It’s not a gift…

Writers festivals get us out of our garrets and into an audience. They can make us swap our view of keyboards and screens for that of a stage. They take us outside the stories we are writing, and into those of other writers. They can be inspiring. And intimidating.

My local – the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) – is looming. As an official ‘Emerging Blogger’ for the MWF (thanks to the Emerging Writers Festival) I have pored over the program.

Thanks to Keko for use of this image under creative commons.

I count down the days. But I temper myself too. I know how starry-eyed I can become in the face of my hero-writers. Thoughts like, ‘I don’t have the gift that writer does,’ or ‘I could never do that,’ used to trot through my head. These days I’m still humble, but more knowledgeable.

While researching an article on Singapore and creativity, I came across a book ‘Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation’  by Dr R Keith Sawyer. It was a watershed read for me. In it Sawyer debunked various myths about individual creativity. Referring to his and other studies he demonstrated that creativity is not god given, or hereditary, or related to one side of the brain. Creativity stems from a very different place:

‘The most important predictor of creative output is hard work, dedication and intrinsic motivation.’[1] (Sawyer)

It’s that simple.

In fact, studies on creativity align with writers’ mantras. Firstly there’s ‘just write’: highlighting the importance of getting on with your work. According to Sawyer creativity researchers agree it takes a decade of working within a domain to become creative. So as your heart soars with the prose you hear at the festival, think back to when you started writing seriously, keep writing and count forward.

Another mantra ‘make time to write’ aligns with creativity research. Tardiff and Sternberg (quoted in Sawyer’s book) wrote that, ‘creativity takes time… the creative process is not generally considered to be something that occurs in an instant with a single flash of insight, even though insights might occur.’ [2]

Creative people make time for their work, and they also manage it in a particular way. Writes Sawyer, ‘Creative people multitask in networks of enterprise… While they’re consciously attending to one project, the others are on the back burners. They know that good ideas require some incubation time. So they schedule their workday to accommodate this process.’[3] In other words, they allow time to think.

Many attribute success of a particular story to an ‘aha-moment’. But creativity experts see these moments as part of a wider process. They are, ‘sparks, nothing but rough outlines; the creator usually experiences a continued cycle of mini-insights and revisions while elaborating the insight into a finished piece.’[4] (Sawyer again) And lo! There’s our next writers’ mantra, ‘revise’. That’s where the ‘mini-insights’ come into play.

Being creative depends on shared cultural knowledge, and emerges from a group of people – not a single individual. So though it may feel a little intimidating, going to writers festivals, talking to others, workshopping and putting your work out there will help!

Fortified with this information, I shall be sure to stay on the inspired (rather than the intimidated) side at the festival. I hope you will too!


[1] Sawyer, Keith R, Explaining Creativity; The Science of Human Innovation, Oxford University Press, New York, 2006, p. 54 (Second edition published 2012)

[2] T Z Tardif and R J Sternberg, quoted in Sawyer, Keith R, ibid, p. 139

[3] Sawyer, Keith R, ibid, p. 62

[4] ibid, p.70

2 Responses to “It’s not a gift…”
  1. Steven Pam says:

    Pepi, these thoughts about creativity as it relates to writing, mirror my own experiences with photography. It’s all too easy to look at photographs you admire, and attribute the results to talent. Creating good photographs is a process that can be learnt and practiced. Sure, there is an element of luck, but – provided you self-critique effectively – the more photographs you make over time, the less bad ones you tend eventually to make, proportionally.
    And the more I learn about successful people in other endeavours conventionally thought of as the domains of the ‘talented’, like music or sport, the more I hear about the importance of long, hard, consistent training to develop whatever latent talent may exist. Indeed, as you have mentioned in the quote from Sawyer, motivation is key. And often it is that little bit of apparent talent at the beginning of a journey in a particular field of endeavour, that provides the motivation to continue with the requisite hard work.
    I’m sure that it’s been posited that by calling others whose achievements we admire “talented” or “gifted”, we are – consciously or not – abdicating responsibility for our own success or lack thereof. But what about artists and athletes who publicly thank God for their gift at the conclusion of a performance? 🙂

    • Pepi Ronalds says:

      Hi Steven

      Yeah Sawyer has convinced me that it’s hard work. Not just hammering away at it, but studying it, understanding it and looking for depth to what you’re doing. Though I expect that if you do have an element of belief in the ‘gift’ notion you could convince yourself that you were working hard, even if you weren’t. EG If you believe you had a gift, and you just waited for it to manifest itself, rather that shake it out of yourself.

      Based on my understanding of Sawyer’s studies, I would imagine that it wouldn’t matter who you thanked or believed was responsible. Ultimately it would come down to your ‘hard work, dedication and intrinsic motivation.’