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?

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."