Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What is Creativity - 16

I wrote a few weeks ago about reading as a creative act. By implication I'd written something similar about the audience for the David Hare play.

I've been wondering recently whether creativity is necessarily a shared activity. Or, perhaps, another way of bonding.

One of my short stories won an award in the 2012 Porter Fleming Literary Competition. The judge commented that we tend to idealize our pretty small towns, without acknowledging the tragedies that lay underneath. That she understood what I was saying in that story meant more than the money I received. I'm a reader for prose submitted to Minerva Rising for its next edition. One of the submissions is so gorgeous I want to know the author. After the journal is in print, I intend to find her. I want to see if she's giving workshops anywhere that I could attend. I'm not alone - I've connected with someone else as a writer, and as a reader.

Okay, but what about creativity that isn't related to the arts? I and a friend, now deceased, became closer as we discovered how similar we were in many ways. We still used the same cookbook published in the 50s; we both cooked from scratch, except for the same muffin mix. We each had what we called a "grapefruit knife," acquired decades before when detergent boxes often included a prize (like the prizes in a box of Cracker Jack). No better tool for peeling or segmenting citrus, or for melons, than that knife. What a great invention. I still use my knife several times a week, never without remembering my friend. I somehow came into possession of a fork that I never use without a recognition of both its practical design and its connection to some unknown ancestor in the 19th century.

We know how necessary bonding is to an infant's physical and emotional well-being. How desirable parental bonding and social bonding are for the health of children and communities. Is the creative drive a way of bonding beyond the community? Beyond time?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Perfection Rant

I have ranted about perfectionism before, but I recently experienced a problem with it that I hadn't thought about before.

I coach a song, a theatrical scene, or a speech in 4 stages:

The body, where we learn the best use of the vocal mechanism. For songs, that stage also includes the pitches, rhythms, and harmonies. 

The mind, where we pay attention to the words, the sentence structure, all the literary aspects of the piece.

The emotions, where we apply our own interpretation of the meaning of the piece.

Finally, all the aspects of performance - involving the audience, use of gesture, body movement, etc.

We had reached the third stage with a Gluck song. I was emotionally drawn into it, completely involved as an audience member, when the singer stopped, then repeated the last phrase he'd sung. For the 1st time in more than 30 years of teaching, I let out an expletive. "What the f . . . are you doing?"  

"I didn't like that last run," he said. "I can do it better."

When I told someone later about this incident, he said, "The effect was like someone answering their phone halfway through intercourse."

Exactly. The singer interrupted a creative, emotional experience with self-criticism that belonged way back in stage one. That's where we work on the mechanics, using all the knowledge we've acquired, working out the kinks, getting as close to perfect as we can. It's work that is meant to be self-centered.

But our emotions are responses to something other than self. In this case, to the emotional meaning of the song, to memories, to audience, to the creative impulse. 

Nothing excites me more than a beginning student who says, during stage three, "I lost myself."    

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reading as a Creative Act

In a long conversation with another writer recently, we discussed why some reading experiences are memorable and others aren't.

I think we remember what we connect with emotionally. Even an exciting new idea, which we would ordinarily classify as cognitive, not emotional. Many, many times I think I remember exactly where I came across a new idea - I can "see" it somewhere in the upper third of a left page, and remember it word for word. But I'm not an underliner, and when I go back to look for it, it's not there. There's only a word or a phrase of the sentence I was sure I had remembered exactly. No, that word or phrase had made connections in my brain, and I had myself created the entire sentence I thought I had read.

I think we also respond to the emotion of the writer. If writers are truly engaged in the character, the words they use, the length of sentences, will engage the reader and make even a minor character memorable. Last night I read a chapter that mentioned a name which, because of the circumstances, should have appeared in a previous chapter. I skimmed that earlier chapter three times, but couldn't find her. I don't know who she is this morning. I also read a chapter from a minor (at least, so far) character's point of view in Alex Grecian's The Devil's Workshop. I remember this morning that he dropped and broke a tea cup near the beginning of the chapter and that he felt useful, at last, when he cleaned up the mess he'd made at the end of the chapter. I remember how he walked up the stairs, how helpless he felt when he was asked not to open a door. And a particular moment when he leaned his head against the door, hoping that would somehow help him see what was on the other side. I believe that Grecian had to have been inside that character during every moment of that chapter, feeling the emotions he was feeling on each step of the stairs.

If I reread that chapter now, I may find that what I remember is, again, not exactly what's on the page. But what is on the page allowed me to be inside that character, to re-create and believe in him.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 15

I believe that we're all born as creative beings. The creative avenue that an individual takes, of course, varies from one person to another.

A friend had no interest in any of the arts, and didn't do that well in school, but he was fascinated with motors. How do they work? How could they work better? His first job was at a gas station, and he went on to hold several patents and to build a successful company.

When we're interested, fascinated, or even obsessed by motors, or by writing or painting, or by gardening, our choice of the creative path we'll follow is fairly simple.

But after I began teaching, I discovered that we often bypass the relatively simple road because we don't recognize our unique talents. I've come to define a talent as what we do so well and so easily that we're not even conscious of doing it. A talent is a part of who we are, rather than an achievement, and often doesn't have to be learned.

I've been working with a young student for two years. Industrious, intelligent, a tragic actress who can give me goosebumps, so pretty that one immediately thinks of her for the ingenue lead in a play. But last week I saw her in a short film and realized she has an enormous talent for playing "straight man" - the dumb one in a comedy duo who doesn't get it, who's the butt of all the jokes. She didn't appear to be acting, or "doing" anything but being herself. Yet the laughs she got were huge and kept building.

The first time I recognized what I now call talent in a student, I realized that I had not followed my own talent path. I had been trained as a classical singer for opera, lieder, etc., which I loved to research and rehearse. One summer I was cast in a tiny role in a musical, "On the Town." I only had 2 or 3 lines that were repeated in 3 different scenes. On my third entrance, before I had opened my mouth, I heard laughter and applause. I dismissed that laughter and applause because I hadn't worked for it, hadn't researched or studied comedy and the timing required. I had just walked out and said my lines.

Our educational system, which is a reflection of our culture, rewards hard work, but seldom rewards talent. After a difficult exam, a middle school teacher went round the room, asking each student how much time they'd spend studying. One of them said, truthfully, 20 minutes. He was sent to the principal's office and ended up being suspended from school for a few days. Because he had written a near-perfect exam without studying more than 20 minutes. Because he was talented.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What is Creativity? - 14

Overwhelming threat and trauma can result in dissociation.

Here's a definition of "dissociation" found in The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease, by Robert C. Scaer, MD:  "An unconscious process by which a group of mental processes is separated from the rest of the thinking processes, resulting in an independent functioning of these processes and a loss of the usual relationships; for example, a separation of affect from cognition.”

Does this definition mean that, without threats and trauma, affect and cognition work together? Are inseparable?

That's not how we think about our thinking. We think affect and cognition are completely separate - that when we are thinking we're using only the cognitive areas of the brain and we're walling off the affect areas so emotion won't taint our thinking. This idea is so prevalent that a head hunter told me, after he'd administered a routine psychological test, that I couldn't possibly think the way I thought - that I couldn't use both cognitive and affect thinking. I later discovered that a colleague in the Executive Program at Columbia Business School had been given a similar test and had been told that she couldn't possibly think that way. That was about a year before she became CEO of a tech company on the West Coast.

Creative thinking requires interaction between all our mental processes.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What is Creativity? - 13

A few decades ago, I began to use, and build on, a theory I found in Elias Canetti's autobiography, a theory that he developed in opposition to Freud. I've never been able to figure out how it relates to Freud myself, but that's what Canetti said.

Here's my paraphrase of Canetti: People are isolated in their houses. They come out of their houses, come together in groups, in order to connect with others. In order to connect, to become part of a group, each individual must give up some of their armor and, therefore, become more vulnerable.

Here's how I've used that theory: In that vulnerable, more open state, we need to be protected and we want to feel a connection with the performer, as well as with the group. When we go to a play, we want to be engaged in the play, want to feel a connection with the characters, as well as with others in the audience. When we go to a museum or art gallery, we want to feel a connection, through her medium, with the photographer or sculptor. When we read a book, listen to music, we want to connect with the author and the characters, the composer and the musicians. We even feel a connection when we find a new product or come across a new idea. We say, "At last someone has solved my problem."

Any creation, then, can remove, if only for a moment or two, the sense of isolation in those who come in contact with it.

We tend to think of the creators, however, as being alone, isolated in a garret or studio. But it occurred to me this weekend that that's not quite true.

Unless I or a student has a deadline, I don't write or teach on Sundays. I do laundry, vacuum, pay bills - all the things I dislike doing - trusting that my subconscious is working on Monday's writing or teaching. And, perhaps because my childhood Sundays were lonely days, I often feel lonely on Sundays.

But last Sunday, as I was answering emails, I noticed that one of the stories I'd been revising was open on my computer. Oh, I thought, I'll just fix that one sentence. Which led to another and another, while my vacuum lay idle amongst out-of-place furniture in the living room. Later, as I was folding laundry, I realized that my usual Sunday loneliness had evaporated.

Is it possible, then, that the creative act itself comes from the innate need to bond?


Friday, July 10, 2015

The Silver Coffee Pot

I've been researching memory, and allied subjects, for months, so I can't seem to get out of my head why the last scene in "Skylight" is memorable in an unusual way

“The cocktail party effect” is one example of subconscious memory sorting. In a room full of conversations, we listen to only one. The others become background noise unless our selective radar hones in on another, more salient, conversation across the room. This isn't a conscious decision - our neural system, always on the look-out for our well-being, shifts our hearing and attention on its own. Our first partner, whose words became noise when our attention moved away, may try to bring us back with a question. Our minds seemingly blank, we say, “Sorry, would you repeat that?” But even before he repeats it, we’re often able to retrieve it from short-term memory and provide the answer.

How long does any experience remain in short-term memory? In the farce, "Noises Off," lines are repeated so often that the audience remembers them and begins to mouth the words, with laughter, at each repetition.

But "Skylight" uses memory differently. A 3-character play, in which the man's son appears only in the 1st and last scenes. He comes to the apartment of a woman who lived with his family for many years - their best years, as he remembers them - and he doesn't know why she left them. He asks her for her best memory from that time. She says, "Breakfast." And then goes on to describe breakfast in detail: the juice is cold, the coffee is hot and served from a silver pot, scrambled eggs, the toast wrapped in a napkin. If one were to analyze only the 1st act, the rationale for such detail would be to give us an image of the everyday homeyness of their lives together.

In the last scene, the son brings her breakfast the following day. He tells her that the coffee is hot, holds out a thermos. He doesn't mention that he's pouring it into a silver pot. He doesn't mention that he's wrapping the toast in a napkin. And yet those unspoken words come back to us from the 1st scene and bring us near tears. And change the play for us because we can imagine that scene changing the woman, and perhaps giving all the characters a different future than we'd thought possible.

Why did we remember those words, seemingly unimportant, except as a writerly device, in the 1st scene, but vital to the play? Why were we able to supply them ourselves, 2 hours later, in the last scene? Much credit has to go to Matthew Beard, who played the son. He showed us their importance to his character - how lovingly he lifted the coffee pot from its box and placed it on the table, how carefully he wrapped the toast. Credit, too, to Carey Mulligan, who played the woman, and gave us those details lovingly in the 1st scene.

I remember the gist of other lines from the play, but I can't quote them exactly. "The cocktail party effect," or selective listening, like all innate autonomic phenomena, is believed to benefit us in some way. So does part of the credit for remembering those 1st-scene words go to the audience, and what they want for the characters?