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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What is Creativity? - 5

I listened to a TED radio talk this morning, an amalgamation of TED talks that expanded on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. At the top of his need pyramid is self-actualization, for which they used bits of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's talk about "flow" - what Maslow called a "peak experience."

Both men describe the experience as losing one's sense of time and place, one's very sense of existence, in the pursuit of creation. Or of perfection.

In order to understand flow, Csíkszentmihályi first studied creative people - artists and scientists - then moved on to athletes and other peak performers, and then to assembly line workers and more ordinary occupations. He believes that thousands of hours of practice are necessary before anyone can experience flow.

I've not found this to be true. I've had beginning students who experienced flow. A decade or so ago, I called it "baring their souls" because that's how it felt to me, as an observer. They were visually transformed - they glowed. I lost any critical capacity as a teacher, was caught up in the moment myself. I have a beginning student now who has experienced flow three times. Each time he's amazed, talks about "losing a sense of time," about "losing myself in the music."

So what is flow? Is it the physiological sensation of creativity?

To be continued.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What is Creativity? - 4

I read this quote from Martha Graham last week: "There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest . . ."

Multi-Tony-winner Gwen Verdon said, in an interview, that she could remember only one performance in which everything went right.

A colleague of the opera singer and recitalist Elisabeth Schumann told me that Schumann said she'd had two perfect performances in her long career. She added that that was the best one could hope for.

Some of the great truths in life are paradoxes, and this is one of them. Creators are always trying to achieve perfection, knowing that they will almost certainly fail. How creators differ from others is in their thinking of failure as a challenge, not an impediment.

I knew a Ph.D. in chemistry who found he couldn't bear the life of a chemist, in which his days were filled with one failed experiment after another. He went into the IT field, where he could figure out how to make things work then and there. Not that they worked perfectly, but well enough to do the job while he thought about new ways to improve the technology.

To achieve perfection can be inimical to art. If a painting were perfect, what could one say about it? My own definition of great art is that it can be re-interpreted over and over, that one can find new meaning whenever one revisits a painting or rereads a book or hears a Chopin etude again. I never teach a song or aria without finding something new in it. I Anna Karenina for the second time a few years ago, and it was a completely different book than the one I'd first read. And how come I had to wait until midlife to discover how funny Jane Austen is?

So, is creativity a drive? Unlike the hunger drive, when does creativity result in satisfaction?

To be continued.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 3

I've been thinking all week about the "why" of creativity. Then this morning the April issue of Writing and Wellness arrived in my inbox this morning with the question, "Why do we write?" and no answer.

Is creativity an inherent drive, like hunger? Unlike hunger, creativity isn't necessary for individual survival.

Is creativity connected to our pursuit of happiness? Pleasure vs. pain?

When I was writing my first book, Clues to American Dance (Starrhill Press, 1993), I spent an entire day trying to convey, in words, the essence of Eliot Feld's ballet, "Ion." I finally created a sentence that did it. I danced around my study, couldn't wait for my partner to come home so I could read it to him. I was euphoric. When my manuscript came back from the editor, she had written, in red ink, "What does this mean?" next to my perfect sentence. In my son Tim's current ad campaign for GE, "Invention Donkey," a character has an idea for an invention, but then says, "That's hard work. Can't someone else do it?" Every performer experiences fear before walking on stage and moments of panic during the performance when someone flubs a line, the telephone doesn't ring, the trapdoor doesn't open.

Humiliation, hard work, fear. Not a prescription for happiness.

So what is creativity?

To be continued.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What Is Creativity - 2

I'm currently reading The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, by the neurologist, Alice W. Flaherty (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). In Chapter 6, "Why We Write: The Limbic System," Flaherty discusses several possible reasons for writing and gives a good bit of attention to "self-expression."

If I were given the question, "Is self-expression the reason we write, or are creative?" I would probably check all the boxes - Yes, No, and Maybe.

I've worked and taught in three arts areas - singing, performance, and writing - and I've been a founder of, or a consultant to, several start-up businesses. Self-expression has never been the instigator of any of my projects. Problem-solving, however, was often the prod to creativity.

Here, for example, is how I spent the 1st part of my morning: I received an email from a woman several states away who has been asked to record a CD for a company that has a successful niche market in related items. She never intended to sing professionally when she studied voice with me years ago, she only wanted to sing well enough to join her church choir. She hasn't a clue how to go about making a CD.

As I was going through my files for the names of a couple of recording studios in her state, she called. By the time our phone conversation ended, I had given her the name of an excellent recording studio near me in North Carolina, and we've made tentative plans for her to come here for coaching and recording. She had been thinking about moving farther south anyway, and had talked to a realtor about putting her house on the market in about 4 weeks. The Carolinas had been on her mind recently and, as we talked, she remembered that she had a contact who wanted to start a new venture in South Carolina that would solve some of the problems with her current employment.

All these plans will, of course, require a lot of phone calls and internet searches before we get to the creation of the end product. It's even possible that the CD will never get made. But the impetus to begin the process was not a need or drive for self-expression. She had never thought of recording her voice until someone heard her sing and suggested the project.

It was the problem, "How do I make a CD?" that led one woman to creatively think about completely changing her life.

To be continued.