Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What is Creativity? - 12

I wrote in an earlier post that if asked whether self-expression was the impetus to creativity, I'd check all three boxes: Yes, No, and Maybe. I wrote that, in my experience, problem-solving seemed the impetus. David Hare said in a recent interview that he wrote "Skylight" because, after he'd written a number of plays that covered the sweep of history, he wanted to write a one-room play. A friend's short story was written as an experiment with time - could he remove time completely from a story and still it have work.

But that same friend posited recently that expression must be the impetus. He used the example of a 2-year-old singing. He wasn't singing any music he'd heard before, he was creating the tune as he sang. He suggested that the child wasn't aware he was singing. I agreed. If someone asked him what he was doing, the child would probably answer, "Nothing." He wouldn't say, "I'm singing." He was just being, and part of his being alive was creating music.

One of the "Skylight" characters says that he creates restaurants and hotels because that's what he does, that's who he is.

Is creativity, then, not the need to express ourselves TO the external world, but to allow ourselves to BE who we are?

To be continued.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What Is Creativity - 11

I ended last week with a question about the relationship between creator and audience. .

A student today said that he'd begun to notice how tense he became on his drive to my studio. He started out happily excited; the closer he got the more he began to worry about "not doing it right." As we talked, he realized that what he expected from education was to have his mistakes pointed out.

The meaning of the word "educate" is to lead out. As a teacher that means I'm leading out the voice, the writing, the creativity so that it can be shared with others. If I focused on "mistakes," I'd be turning them back into themselves. With students who have been told they're "tone deaf," I never tell them they're singing a different pitch until after they've learned to sing the intended pitch. Then I ask them to figure out what were they thinking or doing that got in the way of their natural ability to match the pitch.

We always find that what got in the way were habits they'd formed because they feared being judged by others, of being wrong. I hate that word "wrong."

To be continued

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What is Creativity - 10

I attended another disappointing performance last week. A jazz trumpeter, who was facile, with great technique. And so what? He never connected with his audience. Yes, he talked to us about his personal journey, but his talk was one of those testimonials that are more for the testifier's benefit than the audience's.

"I need to say (do, invent, paint) this" is very often the impetus to creativity, perhaps the impetus. But why should an audience member, or the marketplace, care about the needs of a performer or inventor? We have our own needs, and one of those is inclusion in the process.

Communication with others is an essential element of creativity. Notice that I didn't say "to" others. I said "with." If our jazz trumpeter had been having a conversation with his audience, even if one-sided, the effect would have been different. He would have acknowledged and responded to the positive "amens" and gone in that direction. At other times, he would have sensed the unease, rephrased a statement, perhaps shortened his talk.

But what about the non-performer, the solitary writer or inventor? Without a live audience to give them feedback, how are they communicating "with?"

To be continued

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What is Creativity - 9

I've taken a couple weeks off because I was writing a post to submit to Minerva Rising's blog, Keeping Room (

By the time I submitted it to my writing group for critique, I had learned so much - about writing, about myself - during the process that I didn't care whether my submission would be accepted or not. (Yes, it was accepted, and will be posted on June 26.)

I used a format that I'd seen elsewhere 3 times recently - short, seemingly unrelated sections separated by an asterisk. I thought the first 2 pieces I read were self-indulgent and irritating. But then came Jordan Wiklund's "The 52-Hertz Whale" in Lonely Whale Memoir (Chatsworth Press, 2015). Wow! Jordan begins with a section about the Lonely Whale, then a section about Heinrich Rudolph Hertz, who discovered the existence of electromagnetic waves, back and forth, until he begins to riff on "waves," ocean waves and sound waves, with a section that is nothing but the word "waves" set in different size fonts so we see the word in waves across the page. Some sections are just one word, lonely in its white space. As the 52-Hertz Whale is lonely in its great ocean space, unable to communicate with other whales whose songs are in the 15-25 Hertz range. As Hertz himself was lonely - "Asked about the ramifications of his discoveries, Hertz replied, 'Nothing, I guess.'"

Note: The cover of Lonely Whale Memoir uses the so lonely font. I thought that must be a joke, but there really is a font called "so lonely."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What is Creativity -8

Here's an idea that's new to me, so consider what follows an exploration.

I used to teach the difference between comedy and tragedy as a matter of distance - that is, for comedy one distances oneself a step further away from the emotions expressed in tragedy. I have a young student who auditions often, so we're often preparing new monologues. She can give you goosebumps with tragedy, but comedy was not going so well.

In a All's Well that Ends Well monologue, her character discovers she's caught in what seems to be an impossible dilemma. Of course, that play is a comedy, and the dilemma is happily solved for everyone at the end. But she was playing the part as though she were caught in a web that she'd never escape. My distancing method had no effect. I tried asking her to keep a smile in the muscles under her eyes during her frustration.

That's how we recognize a smile - in the eyes, not in the mouth. You can be ranting in supposed anger, but if the muscles under your eyes are loose and curved, anyone watching you will know you don't mean what you're saying because "there was a twinkle in your eye." Conversely, your lips may be stretched into a curve, but if the muscles under the eye haven't let go, anyone watching you will know you're "putting on a false front."

Using the eye-muscle approach soft of worked, but it required learning how to separate the eye muscles from those around the mouth, and that takes time. And we had to get ready for another audition with a monologue from Taming of the Shrew, another comedy. This character was foot-stamping furious, and that's how my student was playing it. When I prepared for the next lesson, I noticed that when my eyes smiled, my internal body felt warmer.

One of the ways we communicate is through temperature. There's a measurable temperature effect on the skin when it senses rejection or affection - cooler for danger, warmer for safety. The skin is picking up on "a cold shoulder" or "a warm welcome" given off by someone else. A few months ago, I sat next to a man who was growing increasingly angry and the chill coming off his back was like a refrigerator door had just opened. We all know what "being in heat" feels like.

The warm-body idea worked. The student could recognize the line where she lost the warmth under her anger. We no longer feared her anger, we could be amused by it.

I encountered a different aspect of this phenomenon in my writing critique group. A member had submitted four chapters of a young adult novel that involved a couple of wizards, magic wands, and the like. In Chapter 4 we were deep in fantasyland, but Chapters 2 and 3 were set in the real world, and the effect on the reader was disconcerting. We're young when we believe in fantasy. Our bodies feel lighter, almost giddy, unburdened by the knowledge that real life is tough, and that closing our eyes and saying "Open Sesame" doesn't work. My guess is that the author needs to maintain that light, young feeling in his body when he's revising those other two chapters.

What if we noticed the physical sensations in our bodies when we knew we were being creative?

To be continued.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What is Creativity - 7

The Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County was established in 1949, the first local arts council in the country. The National Council on the Arts was established by law in the mid-60s, and by the mid-80s nearly state and every county had its own arts council. During the 80s I was living in Middlesex County, New Jersey, where the Executive Director of our arts council was a tiny dynamo of energy.

She told me, "I believe that we are all creative, and that we all need to express it. I don't care if it's a man coming home for working in a factory and going out to work in his garden, that's creativity. And that's my job. To see that every person in this county has an outlet for that drive. Because when it's repressed . . ."

The details that we retain in memory, and those we lose are a mystery. I don't remember her name, what town we were in, what conference we were attending. I do remember we were walking on a glass-enclosed bridge between buildings, because I can still see the tree-tops behind her. And I'll never forget her passion.

To be continued

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What is Creativity - 6

The sensation of flow involves a sense of "otherness." When we're in flow, we're not the self we've become accustomed to. If we're writers, words seem to appear on the page "out of nowhere." If we're inventors, the idea for a new product seems to come to us "out of the blue." Not from inside us, but from some mysterious source outside us.

Little wonder then that, for millennia, both the arts and the sciences were thought to be divinely inspired. The first dances were probably physical attempts to connect with the gods of war, of rain, of fertility. In Greek mythology, the Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory). Hesiod lists nine Muses, each a goddess who was responsible for inspiring and protecting a different art or science. Terpsichore took care of dance; Urania had charge of astronomy.

In the Roman Catholic Church, St. Vitus became the patron saint of dance, St. Dominic the patron saint of astronomy. They were responsible for teaching dancers and astronomers and also for interceding with God on their behalf.

Today, writers, fine artists, fashion designers often speak of the necessity of a muse to inspire them, whether that muse is an actual person or a mystical being. Some speak of channeling spirit guides or angels. Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, one of the ten best-selling self-help books of all time, is based on engaging God, The Great Creator, in our creative process.

All of these attempts to explain creativity depend on a higher power, a being other than ourselves.

But what if the rain dance doesn't bring rain? What if the words that seemed to flow onto the page are deleted by an editor? What if the inspired product fails in the marketplace?

To be continued.