Tag Archives: creativity

The power of stories

In today’s blog, I’d like to take a moment to share some thoughts about why stories matter so much to us as human beings. After all, my bookshelves are groaning with accumulated evidence and there seems to be no cure…

The divine spark

Scholars have been pondering the origin of language for many centuries, and have still not arrived at a comfortable consensus of exactly when, where, and how we began creating abstract fantasies (partly because of a lack of direct evidence, and partly because pondering is part of the scholarly job description). However, it’s probably a fairly safe bet that stories originated in oral form, and only later progressed to pictographic and phonetic representational language. This supposition – that stories predate even the written word – speaks volumes (no pun intended) about stories’ power over our species. Some scholars, such as Brian Boyd in his On the Origin of Stories, even go as far to say that stories have helped shape our evolution, and I can’t help but think he has a point.

Most cultures include creation myths that make direct or indirect reference to an ‘enlightenment’ when humans acquired the use of language, art, and above all intelligence and tool-making. From Prometheus taking pity on cold, vulnerable humanity, to Adam and Eve eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, to Maui tricking Mahuika out of the secret of fire – everyone seems to be in on the idea that intelligence/sentience (and the control that comes with it) is a divine gift that puts us on a par with the gods themselves. Our earliest ancestors clearly believed that stories – and the sentience required to produce them – were important and not a frivolous waste of time. This is pretty profound stuff when we consider just how much time and energy was devoted to simply surviving thousands of years ago!

Stories without borders

There is no doubt that stories have a primal quality to them. They call to us across every social and racial boundary. For me, the most astonishing boundaries that have been crossed are time and space. Carl Sagan once commented that books are truly magical devices, and I’m inclined to agree: The years spent working on the Delorean, H. G. Wells’ time machine, and even constructing the Doctor’s TARDIS all seem like a monumental waste of effort when we can all travel in time and space merely by picking up a small object stitched together from wood pulp and neatly-arranged pigments. Granted, these fictional journeys all take place inside the confines of our own minds, but how does this differ from the way our brains perceive all of our experiences? I’m reminded of a quote from The Matrix:

Morpheus real quote
Even Roald Dahl’s titular heroine in Matilda, “travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.” I would love to see all of the mental passport stamps I’ve collected over the years, purely from the act of reading!

That such a fragile object as a book can connect thoughts, emotions, and ideas across thousands of miles, millennia of time, and even between the living and the dead, is downright incredible. However, we’re so conditioned to treating books as ordinary objects that we tend to forget what *%$£ing amazing things they truly are. I cannot help but wonder what stories are still locked up in the cryptic, stunningly beautiful cave-art, everywhere from France to Australia, left by our Paleolithic ancestors.

So why do stories matter so much to us? Why are they such a significant part of our human identity? Here are some possibilities:

1) Abstract imagination can help shape our current and future realities

Being able to imagine possible outcomes from a given situation would have been an exceedingly valuable tool for our relatively feeble-bodied species in the millennia before we invented fast food and antibiotics. For us to develop sharp cutting tools from a pile of flint boulders, we had to first imagine what would happen if we banged them together in a particular way. To flush out and trap dangerous prey species, we needed to first understand how that particular animal had acted in the past, and then imagine what they would do if acted upon by certain stimuli in the future (e.g. ‘if Gary strips off and runs towards the river wailing his fool-head off, the mammoths will all run over there to get out of his way’).

Our imaginations are what allow us to draw upon past experiences and synthesise possible futures. But here’s the neat thing: those past experiences don’t necessarily have to be our own. By telling each other stories, whether they are ‘true’, a mixture of our own experiences and those of others, or purely made-up from our own imaginations, we can also teach and pass on our own wisdom to others.

However, stories don’t just give us a way of imagining the outcome of immediate, survival-related scenarios; they can also help us explore and shape our distant futures. For example, Jules Verne was imagining men on the Moon long before the first space rocket was invented, and George Orwell gave us a glimpse of what overarching surveillance could do to society many years before we had even heard of CCTV and the Internet. Stories, and especially the genre of science fiction, gives us a playground where we can enact possibilities and lay the imaginative groundwork for future generations to explore. This does not mean that all scientific discoveries and societal changes must first be predicted through fiction – indeed, many advances have happened due to fortuitous accidents! – but a great many intellectual pathways would remain unexplored if somebody had not first asked the fateful question, ‘what if…?’ through the medium of fiction.

2) Lessons and survival

Stories hold the power to help us feel better about our circumstances. They can also inspire us to endure hardships, or change our lives for the better. How? Through empathising with characters who are also undergoing hardship, or who must necessitate change to improve their lives or those of others. It doesn’t matter if the hero of the story is going up against mythical beasts to save a kingdom, or an angry neighbour who refuses to return the lawn mower – what matters is that the characters’ attitudes can inspire and empower us to take charge of our own lives.

A glance through the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales is enough to show us the power of stories in teaching younger generations important survival skills. Stay out of the dark woods – or the trolls will eat you! Keep away from that deep pond – or Jenny Greenteeth will get you! Beware of strangers. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t accept gifts from fairies. And on and on it goes. People have been using stories to teach moral or life-saving lessons since we first sat around a campfire and muttered, ‘I bleedin’ told him, “don’t go into that lion’s den!”, but would he bleedin’ listen?!’

These tales, whether based on real or imagined threats, could potentially save younger and/or less experienced individuals from painful or high-risk experiences, and thus improve their chances of survival. After all, it’s important to make sure even young children know not to mess about near deep, stagnant water, not to wander into places where they could get lost or hurt by wild animals, and to keep strangers at arm’s length. Stories therefore play a small, but important, role in ensuring those children grow up and eventually pass on those same lessons to their children. From an evolutionary point of view, telling stories is a pretty good way of ensuring future generations can recognise and stay out of trouble.

These are just a few reasons why I think stories matter so much to us. If you think I’ve left anything out, or disagree with the points I’ve made, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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The power of stories by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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Creative ups and downs

Hello Internet,

Today I’m going to talk briefly about the daily struggle of writing – and creativity in general. Many of us will have made a New Year’s resolution to be more creative, and a large percentage will end up needlessly beating themselves up for not meeting that target. We know that art, writing, music, and other creative pursuits can bring us intense satisfaction and joy, but also angst and intolerable frustration. So what makes this nebulous thing called ‘creativity’ so special, and why must we fight to nurture and support it even when it seemingly dries up or lets us down?

I love to write. It gives my soul wings and connects me with people and ideas I would never otherwise encounter. The satisfaction of wrapping up a final draft is intense and addictive. But juggling this urge to explore, inform, and tell stories through words on top of everything else life throws at me sometimes makes me want to sit down in a corner and cry. There are occasions when all I want is to sit down and write, but trying to get the words to flow is like trying to squeeze water from a granite sponge. I also know for a fact that I’m not alone in feeling this disconsolation and urge to quit every now and then.

So how can we get through these down-times, and why – when we’re usually already our own worst critic – do we need to also be our own best friend? Whether you’re a cartoonist, sculptor, musician, or dancer, I hope you’ll find something here to encourage you back into doing what you love best.

One of those days

Life is wondrous. That we can even operate our bodies enough to breathe is a freaking miracle of biochemistry. Are you reading this right now? If so, congratulations! You are the product of uncounted billions of generations of successful predator evasions, chance fertilisations, and survival against the odds within an unbroken evolutionary chain that stretches back right to the very origin of life on planet Earth (I just know this is paraphrasing a famous figure, but I’ve no idea who – answers on a postcard, please). Give yourself a pat on the back, you wonderpuss, you.

However, life can also suck rancid moose wang (thank you, Jim Butcher). There are the tedious repetitions and annoyances that, like sand, can be easily brushed off if there’s only a little, but that can all too easily build up and scour your creativity away to the bone. Overdue bills. Eating plain noodles for the fourteenth time in a week because there’s nothing else left in the cupboard. Kids that need dropping off and picking up, then dropping off again. Endlessly applying for jobs that makes you feel like you’re throwing confetti into an endless, hungry abyss. Holding down three jobs just to afford travel to and from each one. Collapsing into bed at the end of each day, knowing that you need to get up in three hours’ time to catch a bus in time to start it all over again. Seeing a loved-one’s suffering get progressively worse as they wait for a consultation, then more tests, then further consultations, and still more tests, in a limbo-state that lasts for months, even years.

Then there are the random crises that everyone must deal with, sooner or later. A few words spoken over the phone at 3am can drop bombshells into lives and shatter them into sharp-edged rawness, bleeding all creativity dry in a moment as car keys are sought and hospital ward numbers are noted in shaky handwriting. Life is wondrous, but it can also be a fragile, terrifying mess where priorities can shift from ordering a takeaway to sitting outside an operating theatre in the space of a missed heartbeat.

From everyday frustrations to life-changing moments, creativity often seems like it’s at the bottom of our list of priorities. This can also become a negative feedback loop; the less time and energy we have to spend on creative pursuits, the more difficult it becomes to make the time and energy, and the harder it is to summon any motivation when we miraculously get the time and energy. So how do we combat this problem, and why is creativity so important?

The font of all creation

Creativity can be a fickle, unpredictable thing, but it is also one of our greatest assets as human beings. Author Julian May beautifully expressed its energy and mystery in her Galactic Milieu series in the context of psychic powers, but her observations are nevertheless applicable to ‘normal’ expressions of creativity such as art and music:

Diamond mask quote

May also notes that creative insights can strike seemingly at random – the ‘bolt from the blue’ that illuminates solutions – or can evolve over time if they are left undisturbed ‘to stew’. I agree with May in that there is a strong case for sometimes leaving creativity well alone in order to make it grow stronger; if your muse is running dry, it’s worth exercising other parts of the brain to let it recover. If your artistic side is flagging, read a book. If your writers’ block has grown too large, go for a walk or weed the garden. It’s almost as though our creativity is an engine that can run hot and blow a radiator if pushed too hard for too long. It’s good to jump out and walk every now and then, and come back when things have had a chance to cool down.

This is good practise for anyone who relies on a stable relationship with their muse, rather than just as a hobby. Writers, artists, animators, musicians – we all need to respect our creativity and treat it with the same care and attention that an Olympic athlete treats their body. I write, but I also take regular walks in the nature reserve at my local park, and practise Tai Chi Qigong. One of the stances in Tai Chi is called ‘Pearl in The Hand’, and invites us to reflect on and venerate our personal gifts (as part of a nice over-the-shoulder stretch). I think it’s too easy to dismiss the creative outlets we enjoy as ‘not a real job’ or not worthy of the same attention as doing the shopping or paying bills. But if you derive satisfaction from your creativity, and especially if you want to pursue one of its many expressions as a full-time career – if indeed, creativity is part of what defines you as a person – then we should be celebrating it as the very real, and very valuable, gift that it is.

The are many obstacles to gathering enough time and energy to devote to our creativity, but they are obstacles, not absolute barriers. Being as organised as possible with your materials and time is one of the ways we can start to take control. Having specific tasks and breaking them into manageable chunks, instead of having vague ambitions (e.g. ‘write more’), is another tried and tested method. It’s also important to learn to forgive and be kind to yourself; it’s never a good thing when your boss tries to ‘motivate’ you by making unreasonable demands or by bullying you with veiled threats and harassment, so avoid treating yourself like that. You and your creativity are important and worthy of respect, even if nobody else recognises that fact. Believe in yourself, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this just means wishing on a flaming ball of hydrogen gas thousands of light-years away is enough. You are your own motivational coach, who helps you learn from failure and mistakes, never belittles you, and celebrates every achievement.

So, if you’re having ‘one of those days’ and just want to quit, just remember this: your creativity is a precious part of who you are, but even this vital and powerful force needs a pep talk and ten minutes with its feet up now and then. Love yourself, respect your creativity, and don’t feel guilty about taking control of how you live with your muse.

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Creative ups and downs by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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