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essay on creativity



Cancer and Creativity


This is an essay on creativity, a piece of prose provoked by a question someone asked me, a question which puzzled me. The question was about the relationship between my creativity and my brain cancer, the lymphoma which had colonized my brain.

"Has it affected your creativity?"

That was the question.

I think that the backstory behind the question is that the questioner assumed that creativity is a very high level function. I was puzzled by the question because, for me, creativity not something ultra special. Rather, it's a set of techniques which are always available, ready to be applied to whatever task is at hand. Creativity is like eating with chopsticks. It's a skill, or a set of skills, something which may take a painfully long time to learn, but which, thereafter, is always available on demand.

Consequently, when I was asked whether cancer damage had affected my creativity, my simple answer was and is no, not at all. At the level at which one eats with chopsticks, I'm still doing fine. And this, for me, is the level at which creativity functions: at the level of ingrained skills.

But there has been damage, certainly.

Brain cancer damages the brain, true, and in my case the lymphoma ultimately left a hole in the brain (or, to use more elevated language, a "partially cavitated area", a kind of partial hole) some four millimeters in size.

Objectively, that alone tells me that I must have lost some of the sharpness to my razor. Add to that the fact that chemotherapy ultimately caused my brain to shrink (or, in more elevated language, caused "moderate generalised brain atrophy") and the term "brain damage" becomes hard to avoid.

However, subjectively I feel fine, and certainly I've had no problems with creativity.

Creativity is the ability to make connections. Sometimes these connections can be obvious. For example, depending on what has been in the news recently, "bus" may provoke the thought of "bomb". (We live in troubled times.) Similarly, "beetroot" might prompt a connection to "blood", on account of beetroot's bloody color and bloody juice.

The passage below features a set of associations. The passage is from the "Bamboo Horses" novel, in which a woman is talking about some uppers she is taking:-
        Opening the delicate little box, Valencia takes out a single capsule and puts it on the lacquered surface of the table. It glistens there, red and yellow. She looks at me, smiles.
        "For me?" I say, with surprise, looking at the capsule.
        "Did I say so?" says Valencia. "No. It's for me."
        "What is it?" I say.
        "Viciousness," says Valencia. "Drive. Ferocity. Ambition. Decisiveness. The pounce of the moment that grabs you by the throat and takes you down. Action, in a word."
        Then the capsule is in her mouth and she is dry swallowing it. She grimaces. Wipes the back of her hand across her mouth. Then speaks of Atakana.
There are a series of words in the passage above which all relate to the idea of energy, a kind of intense and driving energy. The words are "viciousness, drive, ferocity, ambition, decisiveness, pounce, grabs, action".

Making connections of this kind does not require much in the way of intellectual gymnastics. It's a journeyman's skill, a journeyman being defined as someone who can reliably do a job in a competent fashion, usually without breaking through into the realms of genius.

The ability to connect words like "viciousness" and "pounce" is not really a high-level activity. Rather, this kind of associational activity could be thought of as a kind of waking dreaming, an exercise in juxtaposition.

What is dreaming? It is improvisation. From the train wreck of mental items - sounds, colors, vocabulary items, desires, impulses, whatever - an ad hoc reality is extemporized. Lateral thinking comes naturally when order is in disarray.

Dreaming, then, is the product of a kind of mental train wreck, and does not require advanced intelligence. We never say of anyone "He's too stupid to dream". Even cats dream. Dreams, visions, hallucinations - intellectually, none of these are big sticker items.

And when I have no dreams, no inspiration? When it's early in the morning and I'm feeling flat, what then? Well, as a journeyman, a fully qualified artisan, I can make progress on my work. I can always push ahead, without necessarily being at the top of my form. I can press ahead even when feeling uninspired, making the necessary connections, building new structures and making repairs.

Perfection is not required.

If absolute mental integrity were essential to creativity then it would be difficult to explain how so many writers have succeeded in proceeding in the face of alcohol abuse and other ill-advised biological experiments.

As a rule, I don't personally work on anything while under the influence of alcohol. Work and alcohol live in separate compartments, and the alcohol apartment is visited only on an occasional basis.

I've only ever once written anything while inebriated. The alcohol that I had been drinking blurred my mentation, so what I was writing about - a supremely trivial passage about bubbles in a glass of sparkling white wine - struck me as marvelous.

Fully sober, I was unimpressed with what I had written. And yet, the wine had been faithfully described. I had succeeded in functioning at a journeyman level, even though I was not sober. The alcohol damaged my judgment, but I was still able to fashion words into coherent pieces of prose. I was still, if you like, creative.

As far as I can determine, cancer has not impacted negatively on my creativity. It may have affected my judgment. That is something that I, from my solipsistic perspective, cannot know. I cannot pass objective judgment on myself. That's one thing I've learnt from my medical adventures: when it comes to judging my mental functioning, my subjective assessment is flawed, and there have been times when, although I've felt one hundred percent, I was actually significantly impaired.

From the center of my own universe, I cannot accurately assess the integrity of my galaxies.

But what is objectively measurable is output. Words. Bytes. The metastasizing of files. Thus measured, my creativity, the set of skills for transforming ideas into prose, remains. As testified to by the steady output from my keyboard. This stuff is not being written by random monkeys. It's consciously planned, shaped and sandpapered.

Of course, this is just my personal experience, and I have to say that I think I've been very lucky. Other people might be hit harder by cancer, by chemotherapy or by radiation therapy. And, given a sufficient level of damage, a level at which one's journeyman skills start to falter, creativity must start to suffer.

In fact, I do know of someone who feels that her creativity has been degraded by brain damage. However, this person had brain problems which were more serious than mine - an abscess in the brain which, I believe, required some serious surgery.

It's reasonable to think that, beyond a certain point, brain damage is definitely going to cripple creativity, whether the cause of the damage is a malignancy or the long-term abuse of alcohol, or whatever. But, in my case, I can still write, just as I can still use chopsticks.

I do not, for the most part, rely on inspiration. On occasion, inspiration arrives, and there are the rare spectacular moments when I feel like a conduit to a higher realm, calling fire down from the realms of heaven.

However, these truly inspirational moments are very few and far between. And, if I relied upon such moments, my total output would have been very slim.

Instead, at this stage of life I've had twelve novels published, and the writing of those books relied, for the most part, on the sheer discipline of sitting at a keyboard day after day. The discipline of dragging my bones out of bed and applying a set of skills which have been consolidated by years of effort.

Most of what I do, whether it's working on a novel or working on "Cancer Patient", my memoir of my medical experience, does not depend on gifts from heaven. Rather, it relies on a set of skills which are the intellectual equivalent of carpentry. A good carpenter can reliably produce satisfactory work day after day, regardless of mood, and a writer working in the journeyman tradition can do likewise.

Creativity and mental acuity are not one and the same thing. It is possible for someone to be very smart and yet to be a creative zero.

For me, many of my most creative periods are late at night, when my mind is full of the thoughts of an entire day, when words and ideas collide and merge unpredictably in a kind of recombinant soup. At times of extreme fatigue, my performance may deteriorate in the sense that my fingers blunder at the keyboard, and the number of typos and spelling mistakes escalates. But it is often at just such times that ideas come racing out, and I produce words, phrases and entire paragraphs, spontaneously, messily.

Later, in the clear light of morning, comes the task of ordering this material, and that is something I can do even when I feel dull and flat, working as a functional artisan, busy with my carpentry.

Creativity, then, is not a gift from the muses. Not usually. It is a combination of learned skills and resolute discipline. Consequently, creativity is survivable. My apple may have lost its gloss. It may have atrophied a little. And it may, in fact, feature the occasional cavitated area. Yet it still performs the necessary functions of an apple, nurturing within itself the seeds of growth.

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This essay CREATIVITY was first published when posted online on Tuesday 26th July 2005. It forms part of a memoir of medical experience called "Cancer Patient".

The essay was written after the writer, Hugh Cook, had been treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma of the large B-cell type, the cancer in question being, in the author's case, a cancer of the brain and the spinal cord. At the time this essay was written, July of 2005, the cancer was in remission.

Essay copyright © 2005 Hugh Cook

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