Narrative, creativity and emergence

In a lecture given to students on Columbia University’s creative writing programme the novelist Zadie Smith responded to an invitation to speak about her craft. In doing so she gives a very good description of the ways in which one might pay attention to micro-interactions from which the global pattern emerges. She describes a complex, adaptive relationship with the act of writing.

She draws a distinction between macro planners and micro managers,  counting herself amongst the latter (and it is interesting to note how the language of managerialism has permeated even novelists’ language). Macro planners organise everything in advance: the material, the plot, the structure, and may even write their novel from the middle. It is this tight structure that they use as their enabling constraint, which gives them freedom on the one hand, but hems them in on the other. As one choice forces another, sometimes they are impelled to change the choices they have made, moving a locale from London to Berlin, for example.

For micro managers such as herself, however, there is no grand plan: ‘ their novels only exist in the present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line.’ The novel begins at the beginning and finishes with the last word, and she has no idea what the ending is going to be until she gets there. Each word in each sentence begins to dictate how the novel emerges: ‘I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words.’ She describes her obsessive attention to the unfolding relationship between the words and sentences that she chooses as a kind of pathology: ‘It is a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of novel am I writing?’

In the first 20 pages of the novel she is working and reworking her writing until she can find the right tone, which then begins to inform the emergence of the novel. The analogy she draws is with an interior decorator who, in choosing a tone of paint, can then feel more confident in decorating the whole room.

Elsewhere the novelist Philip Pullman has described a similar creative process, of working with the grain of what he is producing to see what emerges which then informs the next step, as a way of criticising the way that creative writing is currently taught in schools. The predominant way of teaching creative writing, he says, is for students to be told that they have to write a plan first, and see their way to the end before they have started at the beginning.

Smith goes on to describe the way in which personal identity is also tied up in the craft of writing. The way she is thinking, what is important to her, who she has been reading, who she takes herself to be informs the struggle with the text, her articulation of narrative themes. Although the struggle with the thoughts of others who are not present can seem like a lonely and isolated practice, it is in fact intensely social. She continues in a conversation of meaning-making with others. In the struggle a particular sense of identity can be exhausted and extinguished by the creative act as another self emerges.

The link that I am making here with Smith’s description of her creative process is with the dynamic of creation and destruction in organisations as people struggle with each other to go on together. This, too might be thought of as a process equally involving questions of identity, meaning-making and conversation with both present and absent others where there are many possibilities.  I have previously argued that strategy-making, for example, is best understood as craft rather than  science and involves intense engagement with the self and others and a struggle over who we think we are and what we think we are doing together. It is through this intense engagement that novelty arises. Additionally, in the micro struggles over words, meanings and identity, the choices we make inform subsequent choices, patterning leads to further patterning. I have encouraged managers to pay obsessive attention to local interaction and what they think is emerging.

This is an alternative understanding to what we might think of as the dominant discourse in management where managers are macro-planners, using the Smith’s term. They are taught to map the way to the end even before  the first page has been written, the first sentence struggled over. Their attention is elswhere, to the plan and its realisation.


2 thoughts on “Narrative, creativity and emergence

  1. Pingback: Revision process « Writing Under a Pseudonym

  2. Pingback: January writing links, the fiction edition « Fog City Writer

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