Saturday, March 2, 2013

Back from the Dead – Fever Dreams and Creativity


'The Scream' - feeling like
rubbish

This is a bit of an odd post but one that I thought was worth sharing.

This is the time of year when many of us, or many we know, are laid low by that inevitable mid-winter cold or flu. We all go to work or school or are close to people who do, and that means exposure.

Anyone who takes public transit to and from work is going to be surrounded by an array of sneezers and coughers who, despite their best efforts, are going to end up showering you with potential sickness. 
If you have kids going to school, the odds are more steeply stacked against you.

Before last week I had been doing pretty well and had managed to stay healthy for about a year. Well, that changed with the onset of three days of fever and cold. I felt like I had taken a Dacian battle axe in the head and contracted Pontine malaria at the same time.

I’m back from the dead now and have been thinking about the experience.

It’s all a bit of a blur really but the one thought that I remember coming to me at first was that all my creative plans for writing etc. were totally shot. I knew that I was in for a few completely unproductive days.

In a way, I was wrong. I found that sickness (the non-life-threatening kind of course) can sometimes be useful and help the creativity. Let me explain.

For many writers who are going it alone, juggling the tasks of writing, publishing, family life and day jobs, there is little time to stop and focus. We flit from one task to another, on down the list without taking a breather.

I say that sickness can be useful because for some of us, it is one of those rare times when we let ourselves do nothing out of the necessity to heal.

During those wintery, bed-ridden days of sickness, the time is ripe for thinking, formulating and letting the mind wander where it will.

One of the most interesting things for me are the ‘fever dreams’. Nobody likes having a fever and frankly, I’m surprised I still have all my teeth after all that shaking. However, during my overheated odyssey, my unconscious mind was hard at work.

Alexander the Great on his deathbed
As I’ve mentioned previously, I am writing a trilogy of Alexander the Great and had yet to write the battle of Gaugamela. Just before getting sick I was just about to get stuck into writing the Companion cavalry charge in the battle. As it turned out, I wasn’t writing when sick but images of the battle and how I envisioned it were flashing behind my lids. When I was feeling a little better later in the week, I finished the scene and hence, the first draft of Book I.

Also, on the third day when the fever broke, I woke up, sat at our dining table and scribbled out ten pages on Alexander’s last days in Babylon, including his death. Now I won’t need this material until Book III but the effects of fever certainly contributed to that scene. One of the theories is that Alexander died of a fever of some kind so, with a little first-hand experience, I was able to write a few pages which I feel are rather good.

I know this sounds utterly bizarre but don’t discount it.

I have a friend who is a psychotherapist and I told him about this experience, the odd clarity and workings of the mind in fever dreams. He said that that was not surprising, that when he had been sick previously he had been able to work out problems that had confounded him when not sick. The mind truly is amazing.

I’ve found the mind focuses itself in this less scattered state simply because it is not bogged down with tasks. It absorbs whatever I’m watching or thinking on before sleeping. The thoughts can be a bit obsessive but there is an untapped creativity there that can be of benefit.

Even one of my short stories, THEOI, came out of a fever dream.

A person who has done some research along these lines, how the brain functions and how that place between asleep and awake is where creativity is born and thrives, is Phil South. There is a great podcast on The Creative Penn where Joanna Penn interviews Phil about how the brain works and where and when creative genius is born. It really is fascinating and you can listen to it HERE.

I’m not saying my amateur theory of fever dreams applies to everyone and obviously we all prefer to stay healthy. But, if you are laid low by a cold or flu this season, just go with the flow and don’t beat yourself up about getting through that to-do list.

You never know, when you are seemingly back from the dead, some of your best ideas may come to the surface and time will not have been wasted.

Now, where’s that vitamin C… 

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