Wednesday, 09 July 2008

Do great writers rely more on effort or insight?

Good writing requires effort. The process of producing great writing may differ dramatically from one writer to the next. One will write in spurts and grind to a halt. Another will just carry on until the work is completed. Some may battle from sentence to sentence. The process of writing itself - particularly great writing - is a creative process. The creative process does not require effort. The creative process needs insight and inspiration.

The creative process is governed by the right hemisphere of the brain. When the right brain activity comes to the fore, the creative process becomes more or less automatic. Picasso often said that he allowed his hand to do the painting. The less thought he applied, the better the work. The right brain must be freed to produce the work.

My best work (no, I'm not suggesting that I am a great writer!) happens as a flow. When in a creative frame of mind, the effort is minimal. My best work has all been produced in this way. Once I have sufficient knowledge about the topic the effort becomes minimal. There is a difference between different types of writing - creative, academic, or writing for articles that are aimed at providing knowledge or a skill. It is when the left brain thought processes interfere that my writing suffers.

The effort required in writing lies in the development of writing skills. Learning and developing skills is a life-long process. Acquiring new knowledge, gaining insights into new topics, people and the world continues for life. This knowledge becomes internalised. Using the knowledge to write becomes a matter of intuition. Insights emerge as the creative process unfolds.

I know very little about the process followed by the great writers of the world. I can only guess at the creative process followed by writers such as Chekov, Jack London, Shakespeare or James Joyce. Reading War and Peace with its hundreds of characters and complicated story line leaves me with the distinct impression that Chekov just wrote from beginning to end. His internal knowledge of people, places and society - his vast insight - were enough to drive the entire process. Perhaps he mapped out the book before starting. Perhaps he planned the book's structure and outlined the story-line. Whatever the case, I imagine the words flowing directly from his mind to paper.

Artistic work relies on creativity. Creativity is governed by the right brain. When you start thinking too much the left brain takes over. The left brain is the logical side of the brain. We need it to function in the day to day world. When it comes to creativity the left brain has no idea. Writer's block is often a result left brain interference. The writer knows what he wants to write, but the words just don't come out right.

One way of stimulating creative right-brain activity is to listen to music while writing. It works every time. Even business reports require an element of creativity. There may be a need for a major effort in terms of gathering information, weighing up the arguments and making appropriate recommendations. Similarly, fictional works may require much detailed research. Research requires effort. Research, investigation, information gathering all require skills that reside primarily in the left brain.

The information must be processed and turned into something that the reader will want to read. No matter how much left brain activity is required to gather the information needed to facilitate the writing process, the act of writing - or more particularly the act of great writing - is a right brain process. The major problem faced lies in making the transition. Once the left brain has been active it does not easily let go. It can bring together the information required for a technical report, but the words just don't sound right. The document becomes difficult to read. Being able to switch from left brain to right brain is something that a writer must do to produce good work.

Reading about the writing process recently, one writer described the process as follows. He writes the complete story in one process without a break. He then re-reads the piece, adds to it and perhaps changes certain parts. Correct any factual errors of changes in the story-line. The second re-reading looks at the more technical writing aspects - grammatical errors, spelling, detail. A process that is similar, if not identical, to mine.

Great writing has to rely on insight. Effort may be required in collecting information. But when it comes to the actual writing, too much effort can only hamper the process.

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