Last week was an exciting one for artists interested in scientific studies of creativity. Researchers (Lu Liu, Nima Dehmamy, Jillian Chown, C. Lee Giles & Dashun Wang) published an article in Nature demonstrating that most artistic hot streaks are preceded by exploration as artists try out numerous forms and media. The researchers define exploration as a period of intense “experimentation [as artists] search beyond their existing or prior areas of competency.”
Gradually, the artist transitions from exploration to exploitation, which “allows individuals to build knowledge in a particular area and to refine their capabilities in that area over time.” As they focus on that one style or medium, artists often enter a period of incredible productivity and originality.
However, findings suggest that without the initial exploration, artists are much less likely to enter a hot streak. So, too, without eventually following that period of experimentation with intense focus on one style, the chance of a hot streak also diminishes. Some other great takeaways:
- Before a hot streak, creatives “deviate” from their typical behavior. Thus, if you’re someone who ordinarily buckles down and writes one sonnet after another, a hot streak becomes more likely if you start trying your hand at villanelles and duplexes and haiku, churning out forms you’ve never tried before. Same for the typical explorer. If you dabble in this and that—here I tried a novel, there some flash fiction, here a poem—your hot streak becomes more likely if you commit to one and try to master it (and no, being smart or talented or any other quality is not the same as mastery; mastery = falling-on-your-face-boy-this-is-hard practice).
- The exploration period isn’t just about experimentation. It’s intentional. “More than simply chasing after discovery through exploration, individuals appear to seek out new opportunities by deliberating over different possibilities, and then harvesting promising directions through exploitation.”
- Hot streaks are relatively brief periods in an artist’s career, lasting around five years on average. After this period, the artist returns to their normal patterns. This strikes me as a pretty good explanation for why we often say someone’s “later work” just wasn’t as good.
At 35, I was diagnosed with chronic migraines. For almost two years, I was unable to read or write as migraines impair both my vision and hearing as well as cause brain fog, which inhibits my short-term memory (you try reading when you can’t remember the word that came before this one). It was excruciating—the longing to write paired with the inability to act on that longing. So I decided it was best to give up writing altogether.
When—thanks to a variety of treatments—I eventually regained enough functionality to read, my relationship to literature was fundamentally changed. I can read novels again, but slowly and ponderously. My tastes, too, have changed. There are so many holes now in my hearing and vision, as well as my cognition, that I’ve discovered a love for experimental fiction that embraces the cracks in our reality and interrogates self-perception, like Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, or that folds up time in Einsteinian ways where unexpected things touch, like Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.
As for writing, my hope of ever finishing a novel is quite dead. A traditional one, at any rate. As an “exploiter” by nature, preferring to master rather than play, I was disheartened. I disliked flash fiction—or thought so. I couldn’t write short stories—or thought so. But my chronic illness forced me into a period of exploration. If I wanted to write, it would have to be forms other than the one I spent my twenties and thirties trying to master.
Joyce Carol Oates, of course, is brilliant enough that she already seems to know what these researchers found. She designed her MasterClass to explore another topic or form each week. This week it was flash fiction (stories between 500 to 1000 words). I’ve now written three pieces at that length. Don’t get me wrong. They all need revision, badly. But now that the bug’s bitten me, I can’t stop.
I cut, cut, cut stories down to their bones and find it satisfying. It reminds me of the canvas I prepared in my studio oil painting class back in college. It was just mahogany streaks that sketched out the painting. And when I stepped back, those bones felt so much more perfect than anything I could imagine painting on top of it. Between migraines, when my mind is functional, I can write a 1500 word draft. When there’s another break in the waves, I can re-read it and begin to shape it. Then, I wait for another chance to revise. I’m learning so much.
And it’s only the beginning of my exploration period. Next week? Short monologues.
So here’s my challenge to you. Wherever your comfort zone is, whatever you’re used to writing, drop it for a few weeks or months. Find another genre or style or form—better yet, find several—and try them out. Really study them. Read as many examples as you can (I’m reading Lydia Davis for the first time). Learn from them. Try it out. Accept that your attempts won’t be great at first. It’s okay.
And if you’re an explorer by nature? Pick the style or form that really excites you, and try to master that. A lifetime isn’t long enough to master anything, but if you try, you might get better. And of course, as always, read, read, read.