Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 26

I've been teaching creativity, in one way or another, for over 30 years, but it hadn't occurred to me until I began writing this series of blogs that the creative experience isn't limited to the creator.

I'm a reader of submissions for the women's literary journal, Minerva Rising. I'm currently reading novellas for their contest—25 of them, so far— and have been running the emotional gamut with them. Irritated and sorrowful that a very good writer had not edited her excellent story; sometimes disgusted because writers had not learned the craft at all; educated by the craft of another; blessed by a story that left me in tears. And then mesmerized by a story about a pilgrimage to Santiago in the 12th century.

I can't turn off my editorial eye when I read. Missing commas and hyphens, the incorrect use of colons—I notice them all. I realized, as I finished the pilgrimage story, that I'd been so caught up in it that my critical faculties had lain dormant after the 1st few pages. I intended to read a couple of chapters at a time, but I read the entire novella in one sitting.  I've never been able to empathize with pilgrims making that journey, never able to walk in their shoes, and yet I willingly followed the protagonist throughout her journey. I know little about the 12th century, but I believed I was there. Not a Roman Catholic by faith or a believer in miracles, I nevertheless would have have been happy if the protagonist had decided to become a nun and accepted the "coincidences" or miracles as truth.

I suspended disbelief, logic, critical tendencies and was both transported and completely involved, mind, body, and soul.

As a teacher, what I'm trying to help clients release their natural voices, whether in singing or writing. When they do, I'm again, as with the novella, unable to critique. I'm just there with them in the present. I had that experience with a singer/songwriter this week. Ordinarily, I would have suggested that she not lift her larynx, as she was doing for some lines. But I didn't say a word.

If, as I believe, creativity comes from an integrated self, then it must have the power to integrate the reader, the listener, any of its audiences. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Is Creativity?- 25

Smith Hagaman died last week. Unless you're from North Carolina, or are one of the too few people who have read his books, the name will mean nothing to you. But Smith is an inspiration to me.

He began to write at the age of 86. He had a story in his head, and he decided, "If not now, when?" He was a reader but, other than a letter-to-the-editor or two, he had never written. He knew nothing about the craft of writing, only that he wanted to tell a story. He sat down and wrote for six months. He said later that if, he'd worried about how he was writing, he'd have given up.

But then he took the crucial next step: He learned the craft. He went to workshops and readings, he joined a critique group and a marketing group. He hired an editor. Me, as it turned out. And what a joy he was to work with. "Why?" That was always his question. When he understood why his first scene didn't work and what the reader would expect from a first scene, he rewrote it in a week.

And he researched the details. He had been involved in a plane crash during World War II, so he already knew what that felt like. But if his fictional crash occurred in the Arctic Circle, what would the survivors find to eat? He consulted the foremost expert on the flora and fauna of that region. I had a problem with the scene in which an Irish priest comforts a dying Jewish man. Smith consulted a rabbi and found a prayer that I didn't know existed, even though I'd sung in synagogues and been fascinated by Hebraic rituals for more than 30 years.

Smith ended up with more than a good adventure story. Because he asked "why?" throughout his life, each of his characters is on some sort of quest. One of them—the Irish priest—questions his own faith. The laws of physics, engineering and mechanical problems, and an underlying spirituality all come into play. And he manages to engage the reader with the most unsympathetic character imaginable . . .Ah, I don't want to give away the ending.

When Smith asked if I would write a blurb for the book and sent me the galleys, I truly could not put it down until 4:00 a.m. For a good read, do get hold of "Off the Chart," by Smith Hagaman.

A wannabe writer at 86, Smith had two books published, and was at work on a third when he died.


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 24

In a recent "For Better or For Worse" comic strip, Elizabeth was told by her teacher not to use her fingers to answer a question in addition, but to use her head. I understand that we eventually run out of fingers for numbers higher than ten. That's why we invented the abacus—so we could manipulate pebbles or beads with our fingers to make calculations. And, of course, we still use our fingers to punch in numbers on our calculators.

And yet,"Don't use your body, use your head" describes our educational system. Yes, phys ed, supposedly "educating" the body, has been added (and subtracted) from time to time, but school still teaches us that learning is a head game.

Moving awkwardly from arithmetic to sex, here's something else I read this week:

The immune system is a marvel. Our innate immune cells recognize a problem and move immediately to our defense; adaptive immune cells are created to deal with a specific pathogen, and immune memory retains them for future use.

Our immune cells dramatically affect our lives in another way. In "A Sexually Aware Immune System?," by Gretchen Reynolds (The New York Times Magazine, October 25, 2015, p. 22), we're told that, in sexually active women, the female immune system responds to the reproductive system by increasing the level of immune cells that recognize and ignore nonhazardous foreign cells (like fetus cells) during the menstrual cycle. And, that the level of antibodies living in the reproductive tract varies during the cycle—as that level drops, the germ-fighting antibodies in other parts of the body rises.

On the male side, chemicals that communicate gender and reproductive status are picked up by nerve endings in our noses and go directly to the sexual regions of the brain. We’re not consciously aware of the odor, but we respond nonetheless.

Do you see why those two clippings—the comic strip and the "wellness" article—are lying in my Creativity folder? I believe that learning, as well as creativity, begins in the body. And the converse—that until we know what our bodies know, we'll never understand how our heads work.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Creative Teacher of the Year

Molly Rice, the drama teacher at St. Stephens High School in Hickory, NC, is the most creative teacher I've ever met. I saw an example of her work this week, and am still stunned by what she does.

The Hickory Museum of Art had been working for three years to get an exhibition of Steve McCurry's work. A photojournalist of international renown, McCurry's most famous photograph is probably "Afghan Girl," which, like much of his work, appeared in National Geographic. Molly had asked some of her drama students to choose one of the photographs, to research the geography and culture of the country, and the time period during which the photograph was taken. Each student then wrote and performed a poem or monologue (in one case, a choric piece by three boys) inspired by that photograph.

When we walked into the exhibition area, we saw young people, clad in black, standing by some of the photographs. No chairs for the audience—we moved from student to student around the entire space, some of us climbing stairs or hanging from the balcony to get a better view. One girl began and ended her monologue with a sentence or two in Japanese, another said a few words in Hindi. All of the students had written praiseworthy work that they performed well.

The performance itself would have made a great afternoon, but then I talked to Molly about her work. I had assumed that the students, who were wearing black t-shirts with "Tractor Shed Team/Director, Molly Rice" across the front, were participants in an after-school drama club. No, indeed. Molly is a full-time drama teacher in the public high school. She doesn't teach English or creative writing, with one theatre class thrown in; she doesn't coach the volleyball team; she teaches drama.

Her students work on projects with the homeless, with people in retirement homes, throughout the community. She had chosen the Museum project because one of her students is a senior who wants to major in photography, and she thought his record of the project would be a good addition to his portfolio.

I asked if they did the usual high school play and/or musical each year.

"Yes," she said, "we give one full production in the spring. Last year we did Antigone."

"Antigone?" I'd never heard of a high school performing an ancient Greek play.

"We don't kid around. One year, we decided we didn't want to do the Alice in Wonderland play. We went back to the book and wrote another play ourselves. Alice Underground."

Molly's drama program would be extraordinary in a private school, in a city magnet school. But in a public school in a city of 40,000 people, with an average per capita income of $26,000?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

What is Creativity? - 23

"Self" is such a difficult concept. Philosophers have been debating it for millennia. Scientists are trying to find it in the brain. Self may be as indefinable as personality, or soul.

I did come across a helpful distinction this week between how we sense ourselves. Object or subject. All those selfies? We're making ourselves into objects. As we are when we're being self-conscious, projecting onto others thoughts about ourselves. When we're aware of sensory input, we're subjects.

When we're in the creative state of being, we seem to be neither subject or object. We often speak of the creative sensation as being taken out of ourselves.

I've been a reader for the Minerva Rising novella contest this week. The good ones immerse me in the story and the characters, with sometimes moments of admiration or envy for the author's craft. The best of the best don't even give me that much time away. The not-so-good throw me out of the story so often with a lack of logic, or poor craft, that I begin to check my watch and  how many pages I still have to plow through. I'm no longer outside myself. The novella has become an object, distancing me from the characters and the story.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What is Creativity? - 22

We've attributed our creativity to gods and muses for millennia. Julie Cameron's best-selling books still refer to God as the source, even though she acknowledges that some of her readers may not believe in her God and will have to substitute their individual senses of a higher power.

We have all used the phrase,"It just came to me," or similar words, to explain a creative thought. The thought was unexpected, perhaps off-the-wall—it wasn't our usual way of thinking, didn't "feel" like us. So it must have come from, or been sent by, some source outside ourselves.

We often use another type of phrase to describe the creative sensation itself—"I lost myself in it."

Our sense of self exists in several different forms. One form is how we've learned to view ourselves, almost always primarily a negative view. Another form is the self we create for others to view, almost always a self that we hope will cover the warts, blemishes, and general unworthiness of our own sense of self.

We mistakenly label another form as being "self-conscious,"when we believe others are seeing through our constructed selves to our "real" unworthy selves. We're not conscious of our selves at all then, but of the projections we place on others.

When we're in the creative self, what we're losing are all those other ways of thinking about ourselves. I consider that form to be another state of being, when we lose the conscious sense of self in whatever we're creating.

I had a student who was a psychotherapist in private practice, but also a clinician available to students and faculty of a college. He was slated to give a lecture at the college. I don't remember the exact title, but I went to hear what I expected to be a talk about different states of being. It was, in a way, but it was his drugs-and-alcohol lecture.

I was disappointed, at first, until I realized that his comparison between the state of being when we're under the influence of drugs, and when we're not, described very well my own state of being when I was either teaching or performing, and when I was not.

All those other forms of self are painful, to one degree or another, so we sometimes choose drugs to lessen the pain.

During their adolescence, when my children were experimenting with drugs, I attended an apartment-warming party at which one occupant's friends gathered in one room and the other's friends settled in another room. I felt uncomfortable, alienated by several decades from either group. So I accepted an offer of my first and only reefer, with the belief that I'd understand its appeal to my children. I sat in the doorway between the two rooms, smoking, still aware of my alienation, but comfortable in my isolation.

The creative state of being may not be comfortable, but it's where we find joy. To lose one's self may be scary, but that's how we find our true selves.    

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 21

I'm still working through Dr. Davidson's book, Now You See It, (See "What is Creativity? - 19"), which has reminded me of mirror neurons.

This subset of neurons was first discovered in the brain during studies of eye-hand coordination. Specific neurons fire when a person picks up a piece of food and eats it. AND some neurons fire in exactly the same pattern when one person watches another pick up and eat a piece of food.

Mirror neurons are found in other areas of the brain as well. fMRIs of musicians listening to music record, not only neurological firings related to motor activity, but also those related to sound. The brain of a pianist listening to a Chopin etude will simulate in many ways her brain when she is actually playing the sonata.

An author's brain activity when she writes the scene in which a father dies may stimulate similar firings in the brains of her readers. In Empire Falls Richard Russo gave me such an exact picture of the town that I "saw" each store and house exactly where the director of the televised version of Russo's book "saw" them. Except for the junkyard—that was in the wrong place.

Mirror neurons have also been found in the somatosensory areas of the brain associated with empathy. An acquaintance recently told me that she and her husband had separated a few months ago. Why wasn't I surprised? She had never complained about him, I'd never seen them together and felt discord. I had no visual or verbal cues at all. And yet, during the three years I'd known her, I had sensed that she was no longer married.

I've always loved the word recreation, not as it's usually pronounced, with its usual meaning of what we do when we're not working. What I love is re-creation, the sense that when I'm seeing great art, reading a great book, or watching great actors, I am being re-created. But I'd not realized before that I'm being physically re-created, that neural pathways in my brain are being created or strengthened.