Studies involving fifty or so Nobel prize winners in physiology, chemistry, medicine and physics, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning writers and other artists, reveal a surprising similarity in their creative process.
Called ‘Janusian thinking’ after the Roman god Janus, it involves holding two opposing ideas or images in your mind at the same time. The researchers conclude most major scientific breakthroughs and artistic masterpieces occur through the process of formulating antithetical ideas and then trying to resolve them.
Janus was the Roman god of gates and doors, bridges, openings and closings, beginnings and endings, past and future. Represented by an image of two heads, each looking in opposite directions, this unusual god was worshipped at seasonal markers such as planting and harvesting, at beginnings such as marriage and birth, and even historical epochs, such as the transition from primitive to civilized cultures. Janus’s namesake, the month of January, describes the gift he had of being able to see into the future as well as into the past – a gift he was given by the god Saturn. At midnight, on the last day of the year, he looks back at the old year, and at the same moment he looks forward into the new. That’s not easy to do! We get lost in nostalgia for the past and longing for the future – try being in both at the same time. (It’s not necessarily ‘being here now.’)
Here’s an example of Janusian (or paradoxical) thinking: The physicist Niels Bohr imagined that light could be analyzed as either a wave or as a particle, but never simultaneously as both. He had to hold both concepts in his head at the same time in order to conceive his principle of complementarity in quantum theory.
Einstein recalls how he first conceived his theory of relativity: “For an observer in free fall from the roof of a house, there exists, during his fall, no gravitational field in his immediate vicinity. If the observer releases any objects, they will remain, relative to him, in a state of rest.” Falling and being still – at the same time. It is possible!
Some of the best descriptive metaphors you’ll read are Janusian: Keats describes April rain that “fosters the droop-headed flowers” and “hides the green hill in a shroud’ at the same time – life and death in the same imagery. Powerful.
An artistic example of Janusian thinking are those extraordinary artistic renderings by M.C. Escher, who draws, for example, cubes that are paradoxical – they can be visually ‘seen’ either as protruding or receding.
Practice looking at a cube in this way, and trying to regard it from either perspective. Just an exercise this simple will help your decision-making skills as well as loosen up your imagination. You are, literally, thinking ‘outside the box.’ There’s no better exercise for a writer than to free yourself from the constraints of what is expected, clichéd, outworn, one-sided. Anything that seems impossible is bound to challenge and thrill anyone who writes fiction. You’re reaching beyond the obvious – and that’s the essence of being creative. Janusian thinking – holding two diametrically opposing views in your mind at the same time – is like gold to writers.
Fun Writing Practice – Janusian Writing
Think of something, and ask yourself: “What is the opposite of this?” Then try to imagine both opposites existing at the same time.
In writing a story you do this all the time. A character holds passion and hatred for an unfaithful wife in his heart at the same time. A young, angry boy may long to run away from home, but his love for his family keeps him captive at the same time. Warring emotions in characters are Janusian qualities: you might feel both pity and bitterness when you see an enemy fail. Or both disappointment and relief when something exciting and scary doesn’t happen. And of course there’s always the pain and the pleasure of unrequited love.
Choose a theme for a poem or a story: for example, envy, or summertime, or moving into a new house. Now ask yourself what is the opposite of your theme? Gratitude, freezing darkness, a departure? What are the bridges between these opposites, so that both are true at the same time? For example, you might write a story about the intense envy you feel when your best friend wins a million dollar lotto ticket. Let your words unfurl the momentous upheavals and personal disasters that the winnings create in your friend’s life, which inspires gratitude for your modest means… Or you might describe a balmy summer afternoon seen through the eyes of a cold-hearted, dark-spirited, wintry CEO.
- sipping ouzo in the shade at a Greek taverna
- a whole day spent alone
- requited love
- castles in Wales
- the ancient Silk Route