Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What is Creativity? - 30

A friend sent, in her Christmas package, a 3-page clipping about  Random International's Rain Room, an art installation. Very popular, with a wait time of up to 13 hours to enter. And to "experience" rain without getting wet.

My friend reminded me, with a note, of an installation we'd gone to at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York a decade or more ago. Neither of us can remember its name or the name of the artist or why there was a sign warning people with a heart condition not to enter, but we both remember the experience. We were instructed to walk into the room barefooted. The floor was covered with 6 inches or so of a sand-like material. The only object in the room was a lighted fat candle on the floor at the far end.

The experience was profound and inexplicable. To describe a piece of art is impossible. I can tell you what was in the room; I can tell you that the effect on me was deeper than meditation. That I was very aware of my feet and their connection to the ground through the medium, and that the candle flame, because it involved the eyes, seemed to bring my entire body into the present. But I can't share the experience.

You had to have been there. And even then your experience would have been different from mine.

I haven't experienced the Rain Room. Perhaps being "in" rain without getting wet would also be profound. The inspiration of the Room was a quote from Thoreau as he saw and heard "the unaccountable friendliness" of rain from inside his house. But do we ever stand in rain and experience it as friendly? Or are we always looking for shelter - the next doorway, an umbrella, anywhere to get "out" of the rain?  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What is Creativity? - 29

I've heard some thought-provoking comments recently about discovering creativity.

A friend told me that, when she retired, she deliberately set out to find the parts of herself that had been hidden. "I knew there was more of me, I just didn't know what that 'more' was."

She joined a writing group, made a lot of new friends, was elected to the board of directors. She began to write poetry, setting herself a biweekly deadline to produce a poem or two to read at open mic.

She enrolled in a painting class. That's were she found herself. Painting has become a major part of her life. She looks at the clock—2:00 a.m., and she's still at work. Her work sells. It's selected for juried shows.

Another friend told me she had found her self during one of my workshops. "Presenting Your Work"was a workshop for writers who had finished a book and needed to take the next steps, from writing query letters to agents and publishers to appearing at bookstores to read from their published work.

She was terrified of that last step. She had had a humiliating teenage experience that had convinced her she should never perform in public. Although she had lots of good ideas, she refused any committee work. She even dressed in neutral colors to become move invisible. Now she was expected to read aloud from her book? In front of other people?

She's now agreeing to be part of a panel discussing aspects of her work, and finds she enjoys engaging with the audience. Yes, she'll talk to aspiring high school writers. And she's acquiring a brightly colored, flowery new wardrobe.

It's the use of the word "self" in both these comments that I find so interesting. The implication from both these women was that they hadn't known who they were. And that they now have new identities, new self-images.

Is it possible that we are not who we truly are until we unblock our creativity?  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What is Creativity? - 28

Yesterday Steve Mitchell and I were working on our book, tentatively titled "The Creative Experience." We were discussing early experiences of singing, both from the standpoint of singer and listener. Certainly we hear and feel sound vibrations while we're still in the womb. We moved on to early childhood, and the child who sings while playing, not a song she's heard, but her own song, one she's made up. We posited, from our own memories, that the vibrations themselves may have been comforting, almost a subconscious tuning of the self.

Then today I received this message from Meredith Holladay:

"I was grumpy and irritable from my day and had a literal pain in my neck that felt as though vertebrae were catching somehow, preventing me from turning my neck. So I went outside and laid on a blanket under the stars and started toning and making buzzing noises, directing the sounds to the different parts of my body that felt tight and angry. Also moved a little--micro movements with the sounds. In about 30 minutes the pain was gone in my neck and I had free range of motion again. And, without forcing anything, I suddenly had more energy and a desire to sing. So I came inside and just started doing free form vocal exercises and had so much fun that I sat down and started practicing songs again!!

The power of vibration!"

I intended to write a post today about a study which found that singing had a measurable positive effect on the immune system, but why bother with boring studies?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What Is Creativity?- 27

“What’s becoming an important part of my life are voice lessons. I began the end of April, to see if I could learn to sing. Bad experiences in elementary school squelched something in me that wanted out. To my utter amazement I found that I could stay on pitch. If I didn’t already believe in miracles, this would have convinced me.”

That’s a quote from a Christmas letter written to family and friends by Miss Sarah Headsten, a silver-haired, retired social worker and cancer survivor. Not only did Sarah sing wildly off pitch when she began to study voice, she sang hymns so heartily that other church members made sure they sat at least three pews away from her. And yet, two years after she wrote that letter, she was singing programs of Gershwin and Ellington for residents of assisted-living facilities.

“Something in me wanted out,” Sarah wrote. That “something” was the creative spirit, which is inherent in humans.

Back in pre-recorded history, humans sang. We sang before we spoke. We told stories before we learned to write. We danced, tuning our bodies to the rhythms of the universe and our lives. We drew pictures in the sand and on our walls, decorated our cooking pots and our spears. We made totems to align us with nature and amulets to protect us.
The need for creative expression is secondary only to the need for survival. Every tribe, every civilization that has had enough food, shelter, and water to stay alive has felt the need to feed themselves spiritually as well as physically.

We still see this need in young children. A three-year-old sings a tune of her own as she watches trees move in the wind. She is exploring and learning with her body. If we asked her what she was doing, she would probably answer, “Nothing.” She was just being. Being human.

But do we expect the aging to live creative and productive lives? To develop and express freely their inherent human need?

The belief that we’re “over the hill” when we reach the age of 40 or 50 is pervasive in our culture. A “mid-life crisis” has become a meme. A nurse told me that when she walked into her office on her 50th birthday she suddenly broke into tears and couldn’t stop sobbing.

What if our culture expected that late-life meant the opportunity to set new goals, start new careers, give our imagination free rein? What if we expected the aging to search within themselves for submerged talents, as Sarah Headsten did?

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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 20

"The brain is built for aesthetics. We are built to try to find structure, we are built to try to find meaning."

"You can think of creativity as directed exploration, with an aesthetic twist."

Both of these quotes are by Michael Shadlen, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University Medical College, a neurologist, and a leading researcher in the field of cognition. ("Quartets on the Cortex: Neuroscience at Play," Columbia, Spring/Summer 2015, p. 26)

Each creative act begins with exploration of an idea, a search for a solution to some problem. We are building on past expectations, past beliefs, past habits, past muscle training, and a network of neural connections already in place. At some point (in my experience about midway during the exploration), we become aware that we're in new territory, making new neural connections, finding new meanings. That's the aesthetic twist.

In music, I've labeled that twist a frisson, a little shiver of delight, because it's unexpected. In medicine, the twist is called an ERP, an "event-related potential." An EEG recording brain activity will pick up a listener's response to a change in expected syntax, or a change in expected rhythm. If the rhythm has been duple—dum-da-dum-da—and suddenly goes to triple—dum-da-da-dum-da-da—the EEG will record an ERP in the brain.

What the EEG can't record is the meaning each individual listener will attach to that change in the brain. At a book launch party a few weeks ago, an audience member commented that each of the poems that had been read seemed to have an underlying dark twist at the end. The poet was so clearly discomfited by the comment that another audience member came to her rescue with, "I'm Welsh and my wife is Irish, so we expect darkness in our poetry," and then changed the subject with a question. Same poems, different meanings.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What is Creativity - 19

“. . . not only is attention [what we select from available sensory input] learned behavior, but it is shaped by what we value, and values are a key part of cultural transmission, one generation to another. The absorption of those values into our habitual behavior is also biological. We change brain pathways, and we make neural efficiencies when we learn.”

This is a quote from Cathy N. Davidson's Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, a book that I had read about 5 years ago and was on its way to a donation pile. I'm not sure why I decided to skim it before it left the house. It's become a different book since I last read it. Because I've been writing and thinking about creativity for a couple of years, my attention was drawn to different sentences, different conclusions.

Many decades ago, during one of my conversations about the nature of art with Ken Kaplowitz, a professor at The College of New Jersey (, he convinced me that different people viewing the same scene, or having the same experience, would focus on—pay attention to—different aspects of that scene or experience. I was so convinced that I wrote an award-winning short story, "The Boys in the Photograph," in which two characters see one of Ken's actual photographs quite differently.

Ken and I were discussing psychological differences. Professor Davidson is writing about cultural differences in attention. Perhaps going back centuries. In one experiment, mothers were supposed to give their young children toys. American mothers used twice as many nouns. ("See the car. See its wheels.") Japanese mothers used far more verbs ("I give you the car. Now give it to me. Thank you.") and were emphasizing relationships and interactions.

And, of course, the Japanese and American children were creating different neural pathways, different psychologies.

What does attention have to do with creativity? That's where creativity begins, doesn't it? With what we pay attention to.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 18

I had one of those "Duh!" moments this week. As in, why hadn't I recognized this before?

For more than 35 years, I've known, and taught, that each of our voices is unique. Because each of our bodies - the resonance chambers that our voices bounce around in - is unique.

And I've taught that no two persons will interpret a song or poem in the same way, because our memories, our life experiences, are unique to us. That theory was put to the test when two students wanted to perform Schumann's song cycle, "Frauenliebe und -leben," at the same performance class. 8 songs? Sung twice? Nice theory, but I had no idea how the audience would respond. I needn't have worried. Not only were the interpretations of the lyrics very different, but even the music sounded different. The audience was intrigued by the experience, not bored.

Why then, had I not recognized that each of our brains is unique? That the neurons and their networks have branched, grown, become stronger (or the reverse) because of our experiences?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What is Creativity? - 17

"We're All Artists Now: How creative self-expression became yet another thing to sell." That's the name of a long article (pp. 1and 4) by Laura M. Holson in the 9/6/15 Sunday Review section of The New York Times. Creativity stores are popping up, workshops where one can paint a wine glass while sipping its soon-to-be contents. Lots of Zentangle and coloring books are being published this year, a couple of them Top 10 best sellers, sales fueled, according to the Times, by our desires for self-help and happiness.

Coloring books. How is a coloring book—filling in someone else's drawing—in any way an expression of self? Haven't we been told for years that creative people "color outside the lines?" How is it art? Maybe it's the nostalgia of picking up crayons again after we had long ago graduated to pencils and pens that is so attractive.

But where's the excitement of discovery that is always present when we're being creative?

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?

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.

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.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

What is Creativity?

Attempts to define creativity, predictably, have begun with attempts at some sort of measurement. "Let's count the number of ideas produced by a group under the following control conditions, either singly or in combination: number of participants, activity of participants, temperature of the room, ethnic, age, gender, and hierarchical diversity, etc., etc."

Ideas are, of course, only ideas. Unless they lead to a new product, a new business strategy, a new ad campaign, nothing has been created.

"So let's measure the success of the new products created by the group in terms of number of sales, net revenue, longevity in the market, etc."

But then we'd have to account for a number of external variables, ranging from the weather to interest rates, none of which have anything to do with the creativity we're trying to measure.

And what about writers, who work alone? Do we measure their creativity by how long it takes them to write a book? By how many books they sell? Are we able to compare one writer's creativity with another's? Say, David Sedaris's creativity with William Shakespeare's?

Creativity is sort of like the sky. We know that it exists, so we've given it a name. But we don't know how to define it. What properties does it have? What limitations? Where does it originate?

To be continued.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Negative Emotions

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the disconnect in our thinking about emotions - on the one hand, we're coming to believe that emotional intelligence is an important business skill; on the other hand, displaying emotions in a business situation is a negative. Translation: We should become adept at reading the emotions of others, but also adept at hiding our own emotions from others.

Here's another anomaly: anger and fear are usually labeled "negative emotions." Organized religions call for their suppression, at the same time they are encouraging their followers to fear whatever gods they worship. Because those same gods will be wrathful if their laws and rules are not obeyed. Translation: We don't have the right to be angry, anger is the purview of the gods. We don't have the right to fear anything or anyone except our gods.

Balderdash. (A great word, with lots of the same consonants as b.s., yet usable anywhere.) We're born with the ability to feel and express anger. (What? You've never seen a baby's red, howling face?) We're born with the ability to feel and express fear. (You don't think children should be taught to stay away from fire?)

Both anger and fear are positive for our well-being, for our very lives. They are protective in nature, not negative. They're impossible to eliminate. If we're not allowed to recognize them, they'll just hang around, causing mayhem in our muscles and nervous systems.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sharing With, Not Giving To an Audience.

My client with the interesting questions had a couple of new ones yesterday:

Q: Music has given me moments of ecstasy all life. Throughout my career I've tried to give others those ecstatic experiences, but I don't think it's working. Why not?

A: Your emotional biography is different from any other person's, so you can't "give" anyone else your moment of ecstasy. Example: In the audience for Othello is a man who believes his wife is having an affair. Sitting behind him is a man who believes he was unfairly passed over for a promotion. That man's wife is having an affair and is worried her husband has found out. All three people will have an intense emotional response, but each response will be different.

If you share your emotional experience of music with your audience - share with, not give to - what you are giving them is the opportunity to have their own personal emotional responses. Not yours, theirs.

The qualifier here is that the actor, the musician, the promoter of an ad campaign, the politician must be sharing an authentic emotional experience of their own in order to activate authentic experiences in their audiences. Example: Medea, a play filled with horror from beginning to end, can evoke an audience's laughter if it is not acted and directed authentically.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Emotion as a Disadvantage?

In 1970, Dr. Edgar Berman, confidant of a U.S. Vice President and advisor to many congressional committees and commissions, declared that "raging hormonal influences" during menstruation and menopause made women unfit for positions of power.

In 1985, I was fired for "being too emotional." I gave my boss several instances in which he had relied on my intuition, empathy, etc., during the five years I had been with the company. He acknowledged that my "emotions" had provided value in each instance, but I was, nonetheless, fired. It turned out that office politics were the reason behind my sudden unemployment but, to my boss's mind, emotions were a sufficient explanation.

In 2013, the last year for which statistics are available, women were paid 78% of what men were paid. Why? Because we're (supposedly) more sensitive, empathic, and intuitive, and those attributes aren't valued?

Yesterday, an extraordinarily intelligent woman, who has degrees from top universities and speaks 7 languages, told me she thought Hilary Clinton wasn't emotionally stable enough to be President.

And yet, the increase in recent decades of diagnoses along the autism spectrum, particularly in boys, in which difficulties in processing emotions is one of the symptoms is given as a valid reason to avoid vaccinating children against life-threatening diseases.

How crazy is this? On the one hand, we're terrified by the lack of emotional intelligence and, on the other, we consider emotional intelligence a disadvantage.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Source Memory

A New York Times article (2/15/15, p. SR12) about our relative inability to remember the sources of our memories led me to a few questions. The two studies referenced in the article asked college students to read historical essays and then view movie clips in which the same historical events were inaccurately presented. When tested, the subjects believed a third of the inaccurate "facts" from the movie clips, rather than the essays they'd read. Even though they'd been warned that the films were inaccurate.

The article went on to a discussion of source memory, which is known to be fragile and unreliable. The author, and perhaps the researchers, did not take into account the difference between our emotional engagement in a film vs. an essay that I presume was written for college level students. Such essays are dedicated to presenting data, and they very often deliberately avoid any emotional involvement of the reader, lest the author be accused of being too "popular."

But data by itself seldom has any meaning for us beyond the next exam. Unless it has an emotional component. I'm a footnote junkie. Several decades ago, my college drama textbook said that the French dramatist, Corneille, had left Paris for political reasons and had written nothing after 1650. Those "facts" have since been corrected, but at the time none of the reference books listed in the syllabus contradicted our textbook. There was, however, a footnote that led me to research that period of French history and to discover what Corneille had been writing during the decade that followed his exile. And to a Eureka! sense of discovery. And meaning.

Do we remember only what has meaning for us? Or do we only store retrievable memories that have an emotional component? And what does that tell us about our belief systems?


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Power of Silence

Vicki's comment, as usual, is worth a post.

When Vicki pays attention to what her voice is telling her - not to talk - she's right on. Our bodies do pick up on energy that is antagonistic, or self-aggrandizing, or a wall that can't be breached. Silent energy, but nonetheless powerful in it's message that communication is not possible.

Several decades ago I attended a leadership workshop for entrepreneurs where I was stunned to learn that one of my talents was not to talk, but to observe and then summarize what everyone else had said. What? I was a performer, a teacher. I had thought I was failing because I hadn't contributed to the discussion.

As soon as we're enrolled in school, our grades suffer if we don't participate in class discussion. We learn to attach a value to talking, and to believe that we won't be valued in a business meeting, for example, unless we talk. So what a great lesson to learn in that workshop that observant silence was a talent.

Thinking about silence led me to dig up an old article on that subject:

"I'm curious if one can own the silence between songs in a strong way.  To recognize that the silence is good and important.” (A question from the lead singer in a local rock band.)

Most people, not just performers, think of silence as an empty space that has to be filled. Musicians have the opposite problem: the symbols for silence in a musical score are called “rests,” leading us to think that we should drop out, that if we have a whole page of rests, we might as well pick up a book.

Silence is more than the absence of sound. We use “dead silence” to describe a problem with an electronic device, but we also use it to describe a shocked silence or an embarrassed silence. So silence has an emotional content. We differentiate between “a heavy silence” and “a soft silence.” So silence has a discernible density. We can use silence to agree or disagree with an argument or a vote. So silence can have a meaning that is recognizable and recorded in the minutes of a meeting.
If silence has emotional content, density and meaning, then silence is neither a void nor a rest, but a form of communication.
Silence is used as a powerful tool by professionals in many fields. A theatre director may ask the actors to take a “beat” after a line. He intends to use a moment of silence to draw the audience’s attention to the previous line, to make it more important. A film director will often use silence, rather than music, to heighten horror  or suspense. A trial attorney may use a nonchalant silence, implying that she is finished with a witness, before she turns and throws her “zinger” question.

The directors are using silence to heighten the attention of the audience; the attorney is using silence to relax the attention of the witness. Performers can also use silence both ways.

How a performer uses silence is a matter of style. An orchestra conductor may want complete silence before she begins, and will wait and wait and wait on the podium until she can feel that she has it. John Nelson, on the other hand, rushes on stage, picks up his baton, and gives the downbeat, gathering the audience through speed and his own energy.

Some performers will use silence after a song in order to prepare the audience to move from, for example, sadness and loss, to the upbeat song that will follow. Others want to move as quickly as possible into the next number. Still others want to use patter or tell stories to bridge numbers.

Some performers will use silence to release some of the audience’s attentive energy at the end of a set or performance. Others will finish big, with the expectation that the audience’s response will release energy.

Performers can use silence to pick up, hold, and release an audience. They can use silence to communicate with an audience–Pay attention here! or Wait, here comes the laugh line! They can also use silence to gather information from the audience–Is it an uncomfortable silence? Is it an on-the-edge-of-the-seat silence?–and can respond accordingly.

Because silence is a form of communication, both performer and audience can “own” any silence during a performance. But because performance is a specialized form of communication, the audience will be more comfortable if the performer is in control of the silence, is using it with intent.

That intent will determine how “good and important” a silence is.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Another Thought about the Relationship of Voice and Power

Last week I wrote about academic studies that connected male (but not female) low-pitched voices to power, money, and leadership. Here's another thought:

The range of pitches at which we speak is technically determined by the length and thickness of our vocal cords. Longer, thicker cords can produce lower pitches. Young boys and girls speak at about the same pitch level, until boys reach puberty and their vocal cords begin to lengthen and thicken.

I received a note from a kindergarten teacher complaining that my daughter spoke at "too low a pitch." Nonsense. I'm a contralto, her father was a bass so, genetically, it's likely that our daughter's vocal cords were slightly longer and thicker at birth than those of the other girls in her class.       

But there's another element at play here. Children learn to speak, not by imitating sounds, but by imitating the muscle movements of their primary caretakers. I'm a trained singer, so the movements my daughter was imitating when she learned to speak were different than those of her classmates' mothers.

And here we get to the problem in many of the research studies: A well-produced voice is dependent, not on the vocal cords, but on the size, texture, and shape of the resonating chambers of the body. If the body isn't open to the sound waves produced by the vocal cords, the listener will perceive the speaker as having any number of unattractive attributes - shallow, too tightly controlled, narcissistic, are only a few examples. 

How we hold our bodies, our posture, is the physical representation of our emotional state. Our voices are the aural representation of our bodies, and therefore our emotions. If a man walks into an interview with a weak neck (which subconsciously is perceived as subservient), it won't matter a bean how low his voice is pitched. 


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Voice, Power and Charisma

More studies of the relationship between voice and power have appeared in my study, this time courtesy of a friend who sent me a clipping from The Wall Street Journal ("Hear, Hear! Scientists Map What Charisma Sounds Like," 12/2/14).

Controlling for meaning, and even using recorded speeches in French, Italian, and Portuguese, studies at UCLA found that speakers with lower-pitched voices were perceived by listeners as more powerful. A study at Duke University found that male CEOs with lower-pitched voices tended to manage larger companies, make more money, and hold their positions longer than those with higher-pitched voices.

Women in positions of leadership were not included in most of these studies, although a researcher at Duke reported that young women who adopted a distinctive low way of talking were perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive and less hirable.

Dr. Rosario Signorello, who conducted the UCLA studies, came to the conclusion that speakers could be trained to use their voices more powerfully, as singers and actors are trained. He did not, however, recognize in his analogy that the heroes in nearly every opera are tenors, with higher-pitched voices, whom composers have used for centuries to evoke the studies' charismatic traits: dynamic, charming, courageous, convincing, captivating, and visionary. Baritones and basses, men with lower-pitched voices, sing the villain, loser, or father roles. Given that Dr. Signorello used nearly four times as many women as men to rate his speakers' charisma, was the research somewhat skewed by that imbalance? Were the women perceiving the speakers in a fatherly, therefore more powerful, role?

Correspondingly, operatic sopranos, women with higher-pitched voices, are cast as the heroines, with lower-pitched contraltos playing witches, servants, young boys, or mothers. I doubt anyone participating in the study would want to assign any of those low-voiced characters very much power.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Believe with Your Body

As a past president of Winston-Salem Writers (at 163 members, this group may be the largest local writing group in the country) I've been asked what I thought of a board member as a possible future president.

My reply was, "She's heavily corseted." I wasn't sure exactly what I meant until I saw a TED video last week. That speaker reminded me of the possible president, and I got to watch her for twenty minutes and analyze why she was so offputting.

What she had to say was worthwhile enough for me to forward the link to someone. Her delivery, however, led me to believe she wasn't personally trustworthy. She was eloquent, smiling pleasantly, evidently a practiced public speaker, but she came off as a phoney.

Because she was involved in what she was saying only from the neck up. She was indeed a talking head, completely disengaged from her body.

We tend to think that our beliefs are in our minds but, unless we're also believing with our emotions and our bodies, we're not believable.  

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Body Memory vs. Mental Memory

Academic sociologists have been getting a lot of press lately about their research into the value of appearing confident or powerful in interviews or business meetings. Sitting in a confident position and/or speaking with a powerful voice produce measurably positive effects.

In the voice study, one group of research subjects were instructed to remember a time when they felt confident or powerful; another group were told to think of a time when they had less power and status. Another group listened to recordings of the subjects reading the same material and were able to correctly identify which were the most powerful 72% of the time.

Amazing! Perhaps more amazing that these academics evidently have never heard of Stanislavsky's acting methods, or have never realized that this is what actors do.

The published result: If you really relive a powerful moment in your mind, your body reacts as if you really did have power.

But these results are not body "reactions." When we have an experience of power, our emotions respond first, our bodies second, our minds third. Our cells remember that moment, our muscles remember that moment.

And it's our bodies that will retain the memory most accurately and recall it most efficiently. An earlier study that asked subjects to write about the time they felt powerful before going into an interview found that the effect faded over time.

I use a different method in which the effect doesn't fade, but strengthens over time. (Chapter 6 in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer.) Mental memory can shift and change, acquiring different nuances and meanings, but body memory seems to remain stable.

I stumbled on this idea by chance: I had stopped performing during the last few years of a "Gaslight" marriage in which I had lost all confidence in my mind - in fact, had become convinced I was crazy. Shortly after my divorce I was asked to sing again. As I walked through a pair of swinging doors onto the stage, I felt my posture immediately change, a change so complete that I thought, "What the hell just happened to me?"

After the performance, when I had time to analyze what had happened, and to shift back and forth between the body on one side of the doors and the body that appeared on the other side, I recognized the latter as my "star body," a posture I had not used for many years. I had never consciously developed that posture, so no mental memory was involved. But my body remembered.  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Body Language

Beginning performers often ask, "What do I do with my hands?" They've suddenly become aware that they have a couple of appendages hanging off their arms, or tightly clutched in front of them.

I guide them through a few exercises until their hands are connected to their backs, at about waist level, where gesture naturally begins. "Now," I ask, "what do your hands want to say?"

Our bodies do want to get into the act, if we're connected to them. And if we're not restraining them with such mental projections as "I'll look foolish."

Physical communication is primal. Babies universally respond in the same way to outside stimuli with their bodies. They shudder, they spit out a nipple with disgust, their faces redden, their arms wave before they utter a sound. My grandson, three and a half years old when he was adopted from a Chinese orphanage, could not speak or understand oral language, but he'd created his own sign language.

So it's likely that humans developed sign language before spoken language. When Europeans first came to this country, Indian tribes were still using at least 65 different sign languages to trade and communicate with other tribes.

If communication is a human necessity, and if we are born with the means of physical communication, why don't we recognize the value of using our bodies to communicate when we become adults?


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What's normal?

I had lunch with an artist friend last week. We caught each other up on what our holidays had been like - hers having included her first husband (for the children's sake) as well as her second - and then we got to the deeper stuff: our obsessive making of art, our frustration when we couldn't find the right way into a painting or a story.

She said, "I'm afraid that, if I let myself go in my paintings, everyone will know how crazy I am."

This is not a crazy woman. She's more kind than I am, more generous to her first husband's current wife than I would be, more level-headed.

So I've been thinking this week about how and why, without a psychiatric diagnosis, so many of us define ourselves as crazy. We must be measuring ourselves against a baseline that either we or the DSM have labeled normal, and gauging where we fall on the sanity continuum.

But measurement of and establishing a norm for the nonphysical is tricky.

Several decades ago I was asked to give the keynote address at a women's retreat. A shocking request, for the topic was sex. What could I, whose sexual past was so far from what I considered normal, possibly say? I began my research by contacting groups that worked with survivors of child abuse and those who worked with rape victims. At that time, no one had aggregated the statistics for both groups of women but, even allowing for some overlap, the numbers were shocking. The vast majority of women in this country had experienced sex as violence, with the concomitant feelings of powerlessness and guilt.

Which meant that all the psychological tests that had been developed, and the norms for female sexual behavior and attitudes that had been established, had to have been based primarily on research subjects who had been victimized.

So what's normal?