Interview: The Four Elements of Creativity

Kellie Jackson from Words Away interviewed me for her blog (10 September 2017) in advance of the Everyday Magic workshop we ran in November 2017.

Kellie: Is this workshop suitable for a beginner or of more benefit to a more advanced or published writer?

Andrew: Anyone interested in writing – or any artistic practice. I strongly feel that true artists are permanent learners, constantly evolving and keeping their work fresh.

Kellie: As a writer I’m often trying to achieve a goal or outcome; be it a short story for a deadline or a novel to submit to a prospective agent. Why might I give time to putting outcome aside and focus on creativity?

Andrew: I sometimes observe a certain grasping quality among unpublished writers. Part of my job is of course to help writers understand how to make their work more publishable, and that involves practical matters in exploring the writer’s craft. And a tangible goal is always important. But a focus on outcomes can sometimes get in the way of making the most of the fresh, moment-by-moment experience of writing. Those neuroses creep in. I often see writers tense up, worrying about what an agent might think, or anxious about getting things ‘wrong’.

Any craft requires discipline and rigour, but the idea of right and wrong can be inhibiting in the arts. So it can help to trick the mind and put these concerns to one side, at least for a while (and not least because worries about agents’ opinions are usually jumping the gun).

Kellie: What can a writer do to put these concerns to one side?

Andrew: Relax. Surprise yourself. Let your subconscious do some of the work. Experiment, and give yourself the freedom to fail from time to time, because you will learn something from your mistakes. In fact: what is failure, if you have gained something from it?

And failure (also known as experimenting) is an essential part of drafting. Embrace failure! Aim to fail somewhere along the way, and see what comes up and what you learn from it. I am convinced that what arises will in fact help in getting you towards that goal of being published too.

Kellie: Why have you focused on the four elements for this workshop?

Andrew: I started off thinking about the difference between the right brain (loosely associated with creativity and intuition) and the left brain (associated with structure and the rational mind). But I resist binary thinking and either/or – the world is always more complex than that.

I also became interested in tarot, and particularly its use of symbols and archetypes as they relate to storytelling (its fortune-telling aspects don’t appeal so much). The four suits in tarot are related to the four elements of Fire, Water, Earth and Air, which also occur in classical philosophy and astrology, and present themselves in other ways in many contexts. Jungian psychology describes four functions: intuiting, feeling, sensing, and thinking. Myers-Briggs personality tests, often used in professional training, draw on aspects of the four elements too.

Kellie: Are four elements enough to work with?

Andrew: Some traditions have five elements. Indian philosophy gives us seven chakras. I like the balance of four, and the symbolic powers represented by the elements are easily understood in the context of writing. I began to see how working symbolically with the four elements can help to deepen writing and make it more engaging.

Kellie: How will this be applied in the workshop environment?

Andrew: In a Four Elements workshop, we read or listen to samples of writing, and then we discuss how the four elements come to life in them. Water, for example, represents feeling, so we identify ways in which the workings of tone carry emotion to the reader. And then we put this into practice with some exercises. I usually give suggestions for writing experiments to try at home too.

Kellie: Have you given a workshop like this previously and how did you develop the idea?

Andrew: In my work as an editor and book doctor, I often come across writing that seems overthought, cluttered, or trying too hard – it feels neurotic. It can be flat, and fail to engage – it lacks mood or emotion. Then I meet the writers of these manuscripts, and they describe their work in conversation with more passion, eloquence and ease than they achieve in the writing; I often find myself saying: ‘Write that down! Bottle it’ – that energy belongs somewhere in your book.

I also feel that many conversations about writing are over-intellectualised. It certainly helps to understand concepts from literary criticism, but theory can also contribute to the clutter that gets in the way of clear expression. This is material that should be understood deeply but practised lightly.

As a teacher I thought about a framework in which we can develop more intuitive or holistic approaches to writing while still paying attention to important practical matters of craft such as voice and characterisation. I was looking for ways for us to learn – or rediscover – how to restore such natural qualities to our writing.

Kellie: When you first described this workshop, I wondered if it might be too experimental or hippied-out for my taste.  What would you say to someone who’s interested in creativity but worried that this workshop might be too out-there?

Andrew: Loosen up! Embrace your inner hippie. I’m serious: don’t take yourself too seriously. Invite a little of the wild in, and relax into your best self.

But you can still take your writing seriously. If you are not a hippie or an experimental type, I’d suggest that it’s good to embrace a different style, even if just for a while. Just as conventional writing can gain from trying more experimental approaches, experimental writing gains from understanding the conventions.

And again, I question the binary of conventional vs experimental. I think all projects of the imagination draw on both convention and experimentation. Writers and artists must be open and alert to all possibilities.

Kellie: Last question. How can we develop our intuition as a writer (or editor) and in what way might this feed our creative life?

Andrew: Read widely and deeply. Read beyond your usual taste or genres. Listen to audiobooks, especially of favourite books you’ve read already – listening is an embodying experience that burrows deep. Read interviews with your favourite writers (try the Paris Review ones or run a search on YouTube). Write regularly – every day if you can. Be open to experiment. Do other things that stimulate you, particularly in non-verbal ways: gardening, yoga, walking the dog, cooking, photography, swimming.

And most of all: have fun! The teachers who’ve influenced me most have been the ones who create most fun in the classroom. From Naropa University’s Kerouac School, where I studied and later taught, I particularly think about Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who stresses the importance of the natural speaking voice, and Jack Collom, who frequently used poems written by children as inspirations. I also greatly admire the teaching philosophy of Lynda Barry, with its emphasis on play. And Ray Bradbury, who says that the things that you do should be things that you love, and things that you love should be things that you do. Having fun is the best nourishment, and the best way to avoid the trap of self-consciousness.