometimes when I talk to him it feels to me as though we hail from two different galaxies. While I would quite readily agree that his work is every bit as creative as mine, I enjoy telling him that aesthetics relate to writing in a way it can never do to science. He would always hotly contest this assertion by maintaining that great math is not only 'workable' but also 'elegant.'
On this evening, the audience was made up of writers and scientists and the panel consisted of luminaries in both fields. I was awed to be in the presence of a genuine Nobel Prize winner, Sir Aaron Klug, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982. However, if I had hoped to find clues to what it is that fuels his imagination, I was disappointed. Sadly, his array of diagrams and experiment details were so dense and complex that they defied my understanding. I was left only with an impression that this is a person to whom intense curiosity is the driving force in his creative work.
The rest of the panel included Ian McEwan, author of Atonement, and possibly the most celebrated author in Britain at the moment, Dr. Sheena McCormack, a HIV researcher and Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet and Chair of the UK Poetry Society (and interestingly, the great, great granddaughter of Charles Darwin.) McEwan asserted that creativity is an ongoing process – not a fleeting spark – and that in order to create, creativity has 'to become a habit' for writers and scientists alike. He also listed 'persistence, tolerance of drudgery, luck, playfulness, ambition and ruthlessness' as other characteristics shared by both groups. I concur, although my brother's idea of playfulness does not always agree with mine. For those of you who have seen WALL-E, think of the scene where Eve dances inside WALL-E's home. (By the way, wasn't that a great movie? I thought the first 40 minutes were genius.)
And it seems I was wrong about the aesthetics bit. McEwan made the point that scientists have long adhered to Keats's assertion that 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' and quoted James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who wrote that the double helix of DNA was 'too pretty not to be true.' Einstein too, apparently believed beauty to be the prime requirement of any theory that is worth serious consideration.
Padel, in her presentation, quoted a review of The Good Soldier in which the critic stated that he considered Ford Maddox Ford to be 'a brilliant writer but not a great one,' giving as his reason that Ford never gave himself over to 'determined stupor.' Whether you agree with him or not, you have to love that phrase. It is true that writers are obsessives and are often both dogged and dazed when they create. I believe it is when you write in a blind fury with a complete disregard for whether it is going to sell, whether it is going to please your editor, even, whether it is going to please the reader, that you start to soar. Or bomb. Both hold true. By quieting those outside voices and only listening to your own, you can either produce a work of profound imagination that speaks true, or a piece of writing that is so self-indulgent no reader should be asked to suffer through it.
However, it did become very clear to me during the evening that where scientists and writers part company is when it comes to metaphor and ambiguity. Writers love subtlety, nuance and layers of meaning. Scientists practice associative thinking as well, but scientists abhor ambiguity. Listening to Dr. McCormack speak about her HIV research it was obvious that in her world data is king. The collection of data is painstaking and above all, rigorous. The interpretation of blips and anomalies is highly disciplined and wild assertions are simply not allowed.
It was also fascinating to hear her describe her office. She admitted that she couldn't bear working in a study where everything isn't neat, filed and pigeonholed. On a good day my office looks whimsical (I hope), on a bad day it looks like the playground of someone who needs serious help: stacks of paper and printouts, photographs, boxing paraphernalia, sagging pin boards with too many newspaper and magazine clippings, objets d'art made by my godchildren, CDs, many, many little bottles of hand sanitizer (neurotic, don't tell me, I know) and books, books, books. I am sure there are writers who have offices where all is serenity and order, but I am relieved to know that my friends who are also writers, are like me and work in an environment of cheerful anarchy.
But probably the most significant difference between writers and scientists was highlighted by Ian McEwan. One could read sixty years' worth of copies of Nature and discover little about 'human passions, cruelty, kindness and love', he said, whereas it is exactly these emotions, which form the creative well from which writers draw their inspiration. I did wonder, but didn't have the guts to ask, whether creative genius and self-destruction go hand in hand in the world of science in the same way it so often appears to do in the literary world. Are the ranks of scientists also filled with alcoholics and depressives or does the white coat shield you from these demons?
In the end, though, I believe the creative urge – whether it manifests itself in the laboratory or in a haphazard corner of a suburban house – takes place because the person who experiences it, has no choice. You simply have to give in to it: it is your second heart beat. Whether the creative urge always equals excellence is another matter, of course. Even those people who are endlessly productive (and this includes successful writers and artists) often find that their ability lags behind their compulsion. It is that old conundrum of your reach exceeding your grasp. But it matters not: when the desire to create and give expression to your inner life is hardwired into your genes, it cannot be denied.
Wow. That sounds rather ponderous! Enough of that. Hope you guys are well and raring to go! I'm getting ready to receive the copy edited manuscript back from my publishers (this will be my last chance to make any changes before it is sent through to the printer) and I'm also waiting for the finalised jacket image. My US publisher has come up with a draft image, which they've used for their Spring 2009 catalogue, but I'm told they're not quite happy with it and it may change. As soon as I have the final version, I'll post it and you can tell me what you think.
Take care! Here's wishing you all a very creative and happy Autumn...

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