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Dimensions of Creativity in an American Context

by Doris Betts

I hope not to repeat history by recalling one earlier North Carolina writer who came to spend time in Texas. O. Henry, who was convicted of embezzling money from the First National Bank of Austin, was the first cousin of Katherine Anne Porter. For O. Henry, Texas was a place where he became more destructive than creative, but his name leaps to mind because, after his release from prison, he moved to New York City where the Big Apple swamped his senses and stimulated his creative side. There he began writing and publishing almost one story per week for the next eight years.

I have lived all my life in the green piedmont of North Carolina, including a period in O. Henry's home town. I first saw Texas in the late 70's while driving toward the Grand Canyon to spend two weeks riding a small rubber raft down the Colorado River. Until I drove through Texarkana and into your state, I did not know the world could hold so much light under so much sky. Your western space and stone and sky swamped my senses, in much the same way that New Mexico overwhelmed Willa Cather's, and my first western trip gave me a novel -- Heading West.

The stimuli varied, but O. Henry and Willa Cather and I all had the same experience in different places. Each provided a creative surprise that caused what T.S. Eliot called "the breaking down of strong habitual barriers." Arthur Koestler thinks that in creative moments we suddenly shift attention to something previously on the fringe, or unknown. Two ideas unexpectedly collide and suddenly 2 plus 2 make 5 or more. Inspiration, says novelist Stanley Elkin, "is a sort of spontaneous combustion -- the oily rags of the head and heart."

Why some people have more collisions and combustions than others, and why some heads are more raggedy than that of the Scarecrow in Oz, is part of our speculation in this 1989 symposium. Koestler thought the juxtaposing of unlikely components to achieve a new result could be as simple as comic surprise: "man plus banana peel equals pratfall," for instance. The scale of this creative jolt -- or bisociation, as he called it -- stretched all the way from the tragedies of Sophocles to Charlie Chaplin, or skits on "Saturday Night Live," all of it relying on the fusion of two unlikely things. That mental fusion, like its nuclear counterpart, releases energy.

Many editions of Koestler's book, Act of Creation, show the face of Janus, that old two-faced Italian god who could look both ways, the deity of gates and doorways, for whom our New Year's month of January is named. Koestler cites the astronomer Kepler as one creative Janusian thinker whose double vision showed him new combinations of knowledge. In Kepler's day, the motions of the tides and of the moon had always been known, but for the first time in the 17th century, Kepler put them together and realized that the gravitational pull of the moon actually caused the tides to rise and sink. He was able, even in the middle of the bloody Thirty Years' War, to send his mind up to the stars and make an unexpected synthesis.

But how does such double vision come? Are we born with it, like being double-jointed? Can we hold Dale Carnegie seminars to teach creativity, or attend encounter groups and grow misty and synthesized ourselves?

Henry Moore advised that to know one thing, you must know its opposite. Would-be instructors in creativity have filled libraries with recent handbooks whose graphs and recipes and formulae claim to make readers creative. These manuals suggest exercises to train us in spotting opposites and unanticipated patterns, jarring us out of our mental ruts and offering 12 easy lessons to make us artists. When too doggedly applied, creativity recipes have cooked up some of the most chaotic "brainstorming" faculty committees I have ever survived.

Some creativity training can be like learning piano playing from piano tuners. Some of these books advise the mind to march resolutely forward, though the Protestant work ethic seldom generates spontaneous acrobatics. Creative people know that it may not always help to try harder. Sometimes one must let go the will in favor of fluid thought. My Calvinist training has given me a built-in "Little Engine That Could," and its monotonous song "I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can" is the right accompaniment when manuscripts need to be revised, but it never tunes me up to discover a first draft. In creativity, the Eureka Moment seems to burst into flame when it is ready, not when we are. Henry James picked up many ideas for novels during ordinary social occasions. He called these "germs," and while he was highly susceptible, others at the same party seemed to be immune. In fact, when any artist confides in another her wonderful idea for a book or melody or painting, the listener's blank reaction wonders what the shouting's all about because half the double insight must already be present to be ignited. The right oily rags have to be there when the right spark arrives.

I have no idea why Carson McCullers set down her brandy glass after a Thanksgiving meal and ran out of a New York apartment alongside the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, chasing the sirens from fire engines, and then, after puffing along for four blocks, suddenly stopped on the sidewalk and shouted that she now understood perfectly the central concept of her short novel, The Member of the Wedding. For all I know, her insight was caused by a rush of oxygen to the brain and we should all take up jogging! How about Gertrude Stein -- she once bought a new basic car that had no options at all, no radio, not even an ash tray, so Alice B. Toklas described the car as "nude." Immediately Stein nicknamed her car "Godiva," and found she got wonderful writing ideas while seated in Godiva scribbling on a pad propped against the steering wheel. W.B. Yeats, walking one day down Fleet Street in London, homesick for Ireland, suddenly heard a trickle of water and saw a fake fountain in a shop window with a little ball balanced upon its jet. He stood there, half hypnotized, listening to this tiny water music while thinking of the lakes of Ireland, and in that moment he began the poem we know as "Innisfree."

For two concepts to collide and fuse, the first one has to be present already, dropped earlier down into the unconscious as if down a mailbox slot to Wonderland, where both flints can strike new sparks that illuminate knowledge in a different way. Systematic reason is sometimes described as thought that moves forward with cause and effect linkages -- it "thinks-it-can." Moments of inspiration are more like thinking sideways.

Sideways thinking even occurs on the small scale of metaphor and simile which bring two different concepts into a language union. It is no wonder that Aristotle called metaphor the one gift that could not be taught. Thinking in metaphor does come more easily to some than others, as it did for the child who said a star was like "a flower with no stem," or when Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby described Daisy, "Her voice was full of money." Or Charlotte Bronte: "It all went through me and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind."

Here is W.S. Merwin's love letter in a three-line simile:

"Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color."

Of course, there can be bad metaphors as well as bad syllogisms. Either type of thinking can produce poor results. Most of my freshmen considered themselves creative when they wrote their 12th grade term papers first, and then dutifully wrote their English teacher's required outline second. So did I, and so do most who become professional writers, but this sequence per se does not guarantee that each of those 12th graders was temperamentally attuned to organic form. Some were just lazy or disorganized.

Ideas only begin the creative process. As Chamfort said in 1805, a man is not intelligent because he has plenty of ideas any more than he is a good general because he has plenty of soldiers. Eventually that first unifying of two unlike stimuli must be matched by further, more deliberate unifying. This is the stage at which Lady Luck starts working her fingers to the bone, or Inspiration gets married to Perspiration. It's no linguistic accident that we refer to a work of art.

Lately the popular press, as well as those how-to-be-creative manuals, have unfortunately oversimplified too strong a split between imagination and reason. They chop our brains into right and left hemispheres as if each separate half functioned independently of the other. If they were that segregated, I'd have to drink one potion so Dr. Jekyll could teach my university classes or deliver this lecture. Then I'd drink a second mixture to release Mr. Hyde for writing a steamy sex scene in my novel.

No, it's not quite true that we can switch on the left brain to become 100% objective, deductive, realistic, and then close down that half on weekends, dress in our Sunday-painter artist's smock and switch on the right side to become instantly subjective, inductive and imaginative. Parlor psychologists do claim that if you want to know which side of someone is dominant, you should ask him a thought provoking question. Most people will, by reflex, glance aside in the most active direction before answering: left if quicker at math and analysis, right if more imaginative and instinctive.

But in this astonishing neat computer between our ears, all differing abilities of the cortex collaborate. Those 100 billion cells communicate very fast over 100,000 miles of dendrites in a complex brain that sometimes does resemble an astonishing main frame computer but sometimes also seems to be a tangle of endocrine glands and chemical effects. We do know that when we are relaxed the electrical Alpha brainwaves move at 8 to 30 cycles per second, but they shift into 30-60 Beta cycles when the brain concentrates on problems. Creative people seem to keep both kinds of brainwaves going at once, on both sides of the brain. If creative thinking does employ double vision, does compare and contrast, but also makes two things cohere, the apparent division between left and right brain functions also coheres as a means to their joint end of cohesive performance, double value, interaction, intellectual wholeness -- and not just for artists. Anais Nin wrote in her diary that ". . . we write to taste life twice, in the moment and in introspection," but non- writers have memory and taste life twice. Creative thinkers in every field can break experience into either/or divisions to see the parts clearly, but they can also make both/and combinations.

How do we teach creative thinking in, for example, my freshman fiction-writing class where I hope all students learn something about tasting life twice. Among those 15 freshmen there will always be one passionate self-expresser who has been writing soulful love sonnets since her first menstrual period. There will also be a math major who wants to out-Hawthorne Hawthorne in allegory, and there will be young scientific analysts as well as rock guitarists, actors and abstract sculptors. All have something to teach one another about the spectrum of the creative process -- about recognizing Eureka ideas and then realizing them in finished form.

Most writing teachers, facing such classroom diversity, produce a syllabus that either starts big and works down, or starts small and works up. If it starts big, with the whole final product, students instantly write their first short stories, warts and all. Then the teacher uses that manuscript to excise warts while eliciting the contributing beauties of dramatic scene, character, and point of view. If the course starts on the small end, as mine does, the students first write short scenes that practice the various fiction skills, and they steadily improve word choice and sentence clarity while ascending gradually into the larger synthesis of story plot and theme. Let me assure you, it makes very little difference which way the pyramid syllabus is structured -- so long as both teacher and students are passionately involved. Some students are naturally more approachable by one method than the other, but passion is like those Angels Jacob saw in his dream at Bethel -- passion climbs up and down that ladder. Bill Blackburn, at Duke University, started big and worked down. You could hardly see how he was teaching at all except by osmosis, but he did stimulate students like Reynolds Price, Anne Tyler, William Styron, Fred Chappell. His class simply read fine stories and plunged immediately to sink or swim in stories of their own. They did it and then asked how-to-do-it. Max Steele, another highly successful writing teacher whose students keep publishing novels and story collections, does the opposite. He begins teaching smaller how-to-do-it units consciously built up, and meets the psyche along the way.

Blackburn's and Steele's approaches have parallels in standard college composition courses. Some rhetoric textbooks start with sentences and paragraphs, while others begin by assigning right away the first freshman theme. You might call these deductive or inductive approaches to writing, with left or right brain emphasis, but the point is that everybody's whole brain contains both abilities, and eventually two halves have to make a whole. Even when I begin with smaller increments, there comes a point in every semester when guidelines must be exceeded, even discarded -- when the Angels have to ascend and descend if we are to avoid Ashley Montague's term for mental rigidity, "Psychosclerosis." Then I do at last in my classes what Ken McRorie and Peter Elbow choose to do at the beginning of theirs, I assign a 500-word sentence, with no punctuation, no interest in capital letters or good spelling, no particular goal, just flow. In Elbow's book, Writing Without Teachers, and McRorie's, Telling Writing, each teacher expects that his early free-writing exercises will turn on the juice of livewire students. Both their students and mine must eventually ground themselves by practicing both halves of the writing process -- that lucky, serendipitous vision, plus the process of revision, by which early joyous views get clarified.

This double contribution of inspiration and perspiration seems necessary in most artistic, creative work. Inspiration is the act of breathing in, inhaling the messages of Zeus's nine daughters, the muses, but eventually those muses go off duty, and the artist is left with the hard job of exhaling her excitement in some form others can appreciate. J.R. Tolkien, that devout Catholic, solicited his literary ideas through fervent prayer; but it also took him 17 years to finish writing The Lord of the Rings. Writers like Henry James, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gore Vidal, John Fowles, and many others have continued to revise their work, even after publication. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony unfolded with extensive revisions. Alexander Calder had for years a fascination with movement, wires, circuses, and mechanical birds, leading to his development of the mobile. The habit of applied effort makes ideas live. "It is not everyday," said Wallace Stevens, "that the world arranges itself into a poem."

Everyone knows the story of how Coleridge extracted his poem "Kubla Khan" from an interrupted dream, but of his two versions, the published poem seems to be that which he reworked. The Paris Review Interviews are always prefaced by a page from each writer's manuscript, heavily struck through and rewritten. When we survey the full careers of creative people, an overview often reveals how ideas in their early work matured and were sometimes fulfilled only after years of development.

When Gutenberg first conceived the idea of the printing press, he began by considering ways to duplicate those seals on documents that pressed monograms or insignia into hot wax. Already he was thinking by analogy, but he couldn't figure out how to get a whole sheet of word-seals pressed onto a page all at once. Then, while he was attending a wine festival, after he had drunk enough wine to earn perhaps very double vision, he suddenly noticed how the flat wine press applied equal force over a wide area. Half his idea was already present. This lucky observation married it to a second half, but long after the Eureka experience, he still had plenty of hard work to do. A goldsmith by profession, he augmented his moment of inspiration with long experience in handling metals. It took experience, work, time, and borrowed money to devise his cause-effect, four-piece type-casting mold with two handscrews -- much less to produce the Gutenberg Bible, finally finished in 1456, on six presses simultaneously.

If creative thinkers, then, are not only open to those overhead blazing lightbulbs, but also maintain enough energy and concentration to burn the midnight oil necessary to bring them to fruition, how should American culture and education foster this double capacity? Diderot, in Rameau's Nephew (1761) called greatness "the result of a natural equilibrium among opposite qualities." Do our schools and colleges aim at greatness, cultivate both parts of the doubleness of thought? Do we provide separate-and-equal brain hemisphere training in our core curricula, our Back-to-Basics movement, the Montessori Schools, the S.A.T.'s? Are our students being nourished creatively and pragmatically by watching music videos, sitting in classrooms, absorbing our political, cultural, and social life?

Even in this mass age, stubborn creative individualists can come to the forefront, and if we examine history, we will not find many cultures that have been ideal for creative development, and even these have served chiefly the rich. Contemporary America seems to me largely an amusement society -- one that breaks experience into small, pleasantly digestible pieces, and then hurries past them before comparisons or evaluations, much less any synthesis, can be made. Fast, noisy, superficial -- ours may not be a congenial age for startling discoveries. It's hard to shout Eureka over the sounds of Muzak and Sony Walkman, but it was hard to persevere over the thumbscrews and other tortures in the days when Galileo, in his trial for heresy before the Inquisitors, felt compelled to whisper stubbornly, "But it does move."

Today's mass entertainment, a view of democracy that favors the average and the mundane, materialism, creature comfort -- these values may not call forth the same commitment as Truth, Beauty, Dante's Beatrice, Homer's Helen, or Yahweh on Mount Sinai. Art always contributes to entertainment, but great art is entertainment plus. It moves toward epiphany. The big question our symposium will be unable to answer is: "What values, in this relativistic 1989, would call forth the utmost in life, in death, in art, from anyone? I'll sidestep that overarching question and move down the layers to smaller, practical ones.

How shall we find the time and stillness creative thinking needs? Like Gutenberg, we must ready ourselves for creative insights by first filling the mind with knowledge and questions. Then, in an unpredictable moment when we're relaxed and not even trying hard, something may dawn on us, but American life rushes us by car and subway and jet plane past that fallow stage, that long interim of incubation.


Eudora Welty says that a fiction writer has an advantage if she lives and writes all her life in the same ongoing small neighborhood. There she can gain a "narrative sense" of her next-door neighbor, can see the whole life within family and community context, captured in time from childhood to old age. If she had lived in a Detroit project, Welty might only have had glimpses, almost laser flashes of that same life while she and her neighbor swapped smalltalk in the same supermarket line. People who perceive patterns need time to pay attention. Our how-to-do-it books, our religious cults, our Shirley MacLaine tour guides to Atlantis, are symptomatic of our need to slow down, to make our pilgrimages inward as well as outward. Today's pilgrims rely on self-help because few contemporary institutions help us much. Yet life without perpetual alertness for pattern and meaning becomes cold and unpalatable.


Adults seeking their own contemporary contexts, narrative structures, or meanings become concerned about how creative and how curious their children will feel by middle age. We parents often believe our children used to think creatively, that they started off with a high I.Q. and then grew out of it, or perhaps were educated out of it. We feel guilty knowing how many American children have attended the kind of day care that kept them full on one end and dry on the other. We know that the bedtime stories feeding their unconscious minds were as often "Miami Vice" as the "Brothers Grimm." It's too easy nowadays to blame television for too much, but I will say that if you watch TV every single night, you'll go down in history -- and down in geography -- and down in math. Some may receive a Eureka idea because "General Hospital" intersects with something waiting in the mind, but most of our network content is predigested, simplified, not very dense with complexity or possibility.

It's fashionable, too, to attack American public schools, the first school system in human history to commit itself to educating everybody. Teachers are under fire to be all things to all students while meeting behavioral goals. So, naturally classrooms emphasize drill and de-emphasize insight. They stress rote memory over personal discovery, not because these are true opponents, but only because systematic forms of logic and analysis are easier to teach, and the results much easier to grade than are individual levels of curiosity, receptivity, an innocent eye, and what D.H. Lawrence elevated to a sixth sense -- the sense of wonder. Any honest job description of today's public school teacher would drive away creative intellects by the multitudes, so schools cannot always provide creative role models. As for students, not all are motivated by love of learning, so some school progress will always be motivated by external measures -- A's to F's. Where grades are the only motivation, if in schools we only teach half the brain, students will seldom generate novelty. By only penalizing errors we will teach our children how to play it safe, to explain glibly how you get from step 1 to step 2, to consider chemistry lab a place where experiment is just a routine by which robots duplicate the answers in the back of the book with nothing at stake. Unless at school, and at home, somebody endorses the creativity that can take risks, some children might believe their own natures are solely mechanistic and materialistic, and some could grow up, or "grow down," into adults incapable of telling the difference between a path in life and a rut.

Poet William Stafford has said that all children make up things, imagine, write. For him, the real puzzle is not why some people keep on making poems but "why did the other people stop?" If we don't want our children to stop, schools should encourage not only the sequential, cause-effect thinking that defines problems and plans solutions, but also a willingness to take hunches seriously, to brainstorm and delay evaluation, to think by clusters and associations as well as by mathematical addition, to rephrase difficult questions, to give some credit to naps, meditations, dreams, Tolkien's prayers and not just the virtues of setting noses to grindstones, to get out of the air conditioning and into the oxygen, to avoid committing too soon to an iron-clad strategy before there's a feeling for the whole problem, to try, switch, be willing to try and fail and try again without loss of ego, to discover that school-children's brains can play and dance as well as memorize the multiplication tables, to know that school-teacher's brains can wonder and explore as well as devise lesson plans.

As a writer, I have a particular concern for language in our culture and in our educational enterprise. Language, the means by which everyone's Eureka ideas get communicated and shared. All world languages do this and deserve respect, but naturally I value the one I work in. The English language, spoken by 358 million people, is the main literary language of the world. Not only do our sons and daughters need writing skill; they need also that resonance of association that only comes from steady reading, since much of our thinking and all of our talk and writing involve words.

Here, too, we meet with a doubleness. Wordsworth admitted that sometimes we do need to get away from words in order to think clearly, and shift to visual images. Toscanini was one musician who could visualize. Once when he was conducting a rehearsal of Debussy's La Mer and could not get the softness of tone he wanted, he suddenly pulled out a silk handkerchief and let it come floating down the air, saying, "There! Play it like that!" His analogy, his metaphor, was one language, but afterwards his musicians translated his silk handkerchief into the language of quarter notes and time signatures. Not only in my field, but in most human communication, as we translate inspiration by working up perspiration we rediscover what Mark Twain meant: "the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." By losing distinctions between what words mean we begin to speak fuzzy, think fuzzy, and act mysteriously. Some politicians become our worst cases.

Deep literacy is important to creativity, even now, though Rita Mae Brown considers it an "act of faith" to be a writer in this "post literate world." On current best seller lists many books are specifying what core information today's educated person should have, the historical dates, the world map, and so on. We also need a firmament stretching above mere facts, information, and local experience that retains common language, shared and symbols -- the heritage of what has been said and written and transmitted so we will not produce art that is private and exclusive, but can subordinate our personal vision to that larger vision by which the work outgrows the artist as the child outgrows its mother. In literature, there will always be a balance between coining new words and freshening old ones, between inventing current symbols and invigorating archetypal ones. Just as I have to boot DOS or Microsoft Word before I can use my IBM-PC, we all need to boot steadily into the mind computer enough words and ideas so there will be many, many bytes of raw material to collide and cohere. Shakespeare's plays contain a vocabulary of some 25,000 different words. Our college graduates have 10,000 to 12,000, including specialized jargon. Words alone won't make us creative, but words, plus facts, plus experience pour through our senses and prime the pump. They feed a love of learning; they nourish the function of the brain.

Shortly before his death at age 87, Pavlov advised that young scientists acquire passion so that "two lives would not be enough for you." Such passion applied to knowledge can focus the concentration and fuel extraordinary output. Sigmund Freud produced 330 publications over his 45-year career; Einstein 248; Darwin 119.

These examples may be a mistake. To illustrate only by brilliant individuals may imply that rare, innate creativity will always break through circumstance, and that would prevent us lesser mortals from practicing creative methods ourselves, or fostering them in others. Along the long continuum of creativity are dullards on one end and geniuses on the other, and, as Emerson said, "colleges hate geniuses just as convents hate saints." Musical talent certainly does show up young. Mozart at 5 and Beethoven at 8 were composing and performing; Haydn at 5 played the harpsichord and violin. At 6, Coleridge was reading the Arabian Nights and Picasso was drawing Hercules, while John Stuart Mill read Greek at 8, and at 9, John Donne knew French and Latin. Against these early bloomers, we must set others in whom creativity had a long struggle to emerge. For example, Christopher Nolan in England, spastic from birth, who finally learned to strap a stick to his forehead and take 15 laborious minutes to type one word, but who now has published two highly praised prize-winning books. I want to know more about Chris Nolan's yearning to create, and I want to know more about how his parents helped him do so. There may be methods here to enrich the children of us all.

Though this symposium is focusing on the arts, I refuse to restrict creativity to art alone. This natural ability of the human brain functions and needs to function in other areas as well. Perhaps the 21st century -- with intricate, massive computers linked by a worldwide communication system, with a better balance of population, food, and survival, with a focus on peace instead of defense -- may free humankind for large-scale innovation. Surely we already need creative thinking today in Washington, D.C., the United Nations, state capitals and city halls, and in every school and college. We also need fresh insights into world environment and ecology. We need poems and novels and plays and operas and dances, but we also need intuition added to logic when we explore new uncertainties in physics, question our health care, and debate the medical and ethical issues science has thrust upon us.

Creative thought will be needed to reconcile the philosophies of East and West. Our global village needs type A thinkers -- those methodical thinkers who pile up fact after fact, do the lab work and collate the encyclopedia articles, alphabetize the indexes, and gradually modify knowledge. We also need the type B intuitive thinkers who may leap to conclusions the way Pythagorus, in search of the harmony of the spheres, was passing a blacksmith shop on Samos and realized that rods of iron of different lengths made different sounds under the hammer, and thus grasped not only musical pitch and its ratios but set in motion ideas that led to what is now mathematical physics.

In 1963, when Amherst College was honoring Robert Frost, President John F. Kennedy said, "If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him." I would add that each one of us must also set free the creative artist within ourselves, must welcome and celebrate the many creative artists who are our brothers and sisters and international neighbors, and must find and cultivate future artists among the world's many-colored, multi-talented children.