Friday, January 28, 2011

A Very Long Post on a Very Big Topic

As we get this semester under way, I want to talk about Creativity itself, as a psychological and aesthetic concept. However, to get to “Creativity,” I will first talk about other concepts that I feel will support what I want to argue.

Why talk specifically about Creativity in a Creative Writing course? Why not just launch into being “creative”? Because I believe, from my own experience and study, that it is helpful to take a cognitive approach in our efforts (though perhaps modified from what contemporary psychologists mean by Cognitivism) – in any area of endeavor. That is, it is helpful to think about how we think, because greater awareness, “meta-thinking,” more of a focused self-consciousness about what we do, can improve how we do it – even though it is perhaps also true that sometimes we want to NOT think too much about what we’re doing: sometimes, we should probably have more of a “Zen mind” – not-thinking, or at least not thinking too much, about what we’re doing.

That itself is an important cognitive principle, for me: experience is marked here and there by paradoxes. Rules of thumb, corollaries, principles – there are always exceptions, and context, occasion, circumstance always matter. Few things are absolute, as I see it.

JS Sargent, "Apollo & the Muses"
I’m being deliberately philosophical; bear with me, and we’ll get to some more concrete, practical points later (well, in the second part of this Creativity series, I hope!).

“Zen mind” or intuition, second nature…yes, often we need to let loose and see what comes. Another approach to what lies behind those concepts is to redefine “mind”: we tend to think of it as concomitant with the brain itself, which anatomy tells us is inside the skull. However, the brain is the center of the nervous system, which goes everywhere (like the blood and lymph systems), so in a way, the whole body “thinks” – and by our senses, and by our words and deeds, we leave the mark of our thoughts far and wide – some of us (Napoleons and Einsteins, etc.) more than others. 

To digress: “leaving one’s mark” is one goal of the artist, I suppose. Art, writing, and so forth are ways that people leave their traces: the old poets wrote extensively about how their poems were a way to become immortal – or to immortalize their poem’s subjects (often women the poets desired – and so, that trick or immortality was essentially a seduction device).

The body thinks. When I tried learning piano many years ago, it was hard to get the left hand to do one thing, and the right hand to do another thing, and to make both things come out sounding harmonious. That’s what training and practice were for: doing scales over and over, learning a little theory and hoping it would sink in, learning proper posture and hand position… but it felt as if my hands had to learn their roles, so that my conscious mind could go elsewhere – or, perhaps, shut down altogether, while the unity of my playing took over: a center, not in my brain or hands, but balanced between me, the keys, the music, the listener – all of it.

The body thinks: years ago, I tried to teach my son to memorize passages from literature. We started with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” (Why do rote memorization? – to cram yourself with wonderful words, and hope that it steeps you in brilliance; again, paradox! Being smart, thinking critically, creatively, or originally, depend on the opposite: copying others.)

After some practice in his own room, my son came into my little home-office to show what he could do; he faltered a bit, went and practiced some more, came back, and pretty much got through it without mistake, but also without a lot of fluency or expressiveness.

What was lacking? I noticed, when he recited, that his mouth and his above-the-neck area generally (he squinted his eyes, he tensed his scalp, it seemed) were very busy, but the rest of his body – and the impromptu “stage” area around him, the performance space – were not involved. So, I thought about what really was involved in learning something “by heart.” Recordare is the root word in Latin: to record; but that cord part is also related to cardio, or the heart. “Heart” is metonymic, perhaps: of the whole body, the whole form, and of feeling, generally; and also symbolic, of the soul.
page from an emblem book

So, looking back at the great Age of Memorization and recitation – the nineteenth century, one might argue – I noticed that people studied such things as elocution (how to properly pronounce words), "chironomia" and variations (how to use your hands when speaking and gesturing), oratory, debate, and so on. Theater, too, was very popular; and going to lectures at lycea was the rage, for a time, in nineteenth-century America. That is, people knew that memorization was an activity involving the whole body: if you took a certain stance when reciting, if you thought about how to frame and punctuate your words with your gestures, if you scripted the intonation, pacing, pitch, and volume of your words, and if you imaging the performative space itself – where you were standing in relation to audience, to any objects or props, and how that performative space corresponded to spatial reference within your words (a battlefield, for instance, or the divided nation at war, as in the address Lincoln gave), then memory was greatly enhanced – and also, for the audience, memorability was enhanced.

How is this related to Creativity?

First, memory and imagination are possibly the same thing, somewhere down into the brain and how it functions. To remember is to imagine; we might attempt to re-vision a memory from the first impressions of an experience, but every time we remember, we reconstruct; and something is a little different, each time. That’s partly why memory is so tricky, but I think it works in our favor, overall. We might often remember incorrectly, but we are also capable of seeing things that aren’t there yet – hallucinations, which are usually troubling, but also visions of a better life and a better world: you’re getting a degree because you’ve envisioned yourself in a specific career, perhaps.

That’s part of it; but I start with memory also because the writer needs to know some things: he or she needs to pack into memory a wealth of learning about the world.  The writer or artist needs to observe, absorb, question, follow up, connect, discuss, reflect, and courageously confront knowledge that seems wrong in some way, or deal with contradictions (Walt Whitman: Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.); to be unafraid of the unknown (because the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know), and to be unafraid of paradoxes and other forms of inconsistency (R. W. Emerson: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”).

So, by “memory” I mean the processes of learning and taking possession of what we learn, so that we can draw upon it as we engage in creative acts – not only in writing poetry and stories, but in every other task of living: parenting, paying bills, doing our jobs (“creative accounting” is something else, though).

People have always been creative, but Creativity as a study is fairly new; psychologists are very interested in the topic, but artists, scientists, and other creative types contribute to the discussion. One writer who early on offered an interesting formulation of creative process was the Englishman Graham Wallas in 1926, in his book The Art of Thought. In fact, what he offers is a kind of flow chart, or perhaps an algorithm: a series of steps. No, I don’t mean to say that one can necessarily be “creative” or become a Shakespeare or Da Vinci by following a checklist; not exactly. But to get back to what I said above about the cognitive approach, I believe that if one is aware of what takes place during a process (which is to argue that artistic inspiration can be analyzed as a process), we can at least increase our chances of having ideas – more ideas, more frequently, with more variety, from more directions, which is, I think, how anyone gets to having BETTER ideas: by increasing the flow of ALL ideas, including the “bad” or “dumb” ideas.

Here is the essential part of Wallas’ argument about creative process (as modified by some of his interpreters, at least):
  1. Preparation: having defined a problem, question, or challenge in some form, the thinker “works” – drawing, writing, mapping, studying, talking, arguing, handling, testing, etc.
  2. Incubation: the thinker moves away from the problem. He or she sleeps (as we all must), relaxes, works on other problems or questions, goes for a walk, listens to music, plays a sport, or anything that is consciously other than the problem itself.
  3. Intimation (this part is often added to Wallas' original series): one feels that an answer or a solution is coming.
  4. The heart of it all: illumination. The idea (or answer, or solution) reveals itself.
  5. The final stage in Wallas’ formulation of creative process is verification: in the arts, this is perhaps when the audience, reader, critic, or fellow artists review the work that was developed from the idea (and the artist’s own self-judgments); for a scientist, this is standard scientific review, testing, duplication of experiments, etc. In business, this is the marketplace: do people like the product? Do they buy it?
It’s easy to imagine other ways to define the process: fewer or more steps, different ways to name and define them, etc. There are, in fact, other patterns, going back at least to the concept of the Muse that was popular among the ancient Greeks, and still given lip service by poets and artists today. In fact, one way to engage this process theory is to critique it, to challenge it, extend it, and revise it to suit your own experience and sensibilities.

My argument is this: if you meditate on this process theory, considering its implications, opportunities, and limitations, it will make you more attuned to your own mental processes, however best they can be described.It might be hard to imagine how Steps 3 and 4 can be manipulated (besides drugs or alcohol, which are dubious enhancements to creativity, although some folks swear by them – see Coleridge’s story; or chanting, or intense prayer); however, what about the other steps?
S. T. Coleridge

Certainly Step 1is in our control: READ, READ, READ as I have already (elsewhere) emphasized; re-read, discuss your reading, read what you love and love what you read!

Then go out and explore, take trips, stop and study things, take notes – copious notes: most artists and scientists are inveterate note-takers, and their journals and diaries and field books are available in museums for review. They also marked up their books, and whole academic careers have been devoted to studying Melville’s or Coleridge’s annotations and notes.

Also, Step 2 is in our control, although less obviously.  How do you incubate? When we sleep, we dream; as you lie down, prepare yourself for dreaming: try telling yourself what you want to dream about (I find it works a lot of the time, although not always as I expect – which is good!); have an intense waking dream, perhaps the same one each night (I often place myself on a desert island, each night with different problems to solve, and different resources at my disposal, or on different kinds of desert islands) that will entrance you and draw you into sleep; read or study something right before sleep; keep a dream journal by your bedside.

Also, spend time alone: give yourself space, and maybe a particular space (your “querencia,” your bower or special private place), where you can feel free to daydream. Take walks; walking (the body thinks, remember) stimulates the mind, as William Wordsworth and (long before him) the Peripatetic philosophers knew.

Mainly, be prepared: the mind is an imp! It tends to toss out inspirations when we least expect them, and are least able to turn our full attention to them – when driving, or in the shower, for example. (I read once of an engineer who had so many brilliant ideas while in the shower that she designed a special pen and shower-stall coating so she could write her ideas down while wet. As for driving, I keep a digital voice recorder handy, and practice mnemonics.)

Also, talking your ideas out with people, at certain stages of development, is helpful: bouncing ideas off another person is good, because that person will perhaps question, extend, relate, or simply inadvertently remark on something that stimulates the thinker (which leads to a different category, Group Creativity, which we can discuss later). Also, talking about your projects helps you siphon out unformed thoughts, and leads to what I call “creative b.s.” – often, trying to make it look like you’ve done more on the problem than is really true, so in an effort to impress, you improvise your way into the solution. Or, you look like an idiot; but courage, risk, and even foolhardiness are part of being creative.

Also, practice juggling two or more problems/questions at a time. Edison supposedly had many work benches in his space, because he could leap from one to the other, trailing matters from one area to the next – cross-pollination.  Much good thinking is analogous thinking: seeking and discovering similarities between otherwise unlike categories of experience. Switching from one problem to another, even when they are seemingly unrelated, allows you to incubate or “slow cook” one problem, but also season it with flavoring from the other problems. Everything is related to everything else in this universe. It’s just that most of those relations, most of the time, appear meaningless to us, or do not appear at all.

And finally, verification: that is very much in our control, but one way to think of it, to extend or reshape Wallas’ series, is to see it as folded over on itself, or shaped like a helix: once you get to verification, you are also, often, back at the preparation stage: you do more study, more questioning, reading, talking, exploring, and define new problems, or pass the matter on to new problem-solvers.

The Workshop is our Verification Tank, but there are many other ways to “verify”: revision is a way to verify your work – even when something seems good, complete, or at a dead-end, there is always a variation, extension, connection (to another, separate work), redirection, inversion, or truncation that you might apply. Think of all the parts and references in a work as trap doors: in your poem about your father, your mother makes a brief appearance; next poem, go toward her, and see what you see. Or that object on the table in your memory: pick it up, see what’s underneath it, inside it – describe it so intensively (enargeia, which I will discuss more later) reveals that we always see more than we think we see, and can see much more, and say much more, or much less, or from many more perspectives, than we think.

 Ah, this is long – but I have much more to report! So, ponder these words, and ponder your pondering: consider how your mind works, and see where you can tweak it. Do not be afraid to write and speak; yes, there are dumb ideas, but some of them are squatting on top of brilliant ideas.

More later on this…although I might take up a different topic next week.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2011 Readings in Houston

Among the earlier posts you will find similar information, but I'll re-post certain information, to make it more accessible. But remember -- you can push back through the earlier posts to find a great deal of valuable information!

Try to attend some live literary events this season; here are some options:

The premier reading series in town -- Inprint Margaret Root Brown Reading Series. Next:

The Gulf Coast Reading Series, sponsored by Gulf Coast magazine and the Brazos Bookstore -- which has other author events as well:

Also check out Houston's best used bookstore, Kaboom Books (two locations), which has a reading series in "nanofiction":

Let us know if you hear of any events!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Paris Review

The Paris Review is one of the more important literary publications of our time. Find it in the library or in bookstores; meanwhile, visit their web site, where you can find selections in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry from many years' worth of issues. Most importantly, you can find an archive of their famous interviews with authors -- perhaps one of the best resources for discussion of craft you can find anywhere. There are print volumes of these,but why not read some online to get started?

Book Reviews

In my first group email on Blackboard, I spoke of reading book reviews as one way of learning critical vocabulary; here are a couple of web sites for finding reviews:


...but there are many other ways to find reviews, online and in print.