The Magic of Emergent Creativity


Here I go again, letting my writing get in the way of my blogging about writing. Luckily, when I am in a big project like this, I also sit on my own shoulder to watch myself writing, and I learn stuff. What I have learned this week is not exactly new to me, but rather something I have known for a while but have not had the language for. There is a sense of trust that creative writers need to have to be really productive. We must trust that the writing wants to happen, that the story is out there somewhere trying to enter the world, and when we get really, really lucky, it finds us.

J.R.R. Tolkien called this process Subcreation, and talks about it with both fiction and nonfiction in his book Tree and Leaf. But I think today I would rather call it the emergent miracle of creativity or the magic of emergent creativity. In science, emergence is defined as characteristics of a material, say, that are not characteristics of the material’s cells or atoms. The human mind is an emergent characteristic of the human brain. Wetness, reflectivity, and splash are emergent qualities of water that have no clear source in either hydrogen or oxygen atoms. When we are creative, something happens that we do not really ever have complete control over. I throw words on a page, and sometimes they turn into clear or turgid prose and sometimes they turn into a failed poem or a poem of such beauty I reduce myself to tears. Yes, some of that is learned, some of that is my unique imagination applied to a particular subject. Sometimes it can come down to a word I came across the day before or an image from a dream, those tiny gifts the universe gives us, saying, “Take this. Make me more.”

But this thing we learn to trust is what Stephen Buhner, in his book Ensouling Language, calls the golden thread that we find and pick up and follow to the end. I like this metaphor because of the way it has mythic resonance, reminding us of Theseus getting through the labyrinth with his ball of thread, a story about order overcoming chaos, which is, after all, one of the duties of art.

I saw this today during my office hours, which I spent writing a poem about Love and the Epic Hero, which not surprisingly turned out to be very long, about 136 lines. After struggling with a piece at what I originally thought was the end, I finally realized that a different set of pieces in the middle Really Needed to be the ending, because of the pair of images those pieces ended with. One person ends the stanza saying:

I long for a map,

Even if much of it is blank and claiming

“Here be dragons.” At least then I would have

A chance to navigate this strange terrain.

Then the other speaker ends the next stanza with:

This is the territory of dragons. I dare not

Treat it instead as some kind of treasure map.

I love taking an image and using it in two different ways like that, and I did not see when I wrote the first image how I could use it until I wrote the next stanza, but I have learned to trust that I will know what needs to be done.

And now, for you, a small dose of Sandra Boynton.


3 comments on “The Magic of Emergent Creativity

  1. robert okaji says:

    I haven’t read Buhner’s book, but do so enjoy the golden thread metaphor, as that seems to be the way my creative process works.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is quite good. He is the only person I have ever seen talk about nonfiction the way most creative writers talk about poetry and fiction.


  3. writerchick says:

    What you describe I call ‘the zone’ and I know exactly what you mean. Because sometimes you do write something and are blown away by it and can’t quite believe you wrote it. A line, a story, a character. I wonder though if it’s not a super consciousness thing rather than the universe making an offering. We absorb and observe millions of things in a day and it gets tucked away somewhere in our minds. Then when the right triggers present themselves that stuff pours out.

    Interesting discussion. Thanks.



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