A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Nature and the Creative Writer
The other day, my wife and I drove up to Fowler’s Hollow State Park, a 104-acre enclave on the edge of Tuscarora State Forest in Perry County. It is remote and isolated from all the clamor of “civilization”—a verdant sea of tranquility in a noisy world. We brought a picnic lunch, parked our camp chairs beside a meandering stream, and listened to the quiet. A long hike on a woodland trail, the errant fluttering of a swallowtail butterfly, the whisper of trees, and the scamper of chipmunks over ancient logs were additional highlights. After a full day in this arboreal wonderland, we returned home to York, refreshed, rejuvenated, and reinvigorated.
Ruth Ann Atchley, a cognitive psychologist, notes that modern-day humans are beset by a host of mental distractions and threats (witness the personal and professional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic). Atchley states, “[These threats] sap our resources to do the fun thinking and cognition humans are capable of—things like creativity, or being kind and generous, along with our ability to feel good and be in a positive mood. Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax, and let down those threat responses. Therefore, we have resources left over—to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve—that allow us to be better, happier people who engage in a more productive way with others.”
Recall times in your youth when you escaped to a quiet environment (a treehouse, a fort in the woods, a slow-flowing stream) just to be alone; just to contemplate an event in your life or a decision you had to make. You may have remembered how things seemed to slow down, how the atmosphere became peaceful and contemplative. Your mind was quieted, your pulse was lowered and your thoughts turned inward. Without all the usual disturbances, you were able to refocus and recharge. The bombardment of stimuli was stilled, and boundaries to your thinking were diminished. A “wide open space” offered you an unfettered opportunity to think and, perchance, to solve.
Those sojourns freed your mind from the constraints of an overburdened schedule and a seemingly endless parade of obligations. You may have concluded, as did one group of researchers, that nature has the ability to evoke a creative way of thinking by making us more curious, able to embrace new ideas, and by stimulating us into becoming more flexible thinkers. “Nature is the great visible engine of creativity, against which all other creative efforts are measured,” said Terrance McKenna in a talk in the early nineties. “Nature’s creativity is obviously the wellspring of human creativity. We emerge out of nature almost as its finest work of art. And human creativity emerges out of that.”
So, what’s the connection to writing? Well, when our prefrontal cortex (the region of the brain involved in planning complex cognitive behavior, decision-making, and personality expression) is quieted, our brain’s default mode turns on and is activated. As a result, flashes of inspiration and insight hit us. According to one researcher, “It’s akin to an ‘imagination network’: it’s activated when we’re not focusing on anything specific, and instead we’re engaged in mellow, non-taxing activities, such as walking in the woods. Our minds are allowed to idly wander or to dip into our deep storehouses of emotions, ideas, and memories.” Time in nature flips a switch—turning on our creative juices and “electrifying” our innovative tendencies.
What’s the practical lesson here? When we deny ourselves a regular exposure to nature as part of our everyday experiences, we also deny ourselves an opportunity to expand and extend our authorial capacities. Unfortunately, time outdoors—even with its attendant impact on creative inclinations—is something we find difficult to schedule. We often envision it as a personal “extra,” rather than as a professional “essential.”
Here are some questions for consideration: Given all the stressors and conflicts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, is there a way we can effectively deal with those tensions and still keep our writing on track? How can we maintain our productivity in concert with our creativity? How can we achieve a sense of tranquility in an ocean of disruptions? What is the secret to becoming a more creative and productive writer?
Perhaps the answers to all those queries can be summed up in three words: Take a hike!
A retired professor of education and resident of York, PA, Tony is an award-winning writer of more than 50 children’s books. He has also authored the book: Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published (https://amzn.to/2XFsbbs). [“This book tells the truth about being an author of children’s books.” —5-star review]