A magical land at the back of an old wardrobe; a dystopian future where all humans are bred in test tubes and assigned a rigid place in society; an orphaned teenager who is repeatedly saved from death because his parents’ love cast a protective spell over him as a baby.
Sometimes you really do have to stop and marvel at the incredible power of human imagination expressed in fiction.
So, what sets creative writing apart from other forms of creativity — even from other forms of writing, such as non-fiction, memoir and poetry? I believe that it strengthens three muscles each and every one of us needs to live a fulfilled and meaningful life.
You don’t have to be an aspiring novelist to experience the unique power of creative writing, either; just pick up a pen or your laptop and let your imagination take over for an hour or so. Even if you never show anyone what you’ve written, you might discover something new about yourself and the world around you.
Writing in any form is always rooted in our own experience, and requires us to be alive to the world and individuals around us so that we can observe and then record what we see, hear, smell, think and feel.
Creative writing demands that we go even deeper than this, though; if we’re going to build an engaging fictional world and craft compelling stories, we have to populate them with believable, unique characters. Every time we tell a story, we have to step outside of ourselves and engage in different perspectives from our own. We have to imagine what it would be like to be someone else, someone with a different childhood, a different temperament, different strengths, flaws, gifts, passions and biases. We have to use radical empathy to imagine motivations, reactions and fears that aren’t our own.
Writing stories can help us to learn to live peacefully within the tangled question of human difference and uniqueness; to borrow words from the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, writing encourages you to learn to “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart,” teaching you “to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”
Every time we tell a story, we have to step outside of ourselves and engage in different perspectives from our own.
No matter how much you enjoy writing, or how good you become at it, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s hard work. It takes a huge amount of discipline, and there’s a reason people talk so much about “writer’s block.” When you sit down and try to force yourself to be creative and use your imagination, it can initially feel like you just don’t have what it takes. Nope, no new or interesting ideas in this brain today — sorry!
But, with practice, discipline and the patience to push through the initial self-doubt (and yes, boredom), you’ll learn that imagination is a muscle that can be strengthened with enough practice and awareness.
In her book, “Bored and Brilliant: How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything”, science journalist Manoush Zomorodi shares that recent studies on the neuroscience of day-dreaming and mind-wandering suggest a whole host of benefits, including enhanced problem-solving, creative thinking, empathy, self-awareness and moral judgement.
Jonathan Smallwood, a neuroscientist who has devoted his work to studying daydreaming, says that spacing out (and using our imagination) “could be at the crux of what makes humans different from less complicated animals.”
Meanwhile, the benefits of make-believe and play in many different contexts have become widely recognized in recent years. Studies show that play helps us to cope with stress better; it’s therapeutic, and can increase our productivity.
Creative writing, of course, is just one way of many to unwind, play and use your imagination, but it’s a very powerful one. Letting our imaginations run wild within the safe space of a story, we’re freed to explore ideas and experiences that we might otherwise shy away from putting into words in any other situation.
C.S. Lewis wrote that true humility involves a kind of self-forgetting: “[the truly humble person] will not be thinking about himself at all.” The act of creative writing can leave us feeling vulnerable, child-like and even silly at times; it humbles us by taking us out of ourselves and requiring us to forget ourselves for a while. It encourages us to be open to unfamiliar ideas and perspectives, and in the process we can return to a child-like state of imaginative exploration, if we’re lucky.
This kind of humility can have hugely positive, knock-on effects on our ability to relate to those around us, which is especially valuable in this age of global connection and conflict. And, if you’re willing to put aside your pride and risk feeling a little foolish by writing a story, you’ll likely be blessed with a renewed sense of child-like wonder for the world around you.
Have you tried creative writing? Which fiction stories have stuck with you?
Feature Image via Alex Loup