Are the pressure of science writing and the spontaneity of creative writing incompatible?

When I started my PhD I was firmly of the belief that I would be able to write a novel at the same time as my thesis. ‘Why not?’ I thought, ‘Both jobs require writing, so they should enhance one another, and the creative writing can act as downtime from the scientific writing’. However, as I’ve progressed through my PhD I’ve discovered a thing I think of as a kind of ‘science pressure drain’ on my writing capacity. After a day of trying hard to be succinct, remove unnecessary phrases, and ensure every detail of a method is there and every link in reasoning spelled out, if I turn to a blank page and just sort of expect the creativity to flow out as it once did I come up a bit blank, and even start criticising my creative sentences as though they were supposed to contain the kind of impeccable logic my thesis should.  In general I’ve found this creates a bit of a block on creative productivity, not just in writing but in having ideas for films or songs or dances. This has sometimes made me wonder whether my day job, which I indeed chose for its focus on writing, and my other passions in life are a little incompatible. So I decided to look at some research on creativity and find out a) if this could be true and b) whether there are strategies I could employ to get around it. Though I have only read some basics so far (the following ideas are ones I drew from another blog written by someone who had done background research: and not delved in detail into many articles, I have come across a number of reasons why my PhD writing might make creative pursuits difficult but also one which suggests that the closer I come to the end, the more creative I might get, both in ideas for the PhD and in my other areas of interest.

1) Highly focused work on a practical task and the steps to achieving it (such as intense recording of the practical detail of a method or following a pre-written outline to write up a paper) activates the decision-making and control parts of the brain which have to take a back seat before the creative parts kick in.

2) Relaxation is one of the key elements to promoting creativity, so high pressure ‘get this done now’ situations such as having to finish a thesis chapter by the end of the day are unhelpful

3) More dopamine = more creativity, and activating dopamine requires an enjoyable situation, so during stressed writing periods or when looking at criticism of previously written work I’m less likely to get creative.

On the other hand:

Overloading your brain and taking on tasks you at first consider out of your reach can force your brain to activate new areas to try to tackle the task, and therefore call on your creative capacities. Therefore, during this final stretch where the pressure is on to draft the entire thesis very rapidly and there is a sense of uncertainty about whether I can produce this much writing this quickly, creative parts of the brain may jump in to assist, something I have already noticed starting to happen. This is, I think, what creates the sense of being on a kind of writing high during which I can get large amounts of writing done and have ideas on the spur of the moment in a way that never occurs when I have lots of time ahead of me for writing. I have encountered this in the past when for example I have found out about a writing competition for which entries are due the next day, or been invited to submit for something which requires extra work done on the side, but presents a fun or exciting opportunity if I get the job done.

Given the limits on my time at the moment I am not expecting the last point to outweigh the earlier ones and prompt me to produce a series of outstanding creative works at the same time as writing my thesis draft, but I do have hope that I might be able to write down ideas that are caused by this effect for later use, and that the resulting thesis draft will contain more new ideas than I have been able to come up with in a while. In addition I intend to follow a few other recommendations made by the author of the other blog such as keeping a notepad on hand at weird times such as in the shower and while sleeping, and trying to leave gaps in intense work for ideas to consolidate.


One thought on “Are the pressure of science writing and the spontaneity of creative writing incompatible?

  1. Paulina says:

    Food for thought. I am a translator and I work for an insurance company. I started blogging when I noticed that the legal and technical language was influencing my attempts at creative writing. Recently, I did some freelance work for a dance company (translating, not dancing!), which required more creativity and which enjoyed very much,


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