Creative Writing and Cognitive Alchemy

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When teaching or talking about creative writing and/or coaching fiction writers, I talk a lot about the subconscious act of writing and how the churn of thoughts and ideas takes place even when we are not sitting in front of the blank screen or fresh sheet of paper. This is not a new concept. However, it is sometimes the key that unlocks a writer’s pent-up emotions and worry over being able to produce perfect work on command, allowing them to understand that our brains are processing and creating, even when we are doing other things.


This is not to say that active avoidance of thinking about things will provide all the answers. We still need to set the brain the task of resolving our problems. And actively working through and digging deeper into the issues we are presenting on the page is never wasted effort.

However, we have all had moments where an idea or solution to a problem comes when we are not focused on it, while doing the dishes, standing in the shower, or taking a walk. Many of us find that focusing on other types of creativity, molding clay, bending wire, or designing and sewing a costume, are also great ways to spark the brain into a different way of thinking about the snarls of our written work.

I recently read an article on creativity and the creative process that posits that forgetting can be beneficial for creativity. That “forgetting” can improve “combinatory play.” The idea is that hard-wired concepts that lose their connectedness make way for us to make creative leaps in our thinking. The author (Scott A. Small, M.D.)  uses the term cognitive alchemy, which I must admit was a term I hadn’t come across before. It’s certainly in the world, but it hit me in a surprising way. Of course, I thought. What else is creativity but brain-driven chemistry based on the mixing of thoughts, ideas and techniques to create recombinant forms of art? But what of the reader? In chemistry, isn’t there typically a reactant and a reaction?

 In creative writing, we use words to create pictures, to share experiences, to shift cliché into new story and world specific descriptions that elevate world-building and emotional expression and provide pathways into the hearts of our characters that allow readers access into both another’s story and often their own. It’s “a magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value,” which is a definition of alchemy.

Storytelling is a form of sorcery. Writers conjure, using chemistry to recombine thoughts and ideas with measures of mythology, spoonfuls of philosophy, and handfuls of history, stirring the ingredients together with oodles of emotion and a volume of voice. The final product is offered up to readers, who open their brains to ingest this glorious conglomerate, and are able to step into and experience an entirely new world, and are changed by the encounter.

That’s what I call cognitive alchemy!


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