Oh yeah, writing and creativity are social acts

In my mind, writing has always been this mysterious, God-inspired and God-given talent. I always imagined myself at a beautiful desk, overlooking a huge bay window out onto either: 1) a glorious mountain scene, 2) beautiful beach, or 3) the French countryside. I mean that’s how all of the great artists and writers of history have done it, right? There’s Van Gogh and Monet, who were both inspired by the brilliant and radiant light of the Provencal South of France. And I mean, come on – what about 1920s Paris with Ernest Hemingway and the gang? (Side note: I have to remember the fact that Van Gogh cut his own stinking ear off and Hemingway was one of the most depressed individuals alive. I’d say they didn’t have it so well and still managed to create brilliant works.) Clearly I need to be either in a thriving metropolitan city or, even more preferably, tucked away in the beauty of nature. It’s there, I’ve always imagined, that my brilliant ideas which are oh so, so, so hidden would poor forth. Birds would sing, I’d sip my warm comforting cup of tea, and then God would gently send down His angels, and they would all tell me exactly what to write. In fact, my work would finally be so brilliant I wouldn’t even recognize it as mine.

Enter reality.

How my writing actually feels

How does my writing go in reality? I BARELY make it out the door with said warm cup of tea. In fact, getting the tea (and lunch) made in time to get out the door stresses me out. It has the exact opposite effect of what I want it to have. But I still want that dang cup of warm tea to so that it can freaking comfort me when I roll into my office.  I roll into my office, somewhere around 8:15-8:30am, although my intention is always to be there by 8:00am. This rarely happens, and when it does, I reward myself by not doing anything of substance for the first 15 minutes of work, thus completely nullifying any effects this earlier arrival time may have had. I keep going, reminding myself I’ve already gotten in an hour-long workout and shower in before this. That has to be an achievement, right? I make up achievements so that I can feel like I’m achieving. The denial and lying to myself already start. It’s only 8:30am.

I normally then have to go teach class. But I don’t want to. I’ve got to get my writing in so I don’t feel so horrible about myself all day. But alas, my students call and I go teach. I’m invigorated. This feels good. Wait. They’re not laughing at my jokes. They have blank stares. I’m not connecting with them. How do I connect? How can I be more interesting? Defeat sets in again. But sometimes, I have amazing days and my students and I create this exciting synergy. I love those days.

Enter back into office. STOP STARING AT ME COMPUTER. I know I need to write. But first I’ll grade. Yes – grading is important. Once grading is finished, I look at my white board with all of my “to do” tasks for the week. I start to take on as many small (and generally less important) tasks so that I can check things off. I’m obsessed with that; it’s the achiever in me. I often do this all day until in the last 30 minutes to hour of my workday, I finally get some writing in to get it out of the way and say I did it. But at this point in the day, it’s not very productive writing time.

But something has changed today, and I’m hoping that change will remain. After meeting and chatting with Paul Silvia, author of How to Write a Lot and visiting scholar on campus, I had a revelation. He said something that really stuck with me: “Creativity is a social act.” He talked about how almost all ideas and creativity are created outside of ourselves by interacting with other people. Through talking with people, meeting people at conferences, reading journal articles (interacting with our field), etc., we can begin to get “a-ha!” moments or moments of insight. And it suddenly hit me that I’ve been trying to write and be creative without making it a social act.

So today I tried something new. I tried reading several journal articles to get my juices flowing and get me excited about writing up this 8-study manuscript on which I am currently working. Some of the articles were directly related to my sub-field. Some were completely un-related. None were directly related to my research project. But it did something to me. It got me excited about getting my ideas out there to the world and to interact with my colleagues in this social world of learning. It reminded me what a great article looks like to model and base my own writing off of. And strangely, it gave me the energy and inspiration I needed to write.

So I’m trying something new the next couple of weeks to get me going during my writing time. I am going to ritualize my writing time by starting off reading 1-2 articles. This way, I’ll be tapping into the exciting field of research and getting pumped about my own research. Additionally, it’s less anxiety-provoking to “start” my writing time because I’m actually reading, which I can do anytime and not feel anxious about it (unless it’s advanced-level calculus-based derivative formulas for my Item Response Theory course, then I’m anxious). I’ll see if it works, but I’m hopeful. It’s been a long time since I felt this way about my writing. I actually wanted to write today as opposed to forcing myself to do it. Both are good and needed at different times, but I hope this pushes me toward enjoying the writing process a little more. And although I don’t have my scenery, I know I can still write in the ordinary places. I must choose to see the beauty and brilliance of the world around me. I must remember that writing is a social act. Our writing is nothing without the world and minds around us.

About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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