Deciding to Create

The choice to create art can be a life-affirming response to violence.

Posted Jan 26, 2017

When the truck crashed into the Berlin Christmas market, I was rehearsing with the Bach Choir in the Memorial Church 15 yards away. Because we were singing and people were rehearsing a Christmas pageant at the same time, we heard none of the sounds outside. We learned what had happened only when two policemen came to escort us across the empty market. I will never forget the expression of the young policeman, who stood holding his machine gun. He and his colleague waited patiently to lead us out in a group so that no one would be left behind. “What happened?” we asked him, and the policeman answered, “Someone drove a truck into the Christmas market. Es gibt Todten. There are people dead.”

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church Interior. MyName (Panic) 2007.
Source: Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church Interior. MyName (Panic) 2007.

Twelve people died that night, and 48 people were wounded. I thought of them as I walked home through the silent streets, and I continue to think of them now. They are the ones who suffered in the attack, they and their families and friends. I do not want to disregard or exploit their suffering in writing about my response to this violence.

I had come to Berlin to do academic work, plus write a novella I’d been working on since 2013. I had been hoping to finish a first draft, so that I could submit it as my thesis for the Warren Wilson MFA program in fiction, where I am earning a degree. Since October, I had been writing with increasing speed about a traumatized woman who cleans rooms at a chain motel. I had planned to write about her one day a week and spend the rest of my time reading and writing articles. After the truck passed so close to me, an inner voice asked, “Why don’t you just write every day?” Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do. I finished Clean a few days ago.

I am an English professor and former neuroscience student, and it would take a team of psychologists to explain what happened. Maybe the jolt I experienced shook the story out, since it is about trauma and abuse. My research on creativity suggests another possibility: that a person can decide to create. At the Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshop, a teacher once told us: Make sure you sit down at your desk every day. Don’t go for coffee, and don’t check your e-mail. Make an honest attempt to write. If you force yourself to try, something may happen. I think I decided to try.

Classic studies of creativity indicate that the creative process is not simple. Mathematician Jacques Hadamard, who interviewed a hundred scientists including Albert Einstein, learned that “sudden enlightenments” occur only after extended periods of unconscious work (Hadamard 1949, 21). Based on his interview data, Hadamard found that “incubation generally precedes illumination” (Hadamard 1949, 33). Like scientists, fiction-writers may be working through problems even when their conscious minds are occupied with daily tasks. Hadamard’s thinkers also showed him that creative breakthroughs depend on conscious labor: “‘Sudden inspirations’ . . . never happen except after some days of voluntary effort. . . . Discovery cannot be produced only by chance” (Hadamard 1949, 45). For writers, this explains how sitting—or standing—at a desk can play a role. Hadamard’s qualitative research with scientists told him that intuitive leaps emerge from a combination of unconscious processing and conscious effort.

Jacques Hadamard. Harcourt, Paris. Public Domain.
Source: Jacques Hadamard. Harcourt, Paris. Public Domain.

Through extensive, interview-based studies of creative people, psychologists Mark Freeman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have demonstrated that no one creates alone. A person needs the time to think, experiment, or write in a world where most people do physical labor to support themselves and others. People have or lack the time for creative work based on the ways societies are organized. “It is not quite right to say that creativity is affected by social conditions,” wrote Freeman. “Instead, it would seem more appropriate to say that creativity is constituted through those conditions” (Freeman 1993, 12).

Freeman and Csikszentmihalyi demonstrated how greatly creative people depend on social support networks. Csikszentmihalyi challenged the stereotype of the lone, creative genius by arguing that, “creativity must . . . be seen not as something happening within a person but in the relationships within a system” (Csikszentmihalyi 1996, 27). He identified three elements whose interaction leads to creative achievements: 1) a domain (the rules of a field such as physics or novel-writing), 2) a field (a group of experts qualified to guide and judge beginners’ efforts), and 3) a motivated individual (Csikszentmihalyi 1996, 27). In my case, a holiday break from teaching gave me the time to write, and lectures by seasoned authors guided me toward the choice to push my other work aside and let the novella breathe.

Last spring, I served on the Honors Thesis Committee of Sara Duval, an Interdisciplinary Studies major at Emory who took Freeman’s and Csikszentmihalyi’s studies in a new direction. For her Honors Thesis, “Muse: Demystifying the Artist,” Duval created a multimedia magazine featuring interviews with artist Megan Mosholder, photographer Gary Gruby, editor Laura Relyea, and gallery owner Erica Jamison (Duval 2016). Nowadays, almost no one supports him or herself through art alone, and Duval wanted to debunk myths by shedding light on the ways artists actually live. Her interview findings challenge not just the stereotype of the lone, impoverished genius but that of the working artist as a “sell-out” (Duval 2016). Duval was concerned that talented young people were shunning art as a career for fear that they would starve. To encourage future artists, she offered stories and images of gifted, pragmatic people thriving in the arts community.

Maybe it is a luxury to decide to create art. For people trapped by violence or working to support others, this decision is not an option. But for those who can find the time and the social support, the choice to create art can be a life-affirming response to violence. In Hadamard’s terms, if a project has been incubating, one can make it real only through a conscious effort. As Freeman, Csikszentmihalyi, and Duval have found, this effort tends to connect one with others rather than isolate the artist. Freeman learned from the artists he interviewed that “it was only in becoming less self-involved and self-enclosed in their artistic activities that they moved forward, creatively and communicatively, in their work” (Freeman 1993, 27).

Five days after the terrorist attack, we sang the Christmas Eve service we had been rehearsing on December 19th. We substituted “Dona Nobis Pacem” for a more festive piece that we had been preparing. As we sang, we joined hands, responding to the destruction of life with the music we could make. Since then, I have been writing. I have not felt alone, and I have not felt afraid.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1996. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Duval, Sara. 2016. “Muse: Demystifying the Artist.” Honors Thesis. Emory University.

Eddy, Melissa. Dec. 21, 2016. “Germany Seeks Tunisian Tied to Berlin Christmas Market Attack.” The New York Times.

Freeman, Mark. 1993. Finding the Muse: A Sociopsychological Inquiry into the Conditions of Artistic Creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hadamard, Jacques. 1949. An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. Princeton: Princeton University Press.