Tag Archives: creativity

Creativity is like stretching

A creative experience is like a stretching session: if it’s not a big of a challenge, you’re not doing it right, not getting anything out of it.

Posting Exuberantly

I thought this today: I’d like to share here on the blog ideas that pop into my mind, but not because I think the ideas themselves are all that valuable. Some of these ideas may be useful, at some times, to some people, but what I’d really like to show is how cool it feels to be open to new ideas and how rewarding it feels to practice creativity daily (mostly in the act of freewriting my journals). I don’t want to formulate some argument in support of these feelings — I think I may just post exuberantly.

Links: ‘Start-start God achieve-make sky-earth’ and others

1. John McWhorter argues against the idea that what we have words for limits what we experience:

There are many languages in New Guinea and Australia in which there is one word that means eat, drink, and smoke. Are we to designate these people as less attuned to gustatory pleasures than us? They give little evidence of it, and note how distasteful it feels to even suggest it. Or, Swedish and Danish have no single word for what we call wiping. You can rub, erase, and such, and the word they spontaneously give as a translation means drybut there is no word that means, specifically, what we mean by to wipe. Yet we shall neither tell Scandinavians that they do not wipe nor even imply that the act is less vividly important to them than to the rest of us.

We can signal our awareness of human equality in other ways. All languages are complex. Nary a one of the several thousand known languages does not allow precise and nuanced conversation. Languages vary in just which squiggles of existence they choose to mark with words and endings, but we must resist the notion that this variation creates different “worldviews,” not only to avoid intellectual incoherence, but also to avoid an unintended continuation of the cultural condescension we all seek to leave behind.

Also, this:

For an English speaker, to a large extent, learning Mandarin is a matter of learning how much is unnecessary to still communicate effectively. No articles. No way to express the past tense. It’s quite common not to mark things as plural. The first words of the Bible can be rendered as “Start-start God achieve-make sky-earth.”

 

2. Difficulties of translating Finnegan’s Wake.

3. A compilation of Vonnegut writings for various situations.

4. On memorizing poems.

5. Pennsylvania dialects.

6. About creativity as associative brain activity.

‘So easy it is actually hard’: A student compliments my creative writing class

I gave my creative writing students (high school seniors) a “Kreativity Kwizz” a few days ago, and one of the students gave an answer that I read as one of the best compliments I could get on this class:

“I know that this class is by far the most unique, weirdest class I have ever taken, and that it is so easy it is actually hard.”

This statement shows me that my student really gets, really understands, that being creative doesn’t require doing the things that people typically think of as hard work: solving lots of math problems or memorizing facts for a test (although I do ask students to memorize a few poems). Learning creative practices requires different thinking, or even no-thinking, which are themselves  challenging. I also just love the way this student worded this idea, showing her own creativity!

Notes from last Friday

My mind lets go at sleep time. One’s ugly opinions vanish. We’re sweet as just bodies sleeping.

Me-deprived. What I give the world is just ideas. These are not a big deal. And many different people can provide physical services. Make ideas–let the computer make the copies (via the blog serving multiple readers). My writings [can be widely shared, can be experienced after I’m gone], but not my presence.

My intensity [as a writer, as a person]–I’m not easy-going. You may not want me around all the time. Even my wife says I’m too intense for her at times. Like Lewis Black–I like his comedy but wouldn’t want to be around it all the time. We don’t even want to be around ourselves all the time?

I don’t even want to read all my own thoughts–I’d rather think new ones. And maybe sharing my work isn’t just that big a deal. You like it or don’t, you maybe like it now and not later. It just doesn’t have to be that complex a decision–a relief!

Don’t get distracted by my own beliefs/stereotypes/theories.

Go deeper into your work, not wider to think other jobs have meaning.

The beauty of a world where nothing transcends, where nothing lasts. Just throw work out there, move on.

I could publish my emails, my journals, but nah–no need to. Keep writing anew!

There’s no need for nostalgia or myths when we keep moving forward.

Many ideas in recent days have felt like they had the power of revelation.

Instead of being given a topic to analyze, finding “topics” is my point, as if the seeking were way more important than any finding. The seeking is the openness.

These thoughts come through-out the day over recent days, like mini-bursts of revelation. I note them, want to save them and get them out of my brain, but once the ideas are written down, I don’t feel like elaborating. I don’t really feel like writing this now. Partly I think these are some neat ideas, ideas that feel important, feel like a valid part of what I am learning, yet I don’t know how to write these for others to read. Then I think that I don’t need to. Then I also think that maybe I’m getting a bit obsessive/pushy about the whole thing–ha! But then, eh. It probably doesn’t need to be written down. As I said today, the writings may not matter. The world may be beautifully non-transcendent, beautifully impermanent. Maybe it doesn’t need to be commented on as if it were special.

And I really seem to love the idea [ha–I forgot! I was just gonna repeat an idea from earlier and then I got distracted by TV!] oh, yes–the idea that I need to follow the new ideas, the openness, not get distracted by analyzing stories, etc. etc. Don’t blog about pop culture and philosophy, etc. — like my close reading of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”–don’t bother. Focus on own ideas, own openness.

I’m making a new form. I mean, of course I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t have to follow other forms. I’m cut loose from those.

Mark Vonnegut on art and mental illness

Mark Vonnegut, son of novelist Kurt, wrote a book a couple years ago about his bipolar disorder. An excerpt, from which I’ve taken some cuts below, is here.

If my great-grandfather Bernard Vonnegut hadn’t started crying while doing inventory at Vonnegut Hardware and hadn’t told his parents that he wanted to be an artist instead of selling nails and if his parents hadn’t figured out how to help him make that happen, there are many buildings in and around Indianapolis that wouldn’t have gotten built. Kurt senior wouldn’t have created paintings or furniture or carvings or stained glass. And Kurt junior, if he existed at all, would have been just another guy with PTSD–no stories, no novels, no paintings. And I, if I existed at all, would have been just another broken young man without a clue how to get up off the floor.

Art is lunging forward without certainty about where you are going or how to get there, being open to and dependent on what luck, the paint, the typo, the dissonance, give you. Without art you’re stuck with yourself as you are and life as you think life is.

I like this definition of art. I also liked this:

It’s the agitation and the need to do something about the voices that get you into trouble. If you could just lie there and watch it all go by like a movie, there would be no problem. My mother, who was radiant, young, and beautiful even as she lay dying, heard voices and saw visions, but she always managed to make friends with them and was much too charming to hospitalize even at her craziest.

If you don’t have flights of ideas, why bother to think at all? I don’t see how people without loose associations and flights of ideas get much done.

The reason creativity and craziness go together is that if you’re just plain crazy without being able to sing or dance or write good poems, no one is going to want to have babies with you. Your genes will fall by the wayside. Who but a brazen crazy person would go one- on-one with blank paper or canvas armed with nothing but ideas?

To be clear, in the excerpt, Vonnegut does not seem to be saying that artists first need to be mentally ill, but if one finds oneself mentally ill, that art can perhaps be a help. Or maybe he’s saying that art and illness simply coincide in some people. But mental illness is not requisite to being an artist, and seems (in my limited observations) to quite get in the way of making art.

Links: Grammar, science: 20 Feb. 2013

1. A post at Smithsonian called “The Ten Most Disturbing Scientific Discoveries” is from a couple years ago but still seems valid. In light of some of my experiences with feeling my creativity is not an intentional and/or consciously controlled, I enjoyed reading how much else that we do is also at least influenced by other non-rational, sub-/unconscious things:

6. Your mind is not your own.

Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event.

2. A post illustrating the wrongness of some grammar proscriptions, that infinitives can be split, that it’s not such a crime to end a sentence with a preposition, and that it’s OK to start a sentence with a conjunction (like “and”). I spend a good portion of many of my teaching days instructing high school sophomores is the basics: not confusing their, there, and they’re; finding subjects and verbs so as to avoid writing sentence fragments; and how to use semicolons between independent clauses (and series that contain sub-series, like this sentence).

A bright student asked me today why we study grammar, and I said, basically, that correct grammar is the way that smart people talk to each other and that if one wants to sound smart, one has to learn to use correct grammar (in at least those situations where one wants to sound smart). In retrospect, I should have said “educated people” instead of “smart people,” since of course there are many smart people who do not have formal education, but otherwise I’d stand by my explanation. My student seemed to enjoy what I said — perhaps it sounds cynical, but I can’t honestly come up with a better justification. David Foster Wallace, in his essay “Authority and American Usage” (a version of which is here), says

“the real truth, of course, is that SWE [Standard Written English] is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as ‘Standard’ by same. That it is the shibboleth of the Establishment, and that it is an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity” (page 107 of the paperback of Wallace’s book “Consider the Lobster”). Wallace also says, “In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE” (pg. 109).

Wanting my students to have the ability to code-switch to SWE, I hope to teach them the standards, however arbitrary, of standard English. I do not want to argue that students don’t need to be taught these standards — although I suspect that some of my students pick up these standards unintentionally by immersion in language-rich households and/or by the self-directed decoding-processing of great quantities of texts (that is, reading for pleasure).

What often troubles me about teaching grammar in a writing class is that it seems altogether separate from teaching the writing — as if I were teaching fluid dynamics physics to beginning swimmers: it’s something to think about, but doesn’t really accomplish the goal. Writing, like most skills, improves through practice and repetition more than it does by theoretical analysis. The biggest thing I had to let go of as a creative writer was letting go of theories about how my stories should be, and just write.

As a teacher, I’m not sure how to really incorporate the students’ theoretical-grammar knowledge into their actual writing practice. I don’t know where the words I write come from, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten writing done by thinking, “First, I’ll put a noun — no, wait, an adjective, and then a noun, then a verb — maybe an adverb sprinkled in somewhere?” Along these lines, I was in a meeting today where a special education teacher asked my opinion about whether a student was using too few or too many adjectives. I didn’t know how to answer that.

Writing is holistic, and in my case, my writing has gotten better over years and years of doing it, very little of which involved abstractly theorizing. Using language is an immediate experience, not far removed from other “automatic” brain activities as recognizing faces, perhaps. I love about teaching writing that it is holistic, that I’m asking students to create works, rather than just asking students to return some facts or solve some problems, as other disciplines do. But maybe the best any writing teacher can do is provide students formulas and techniques until students can create their own habits, process, mental models, etc.