Sunday, October 21, 2007

Balancing the Creative with the Critical

Since many participants of my writing classes express a desire to write a book of their own some day, they often ask me for advice. Of course, I say the usual: Know what you’re writing about … Consider the market for the book … Create a structure for the book … Don’t put off the writing … Set deadlines for paragraphs … Research for interested publishers … and so on. I often include a mention about understanding the difference between what they find interesting and what their readers do.

Nobel Prize laureate Bertrand Russell makes this last point clear in The History of Western Philosophy when discussing Plato’s Theory of Ideas. In setting up his analysis of the allegory of the cave, Russell describes his approach to writing a book:

I have found that, when I wish to write a book on some subject, I must first soak myself in detail, until all the separate parts of the subject-matter are familiar; then, some day, if I am fortunate, I perceive the whole, with all its parts duly interrelated. After that, I only have to write down what I have seen. The nearest analogy is first walking all over a mountain in a mist, until every path and ridge and valley is separately familiar, and then, from a distance, seeing the mountain whole and clear in bright sunshine.

This experience, I believe, is necessary to good creative work, but it is not sufficient; indeed the subjective certainty that it brings with it may be fatally misleading. William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was: “A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.” What seems like sudden insight may be misleading, and must be tested soberly when the divine intoxication has passed.

True, inspiration is not only necessary but a big boost in getting us off the clouds and on our butts to start writing—but creativity needs to be followed by intense self-criticism. Answering questions such as, “Are my claims plausible? and “Would anyone care about this?” helps in getting the critical juices flowing.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

To purchase your copy of The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: