Jane Piirto, Ph.D.

Ashland University

Ashland, OH 44805


What makes up the specific talent of the poet? What skills are shown, or acquired on the way to expertise? There is the musical sense of making rhythm and rhyme, consonance and dissonance in conscious or unconscious patterns. There is the interest in inner probing of the self. There is the need to see life deeper than most, and if so, to tell about it in formal patterns of language. The poet can make an image that relates metaphorically to what is being discussed so that the thing itself breaks open and is illuminated through the choices or analogies that the writer has made. The poet often stubbornly insists on these metaphors, which at first may seem strange but then become commonplace to the observers. Ultimately, though the impetus for writing may stem from emotion, the poet is inspired by language and its implications. As Nobel poetry prize-winner Joseph Brodsky said, "if there is any deity to me, it's language" (Plimpton, 1988, p. 399).

From where does poetry stem? Poetry's connection with divinity goes back even farther than the Greeks, who called poetry "divine madness" (Plato, Phaedrus). The events of September 11 turned the nation to poetry as solace, as comfort (personal communication, Caroline Kennedy on the Diane Rheem Show, July 5, 2002. WCPN Cleveland). Our souls need poetry in ways we do not need other forms of literature except perhaps drama, which also has divine roots in sacred rituals played out in places of worship (Piirto, 1999b). Poet Ted Hughes (Heinz, 1995) said poetry exists on a deep, bottom level: "We all live on two levels - a top level where we scramble to respond . . . to . . . impressions, demands, opportunities. And a bottom level where our last-ditch human values live. . . poetry is one of the voices of the bottom level (p. 90).

Whereas Freud (1908) thought these visionary works stemmed from personal experience, Jung thought they stemmed from the primordial. Jung (1933) thought that the artist was a vehicle, "one who allows art to realize its purposes through him." The life of the poet cannot explain the work of the poet: "it is his art that explains the artist, and not the insufficiencies and conflicts of his personal life" (p. 171). My point of view is similar; though the life of the artist (person) is interesting, the work of art stands on its own; through somewhat mysterious channels it speaks for all people who find a relationship to it. This is perhaps best explained in people's bonding to popular songs, which are the society's rune songs, or poetry.

However universal the impulse to write poetry may be, this chapter will use examples from only those poets who have met a certain standard of peer review by virtue of publication in recognized literary venues. The standard for being cited or discussed in this chapter is that the poets discussed here would have or have met the criteria in their nations or countries for being listed in the U.S. Directory of Poets and Writers. In order to qualify, a writer must have twelve points of accumulated credit, with the following as means of qualification: one published poem counts as one point; a novel counts as twelve points, a book of published poetry counts as twelve points, and an established literary award counts as four points. In 1999-2000 there were 4,050 poets and 1,850 fiction writers. Performance writers numbered 71 people, and those who are listed as both poets and fiction writers numbered 1,225. (I am among the 1,225). Many of the studies done on poets have not used such a high standard; in this article I will try to focus on studies in which this publication and peer review standard has clearly been met.

Each field defines its "experts" through peers. The idea of individual, domain, and field is pertinent here (Feldman, Csikszentmihalyi, & Gardner, 1994). A domain is "a formally organized body of knowledge that is associated with a given field" (p. 20). Mathematics is a field, but algebra, geometry, number theory, are domains. Literature is a field, but poetry is a domain. "Domains have representational techniques that uniquely capture the knowledge that is in the domain" (p. 22). This is done through symbol systems unique to the domain, a special vocabulary, and special technologies used only within that domain. A field is transformed through individual creators pushing the boundaries of their domains. In order to transform a field the creator must have mastery of the theory, the rules, the ways of knowing of that field, and also of the domain that is being used to transform it.

Creative people, no matter what their field, have certain characteristics in common. While this chapter is about poets, most other creative producers also have these characteristics. Among these are certain core attitudes: (1) risk-taking, or taking chances in their field; (2) self-discipline, an ability to constantly work with their talent, to practice and practice; (3) motivation both to do the work and to promote the work; (4) a sense of naiveté, or openness, which constitutes the ability and willingness to see the old in new ways; and (5) unconventionality, or the ability to inure oneself against pressures to conform. I have constructed a model called The Piirto Pyramid of Talent Development that illustrates this. (Figure 1.1) This model has guided my work on talent in domains (Piirto, 1994/1999; 1992/1998;2002). It is a contextual framework that considers person, process, and product, as well as environmental factors.

Fig. 1.1: Place "Pyramid of Talent Development" about here

The Piirto Pyramid of Talent Development

1. The Genetic

At the base of the pyramid is the level of genes-- the DNA combination of one's father and one's mother and their ancestors. Writing ability sometimes runs in families, but most writers do not come from families where writing was the family profession. Whether talent is inherited or environmental is currently at issue. Much is inherited, but the environment also has an important place in working with what is inherited (Piirto, 1992/1998; 1994/1999; 2002).

2. The Emotional.

Many studies have emphasized that successful creators in all domains have certain personality attributes in common. These make up the base of the model. Among the personality attributes are androgyny (Barron 1969; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen 1993; Piirto, 1992/1998; Piirto & Fraas, 1995); creativity [(along with some other thinkers [e.g. Cattell, 1971; Renzulli, 1978; Tannenbaum, 1983), I concur that creativity is mostly an attribute of personality-with a hat doffed to the cognitive psychologists]; imagination (Dewey, 1934; Langer, 1957; Plato; Rugg, 1963; Santayana, 1896); insight (Sternberg & Davidson, 1995; Davidson 1992); intuition (Myers & McCaulley 1985); the presence of overexcitabilities, or intensity (Dabrowski, 1965; Dabrowski & Piechowski, 1977; Piechowski 1979; Silverman 1993); passion for work in a domain (Amabile, 1983,1989, 2001; Benbow 1992; Bloom 1985; Piirto 1992;1994; 1998a; 1998b; 1999; 2002); perceptiveness (Myers & McCaulley, 1985; Piirto, 1998a); perfectionism (Adderholdt-Elliot, 1991; Silverman 1993); persistence (Renzulli, 1978); resilience (Block & Kremen, 1996; Jenkins-Friedman 1992); risk-taking (Barron, 1969; MacKinnon, 1978); (Renzulli 1978); self-efficacy (Zimmerman, Bandura & Martinez-Pons, 1992); Sternberg & Lubart, 1992); tolerance for ambiguity (Barron, 1968; 1995); and volition, or will (Corno & Kanfer, 1993).

This list is by no means discrete or complete, but indicates some of the work that has been done on the personalities of creative people and indicates that this work has converged to show that such adults have achieved much by force of personality. The consolidation of personality traits into the Big Five (McCrae & Costa, 1999) is noted here, but earlier work on creative people has noted these other traits as listed, and so I include them here. Talented writers and other creative adults who achieve success possess many of these attributes. One could call these the foundation, and one could go further and say that aspects of these attributes may be innate but other aspects can also be developed. I (Piirto, 2002) discussed and gave examples of how writers' personalities display the attributes listed here. I also discussed other personality attributes that seem to be present in creative writers, including poets. These were (1) ambition /envy; (2) concern with philosophical matters; (3) frankness often expressed in political or social activism; (4) psychopathology; (5) depression; (6) empathy; and (7) a sense of humor. Space does not permit discussion here.

3. The Cognitive

Writers seem to have IQs in the 120s and above (Simonton, 1994). IQ tests measure verbal ability as well as spatial and quantitative ability, and writers seem not to score as high in spatial or in quantitative areas as they do in verbal areas. That may cause lower IQ scores. For example, world class writers given the Terman Concept Mastery Test at the University of California at Berkeley's IPAR study, scored highest (about 156) on this test of all the creative groups studied. (Barron, 1968). I (Piirto, 2002) found that while no IQ tests were available the creative writers I studied still were high academic achievers who attended prestigious colleges.

4. Talent in Domains

The talent itself--inborn, innate, mysterious--is usually a skill to do certain tasks in specific areas, or domains. Talent is the apex of the Piirto Pyramid. Many writers tell of being accused, during their early school years, of cheating on a writing assignment because it sounded so adult (Piirto, 2002). For example, the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer prize, Edna St. Vincent Millay, at age twelve, after entering a new school was kept after school after she wrote her first composition so that the teacher could find out if someone helped her write it. Millay said:

Excuse me, Mrs. Harrington . . . but I can tell that you think I didn't write that composition. Well, I did! But the only way I can prove it will be to write the next one you assign right here, in front of you. And I promise it will be as good as this one, and maybe better. (Milford, 2001, p. 5).

Most talents are recognized through certain predictive behaviors, for example voracious reading for linguistically talented students (Piirto, 1994; 1999; 2002). The most salient predictive behavior for writers was the constant reading they did, from a very early age. Writing is a talent that serves well in all professions and occupations, but poets, novelists, playwrights, songwriters, writers of creative nonfiction-creative writers-- write with levels of talent that are astounding. Often their abilities move and delight people.

The Thorn: The Notion of a "Calling"

On the Pyramid is a metaphorical thorn. The thorn pricks and pains, impels. The writer can't not write. Poet Sam Hamill described his thorn, the thorn of poetry:

Streetwise and tough, on the run, I read, memorized, recited, and wrote poetry in exactly the same way a decent young musician practices scales. . . . Poets in America don't have "careers" in poetry but I have a life in it. So I have no career, only a deep avocation and a will to practice . . . I am a scholar without students, a student whose teachers have mostly been dead for centuries (Contemporary Authors, 161, p. 112)

The presence of the thorn gives a person an idea of what his or her call, or vocation, might be. The notion of the call, or the vocation, has a religious connotation, for the poet is impelled much as the priest is.

The personality attribute of volition, or will, comes into play here. Hillman, Jung, and Plato said that a daimon pursues each person, and that person cannot rest until their daimon is answered. Nobel prizewinner Derek Walcott described being a poet as "a religious vocation. I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer" (Plimpton, 1988, p. 272). Poetry writing, as other forms of art becomes a form of auto-therapy as well as a form of inquiry about the world. Poet Emily Dickinson, for example, spent years in her room working out her own psychological problems through what Habegger (2001) called "self-therapy" and a "drive to expression" (pp. 480, 481).

5. Five Environmental "suns"

In addition, everyone is influenced by five "suns." These suns may be likened to certain factors in the environment. The three major suns are (1) the "sun of home"; (2) "sun of community and culture"; and (3) "sun of school." Other, smaller suns are (4) "sun of chance"; and (5) "sun of gender". The presence or absence of all or several of these make the difference between whether a talent is developed or whether it atrophies. In a lengthy study of themes in the lives of 160 contemporary U.S. writers (Piirto, 1999; 2002), sixteen themes emerged. These have been arranged in terms of the environmental suns in the Piirto Pyramid.

The Sun of Home

Theme 1: Unconventional families and family traumas

Theme 2: Predictive behavior of extensive early reading

Theme 3: Predictive behavior of early publication and interest in writing

Theme 4: Incidence of depression and/or acts such as use of alcohol, drugs, or the like.

Theme 5: Being in an occupation different from their parents

The Sun of Community and Culture

Theme 6: Feeling of marginalization or being an outsider, and a resulting need to have their group's story told (e.g. minorities, lesbians, regional writers, writers from lower socioeconomic class, writers of different immigration groups);

Theme 7: Late career recognition

The Sun of School

Theme 8: High academic achievement and many writing awards

Theme 9: Nurturing of talents by both male and female teachers and mentors

Theme 10: Attendance at prestigious colleges, majoring in English literature but Without attaining the Ph.D.

The Sun of Chance

Theme 11: Residence in New York City at some point, especially among the most prominent

Theme 12: The accident of place of birth and of ethnicity

The Sun of Gender

Theme 13: Conflict with combining parenthood and careers in writing;

Theme 14: Societal gender expectations incongruent with their essential personalities.

Theme 15: History of divorce more prevalent in women.

Theme 16: Military service more prevalent in men.

I found that poets and fiction writers are similar, except that poets seem to exhibit more symptoms of psychopathology (Andreason, 1987; Andreason, & Canter, 1974; Jamison, 1989; 1993). (The studies that show this to be true have been questioned -see Nettle, 2000; Schlesinger, 2002.) I have been asked to write this chapter about poets, and so I have focused on examples from poets, though to my mind, there is little difference among creative writers in most attributes.

In discussing creativity, it is common to refer to the person, product, process, and press. The Pyramid referred to above discusses the person and press. The product is what has been reviewed and admired by peer review. The next section discusses the creative process in poets (Piirto, 1992/1998; 2002).

The Creative Process in Poets

Current Psychological Theories of the Creative Process

I (Piirto 1992/ 1998; 1994/1999; 1999e) have discussed several psychological approaches to understanding the creative process: developmental, social, cognitive, educational, and humanistic. I also classified psychoanalytic, philosophical, and religious approaches. However, creative writers themselves never seem to refer to psychologists' theories as they talk about the creative process. One might say that their descriptions of the creative process verge on the mystical (Sternberg & Lubart, 1999). Poet Robert Bly acknowledged two people within: "I think writing poetry is a matter of agreeing that you have these two people inside: every day you set aside time to be with the subtle person, who has funny little ideas, who is probably in touch with retarded children, and who can say surprising things" (Moyers, 1995, p. 63). The "subtle person" is the one who is susceptible to the inspiration discussed here, and could perhaps be also called the unconscious.

Thirteen aspects of the creative process seem to impel writers and poets: (1) They seem to have pre-writing rituals; for example, they like to walk; (2) they crave silence; (3) they seek inspiration from the muse; (4) inspiration from nature; (5) inspiration through substances; (6) inspiration from others' works of art and music; (7) inspiration from dreams; (8) inspiration from travel; (9) they use imagination; (10) they seek solitude so they may go into a state of reverie (or flow); (11) they fast; (12) they meditate. In looking at these themes, one could say that poets, at least, seem to be people of the dream rather than people who consciously follow a given step by step process such as that commonly discussed by those who advocate creative problem solving. This might have to do with their almost universal preference for intuition over sensing (Myers & McCaulley, 1985). The term transliminality has been used to describe this aspect of the creative process (Thalbourne, 2000).


Rituals abound. Rituals of exercise before and while writing seem to be common. Some poets like to walk: Coleridge said he liked to think about writing while walking on uneven ground, climbing over rocks or breaking through the woods. Wordsworth liked to walk back and forth on a straight gravel sidewalk. Tennyson walked with his son, saying his latest poem out loud in rhythm, adding new lines as they seemed necessary. Hodges (1992), who collected these anecdotes, called it "ritualistic pacing" (p. 39). Such physical activities perhaps enhance seratonin and endorphins and let the pacers reach a state of creative fecundity.

The Quest for Silence

Some writers are extremely susceptible to noise and distraction, and seek to isolate themselves in a quiet place. In order to concentrate, in order to hear the inner voice, many writers must retire from sound. The appeal of writers' retreats and colonies is that of peace and quiet away from the melee, so that the creative spirit can descend. At the writers' retreat, Yaddo, lunch is delivered in a basket to the writers hard at work in their cottages. Advertisements for such retreats promise remoteness, stillness, and solitude.


All creators talk about inspiration. Literally, inspiration is a taking in of breath. In terms of creativity, inspiration provides the motivation to write. When one takes in breath, one fills the lungs with air, with environment, with the stuff of life, and after the intake comes the necessary release. For poets this release is in the writing of the poem. Various kinds of inspiration will be discussed; the visitation of the muse, the inspiration of nature, inspiration through substances, inspiration by works of art and music, inspiration from dreams, and inspiration of novel surroundings.

Inspiration: The Visitation of the Muse

Writers often speak as if what they write was sent from something within but afar. Poems "come": British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes said: "Poems get to the point where they are stronger than you are. They come up from some other depth and they find a place on the page"(Heinz, 1995, p. 67). Pulitzer prize-winning poet Anne Sexton said, "Now I tend to become dissatisfied with the fact that I write poems so slowly, that they come to me so slowly. When they come, I write them; when they don't come, I don't" (Kevles, 1968, p. 281).

Some writers feel as if they were go-betweens, mediums. Some mysterious force impels them, works through their hands, wiggles through their fingers on the keyboard, shoots to the page or the virtual page on the screen in front of the eyes. Nobel prize-winner Octavio Paz said his poem "Sun Stone" was written as if someone were "silently dictating," "from far off and from nearby, from within my own chest." He referred to this inspiration as "the current" (MacAdam, 1991, p. 113-114). Many others have called it "the muse."

Inspiration comes in response to a feeling for someone, quite possibly a sexual feeling, certainly an emotional identification. Everyone has written a secret love poem to a love, requited or unrequited. The longing lyrics of the Brownings show that the place of erotic desire and longing for sexual union cannot be underestimated in considering the products of any artists. Poets write love poems. Choreographers make ballets. Visual artists paint nudes. Many of these works are efforts to express eroticism within the boundaries of the medium within which the artists are working.

It is surprising how many poets, writers, musicians, and visual artists refer to the inspiration of the muse. Here are some examples from poets. Pulitzer prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer (1990) wrote an essay called, appropriately, "A Muse." The muse was her mother. Poet Molly Peacock (1996) said her muse was her own inner child. Poet Anne Waldman (1991) said that her Muse is sometimes "an androgynous shape-shifter " (p. 315).

The quintessential homage to and historical explanation of the power of the muse is Robert Graves' long, complicated, involved, and fascinating tome, The White Goddess (1948). Here the inspiration of the Muse was transmogrified from the Greek daughters to the female moon. The thesis was that the poetic mythical language of Europe "was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse" (p. 9). Graves himself was often inspired by beautiful young women during his long career as a writer, and he often asked his two wives to live in a kind of menage á trois relationship with the current muse (Seymour 1995).

May Sarton said she could only write poetry when she was inspired by a muse, "a woman who focuses the world for me" (Saum, 1983, p. 94). Poet James Tipton's muse, novelist and memoirist Isabel Allende, wrote an introduction to the collection of poems that won him the award of Colorado Poet of the Year (Tipton, 1998), in which she detailed the circumstances of their long and passionate correspondence.

The inspiration of the muse is also spoken of by poets of rock and roll. Songwriter Tori Amos spoke about the visitation of the muse thus: "You can begin to feel a presence when she comes. I call it a she, like it's a bath product. I would start to know when she's coming. And when that happens, I know I have to remember it. I'll write on my hand or something" (Two for the road. 1998, p. 56).

Inspiration of nature

The inspiration of nature, of trees, brooks, skies, birds, animals, weather is well-known. The scene for the poem which speaks of the vagaries of life is often set in nature. The English romantics used nature as inspiration; Wordsworth's cry against the Industrial revolution, "Little we see in nature that is ours," still resonates with writers (Wordsworth, in Woods, 1950, p. 328).

Inspiration through substances

The use of substances--alcohol, drugs, herbs--has a long and respectable reputation within the literature on the creative process in writers, artists, and others. Aldous Huxley wrote about the influence of mescaline; Samuel Taylor Coleridge about the influence of opium; Jack Kerouac about amphetamines; Edgar Allen Poe about absinthe; the seventh century Chinese Zen poet Li Po about wine; Fyodor Dostoevsky about whiskey; Allen Ginsberg about LSD; Michael McClure on mushrooms--peyote-- and also about heroin and cocaine (McClure, 1966),:

The list of substances used could go on and on. The altered mental state brought about by substances has been thought to enhance creativity--to a certain extent. The partaker must have enough wits about to descend (or ascend) into the abyss to reap what is learned there, but to be able to return and put it down (Bold, 1982; Leonard, 1989). The danger of turning from creative messenger to addicted body is great, and many writers have succumbed, especially to the siren song of alcohol. The poet Charles Baudelaire used alcohol to enhance imagination: "Always be drunk. That is all: it is the question. You want to stop Time crushing your shoulders, bending you double, so get drunk--militantly. How? Use wine, poetry, or virtue, use your imagination. Just get drunk" (Bold, p. 87-88).

Today such talk is not politically correct, as the dangers of addiction and the climate of recovery and co-dependency groups has led everyone to be cautious about substances. However, the use of substances has often taken on a mystical, spiritual aspect in the creative process of writers. Allen Ginsberg had a vision of William Blake. While reading Blake he experienced enhanced visual and auditory perception that lasted for several days. This experience led Ginsberg, who had previously used alcohol and marijuana, to experiment with mind-altering drugs, such as laughing gas, mescaline, heroin, ether, hashish, ayahuasca, and LSD. Ginsberg viewed the initial vision as "the only really genuine experience I feel I've had."

More than half of the U.S. writers who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature had alcohol difficulties (Rothenberg, 1990). Rothenberg theorized that writers use alcohol after writing, "to cope with the anxiety that is generated by the creative process itself" ( p. 92). Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler also noted that the abuse of alcohol comes after the writing as a way of coping with the intensity the writer has uncovered while writing (personal communication, Art & Soul Conference, Baylor University, February, 2002).

The Inspiration of Novel Surroundings: Travel

Travel seems to facilitate the creative process of writers, perhaps because the novelty of sensory experience is inspirational and a sense of naiveté is easy to maintain. Riding in a car or on a train into a new geographical location is often a sure way to fire the creative urges. Let me give a personal example from my life as a poet. When I visited the Himalayas I felt able to write about them as I had actually stood by the side of a road in upper Pakistan being cajoled by an old goatherd in a turban, next to a rushing aqua-limestone-water river, among the piles of pale brown rocks where nothing green could grow. I didn't have a dupatta on my head and he cluck-clucked, deeply offended at my nakedness, although I had a full-length jumpsuit with long sleeves and a high neck. I still remember that bright blue sky, that high sun, his white shalwar chemise and dirty turban, his white beard, my red jumpsuit, and his pointing finger, all on a dusty tan dirt road lined with high cliffs of unstable rock a few miles from a valley resort called "Shangri-La." Far up above there was another goatherd, shooing his charges along a high narrow path that paralleled the rock-banked road. That weekend, Easter weekend, I wrote a postcard poem to my friends. I remember sitting in a chair next to a quiet pond reflecting the sharp peaks in the clear air, copying this poem over and over as if it were a mantra. When the United States sent Cruise missiles to Afghanistan terrorist hideouts in 1998, I was easily able to picture the terrain targeted.

Inspiration by Works of Art

Many writers are inspired by works of art produced by other artists. Art inspires, and some writers work from images. Many are also good at other arts, working across genres. Nobel-winning novelist Gunter Grass said, "Invariably the first drafts of my poems combine drawings and verse, sometimes taking off from an image, sometimes from words." (Gaffney & Simon, 1991, p. 213). Poet John Brandi's books are also illustrated, and his published journals also indicate he works from drawings. Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott started out as a painter, and then became a writer, and then went back to painting. He likes the sensuality of painting, but he feels more driven to create quality in writing: "I'm content to be a moderately good watercolorist. But I'm not content to be a moderately good poet. That's a very different thing." (Hirsch, 1988, p. 275).

Music also inspires, and some writers are talented musicians. Pulitzer prize-winner and National Poet Laureate Rita Dove said, "I have a very personal connection to music." She's played the cello since she was a child: "I think that my musical bent has spilled over into my writing. I love to experiment with the motion of words, and to me, language that doesn't sing in some way isn't valid" (Smith, 1994, p. 34). Many writers have studied music. Poet and novelist Robert Fox is a professional blues musician, playing both the guitar and piano in public gigs. When I was on the Ohio Arts Council Literature Panel, we writers on the panel used to meet in someone's hotel room, and pick up bands would play until the wee hours. How can the rhythms and rhymes of music not influence our writing?

On another note, friendships between artists of different genres abound in biographical literature. Dan Wakefield (1995) described the cross-fertilization among artists in Greenwich Village of New York of the 1950s. Centered in the White Horse Tavern where the writers gathered, and the Cedar Tavern where the abstract expressionist visual artists gathered, the avant-garde met, discussed, and appreciated each others' work, often marrying each other or having affairs. The Village scene in the 1960s put playwright Sam Shepard, songwriters Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, visual artist Andy Warhol, and many others in proximity.

Many poems inspired by paintings, photographs, and symphonies exist; many writers quote lines of popular songs in their novels. Besides being inspired by works of art, many writers are also talented in other domains. For example, one cannot read Van Gogh's letters to Theo or Michelangelo's journals, without noticing how eloquent they were. In fact, the writer/artist combination is well known: A very partial list of writers who were also visual artists includes William Carlos Williams (who was also a medical doctor), e.e. cummings, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia, Aldous Huxley, and Henri Michaux.


Imagination is called, in the OED, "the creative faculty of the mind in its highest aspect; the power of framing new and striking intellectual conceptions; poetic genius." To imagine is to make an image. Poet W.S. Merwin noted that " Real image is a kind of fusion of all aspects of perception and of being in one tiny focus. . . . you can steal almost anything, but you can't steal images" (Contemporary Authors New Revised (CANR) 15, p. 325).

Aristotle considered works of the imagination such as poetry, drama, and fiction more true than history because the poet could fabricate truth from the elements of history rather than exhaustively tell the facts. The poet is able to tell the truth on a deep level, being able to see the patterns, and the overarching themes. He said, "Poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars" (Aristotle. On Poetics, p. 626).

Visual imagination is not the only kind of imagination (making of images) that writers use. Poets, of course, must use their aural sense, but so must prose writers. W.S. Merwin talked about how a line must sound: "I think there is no intellectual way of saying that a line or a poem is okay or complete or anything like that; you can hear if it's complete, and then you want to let it alone" (CANR 15, (1985) p. 325).

Poet Tess Gallagher described the imagination as being magical and dark. She said, "Events of the imagination precede and sometimes outdo the events of life. We're all islands--inaccessible, drifting apart, thirsting to be explored, magical. . . . The landscape of the imagination is the darkest of all" (Gallagher, 1983, pp. 137 & 147). Some writers connect imagination and dreaming. Poet Denise Levertov (1973) described how in a dream she went to the mirror and saw the dream character, a woman with hair wet with a spidery net of diamond-like water drops from misty fields, and said that the very detail of the woman in the mirror was evidence for the "total imagination," which is different from the intellect. She called it the "creative unconscious" (p. 72).

One fascinating explanation for the simultaneous interiorness and explosiveness of the writer's creative process was postulated by Prescott (1920). The poet sees with the eye of the mind, and the eye of the mind is "the characteristic organ of the poet and visionary. . . . The true poet is gifted with a kind of 'second sight,' higher and freer than the ordinary sense, and with this gift he becomes a 'seer" (p. 139).


The state of reverie common to people engaged in the creative process has recently come to be called "flow," a term fortuitously coined by Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow happens when a person is engaged in an activity that is challenging and rewarding at the same time. The person enjoys the activity and seeks to repeat it. This activity produces a positive feeling. While doing the activity, the person experiences deep concentration, a sense of being removed from present worries and cares, a sense of control over the activity, and an altered sense of time. In fact, time flies by. This state is most often experienced in solitude or in working with a group with whom one has little conflict, or creative conflict together.

Of course, "flow" is the word of the moment, but the feeling has been called other names. Poet Brewster Ghiselin (1952) called it "oceanic consciousness"; a trancelike state, it has been called the "visitation of the Muse" by the Greeks; mystics, creators, athletes, long-distance drivers and computer hackers have all entered this state willingly and with a sense of purpose and direction. It has been induced by fasting (remember, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and -he fasted and prayed before he committed his ultimate creativity). It has been induced by chemicals (Jack Kerouac typed the whole book, On the Road on a roll of butcher paper in the kitchen, while high on amphetamines. It has been induced by aerobic exercise and called the "runner's high."


Some writers and creators altering their creative consciousness through diet. Poet Tess Gallagher (1983) talked about how fasting helps her creative process. Fasting brings her to a state of "out-of-body consciousness" that transfers to her poems. "During these periods I don't do much. I don't write. . . I try to stay alone during the fasting." She begins to stand on "an island of calm," where she can gain some clarity about her life. "It is a time to adjust my vision about what matters, what I should give my energy to. Time during fasting takes on a slower dimension." Of course, fasting can become anorexia, as described in a memoir by poet Louise Glück (1993).


The numbers of writers who embrace Buddhism or aspects of Buddhism is nothing short of astonishing. One suspects this is because of the attention paid to meditation, to solitude, to going within of that religious faith. Here is a partial list, many from an anthology (Johnson & Paulenich, 1992): Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, W. S. Merwin, Anselm Hollo, Anne Waldman, Gary Snyder, Jane Augustine, Stephen Berg, Olga Broumas, John Cage, Diane di Prima, Norman Fischer, Dan Gerber, Susan Griffin, Sam Hamill, Jim Harrison, William Heyen, Jane Hirshfield, Robert Kelly, Jackson MacLow, Anthony Piccione, Jed Rasula, Larry Smith, Lucien Stryk, and Philip Whalen. Others have embraced the contemplative life of the Christian monastery, for example, the poets Kathleen Norris and Daniel Berrigan. The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, taught Tibetan Buddhism to many poets and others.

In fact, many writers, such as poet Gerald Stern consider writing itself a form of meditation: "For whatever else it is, writing for me is also meditation." Stern, as other writers, views poetry as akin to religion: "my poetry is a kind of religion for me. It's a way of seeking redemption for myself, but just on the page. It is, finally, a way of understanding things so that they can be reconciled, explained, justified, redeemed" (Moyers, 1995, p. 383). The idea that the practice of writing itself is meditation is not a new one. The connection of writing to the spiritual resounds since the time of the Greeks.

Descriptions of the creative process among writers often takes on language that is spiritual, mystical. Take this comment by poet Dick Allen: "A sense of mysticism, a complete dissolving into wonder and beauty has been with me through my life. I remember always feeling nearly ecstatic in childhood. I had known I would be a writer since the third grade" (Contemporary Authors Autobiography series, 11, (CAA) p. 4).

Wonder. Beauty. Dissolving. Disintegrating. Ecstasy. What "unscientific" words these are! What language used by those who treasure precision in language. In more prosaic terms, the experimental research psychologists seeking to justify creativity studies as "science," have categorized such responses and examples as the "mystical" approach, an approach which has hampered the study of creativity (Sternberg & Lubart, 1999). However, such examples exist and pervade the discussions of creativity in other domains such as literature, and perhaps experimental psychologists would do well to pay a little more attention to these accounts rather than to dismiss them as "mystical" and therefore not scientific.


Improvisation seems to be a key part of the creative process in writers. Poet Hayden Carruth stated that his writing process was like playing jazz. He asked, "What happens, subjectively and spiritually, when a musician improvises freely? He transcends the objective world, including the objectively conditioned ego, and becomes a free, undetermined sensibility in communion with others equally free and undetermined." Carruth, a fervent jazz aficionado, said that "my best poems have all been written in states of transcendent concentration and with great speed. . . . I have interfused thematic improvisation and . . . metrical predictability" (Carruth, 1983, pp. 30-32).

Automatic writing is also part of the improvisational creative process. The poet James Merrill (1992) used automatic writing as an improvisational technique: "Writing down whatever came into one's head, giving oneself over to every impulse--reasonable and unreasonable--concrete and abstract. . . a means of granting oneself permission to speak from the heart, the depths of one's unconscious" (p. 89). Other writers worked similarly. William Butler Yeats used both his own and his wife's automatic writing as inspiration for work. Poet Octavio Paz also engaged in the practice.

Dreams and the Creative Process

Many creative writers trust their dreams. Like other artists and musicians, they realize that the other side, the dark side, the night side, is very important to the creative process. Poet Linda Hogan (2001) stated it thus:

Dreams are the creative store that is true wealth. They reside at the human edge of the holy. From the unknown, from eternity, into the restless minds of sleepers, their light is given off. In the human body, worlds are charted, wounds healed, illnesses reversed. In our vulnerable sleep, those hours when anything could happen. Like dark matter in the universe, dream have mass and presence, even when not remembered. (pp. 130-131)

Dreams have inspired many poems, stories, novels. Tennyson said he dreamt his poetry, which came to him whole, in long passages. Poet and novelist Jim Harrison noted that one third of one's life is spent in sleep and should not be dismissed. He said that humans have been noticing their dreams since the Pleistocene period, but for the past twenty years we have been paying more attention to the global economy than to our dreams. "But the global economy is supposed to be relevant, right? Well, fuck the global economy. Why should we discard a third of our lives?" (Miles, 1998).

Poet Philip Levine said he a dream about snubbing a black man he had worked with in an auto factory in Detroit. "I had had a dream and that dream was a warning of what might happen to me if I rejected what I'd been and who I was." Levine went back to bed "with my yellow legal pad and my pen. I was in that magical state in which nothing could hurt me or sidetrack me; I had achieved that extraordinary level of concentration we call inspiration." Levine stayed in bed for a week. "The poems were coming" (Levine, 1995, pp. 91-92).

The Need for Solitude

The core of the creative process is solitude. Creative people often live lives in which their work is the most important thing.

Poet and novelist Jim Harrison (1991a) wrote that he requires a few months of near solitude every year: "I have learned . . . that I must spend several months a year, mostly alone, in the woods and the desert in order to cope with contemporary life, to function in the place in culture I have chosen." He walks and loses his "lesser self" in the "intricacies of the natural world." In nature, he is able to imagine himself back to 1945, and "the coyotes, loons, bear, deer, bobcats, crows, ravens, heron and other birds that helped heal me then, are still with me now." (p. 317).

Some evidence exists that these were solitary children, as well. Poet Amy Clampitt said, "I think the happiest times in my childhood were spent in solitude--reading . . . Socially, I was a misfit" (Hosmer, 1993, p. 80). Whether this feeling of not fitting in is more true for writers than for the general population is not known. The feeling of being a misfit, an outsider, occurred in many writers' lives (Piirto, 2002). A state of reverie seems induced by solitude, and that in this solitude, many ideas are generated. This state is between sleeping and waking, and the subject is relaxed, allowing images and ideas to come so that attention can be paid. What is important is a state of passivity and receptivity (Storr, 1983).

Nobel-winning poet William Butler Yeats in his Autobiography (1953) commented that when one is alone, the world is apprehended more vividly and intensely: "My passions, my loves, and my despairs . . . became so beautiful that I had to be constantly alone to give them my whole attentions. . . . what I saw when alone is more vivid in my memory than what I saw in company (p. 38).

Differences Between Novelists' and Poets' Creative Processes

The novelist Norman Mailer, when he was learning how to write while a student at Harvard, made a vow to write three thousand words a day, every day. His first wife Bea, said of his writing habits a few years later: "There was never a question of waiting for the muse to descend." (Mills, 1982, p. 82.) He worked through the whole outlines of the books he was writing: how many chapters, how each chapter would move the plot forward. He had three-by-five inch cards on which he kept track of the structure and the personalities of the characters. He would shuffle these to make sure he was on track. He wrote about twenty-five pages a week on the first draft of the 750- page manuscript. Poets and prose writers work differently. The poet Louis Simpson (1972) commented about how prose writers just don't understand how a poet works. "Descriptions of poetry by men who are not poets is usually ridiculous, for they describe rational thought processes" (p. 198).


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