This past Saturday, I attended a seminar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute called Three Poets on “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” It was a blockbuster lineup: Poets Gail Mazur, Robert Pinsky and Louise Gluck (two of them Laureates) and Sigmund Freud, who was abundantly present in spirit, within the audience of 60-odd analysts and in his essay, “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” Each poet read a poem and talked about how his or her writing related to points made by the Master in this essay about creativity.
Evidently Freud was both fascinated and puzzled by artistic invention. The program notes said creativity was “a mystery he admired, and likely envied as well. Freud wrote that poets had always known what psychoanalysis had discovered, and that it just fell to him to systematize and theorize it.”
And theorize it he did in this essary that searched for its underpinnings. As best as I could tell, Freud believed that creativity's roots lay in childhood (Duh. Where else did he ever look?). Specifically in childhood play. The child constructs a fantasy world in which the elements of the real world are reordered to please him, in part by defusing or dealing with unsatisfactory realities. And since the child is the father of the man, the adult writer continues on the same path.
Here’s the problem, Sigmund. This hypothesis—right or wrong—addresses the poet, novelist and playwright. What about the writer of creative nonfiction? Our job is to deal with, often even embrace the realities of life, not avoid them. And to do it creatively. Take the facts and make something new of them—or why bother?
So do we get our own developmental theory?
Is the creative nonfiction writer born as the kid who is just burning to know? Maybe she watches the first snowfall and wonders what happens to the butterflies. She asks her father who changes the subject because he doesn’t know and induces trauma by answering NO questions. Then she gets sent to a shrink who asks the little girl TOO many questions instead of answering any. Then she asks a librarian who hands her a copy of Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart. Just like Goldilocks, everything is finally just right. Anxiety over. That feeling of relief and its cause is imprinted upon her psyche and determines her future.
Or maybe he started on the Freudian track, building a world filled with purple dragons. Then he discovered that once the world was home to animals called dinosaurs. Everything changed. Yes, yes, he’d say dismissively, I know dragons can fly. Pterosaurs can too—and hey, did you know that a T Rex had teeth the size of bananas? The idea that dinosaurs once walked the Earth, that his wildest fantasies could be REAL, is what fueled his creativity.
Maybe one of these children grows up and asks another question. This time she can search for the answer herself, talk to people who’ve spent their lives wondering about the same thing. She asks enough and they know enough so she can know enough too. And she finds the way the world works so beautiful that when she explains it, she makes music.
Or when he seeks the truth, he finds a sliver of a story that manages to tell the whole thing. His creativity is to hone in. His tale uncovers the core and it echoes and reaches so far that questions his readers don’t even know they have get answered.
Perhaps they even answer yours, Dr. Freud.