The universe consists of Yin and Yang – two polar opposites that complement,
nurture and balance each other out with their respective strengths and
weaknesses. There are men and women, night and day, ebb and flow. And in
creative writing, we can find these two polar opposites as well.
Here is what might be, in my opinion, the biggest secret to creative output: In
order to bring out your best writing, you have to carefully balance creativity
(which represents chaos) and rationality (which represents order)! Lack in one
of these two, and you will have a very hard time bringing out an inspiring and
The Creative Side
On one hand, you have creativity. Creativity is giving birth to something new,
it’s risk as in non-calculation, it’s the odd straw. A truly creative mindset is a
relaxed and very, very playful one: Ideally, you are sitting down to write like a
little kid toying around with his toy blocks, self-absorbed, fascinated, totally
amused by what you are doing, forgetting about the outer world.
Now this is the important part: In creative mode, you can do whatever you
want and your mind is not constricted by any rules whatsoever! You could
write about a bloody murder, which is something that would repel you in real
life; you could write about flying pigs; you could even deconstruct words and
sentences and assemble an abstract poem – or an abstract novel (see how I
constricted myself here for a moment by assuming that if it was abstract, it had
to be a poem?). You can do anything. You are the big kid!
Creative mode is a state of extreme freedom that most people don’t get to
experience very often in their lives – which might be the reason why we like
writing in the first place. It’s a free-floating, curious, roaming state of mind, and
that freedom occasionally brings out great creative results. Curiosity,
experimenting and crossing limits lead to innovation. No maps, no boundaries.
No rights or wrongs. This is creativity.
We are not questioning ourselves in any way in that state, we just follow our
gut feelings. No inquiries accepted – in fact, questions seem outright
By the way, that’s also the reason why during brainstorming sessions nobody is
allowed to make derogatory comments: The mood has to be kept non-
judgmental to not asphyxiate creative thinking.
The Rational Side
Then, on the other end of the seesaw, we have the rational mind. That’s the
thinking most people use overwhelmingly each and every day of their lives,
above all in their jobs. The creative state might be mercifully allowed to come
out a bit after finishing time to have a beer with, but mostly we are too
occupied with checking phone calls off our lists, organizing transportation for
our kids and filing tax returns to give it the time of day.
There is also a good amount of social pressure on us to keep our creative side
well locked up in its ungrateful basement: Getting naked in the middle of the
street for a round of expressive dance is generally not appreciated within our
society. If it was, society would come apart at the seams, so there must be an
evolutionary reason why we don’t let that kind of behavior slide.
Rational thinking is very logical and streamlined. Everything has its place and
rights and wrongs are clearly defined. If something isn’t right, by default it must
be wrong. There is no room for ouside-the-box; in fact, the box is all that
counts. Rational mode is about executing things the right and logical way and in
the right and logical order. It’s a problem-solving mindset. As we have many
problems (or at least we think we do), we have to employ it very often.
This kind of thinking leads to measurable results. We would be lost without it
–it lets us steer towards clearly defined goals and manage our daily duties. It
separates the successful from the failed and it lets us question and therefore
improve things. It’s judgmental. And in this life, more often than not, we need
to judge in order to be able to take well-informed decisions.
Now where does all of this come together for our, the writers’, purposes?
Here is the trick: To bring out your best writing, you have to establish a healthy
balance between your creative and your rational side!
You depend on your creative side to make your stories fruitful, imaginative,
mesmerizing. Without creativity, your story might read “technically” correct,
but totally bloodless and dull. You might avoid using quotative verbs with
adverbs during dialogue exchanges, the rhythm structure of your language
might be well calculated, your characters’ psychology might be structured
logically, so congratulations – but your writing will still put even the most avid
reader to sleep! What are you even writing this for?
Somebody with the mindset of an accountant might have that problem,
especially if he has been working as an accountant for three decades and has
thus trained his mind to rational thinking.
Then again, look at the other extreme: Without rationality, your writing will be
frayed at the edges, shapeless, not compact. It’s like it’s too much, not cut at
the borders where needed, and the selective and user-friendly element is
missing. And what happens if you don’t select, if you don’t judge and separate
the successful from the failed? It all ends up out of shape and overshooting the
mark – in other words, a big mess.
Selectivity gives you a chance to check if the story is following rules that have
proven effective. That means cutting a scene if it’s overwhelmingly long and
running out of juice, crossing out a metaphor if it has missed the mark,
trimming back a character trait if it doesn’t fit with the rest of the character. It’s
trimming everything back to levels that make sense, just like you would cut a
bonsai into a rectangular shape to fit it into a box, which is to say, between the
covers of a book…
This “trimming” part can be difficult to do, especially for inexperienced writers.
They often love to put their stories to paper, their creativity is overflowing, but
they haven’t developed a sense for the “complete shape,” for the rules of the
trade yet. It will come with practice. It will come if during editing they will
question their writing and think about story elements and whether each one is
in the right place or not.
Don’t question yourself during the original writing process though; while
writing the first draft, give yourself permission to do anything – just like that
little kid gives himself permission to do anything! During revision, be more
present with your logical mind and challenge yourself. And this is exactly what
Hemingway would have meant, had he indeed said: Write drunk, edit sober.
Creativity is chaos. Rationality is order. If you find the right balance between
the two of them, people will not only be fascinated by your stories, but will also
want to read through your entire tale. And Yin and Yang, which are essentially
just two slightly distorted happy smiley-faces at peace in themselves, will shine
down on you knowingly.
Alexander Limberg is based in Austria and runs a blog about creative writing at
www.ridethepen.com. Ride the Pen performs the trick of taking apart the texts
of famous authors to take a close look; in the end, you will always find a writing
prompt. Alex likes polar bears and rainbows.
*Thanks Alex for your piece. Be sure to check out his inspiring website.