September 27, 2012

The Creative Mind

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Last week I finished reading The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels.  I can't say I'm much a fan of her mysteries, but this book I enjoyed so much that I gave it five stars and wanted to wave it in the face of everyone I ever met and scream, "Read this book, it's full of awesome!"  Which is not generally something I do; I try to keep my voice below a scream at all times.  Sometimes, however, I do feel that a higher pitch is justified.

The Mind of the Maker was once such instance.  It is a little hard to explain and do justice to it, for Sayers, with a kind of tongue-in-cheek, no-nonsense style somewhat typical of her generation, covers a great deal of ground in only 250 pages.  She is examining, or rather making a frank case for, the doctrine of the Trinity - and that right there is a monumental task.  She goes about it, however, not from the "top down," but from the "bottom up."  For she looks first at something very near and dear to every human artist, whether writer or painter, sculptor or musician:

the trinity within the mind of the human maker

This doesn't seem self-evident when stated like that, and yet it struck me because some time before beginning the book, I realized that in my writing I seem to have three different tracks or periods of thought.  There is the period where I seem to get the most concepts, where story ideas seem to be popping up frequently.  Then there's the time while I'm actively writing, where all my powers are concentrated on that single story.  And then I have my editing, as I polish and rewrite and convey what I want to convey, and during which I feel the need to edit everything in sight - whether it's mine or not.

These thought-periods very roughly correspond, I think, to what Sayers discusses in The Mind of the Maker, but outlining it her way is much more coherent and profound.  Her "trinity," based on experience, is that of Idea, Energy (or Activity), and Power.  Idea is comparatively easy to grasp: it is the overarching knowledge of the story, beginning to end, the story as it exists within the maker's mind.  It isn't always fully expressed even to the creator, not at first; but it is the guiding pattern of the work.  It is what allows you to say at the end, looking back at the beginning: "This is how the story was meant to be.  I didn't know it at first, but this is it.  Nothing else would have been right; this is the story."

This struck home to me, because it encapsulated my feelings as I stand at the finish-line of The White Sail's Shaking and The Running Tide.  I can't express how unprepared I was when I began the novel on November 1, 2010.  I had little more than the names of two main characters - Tip and Marta - and a setting, and that was all.  Charlie Bent and Josiah Darkwood came in of their own accord, one might say, but I found they were crucial to the story as a whole.  Lewis, only a bully at the beginning, appeared again to star as the villain of the piece - and it was right, though not wholly planned.  I look back over the story and I'm amazed at the unity of it, when I started with nothing more than fragments.  Sayers, I think, gives the explanation.  For The White Sail's Shaking and The Running Tide exist in my own mind as an Idea, and because the execution of it has matched that pattern, it feels right.

The execution, then, is the Energy.  I found the term a little odd, and hard not to confuse with Power; "Activity" works better, I think.  At any rate, this is the outward expression - in paint or words or music - of the Idea in the maker's mind.  For a writer, it's the act of writing.  It's taking the concept and giving it expression, so that readers can see that form and, through it, see the Idea in the mind of the maker.  Sayers comments that this is why it confuses a writer to be asked, "What did you mean by this plot twist, or that character?"  Because if the writer has done his work correctly, his "meaning" should be expressive in the plot twist or the character.  "Meaning" is part and parcel of the Activity.

This concept is mentioned at times, though not in these terms.  It is the same law that says that extraneous characters (no matter how vivid) and unimportant events (no matter how dramatic) damage rather than help a story.  Such goings-on are nothing but the Activity expressing itself, and not the Idea; for the whole purpose of the Activity is to present the Idea. 

Lastly in the trinity, there comes Power.  It is harder to explain than Idea or Activity, as Sayers concedes, but it is something like the conveyance of the Idea's spirit.  It is the invoking of feeling and understanding in the minds of readers - an exchange, as it were, from the writer's mind to that of the reader.  If this Power isn't present, then the expression of the Activity has failed and the Idea is not fully revealed.  I saw a quote recently (by Stephen King - go figure) that reminded me of this: "Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's."  I think you could accurately add to "description" characters, plot, foreshadowing, dialogue, and anything else that might spring to mind.  All must be planted in the reader's mind, or there is no Power.

I think by this point the analogy becomes quite clear.  For like the Idea, would not God the Father be, for all intents and purposes, unknowable if it were not for His self-expression in God the Son?  And does not Paul - and Jesus Himself - make it clear that the Son is the "image of the invisible God," that "having seen Him we have seen the Father"?  He does not do His own will, but the will of the Father.  And the Holy Spirit, proceeding from God the Father, then testifies of Jesus Christ.

It would be wrong, of course, to say this analogy is perfect; because of the Fall, the trinity of the human maker's mind is corrupted and tends to overemphasize one or another - as Sayers herself points out.  And yet, as God is the supreme Maker, is it not reasonable to see how we, made in His image, are makers after the same fashion?  I wouldn't say this is all that is entailed by the Imago Dei, but it is an integral part of human nature: the true, good human nature that God Himself created.  As we are all made in His Image, so we are all meant to be makers.  Not all writers, not all painters, not all musicians.  But all looking at the world and our work with the eyes of artists, expressing and taking pleasure in our creations.  Because if we don't, if we fall into the rut of ho-humming our way through life and taking no pleasure in our work (for God did design us for work), we are not living according to the pattern the divine Maker has laid out. 

And that's never a pleasant place to be.

in conclusion: read the mind of the maker.  end of story.

7 comments:

  1. I was going to write a post on The Mind of the Maker as well (and I may still, when I finish it) but this was an excellent, poignant, brisk summation of Sayers' book.

    In conclusion: read the book. READ IT HARD.

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  2. Wow, big recommendation! Shall have to look into this! Great thoughts too.

    "and during which I feel the need to edit everything in sight - whether it's mine or not."

    I laughed outloud at this. So I am not the only one! I feel bad for the poor people who have to go through this time with me. LoL

    _B

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  3. Thanks for the recommendation and for explaining some of the concepts! I've read two of Sayers' mystery novels and was impressed with the mind behind them, and I've wanted to look into her theology books. I needed this prompting! That is so COOL how the "thought-periods" correspond to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
    That's funny - when I'm in the editing mindset, I too find myself mentally editing other things I read!
    "It is the same law that says that extraneous characters (no matter how vivid) and unimportant events (no matter how dramatic) damage rather than help a story." That is a profound connection. Focus is vital. I think sometimes I don't see a character or event as irrelevant when it actually is - I guess that does become clear when I'm editing. What an analogy! We, too, as children of God, should try to express Him as perfectly as we are able; but if we have something "extra," that is not about Him, no matter how seemingly good, it will take some power out of our lives/testimonies.

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  4. Wow, this sounds like a great book! I'm definitely going to have to check it out of the library, if I can manage to find it. :)

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  6. This book appears like a true gem, Abigail. I enjoyed reading this review; I'm amazed always at how succinct you are in your presentation of a piece of literary work and through a straight-forward yet interesting, poignant style you present a book review. It inspires me!

    In regards to this book, perhaps sometime I'll look up the book because it sure seems like one of provocative thought and interest :).

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  7. B. - On the other hand, I tend to edit everything at all times. It simply gets more pronounced while I ought to be editing my own story!

    Kelsey - Her mysteries didn't really speak to me (which is odd, because I'm generally a fan of mysteries), but as you can see, I absolutely loved this book. I highly, highly recommend it and I do hope you'll look into it; it has so many more points and nuances than I could summarize in one blog post! And since you've read Sayers' mysteries and are already acquainted with her writing style, I think you'll especially enjoy her fresh, cheeky approach to this subject.

    Bree - Do, do! I don't know if you'll be able to find it in a library - but then, our city's library has made me dubious about all such places. I've given up trying to find anything but research books there.

    Joy - Aw, thank you! It is rather difficult to do this work justice, and I don't think I did - only the book can do the book justice. But I'm glad you enjoyed the summary I managed to draw together!

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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