Beautiful Minds

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Introducing Conversations on Creativity (Starting with Writer Piers Anthony)

Conversations on Creativity with Science Fiction Writer Piers Anthony
Thus far, my blog has mostly consisted of research findings from psychologists on issues relating to intelligence and creativity that fascinate me: What IQ is really necessary to be creative? How much does practice and passion buy you? What role do genes play in the development of creativity? How much does it depend on the environment? What's the role of education in nurturing creativity? Can education ever get in the way of creativity? These questions about intelligence and creativity are only a sampling of those that I find intriguing.

It's time to go out there and see what the most creative people of our generation think about these issues. I bet really creative people can offer insight into these issues that will be useful to almost anyone, including psychologists (not that psychologists aren't also creative people!).

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I introduce here a new series on my blog called Conversations on Creativity. In this series, I will have discussions with creative people from as many different domains as I can find. Creativity can take place anywhere, and I hope to represent as much of it as possible throughout the course of this series. To kick things off, I had a conversation with best selling science fiction writer Piers Anthony. I found out a lot about Piers I never knew, including the fact that he is a late bloomer (read the current issue of Psychology Today for a full article on Late Bloomers, where I include a quote from this interview-you can view a snippet of the article here).

Piers Anthony is one of the most successful science fiction writers of our time, racking up twenty-one New York Times paperback bestsellers in one decade.Xanth, perhaps his most well-known and popular series, has reached levels of success most science fiction writers only dream of achieving. His first novel in the series, A Spell for Chameleon, won the 1997 British Derleth Fantasy Award. The fifth book in the Xanth series, Ogre, Ogre, was one of the first fantasy paperback novels to make the New York Time bestseller list. At least two other series of his--Incarnations of Immortality and Apprentice Adept-- have also become best-sellers. Anthony even novelized the Hollywood movie Total Recall, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let's begin our conversation.

S. Why in the world did you decide you wanted to be a creative writer? Were there any significant events in your early life that influenced your decision to be a creative writer?

P. In school my several potentials were blocked off, until midway through college I considered carefully and realized that my true ambition was to write. It was like a guiding light turning on, and I have followed it ever since.

S. Why do you think your potentials were blocked off? Do you think it was largely a matter of the right trigger being absent?

P. Some of it was the way I started late, learning to read. More of it was that when my math ability flowered - I loved algebra and trigonometry - I was required instead to take four years of foreign languages, at which I stunk. I went from Honor Student to almost flunking out because of it. By college it was too late to catch up on the math. So in effect I had to start over.

S. Have you ever had any quirky jobs that don't relate to creative writing that you care to share?

P. I had something like 15 early employments, ranging from logging to being an aide in a mental hospital, and didn't really care for any of them. Finally my wife went to work so that I could stay home and try to be a writer. That's when I made my first sale, after 8 years of trying.

S. Which work of yours are you most proud of, and why?

P. My historical novel Tatham Mound. My younger daughter was interested in archaeology, and we supported our children's interests, and when they discovered a major Native American burial mound in our county of Florida, we financed its investigation and study by the University of Florida. I based my novel on what they learned, animating the bones, as it were. The archaeological project contributed significantly to the present-day knowledge of the Tocobaga Indians, and I regard the novel as the major project of my career.

Background

S. Were you always a dreamer? Did you fantasize about other worlds as a young child?

P. I was surely always a dreamer, but I don't remember fantasizing about other worlds. I just wanted to be out of this one.

S. Were you a good student in grade school? How well did you do in English classes?

P. I was not a good student in grade school. In fact it took me three years and five schools to make it through first grade. I had trouble learning to read. My elder daughter was diagnosed dyslexic, but in my day dyslexia didn't exist, merely stupid students. So I may have set a record for stupidity. I did not do well in English, being unable to spell correctly.

S. As a student, did you ever get in trouble for not conforming?

P. I have gotten in trouble for not conforming all my life. I was suspended from college for a week for being with the girl I later married - we remain married 52 years later - was denied promotion in the US Army despite being a Math instructor they could not spare, even for mandatory leave time, and was blacklisted for six years as a writer when I refused to back off when a publisher cheated me. In all cases I had the right of the case, and the other parties don't like to talk about it. Like the Romans, I simply would not bow my head to false gods.

S. I won't ask you to clarify why you could get in trouble for "being" with a girl (you accidently ended up attending an all-girls catholic college, obviously) but I was wondering if you could please elaborate on why you were denied promotion in the US Army?

P. I was in a lounge talking with my girlfriend and two other couples, 20 minutes after the lounge was ruled closed. The college lounges were administered by the community government, but the faculty arbitrarily pre-empted them and closed them. It was in violation of the college standards, and there was a massive student protest, but the college president said he would close the whole college unless the suspensions were honored. In effect, it was like a dictator making a coup, and shooting anyone who protested. Years later, when I became a major financial supporter of the college and reminded it of that injustice, it was totally mute. I suspect not willing to believe that any such thing had happened. The whip-hand had changed.

The US Army decided that soldiers should buy US Savings Bonds, at 2.5% interest, even if they needed the money to live on. I was one of two soldiers who declined. It took time, but they busted the other - that is reduced his rank on a pretext - and put me to work weeding and doing manual work, though I was a math and survey instructor, and barred me from ever being promoted beyond my then-rank of PFC - private first class. They also summoned off-post personnel - married men like me - to attend early morning revelie at 5:30 AM, to put pressure on me. It didn't work; the others appreciated the fact that I was doing what they had not dared to do. You won't find any of that illicit pressure in the Army records, of course.

S. Would you consider yourself a late bloomer?

P. Yes.

S. Nice one, me too. Well, I'm still waiting for the blooming, that is.

Talent

S. To what extent do you think practice and hard work can make someone a great creative writer?

P. They are essential. There does need to be creative potential, but it can take time and work to harness it.

S. One of the things you are known for is your clever use of puns. Does punning come easily for you? If so, has it always come easily?

P. I was never much of a punster. When I got into fantasy, I found I couldn't take it seriously, so Xanth became humorous. Then readers started sending in puns. Thus it is true that I get many of my ideas from my readers.

S. How far do you think skills in creative writing generalize to other kinds of writing, to other creative endeavors, and to other parts of life?

P. I am a creative person, and I think is shows all over. Creative writing is merely one expression of it. I am different in many ways that don't commonly show. I am right handed, but eat left handed. I am a vegetarian. I am agnostic, with no belief in the supernatural. I type on the Dvorak keyboard. I use the Linux operating system. Even my blood type is rare: B-negative. When I braided my daughter's hair for school, I made three braids. I wear a ponytail. I'm simply different in many minor ways.

S. This seems like a common theme among other creators. I wonder how much really creative people see the world differently. It's an intriguing idea, at least. 

Process

S. How do you think of new stories? Do fully formed ideas ever come to you suddenly, such as in your dreams?

P. Ideas come in myriad ways. I make notes of them, and have a file of hundreds of ideas, ranging from unformed passing notions to story summaries thousands of words long. This is a useful file. At the end of May, 2008, I had a naughty erotic story notion titled "Knave". Then an erotic publisher solicited a contribution, so I wrote it in three days, and it will be published as part of the Cobblstone "Wicked" line. All it takes is a coalescing idea and a market. But mostly I simply settle down and develop the ideas I need for my current project. My winged horse of imagination has been long-since harnessed.

S. What role do you think the unconscious plays in creative writing?

P. A huge role. I think of consciousness as the tip of an iceberg.

S. Care to elaborate? 

P. Much of our thinking occurs at the subconscious level. We even learn in our sleep, as our minds and dreams sort out the prior day's events and put them in order, and fix important memories. That's why an answer to a tough question can appear next day. Why couldn't you think of it before? Because your unconscious hadn't gotten to work on it yet.

S. How do you come up with your characters? Are a large proportion of them based on people you know in real life?

P. My characters are generally Everyman: just typical men and women, with cosmetic details changes. That's so my readers can readily identify. Very few are based on real people. Jenny Elf in Xanth derives from my paralyzed correspondent Jenny; that's the major example.

S. What role does revision play in your creative writing? Do you frequently go through many drafts of a manuscript?

P. Revision is vital. The original text can be likened to rough diamond; revision is the faceting and polishing that makes it shine.

S. Do you ever have writer's block? If so, what works for you in overcoming it?

P. No. I developed a system to overcome it long ago. Essentially, I talk to myself, or write to myself, stating the situation and the problem, and proffering ideas to handle it. Eventually one clicks, and I proceed.

S. How much do you think trial-and-error characterizes your creative writing process?

P. Trial and error is more or less constant. But I have so much experience that now it's about 99% trial, 1% error.

S. It's interesting that through experience, you've learned how to keep your errors to a minimum. Does that also mean that you can almost always tell ahead of time which of your ideas will be a big hit? Do you think that is a skill that people can learn?

P. I was thinking of the actual process of writing; I seldom have to delete anything today. But on the larger scale of life, certainty is much less secure, and I don't know what the best course may be. Surely most people can learn to make fewer mistakes as they age; experience is a great teacher.

Creative Writing and Mental Illness

S. There is prevailing belief in the United States, partly inspired by the Romantic Movement, that creativity is associated with mental illness. What are your thoughts on this? Do people with mental illness flock to creative writing, does creative writing cause one to go mad, is it some mix of the two, or is it neither?

P. Would you believe - early in my career my health insurance excluded me for all mental diseases? 30 years later it turned out to be a thyroid deficiency. So there's definitely an association, but I think mostly in the minds of dull Mundane folk who don't understand creativity. I regard myself as perfectly, joyously, crazily sane.

S. What does it mean for health insurance to exclude you for all mental diseases? Does that mean they were under the impression you had an awful lot of mental diseases, but it turned out they were misinformed, and you only had a thyroid deficiency?

P. Insurance companies like to take your money, but they don't like to pay it out. Mental disease can be expensive, so they simply cut out that risk. I dumped the policy and went elsewhere. They were of course being stupid about it, but as I like to say, a company is like a mob: it is less intelligent than any of its components.

S. Is there anything else you'd like to say about yourself, your creative process, creativity in general, or anything that wasn't covered by my questions?

P. No.

S. Thanks for the interview. 

© 2008 by Scott Barry Kaufman

Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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