EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIENCES come to most of us: some qualities of who we are (the aggregate of past experience) and who we might be (now or in the remote future) converge:  Selective memory, imagination and the moment converge in a perfect storm of circumstances to trigger this event.

Creative people, those who are disposed by disposition or training to seek out novelty, discover and invent new things (including insights and ideas) are situated to have this experience more often than many of us.  State of mind is important and we have seen how intimately the spectrum of states of mind is involved (see A&O notes on “normality and dysfunction)

(Teachers often work to evoke an extraordinary experience in students:  The “transformative learning experience” — see Greenberg 2015)

Creativity was once usually thought of as a gift of the gods –it represented INSPIRATION  (from the Latin inspirare, meaning “to breathe into”) referring to an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavour. The concept has origins in both Hellenism and Hebraism. The Greeks believed that inspiration or “enthusiasm” came from the muses, as well as the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Similarly, in the Ancient Norse religions, inspiration derives from gods such as Odin. Inspiration is also a divine matter in Hebrew poetics. In the Book of Amos the prophet speaks of being overwhelmed by God’s voice and compelled to speak. In Christianity, inspiration is a gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Wikipedia on Artistic_inspiration);  Then listen to a TED talk by author, Elizabeth Gilbert.  Is this what  Csikszentmihaley (1975) means by FLOW… somehow tapping into and immersion in an altered state of consciousness such as often described in mystical experiences?




Edward Albee:  Writing has got to be an act of discovery. . . . I write to find out what I’m thinking about.

W. H. Auden: Language is the mother, not the handmaiden, of thought; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before.

James Baldwin: You go into a book and you’re in the dark, really. You go in with a certain fear and trembling. You know one thing. You know you will not be the same person when this voyage is over. But you don’t know what’s going to happen to you between getting on the boat and stepping off.

Robert Bolt: Writing a play is thinking, not thinking about thinking.

Truman Capote: If there is no mystery, for the artist, to solve inside of his art, then there’s no point in it. . . . for me, every act of art is the act of solving a mystery.

Frank Conroy: Most often I come to an understanding of what I am writing about as I write it (like the lady who doesn’t know what she thinks until she says it).

Cecil Day-Lewis: First, I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. . . . we do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.

Joan Dideon:  I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.

John Dos Passos: Curiosity urges you on–the driving force.


Alan Dugan: When I’m successful, I find the poem will come out saying something that I didn’t previously know, believe, or had intellectually agreed with.  

Robert Duncan: If I write what you know, I bore you; if I write what I know, I bore myself, therefore I write what I don’t know.

William Faulkner: It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.

Gabriel Fielding: Writing to me is a voyage, an odyssey, a discovery, because I’m never certain of precisely what I will find.

E.M. Forster:How do I know what I think until I see what I say? (Aspects of the Novel, Penguin, 1968)

Robert Frost: For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. . . . I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.

Christopher Fry: My trouble is I’m the sort of writer who only finds out what he’s getting at by the time he’s got to the end of it.  

Ernst Fuchs: My hand created, led in trance, obscure things … Not seldom, I get into trance while painting, my state of consciousness fades, giving way to a feeling of being afloat … doing things I do not know much about consciously.’(the Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs quoted in “Imagination is Ancient” by Stephen T Asma (2017; Aeon)

Rumer Godden: Of course one never knows in draft if it’s going to turn out, even with my age and experience.

Joanne Greenberg: Your writing is trying to tell you something. Just lend an ear.

Graham Greene: The novel is an unknown man and I have to find him . . . .

Nancy Hale: Many an author will speak of writing, in his best work, more than he actually knows.

Robert Hayden: As you continue writing and rewriting, you begin to see possibilities you hadn’t seen before. Writing a poem is always a process of discovery.

Shirley Hazzard: I think that one is constantly startled by the things that appear before you on the page when you’re writing.

George V. Higgins: I have no idea what I’ll say when I start a novel. I work fast so I can see how it will come out.

Cecelia Holland: One of the reasons a writer writes, I think, is that his stories reveal so much he never thought he knew.

William Inge: I don’t start a novel or a play saying, “I’ll write about such and such.”   I start with an idea and then find out what I’m writing about.

Keats: had often “not been aware of the beauty of some thought or expression until after I had composed and written it down”

Galway Kinnell: I start off but I don’t know where I’m going; I try this avenue and that avenue, that turns out to be a dead end, this is a dead end, and so on. The search takes a long time and I have to back-track often. 

Hilma af Klint:  “… I had no idea,” she said, “what the paintings were supposed to depict: nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely without changing a single brushstroke.” (A&O page)

Stanley Kunitz: For me the poem is always something to be discovered.

Margaret Laurence: Each novel is a kind of voyage of discovery.

Denise Levertov: Writing poetry is a process of discovery. . . you can smell the poem before you see it. . . . Like some animal.

Bernard Malamud: A writer has to surprise himself to be worth reading.

William Matthews: The easiest way for me to lose interest is to know too much of what I want to say before I begin.

Paul McCartney“Every time I come to write a song,” says McCartney, “there’s this magic little thing where I go, ‘Ooh, ooh, it’s happening again.’ I just sit down at the piano and go, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know this one,’ and suddenly there’s a song.” 

Mary McCarthy: Every short story, at least for me, is a little act of discovery. A cluster of details presents itself to my scrutiny, like a mystery that I will understand in the course of writing or sometimes not fully until afterward. . . . a story that. you do not learn something from while you are writing it, that does not illuminate something for you, is dead, finished before you started it.

David Milch:  “I try consciously to frustrate the impulse to think about a scene before I sit down to it, because— you know the highfalutin’ expression ‘you can’t think your way to write action; you can only act your way to write thinking.’”


Arthur Miller: I’m discovering it, making up my own story. I think at the typewriter.

Henry Miller: Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.

Alberto Moravia: One writes a novel in order to know why one writes it.

Wright Morris: The language leads, and we continue to follow where it leads.

Flannery O’Connor: The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then try to discover what you have done.

Lawrence Osgood: Writing is like exploring. . . as an explorer makes maps of the country he has explored, so a writer’s works are maps of the country he has explored.

Jules Renard: The impulse of the pen. Left alone, thought goes as it will. As it follows the pen, it loses its freedom. It wants to go one way, the pen another. It is like a blind man led astray by his cane, and what I came to write is no longer what I wished to write.

Adrienne Rich: Poems are like dreams; you put into them what you don’t know you know.

Charles Simic: You never know when you begin a poem what it has in store for you.

William Stafford: I don’t see writing as a communication of something already discovered, as “truths” already known. Rather, I see writing as a job of experiment. It’s like any discovery job; you don’t know what’s going to happen until you try it.

Mark Strand: What I want to do in a poem is discover what it is that I have to say.

Art Tatum: “In one of the odes of ‘Boleros,’ the great blind jazz pianist, speaks of his improvisation:

            So I lay two notes in the bar ahead,

            diminish a major,

            tunnel through the dark

            of the brightest minor,

            and come out on the right side of the song.

            I pick the composer’s pocket,

            and lay the hidden jewels out there.” 


                      [“Transfigurations: Collected Poems” by Jay Wright La State UP, NYTBR 1/28/01]


William Thackeray:  “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.”  

John Updike: Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying.

Kurt Vonnegut: It’s like watching a teletype machine in a newspaper office to see what comes out.

David Wagoner: For me, writing poetry is a series of bewildering discoveries, a search for something that remains largely unknown even when you find it.

Robert Penn Warren: A poem is an exploration not a working out of a theme.

Thomas Williams: A writer keeps surprising himself. . . he doesn’t know what f he is saying until he sees it on the page.

William Wordsworth:  at the age of 21 in 1791, he climbed a mountain in North Wales.  At the top he saw a flash of light  and a sea of mist   That lead to the writing of his autobiographical Prelude in 1805 (cited by Shaw 2014). From ‘a fracture in the vapour’ he hears ‘the roar of waters, torrents, streams / Innumerable, roaring with one voice’ (lines 59-60). (from The British Library’s essay on Wordsworth and the sublime, by Philip Shaw 2014)

Adapted from Donald M. Murray (1978) “Internal Revision: A Process of Discovery,” in Research on Composing. (Charles R. Cooper and Lee Odell, editors). National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, Illinois.  pp 85-103. (additions in cyan)  Murray defines writing as “the process of using language to discover meaning in experience and to communicate it” (p86).   more  (broken link)



The Allure of Authenticity, The Mystery of Inspiration:

Paul Klee compared the creative artist to the trunk of a tree, conducting nutrients between the root and crown: And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules — he transmits. His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.”  (Paul Klee “in a 1924 lecture about the creative process, later adapted into the now-iconic essay “On Modern Art,” posthumously published in 1948 as a slim, lovely book … and included in the 1964 anthology Modern Artists on Art (cited in Maria Popova’s blog, Brain Pickings for 24 September). Klee’s view resonates strongly with the intuition of many of the artists’s cited above–artists for whom creativity comes from some place of mystery, some place utterly beyond—transcending—reason.

RELATED: in our relentless pursuit of connections and believing that everything we do is driven by brain processes, we frequently seek brain-related phenomena that are correlated with–and may likely cause–our unusual behavior such as surges in creativity. 

Read https://neilgreenberg.com/ao-pathology-and-outsider-art/  including comments about what is NORMAL with an appendix on behavioral disorders of some famous artists:

In 1998, Demitri and Janice Papolos, wrote a book that argued that bipolar disorder was often overlooked in children. Some were treated for hyperactivity others for depression when what they may have been experiencing was the early onset of bipolar disorder. “Their book detailed the negative effects of bipolar disorder on patients (disruptive behavior, drug abuse, suicide attempts) but also prominently featured what might be described as its paradoxical benefits:

This illness is as old as humankind, and has probably been conserved in the human genome because it confers great energy and originality of thought. People who have had it have literally changed the course of human history: Manic-depression has afflicted (and probably fueled the brilliance of) people like Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Johann Goethe, Honoré de Balzac, George Frederic Handel, Ludwig von Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton.

(These claims are similar to those made about other serious psychiatric disorders, particularly depression.)” 

Now read complete essay, “What’s Normal?  The Difficulty Of Diagnosing Bipolar Disorder In Children.”  By Jerome Groopman (2007).  The New Yorker, April 9, 2007)





For an integrative view of writers’ experiences, read “Why Write?” By Elisa Gabbert (2022)

What’s Normal?  The Difficulty Of Diagnosing Bipolar Disorder In Children.”  By Jerome Groopman (2007).  The New Yorker, April 9, 2007

for greater depth, look also at Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists – Part 2