Making and Doing, Creating and Sub-Creating

I love the idea of a self-sustaining hobby. In order for that to work out, however, I would need to be more determined in the promotional department. I am not. But once in a while, someone asks me to make them some cards, and offers to pay for them. And every once in a while, I let them.

I had a charming moment with my uncle last week. I had made graduation announcements for my little cousin, and the happy result of that was a pressing need for “thank you” cards. This may be my favorite little nicety, the “thank you” card. I make and use a lot of them. It’s probably my mom’s fault. But now it’s so engrained as a simple gesture that people really appreciate, I keep some in my desk at work as well as a pretty big stash at home so that I can write a little note whenever the occasion arises. People are pretty cool; the occasion arises frequently.

So naturally I was happy to encourage my cousin in her quest to be visibly grateful. I made her ten different styles. It was a blast, and my first creative project of the summer. When my uncle insisted on paying me, I used the money in less than an hour to order a new, elaborate stamp and die set, and I was reminded of one of my core values: encourage the makers—of clever, useful things, of crafts, of art, of music, of story. Makers make the world much more palatable.

My uncle recounted his relationship with his mom, my grandmother, who crocheted covered hangers by the score when her hands were feeling good, and quilted when they weren’t. He would “sell” these covered hangers for her and give Grandma some money, with which she bought more yarn. (This really entailed giving cushy hangers as gifts to all his co-workers and friends by the dozen, until they all had more than they could use and told him to stop).

Yep. I recognize the pattern. It’s a good hobby, especially for a teacher who used her head all day long and then wanted to relax by using her hands and resting her head. Boy, do I get that.

Really, though, there are lots of different kinds of “makers.”

Musicians make music, for instance. One of the things I insist on when we travel is tipping the street musicians and other performers. My kids got to the point where they started asking for some money as soon as we heard them in the distance. Whenever I can, I buy handmade items and art, craft beer and homemade jam, and, in addition to books, art supplies are my favorite gifts to give. Anything to keep that good juju going.

I have talked about the unique satisfaction of making something beautiful or useful in another blog, but here I’m most in awe of the way in which creators and patrons and happy supporters form a symbiotic community. JRR Tolkien talks about people as sub-creators, making on the microcosmic scale, as God created the world on the larger scale.  But for me the microcosm is enough.

Because in the effort of each of us to make a little something to make the world better, easier, more beautiful, all those little gestures of good faith and industry and inspiration–they add up and overwhelm the world.

Living · Reading

On Creativity–Saturation or Serendipity

During the last week of a long spring semester my students started talking about whether or not we’d run out of ideas. Like, as a species. We were reading the last essay in Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium, “Multiplicity,” which is the one where he talks about encyclopedic novels. Calvino argues that in order for literature to stay relevant in the 21st century and beyond, it has to keep attempting new, ambitious things. He talks about books that try to ‘contain multitudes’—books that are like people: constellations of lots of knowledge and experience and other books.

It’s an idea worth exploring because it posits where we get ideas from to be creative. When authors push boundaries, what are they pushing on? When we try to come up with something new, what does that mean? In a world where Game of Thrones is derived from Lord of the Rings is derived from Norse myth, is anything original?

Of course.

Yes, on the one hand, Disney is remaking their animated classics in live action versions, and every book about magic seems to nod to Harry Potter, and memes are funny because they’re repetitive. On the other hand, that is the whole history of creativity in a nutshell. Nothing comes from nothing. The whole history of creativity and innovation is a process not of creating from nothing, but of making stuff out of other stuff. In the most literal sense, paintings are made out of paint and canvas: materials become something new.

But ideas work that way too.

Calvino calls this process “combinatorial play” in his 1967 essay “Cybernetics and Ghosts.” He talks about it both  in the context of the first storytellers, kind of rubbing a few words together until something sparked with meaning, and then also of computer software, that can be used to compose text. We’re always and ever manipulating ideas and words and plots that we already know.

For the Google generations, this means we need to do more filling of our own heads with material we can manipulate if we want to be creative. If we offload everything, there’s nothing for our subconscious to play with. I talk about this in a few blogs on memory.

For the bigger picture, though, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman’s recent book The Runaway Species makes the best sense of it for my money. All creative activity involves working with something to create something new. Again, nothing comes from nothing (nothing every could…). Brandt and Eagleman capture the processes in the delightfully alliterative trio of “bending, breaking, and blending,” but they corroborate the product in-product out model.

In bending, they argue an artist takes a material and just reshapes it. This is the modeling clay method, but the world is your oyster, not just the Play-Doh bucket. Take what already exists, and smush it until it looks different. Caricatures for instance. Or variations on a theme. (Think of music, but also visual arts, like Monet’s series of haystack paintings or Hokusai’s wood blocks of Mt Fuji. In literary terms, think of Sherlock Holmes—all variations on a theme).

Breaking involves actual rupture of a thing—Picasso’s people, buildings or bodies or books deconstructed and reassembled. Calvino’s hypernovel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler breaks the narrative in to a dozen pieces, split up by other stories. The tower of the art gallery is split and separated in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.

Blending heads back to Calvino’s combinatorial idea. If we put two things together, we get something new. Yellow and blue make green, yes, but also King Arthur legends and comedy sketch shows make Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

All of this is to say that my students don’t need to worry that there won’t be new ideas and new art. If we have a flood of texts and images now, it’s just that much more raw material for the artists and inventors of the next generation—them. And I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Anthony Brandt and David Eagleton. The Runaway Species. Catapult, 2017.
Italo Calvino. Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Vintage. 1993.


The Woman in the Moon

This is a re-blog. It is finals week after a looooong first year on semesters, and I am tapped. But I’m also outraged about recent Iegislation concerning women’s rights to privacy and bodily autonomy, so I feel like to blog I wrote after the first Women’s March might have some renewed relevance. And it never hurts to be reminded of Artemis. If you have read this, thanks and apologies. If you haven’t but are about to, thanks, and I hope you enjoy it.

(January 2017) I have a very literary view of classical gods.  My understanding of them comes through years of studying literature—some more “authentic” texts than others (if we regard Apollodorus and Hesiod more authentic than Ovid, and Ovid more authentic than Chaucer or Spenser or Rick Riordan).  The gods have a tradition and a history as archetypes and characters, and I think about them fairly regularly for a 21st century American.


Diana/Artemis came up recently in my Chaucer class, for instance.  When I teach “The Knight’s Tale,” we talk about the gods whom the characters pray to for support.  The two young men who are in love with the Amazon Emelye pray to the god they think will help their suit—Arcite prays to Mars, since there will be a battle for her hand, and he wants to win.  Palamon goes straight to Venus, asking for her help in his love suit.  Emelye, on the other hand, prays to Diana.  She wants above all to remain a virgin, and if that doesn’t pan out, to marry the man who loves her the most.

Chaucer’s Diana condescends (very literally) to explain things to Emelye.  This almost never happens.  When one prays to a classical god, a flame flickers or a sweet odor wafts in to say yes.  The gods don’t chit-chat.  But Diana does here, and it is remarkable.  Perhaps because Emelye is an Amazon, a virgin who wishes to stay chaste, an obvious candidate for Diana’s troupe of nymphs in the forest–whatever the reason, Diana speaks.

Diana is the goddess of the moon.  As such she is associated with women’s cycles and with childbirth (the waxing moon representing the growing belly of a pregnant woman). She is also the first midwife, helping her mother Latona deliver her twin Apollo moments after she herself is born.  She is a virgin goddess, yes, but because of these associations, she is also the patron of childbirth—of that moment in a woman’s life when she is her least rational, most wild.

Diana defends the wild, as well.  She lives in the forest, eschewing the bright light of civilization and knowledge and patriarchy that Apollo represents.  She is the protector of animals, especially of their young, and of the wild in general.  She is the huntress, and the slivered moon is her bow.   She keeps balance in the forest by hunting, so one species doesn’t overrun another, and she is the goddess of instant death: if a woman dropped dead instantly (say, of a heart attack or a stroke), she was said to have been struck by Diana’s arrow.  She shares that appellation with her brother, who is the god of instant death (he shot men; she shot women).

In fact it is well to understand her in light of her brother.  They share the archer role, but they contrast in far more ways.  She is the moon; he is the sun.  She is wildness and soft, reflected light; he is the bright, illuminating planet by whose rays we see wisdom, prophecy, the arts, medicine, civilization in all its various facets.  He is the polis, the body politic.  She, though, she is wild.

Diana turns her back on the civilization Apollo offers.  She leaves.  No man will rule her; no sun will drown out her softer light.  She lives in and becomes the wild.  She is fierce.  She can be ruthless.  Actaeon stumbles across her bathing, and she lashes out at him, transforming him in to a stag who is immediately hunted and ripped apart by his own dogs.  She is resistance to the established, straight and narrow, well-lighted path.  She is the crooked path through the dark forest.  She can be violent and is always subversive.  She lights but dimly, and she roars in the darkness.

She’s been on my mind a lot since the Women’s Marches on January 21st.  Apollo, whom I most readily associate with, as he is patron of the arts and culture and poetry, is the literal light that illuminates our lives and spirits.  But sometimes it is appropriate that he yield to Diana, whose overriding impulse is not to yield.  She resists.  And right now, I’m finding her message pretty compelling


Welsh Dungeons and Finnish Dragons

Lucie wants to be a dragon when she grows up.

My kids play Dungeons and Dragons. It is the first thing they played together since the golden days of Star Wars Galactic Heroes invading Polly Pocket land, when they were about six and four. And it is glorious.

I had always thought, as a non-gamer-type, that those shelves of D&D books some of my friends had must have been full of rules and storylines. Otherwise, why would one need so many books? Then my kids started asking for Player’s Handbooks and Monster Manuals for holiday gifts. They’re not full of stories. They’re full of characters. You get to make up the stories.

My kids are all about stories.

The boyo started playing first, and when he brought in the girly, he helped her make her first character and get her head around the rules. It took hours, and it was adorable to watch. Her first character was a bard, and she wrote 20 different back stories, so she could roll a 20-sided die and tell a different version of herself to everyone she met.

The girly uses Finnish names when she’s making characters. When she was 7, and her principal suggested something to do about the “wonderful problem of your daughter” might be teaching her a foreign language after school, my daughter asked for Finnish. This probably has nothing at all to do with my reading her the Kalevala as a wee munchkin. The world will never know, really. But needless to say, I don’t speak Finnish, so that’s not what we did after school. But to her they sounded like magic, and they stuck. All the big players in the Kalevala have these long, thumping names: Vaїnӓmӧinen, Ilmarinen, Lemminkӓinen. They sound like a chant. She has never forgotten.

The boyo, who cut his teeth on fantasy video games and books, had hundreds of cool-sounding names at his fingertips. But when he wants to make a new character, he looks at Welsh stories. Welsh names are cool too: Pwyll. Culhwch. Blodeuedd. He may have run across a tattered copy of the Mabinogion in his youth. Realistically anything that looks hard to pronounce from Southern Californian English is fair game, but this is where they turn when they need to create.

Maybe before she grows up.

Because much of creating is starting from something and tweaking it. You have to have something to make art from. Sometimes it’s paint and canvas; sometimes it’s ink and paper; sometimes it’s Welsh folklore and a Character Sheet.

I’m thinking about creativity as I try to increase my output (summer is coming, after all). But it’s also creeping up on Mother’s Day, and I’ve been staring at my kids, being grateful for those quirky, wonderful humans, and marveling at how adorable they still are, even on the edge of adulthood.