Creative writing is, by its very nature, a process of learning. Students who take creative writing classes learn proper grammar and syntax uses, the details of composition, and how to write in a way that is engaging to the audience. All of these processes are overseen by teachers who do their best to guide students in order to make their writing better. Writing, however, is not just a learning process, but a cognitive one as well. The cognition of creative writing is a much larger process than merely the use of language. It encapsulates the brainstorming of ideas, the drawing upon of real world experiences for inspiration, and the formulating of a story out of these experiences and one’s own ideas. All of these are part of the cognitive process of writing. Writing is not just an exercise of language, of one’s knowledge of conventions and norms, but involves a vast web of creativity and much trial and error. This is a point which is too often overlooked when it comes to teaching creative writing. Language is but one part of a much larger process that involves more than just the written word. Language is the dominant hegemony of writing, the written word is the king of creativity, and the artistic side of writing is often left purely in the readers heads. However, the dominance of the written word in writing obscures the fact that much of the creative work does not stem purely from lessons in grammar and syntax. It comes from the lived experiences of those students who participate in the class, and from their experiences and skills which reach outside of the classroom.
Cognition, and the cognitive processes which allow for and produce creativity, is much broader than any one skill such as language. Rather it is an integration of all of a person’s sensory systems. The words that creative writing students craft for their audiences paint a picture in their minds, a private movie that only they can see. Imagine then, how much richer such stories would be for the audience, if we took full advantage of our knowledge about cognition, that it is embodied and entwined in all of our sensory motor engagements, and applied it to how we teach creative writing students. To do so requires changing up how we typically teach creative writing, based on an understanding of cognition and cognitive processes. The very nature of the writing process, of putting words on a page, would seem to be antithetical to the idea of integrating additional sensory information into what the students learn. But if we break away from the idea of the writing process being bound to just words on a page, we may find that there is much to be gained from doing so.
Cognition is a complex topic, with many different layers to it that together make up our cognitive abilities. At its most basic level, cognition, our awareness of the world and ability to think, is the result of neurons firing off in our brain, transmitting signals throughout our body in response to certain external stimuli. Cognition, however, is not just a single event or trigger, cognition and cognitive functions are a result of numerous neurons firing in sequence as a result of specific environmental cues. Associations are formed between neurons as a result of repeated activations stemming from the same stimulus, forming networks of neurons which fire off in sequence in response to a specific triggering stimuli (Kleinknecht, 2012). Such associations are formed between related ideas and concepts, and a single cue that touches on one concept will trigger the entire chain of neurons that includes all of the associated concepts as well. Our own interactions with the environment determines what cues we encounter, and the different cues we encounter determine what associated neural networks are triggered. These cognitive processes, the flow of information between neurons as the human body interfaces with the environment, give rise to all aspects of our knowledge, beliefs, learning, and creativity.
Cognition and learning are deeply connected with each other, and it is important to note that neither learning or cognition is tied to a single sensory system or area of the brain. Language, for instance, is not localized as it is sometimes thought to be, instead it is a very complicated integration of vision, audition, motor movement, and conceptual understanding (Kleinknecht, 2020). Human learning is a consequence of, and dependent upon context (Kleinknecht, 2020). We live life episodically in a rich and varied environment and from these episodes we abstract knowledge that allows us to know, remember, and anticipate (Kleinknecht, 2020). Inputs from all of our senses, our vision, smell, taste, touch, and hearing, are all registered in the brain and are combined to shape our thoughts and behaviors (Kleinknecht, 2014). The same cognitive processes present in all of our brains, repeated activation of networks of neurons in response to environmental stimulus, is also present within our learning ability. To put it another way, learning is multi sensory and multi modal and is grounded in our lived environment. This is what is meant when learning is referred to as being embodied, that it happens with all of the sensory and motor inputs we possess (Kleinknecht, 2014).
The way that memories and knowledge are actually constructed is an important part of the learning process. The brain does not store or transfer information like many older models of cognition proposed. Instead it registers stimulation from the environment, updates neural networks, and reactivates previously established neural networks. New information becomes encoded into a memory when first learned, and then becomes consolidated during sleep (Kesteren & Meeter, 2020). Information can then be retrieved at a later date. Such retrieval is not retrieving the original information, instead it is reconstructing and reconsolidating the previously known information with any new information that has been gained or lost since the initial information was learned (Kesteren & Meeter, 2020).
Important to the concept of the encoding process, and also to the larger processes of learning and cognition, is encoding variability. Encoding variability is a deliberate integration of multiple neural codes to increase the number of possible cues for later reconstruction (Kleinknecht, 2020). Encoding variability is the practice of combining information across different sensory and motor modalities. Stated more plainly, encoding variability is the process of increasing the number and type of cues (visual, tactile, auditory, motor, body feeling, language) that will activate or reactivate established neural networks. It is a way of maximizing the accuracy and efficiency of memory, and increases the likelihood of successfully retrieving information (Kleinknecht, 2020). In other words, the best way to learn and remember information is to engage as many sensory systems and inputs as possible. This, not coincidentally, is also one of the ways that we can make best use of our cognitive abilities, by engaging in multi sensory processes.
So what does all of this mean for educators of creative writing students? The writing process has traditionally been just putting words on a page. But it does not engage any additional sensory modalities which could be used to enhance cognition and learning, and does not take into account the embodied nature of cognition. Writers craft stories based on their experiences and knowledge, both of which are tied in with cognition. So engaging the students cognitive processes through a multi sensory approach may lead to improvements in the students work. Try changing up the writing process to include more sensory systems, have the students doodle or sketch out important scenes or concepts in their work in addition to writing about them, have them act out important moments, or roleplay as their characters in exercises. Although doing so is generally frowned upon in the classroom, role playing can be a great learning experience for writers that allows them to immerse themselves more into the story they are crafting. Change up the writing process, add more sensory modalities, and encourage your students to engage in multisensory practices while working on or brainstorming for their writing pieces. Transform the writing lab into a sensation, perception, and writing lab. One where sensory experiences, motor movements, and the written word are combined in various ways to enrich student learning and the writing process.
When you read a creative writing piece, it is like the writer is placing a movie right into your head through the words on a page. So let us take that one step further, and see if we can make the next generation of creative writers, and the stories that they craft, something truly like an experience out of a blockbuster movie.
Kesteren, M. T., & Meeter, M. (2020). How to optimize knowledge construction in the brain. Npj Science of Learning, 5(1). doi:10.1038/s41539-020-0064-y
Kleinknecht, E. (2020). Educational psychology week 1 Wednesday [PowerPoint slides]. Moodle@PacU. https://sso.pacificu.edu/cas/login?service=https%3A%2F%2Fmoodle.pacificu.edu%2Flogin%2FFinde.php
Kleinknecht, E. (2020). Educational psychology week 1 Friday [PowerPoint slides]. Moodle@PacU. https://sso.pacificu.edu/cas/login?service=https%3A%2F%2Fmoodle.pacificu.edu%2Flogin%2FFinde.php
Kleinknecht, E. (2014, January 18). Embracing Embodiment. Cognitioneducation.https://cognitioneducation.me/2014/01/18/embracing-embodiment/.
Kleinknecht, E. (2012, February 24). Labels on the Brain. Cognitioneducation.https://cognitioneducation.me/2012/02/24/labels-on-the-brain/