To Be a Better Writer: Write More Books

In today’s New York Times, author Stephen King challenges a common belief:

The more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be.

He agrees that there are a few super-prolific writers who aren’t great writers; mystery novelist John Creasey, who’s written 564 novels under 21 different pseudonyms; and Barbara Cartland, with over 700 novels.

But King argues that these are exceptions: the general pattern is that, the more you write, the better a writer you are. Examples include Joyce Carol Oates (over 60 novels) and Agatha Christie (91 novels) and Isaac Asimov (more than 500 books).

King himself has published almost 60 novels. So maybe we should be suspicious of his argument?

The New York Times calls Stephen King’s article an “Opinion” but his claim is scientifically proven, according to the latest creativity research. Researchers like Professor Dean Keith Simonton have studied huge databases of creators, looking at both their creative quality and also their productivity. No matter how you judge creativity, the most creative writers are also the most prolific.

Not only that: if you examine a random one-year period, higher productivity in that year is typically correlated with the likelihood that you’ll do your greatest work in that same year.

The same pattern holds in every creative field, whether music, science, dance, inventions, patents. More productivity is correlated with bigger impact and greater likelihood of generating a major, influential single work.*

This is surprising to most of us. We think that you’ll generate your magnum opus only after years of intense focus. You work on one masterpiece, ignoring all distractions–including those other second-rate book ideas. Why wouldn’t a writer just pick the one awesome idea, and focus all energies on that?

Because that’s not the way creativity works. Creativity doesn’t come from one brilliant idea, emerging one morning after a strange dream. The belief in the big flash of insight is largely a myth. Creative products emerge, over time, from hard work. During the hard work, lots of small, tiny ideas come every day. They get woven into the unfolding work–and this takes skill, experience, and focus.

Another reason creativity doesn’t come from an all-consuming focus on one project: It’s because creators themselves don’t know, ahead of time, which ideas will pan out. Often, an idea that they love turns out to be a dead end. If you can’t know ahead of time which idea will change the world, then you could waste years going down the wrong path.

The take-home message: Work on lots of projects, in parallel. Don’t ever be convinced that a particular idea is the one that will make you famous. And if you’re not generating a lot of work, you’re not as creative as you could be.

*I review this research in my book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Innovation (second edition) Oxford University Press.

Is There a Link Between Creativity and Madness?

If you’re schizophrenic, depressed, alcoholic, or bipolar, are you likely to be more creative than the average normal person? Most people think the answer to this is an obvious “Yes.” We’ve all heard about famous writers who’ve been alcoholics or have committed suicide (Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway) and musicians (Kurt Cobain) and even comedians (Robin Williams).

This is why so many people are surprised to learn that there’s no scientific evidence of a link between creativity and mental illness. In fact, there’s substantial evidence that creative people are more happy and mentally balanced than average; for example, check out this new study that found that writers “have more optimistic perspectives and improved quality of life”.

In the latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, reporter Tom Bartlett has written an excellent story that starts with his visit to the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival, where Professor Nancy Andreasen gave a standing-room-only lecture arguing that creative people are more likely to be mentally ill–specifically, to have mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. But after speaking with several other prominent creativity researchers who were also invited to speak at the event (including me), he was surprised to discover that most of us don’t believe there’s a link.

Of course, Professor Andreasen strongly defended her research when interviewed by Bartlett after her talk. So when Bartlett concludes his article, he throws up his hands and says he can’t figure out what the real truth is:

The discussion too often gets derailed by wildly varying definitions of creativity and mental illness, terms that are so hopelessly broad that simply asking if there is a link between the two is unlikely to ever lead to a satisfying answer. The research that appears most promising takes a narrow look at particular fields and distinguishes between everyday creativity and bleeding-edge genius. It remains a bewildering puzzle, one hampered by our still-evolving knowledge of neurological differences, the challenge of categorizing creativity, and the cultural biases that can’t help but influence our conclusions. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.

It’s not Bartlett’s fault; after all, there are one or two professors who stand out against the broader scientific consensus, most notably Andreasen, so what is a journalist supposed to do? Journalists generally like to represent every side of a controversial issue, but in this case I think Bartlett worked too hard to seem to treat both sides equally. When he interviewed me, I told him about the four most definitive scientific studies of mental illness and creativity, all of which found that among creative people, there isn’t a higher incidence of any mental disorder (I summarize all four in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity). I told him about the many studies showing that exceptional creators are more likely to be mentally healthy. I told him that most of my creativity research colleagues are certain there isn’t a link:

  • Robert Weisberg (2006) says this is a myth
  • James Kaufman (2009), the author of Creativity 101, says that studies claiming there’s a link are flawed and that the link has never been proven
  • In his influential textbook, Mark Runco (2007) says “there are indications that creativity has benefits for health” and that the only reason people are still talking about this is “because it is newsworthy”

One seeming exception is Dean Keith Simonton, who’s quoted by Bartlett as saying there might be a correlation between very highly exceptional creativity and mild psychopathology (although not full-blown mental illness). But even Simonton doesn’t think there’s a link between regular, everyday creativity and mental illness. And more importantly, he doesn’t argue that the link is a causal link–the idea that being exceptionally creative makes you more likely to become mentally ill, or the idea that having a mental illness makes it more likely that you will be exceptionally creative.

The first thing you learn in an undergraduate psychology course is that correlation is not causation. Even if there were a correlation between being creative and having mild symptoms of mental illness–and this rather mild claim is the only one that gets any traction with any more than one or two of creativity researchers–that link would not necessarily be causal. There are lots of ways that it could be almost accidental:

  • Artistic professions don’t police their borders the same way other professions do. If you’re bipolar, it may be hard to get through law school or medical school, but no one can stop you from taking up a pen and paper and writing short stories.
  • Our society has lots of stereotypes about how creative people are “supposed” to behave, and these include quirky behaviors and eccentricity. If a painter is a bit unconventional, no one gets upset. But if your accountant starts to act a bit quirky, you’ll go in search of another accountant. In other words, if we believe there’s a link between artistic creativity and eccentricity, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Finally, most artists and writers are not that successful, at least not right away. Their paintings don’t sell for a lot; their short stories and novels take years before they become famous (if ever). Engaging in work that you really care about, and experiencing rejection for days, months, and years, could stress out the most mentally stable individual.

All three of these explanations are perfectly good accounts of why there might be a correlation between artistic creativity and mild levels of mental unusual-ness. So it’s actually kind of surprising that all four of the major studies did not find any statistical evidence of a correlation between creativity and mental illness. (It’s probably because engaging in creative activities actually benefits your mental health.) And none of these explanations require us to posit a causal link. But of course it’s the causal link that gets people so interested–the belief that if you’re mentally ill, you can tap into some inner reserve of creative potential that is closed off to us normal people. For THAT claim, there is no evidence whatsoever.

Just Published: A Comprehensive Overview of Creativity Research

Now available from Oxford University Press:

Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, Second Edition

When I published the first edition of Explaining Creativity in 2006, it was the first overview of creativity research. Since that time, the field has matured significantly, with two more textbook overviews (by Mark Runco and Robert Weisberg) and several edited handbooks, and a lot more great research. So I’ve been hard at work these last two years, writing this second edition… It’s radically new, with seven new chapters, 8 new appendixes, and every other chapter rewritten. As Dean Keith Simonton (UC Davis) says,

Without doubt, Explaining Creativity is the most comprehensive single-volume presentation of what we know about the creative process, person, and product. Besides that, the book is extremely well-written.

Here’s a small sample of some of the more surprising things you’ll learn in this book, that aren’t collected in any other book about creativity:

Which famous creativity researcher first introduced Timothy Leary to psychedelic mushrooms?

  • Frank X. Barron (Chapter 2, p. 18)

In what year and location was the first patent granted?

  • 1474 in Venice (Chapter 2, p. 21)

The fourth-grade slump is a myth; creativity continually increases with age. (Chapter 4, p. 74)

In recent decades, the formerly observed drop in creativity in later years is no longer occuring; find out why on page 288. (Chapter 15)

Abraham Maslow’s graduate advisor, Harry Harlow, first documented that external rewards interfered with motivation, in a study with which animal species?

  • Monkeys (Chapter 4, pp. 78-79)

The story about Archimedes shouting Eureka in the bathtub is a myth; find out how we know on page 97. (Chapter 5)

When was the ten year rule first documented, and in which area of expertise?

  • In 1899 with telegraph operators. (Chapter 5, p. 93)

The story of Kekule dreaming of a snake biting its tail and then realizing the molecular structure of benzene is a myth; find out the story on pages 373-374. (Chapter 20)

The story of Mendel discovering modern genetics and then being ignored for 35 years is false; find out the real story on pages 378-379. (Chapter 20)

In what year was the first creativity training program?

  • 1937 at GE (Appendix A, p. 439)

Who designed the cover graphic of the Creativity Research Journal?

  • Mark Runco’s son, Chris Runco (Appendix C, p. 445)