Pioneering Psycholinguist Vera John-Steiner on How Creativity Works
“In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding.”
By Maria Popova
Literature is the original internet — an endless rabbit hole of discoveries, with each citation, footnote, and allusion essentially a “hyperlink” to another text, another idea. I was recently reminded of this by a passing mention in Ronald Kellogg’s 1994 book on the psychology of writing, which led me to a fantastic 1985 volume titled Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking (public library). In this masterwork of insight, psycholinguist Vera John-Steiner cracks open the minds of 100 different creative individuals — writers, artists, composers, choreographers — via original interviews and an analysis of their existing notebooks, journals, letters, and scientific records, shedding light on the central elements and essential patterns of creative thought.
While John-Steiner expanded on seminal work like Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s model of creativity and Howard Gardner’s influential theory of multiple intelligences, she pioneered a new framework for understanding creativity based on qualitative research and interdisciplinary perspective. An early champion of an idea now ubiquitous in today’s ever-growing catalog of books on creativity, John-Steiner approached her research with visionary clarity of conviction: “That ‘creativity’ is beyond analysis is a romantic illusion we must now outgrow.”
One of the most important and enduring of John-Steiner’s insights on the “invisible tools” that propel a life of creative work and set artists apart from the rest is the concept of memory and how it empowers us to connect seemingly unrelated ideas — one of the defining characteristics of the creative mind and the basis of combinatorial creativity. She writes:
Among the invisible tools of creative individuals is their ability to hold on to the specific texture of their past. Their skill is akin to that of a rural family who lives through the winter on food stored in their root cellar… The creative use of one’s past, however, requires a memory that is both powerful and selective.
Mozart, she notes, called this his “bag of memories” — a mental reservoir of experiences and impressions “accumulated during the childhood years of intense wonder, a source to which many creative people return again and again.” Similarly, Ingmar Bergman wrote that “to make films is also to plunge again by its deepest roots down to the world of childhood.” She cites author Judy Blume, for whom this mental library of memories is especially dependent on sensory impressions:
I remember smells, feelings. I will walk in a house and say, this is B. N.’s home. This is the way his house smelled on a winter morning. All the sensations are there to be brought back.
This highly selective nature of creative memory is a supreme testament to the fact that memory is not a recording device and that, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks would put it decades later, “memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.” John-Steiner quotes the English poet Stephen Spender, who captured this beautifully:
Memory is not exactly memory. It is more like a prong, upon which a calendar of similar experiences happening throughout the years, collect. A memory once clearly stated ceases to be a memory, it becomes perpetually present, because every time we experience something which recalls it, the clear and lucid original experience imposes its formal beauty on the new experiences. It is thus no longer memory but an experience lived through again and again.
But certain domains of creativity, like science or the sort of writing that relies on a heavy use of research and historical facts, demand that the creator’s access to memory be a lot less abstract and a lot more methodical. Indeed, this need explains the odd strategies many famous authors employed in organizing their ideas. John-Steiner points to Darwin’s particularly obsessive organization strategy, possibly one of his techniques for alleviating his chronic anxiety — he “carefully indexed all the books he had read and organized the material into portfolios that he consulted at the beginning of each new project.” Reviewing other examples of similar practices, John-Steiner puts it in no uncertain terms:
A powerful and personally developed structuring of information — an active and selective memory — is as necessary for scientists as it is for poets.
But perhaps the most potent use of memory in the creative mind is the cross-pollination of accumulated ideas and the fusing together of seemingly unrelated concepts into novel configurations — something Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the greatest science essayist of all time, captured when he said that his sole talent is “making connections.” John-Steiner quotes a similar sentiment by the Polish-born mathematician Stan Ulam:
It seems to me that good memory — at least for mathematicians and physicists — forms a large part of their talent. And what we call talent or perhaps genius itself depends to a large extent on the ability to use one’s memory properly to find analogies, past, present and future, which [are] essential to the development of new ideas.
Returning to Judy Blume’s approach to writing, which includes writing manuscript pages and taping them into a notebook for later use while the author’s mind “races head to this or to that,” John-Steiner points out how this technique bespeaks the fact that “the human mind is multi-channeled not only in the way in which we record experience … but also in the way in which writers, poets, and composers think while engaged in a new work”:
While Blume composes her narrative in a focused forward movement on her typewriter, she is also aware of the more diffuse associations that accompany her writing.
She cites her interview with the legendary composer Aaron Copland, who remarked that when this associative process works in an optimal state of flow, “all different musical materials run to their proper places.”
This utilization of remembered ideas and their combination into new concepts, John-Steiner argues, can occur both consciously and unconsciously — the latter best evidenced in the unconscious incubation stage present in just about every formal model of the creative process. This is powered by our multiple modes of analyzing and retaining information — sensory, perceptual, semantic, and episodic. She explains:
An experience is processed in multiple ways, as each type of memory “storage” has its own special characteristic. The stories of one’s life are recorded in episodic memory, and these are tagged according to the time and place of their occurrence. More abstract knowledge lacks such coding; instead it is recorded in a more formal structure such as biological taxonomies or other facts, which are organized according to hierarchical concepts.
Each domain of creativity prioritizes a different mode of memory as a primary source of raw material. Citing painter Paul Gauguin’s self-admitted “remarkable memory,” John-Steiner notes the importance of “a precise visual imagination that activates the exceptional abilities of this artist-designer”:
Mental images are an important resource for the working artist’s talent.
Noting that memory is a crucial resource in “keeping one’s knowledge current by linking the known to new ideas and insights,” she adds:
In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding. This process is demanding; it calls upon all the inner resources of the individual — active memory, openness to experience, creative intensity, and emotional courage. It demands self-knowledge in the use of expansion of one’s talents.
In the remainder of Notebooks of the Mind, John-Steiner explores the many “invisible tools” of creative work, including the role of revision, the interplay of anxiety and ambition, the power of finding the right mentors, and the importance of working from a place of love while remaining open to all your feelings. Complement it with Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions of creativity and the psychology of optimizing your brain by honing emotional memory.
Published September 2, 2014