Brain Pickings, a wonderful blog written by Maria Popova, is often a valuable resource for writers studying the craft. A recent Brain Pickings post, Malcolm Cowley on the Four Stages of Writing: Lessons from the First Five Years of The Paris Review, is a great re-introduction to an influential book that’s been around for a long time. Popova deftly and succinctly lays out the four stages of writing as defined by Cowley. And, just as I was 20 years ago while studying for my MFA, I’m ambivalent about the premise that there are four stages of writing: from ideation (the germ of a story), to incubation (a process of meditation) to first draft (get black on white), and ending with revision-revision-revision. It seemed (and seems) so… Sterile. But Cowley’s rubrics make perfect sense and, at the end of the day, they’re broad enough to allow for my own process(es) to fit within them, so why bother arguing?
Teaching in a MFA program over the last nine years, I find graduate creative writers want to push back against Cowley’s four stages as much as I did. They enjoy “interrogating the notions.” And in doing so, they better articulate what their own processes look like, which is valuable. Yet, besides this pushing-back against Cowley for the purposes of education, why argue with what he culled from a careful analysis of some of the best writers of his age, many of whom rank among the best of the 20th century? Cowley was methodical in his approach; that’s science, or the core of it anyway. Cowley sifted through what the top performers in the Paris Review said about their processes and arrived at these four stages. Other than as a rhetorical exercise, how can trying to refute Cowley (or at least prove significant outliers exist) help our understanding of narrative?
Well, Cowley’s four-stage breakdown from the 1950’s is reminiscent of another, only slightly younger (and far more famous) stage-identification system: the “five stages of grief” that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified in the 1960’s. For more than a generation our culture didn’t seem terribly interested in arguing with those stages, either. However, all sorts of formerly foundational ideas in the arts and sciences are under assault through more recent behavioral and cognitive research. For around forty years, Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief remained some of the most stalwart, oft quoted (and often misconstrued) research-turned-conventional wisdom offered to those suffering personal tragedy. That is, until 2004, when Professor George Bonanno began to publish results which showed grief to be somewhat simpler and more monochromatic than the five stages approach suggests. Bonanno’s work, now commonly accepted as accurate and well-documented, shows that most widows and widowers are resilient and bounce back from grief faster (and with fewer distinct “stages”) than our cultural narrative is willing to admit. His clinical studies are strongly supported science that partially contradicts the narrative that Kubler-Ross presented, and further erodes any remaining residue of old world practices such as wearing black for a year in honor of the dead, or staying single for a “respectable” amount of time after a spouse’s passing. Of course it should be noted that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself never represented the five stages of grief as all-encompassing. She did not insist that everyone experiences all five stages, or that anyone experiences them in a specific order; that was pop-culture over-simplifying her work. And personally, I still find the five stages of grief to be useful as a narrative tool for understanding possible character responses to plot machinations when I am writing a story, even if more precise studies of human behavior now say the five stages are likely less common than a simpler, relatively quick resilience in the face of great loss… But there it is: recent science says our cultural narrative about grief, which for some time has largely been based on distortions of Kubler-Ross’s work and the faded ghosts of old world traditions, is not accurate.
So. Back to Cowley and the four stages of writing: How would Cowley’s four stages hold up if we applied rigorous science in the same manner Bonanno applied it to grief?
Short answer: I don’t know. No one has applied the science to prove Cowley’s findings to be inaccurate.* But there is at least one very compelling retort to Cowley that anyone can witness in Chicago and New York with regular frequency: TJ and Dave. They are — for want of a better description — improv artists. However, they don’t perform short, comedic sketches. Instead, TJ and Dave seem to defy the four stages by pulling mature, sophisticated stories from thin air. They create hour-long, compelling narratives that look very much like standard stage plays. They generate a story with a complete beginning, middle and end. They do it live, in front of an audience and do far more than simply make an audience laugh. Each beat/movement pays off and applies to the whole as if the story were crafted in advance by a seasoned, professional playwright. In fact, people have often accused them of writing one hour plays beforehand, memorizing them, and then performing them as if they were improvised. This is simply not the case. These two narrative artists are verifiably capable of inventing deeply affecting, long-form stories in the same moment they are performed. They somehow write well-crafted drama before our very eyes, and seemingly do so in one step rather than Cowley’s four. But don’t take my word for it. RadioLab has done a recent short episode on them. From Radio Lab Presents: TJ and Dave (15 mins):
Krulwich: The way they deal with it, they tell themselves this story: this thing that they’re creating? They don’t actually create it. They don’t make it happen.
TJ/Dave: It’s already happened. It’s all already going on. It’s not our job to make it.
TJ and Dave believe that the stage is already swirling with “billions of stories, and the moment the lights go up, one of those stories gets frozen in place.”
Is that a scientific observation? Not even close. At best, it is anecdotal and based on what the performer/storyteller feels rather than what can be proved. Yet, as we require of experimentation in the laboratory process, it is replicable (well, replicable by the original researchers/artists themselves) — TJ and Dave tell new stories several times a month using their method, even if the process is still mostly conceptual and emotional rather than scientifically codifiable.
Since I’m not likely to credit a supernatural explanation, TJ and Dave lead me to ask: what if there are as yet unidentified antennae in our brains that literally (not figuratively) pull stories out of the ether? Does that sound so nuts? A little nuts, probably, though it isn’t any crazier than saying there’s some wraith dressed in a gauzy gown called The Muse who gives us our stories capriciously, and entirely beyond our conscious control.
Ultimately, TJ and Dave’s work may not totally invalidate any of the four stages Cowley suggests. Their work might simply give credit for the first one or two of Cowley’s stages (“germ” and possibly “incubation”) to an entity/process that is external to the ego — a part of consciousness not yet codified by psychologists much further than calling it “sub-conscious,” and as of now, no more than a strange orange smudge on an fMRI.
And yeah, maybe I’m being a little too facile. Maybe all four stages are present in the process for TJ and Dave, but they’re so polished and condensed through refinement of technique and repetition that it only seems to the naked eye to be instantaneous, spontaneous story-eruption. For improv-artists such as TJ and Dave there is a rigorous training process and therefore there’s likely a specifically trained brain process that allows TJ and Dave to do what they do. It looks like magic but really it’s the result of years of hard work and discipline. And yet… And yet: they say (and our eyes agree) that their process seems to have one step instead of four: come together on stage and pull a story from the air. Ideation, incubation, first draft and revision all in the same moment.
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* Please email me through the about page if you know of such findings, but I can’t find them. Previously, I would’ve said “leave a comment in the comments section” instead of asking you to email me, but all comments had to be turned off — too much spam and no time to fight it.