Living

Wending, Winding, Wandering

I have rediscovered how delightful it is to go for a walk.

I turn on my Runkeeper app and head out, clocking my time, my distance, and my pace, and nodding sheepishly if I’m near another person when my phone squawks out my progress report.

We take for granted the things we do with little effort, but I’ve been reading Shane O’Mara’s new book, In Praise of Walking, and he points out how much neurological and physiological energy go in to walking, and that and my six-year old sense of wonder have me heading out a couple times a week on treks with no destination other than the distance covered before I get back.

O’Mara’s book is wonderful, and I recommend it. He’s a neuroscientist, so he talks about the systems involved in walking—our muscles and skeletal system are working, of course, but so are our senses and our vestibular system (responsible for balance). This book is about more than neuroscience, though. It’s an apology for walking as of benefit to our bodies, our minds, and even our social lives. It argues that walking is not only fundamental for humans, evolutionarily speaking; it is unique. That got my attention.

So I’ve started walking with purpose again. I live in a hilly suburb with lots of trees, and I work on a university campus that used to be an Arabian horse ranch. Both offer lovely walking. I just have to get up and do it.

Some people grab their dogs and go for a brisk walk. We, however, have a Basset Hound. There is nothing brisk about his cadence except in the distance between the couch and the refrigerator. But he needs to be walked. I just don’t count the saunter as proper exercise. For a real walk, the heart-pumping, sensory experience O’Mara recommends, one must not be walking a Basset.

Twice a week, then, I’ve started going for a solo walk, to rediscover my brisk pace and reap some of these walking benefits. It’s great. It’s really great. Although when I walk alone, I’ve discovered I free my inner six-year old. If it’s not the Basset slowing me down, it’s the Beauty.

The world is so beautiful. When I’m walking and not trying to drag a dog or keep up a conversation, I’m noticing every bird song, every elegant line in a building, every flower and tree blooming and growing and dying, and it’s all lovely. I’ve seen plenty of trees; these are not novel things. But when your only purpose is to go and be going, you have license to notice everything and give it all your attention. And when you do that, or at least when I do, you become captivated by color and sound—by the world—in a more dynamic, invigorating way than when you just see it presented on television or through a window.

Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina learned to be “in the world and of the world,” and that is how I feel on a walk. Shane O’Mara says “You’re not built from the soles of your feet up—it’s more like your head is a ‘castle in the air’, with scaffolding reaching down to the ground” (64). All of that scaffolding is trundling up hills and through intersections and feeling the contours and textures of the world, while I take in the light reflecting off surfaces and the rustle of spring flowers in the wind.

There’s a long history of people praising walking as a balm for the body and mind. Charles Dickens walked the street of London in the evenings, listening to people and gathering story material. Friedrich Nietzsche sorted all his many thoughts on long walks. Recently there has been fresh attention to the mental boost a walk can give, either for clarity or creativity. They all seem right to me as I tool around, trying to break my last record without breaking my neck gawking at the architecture.

Picture Books · Reading

Picture Books that Inspire Creativity

One of my Teaching Assistants led a discussion in class today that ended with her students thinking about creativity and how it preserved their identity, even their humanity, in the face of mass marketing, corporate programming, and aggressive branding that tells us how to live.

One student shared that he felt most himself when he was playing his guitar—when he was alone with his thoughts and expressing his emotions without overt outside input. As they talked, the class agreed all art afforded that space, and then they realized that they used that creative or hobby time to make their most authentic connections to others—through their art.

It was a lovely moment, when students moved from reading a novel to applying some of the ideas to their lives. And it got me thinking, we need to start them young. There are, of course, picture books that can help. 😊 Here are some I love. If you have others, I’d love to hear about them.

Alison’s Super Awesome List of Picture books about Art and the Creative Process:

  1. “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. One of my all-time favorites, this is a story about a kid who doesn’t think she’s artistic, and a teacher who brings out her best efforts. My favorite part is the end, where she pays it forward to the next kid who underestimates his potential. Every house should have a copy, she said firmly. It’s marvelous.
  2. “Little Mouse’s Painting” by Diane Wolkstein and Maryjane Begin. This one is also about visual art, and especially about what others see in your art (spoiler: themselves). But it’s true; we see ourselves in art—visual and other art—and the original artist can’t always predict what others will see or value. So we owe it to each other to keep creating.
  3. “Draw!” by Raúl Colón. This one is wordless, but speaks volumes about a boy’s power to explore the world in his art—to imagine and bring to life vast landscapes, exotic animals, the implication is anything, really—and to value art as escapist and aspirational. (Bonus: his later “Imagine!” takes the artist from his room to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with equally magical and empowering results.)
  4. “Sun Bread” by Elisa Kleven. Not all art has to be painted. In “Sun Bread” a baker makes a vibrant, golden loaf of bread that looks like a sun, and it revives her community, stuck in the doldrums of winter. The book includes the recipe, egg wash and all, so that you can reproduce the sunny bread and understand for yourself “all the joy good bread can bring.”
  5. “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken. This one is about a greedy king who loves presents and has everything, but he can’t get his hands on a quilt made by the master quiltmaker, because she only gives them to people in need. He has to learn to give things up to get what he wants, but of course, he gets more than he expected.
  6. “The Night Gardener” by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. A mysterious gardener is transforming ordinary trees in to extraordinary animal topiaries in the darkness, and a community wakes up to new beauty every day. It’s a lovely fable about the transformative power of art.
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.

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

Living · Teaching

Memory, the Mother of the Arts

The Greek goddess Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory. She is the mother of the Muses. So memory gives us the arts.

The Muses are the goddesses of inspiration who bless mortals with the gifts of song, dance, and contemplation. There are muses of epic poetry (Calliope), of lyric poetry (Euterpe), of love songs (Erato), of songs to the gods (Polyhymnia), of history (Clio), of chorus and dance (Terpsichore), of tragedy and comedy (Melpomene and Thalia), and of astronomy (Urania).
All of these arts rely on memory. Creating and performing these works means holding lines of verse, tunes, and motions in your head, keeping them in order, delivering them with the grace of a goddess. If we don’t have good memories, we can’t be good artists.
For all its miracles, Google is not helping us in the memory department. Don’t get me wrong; Google is amazing and powerful. I once employed its virtuosic search engine to identify a particularly nasty bug in my bathroom. I typed “big-ass bug with too many legs” in the glowing bar, and it delivered image after image of exactly the thing: a house centipede. So I know its phenomenal capabilities.
What I worry about is how much people are coming to rely on it. Sometimes I feel like my students have very little impetus (beyond the fear of failing quizzes) to remember anything; they’ll just Google it. My partner teaches chemistry. He has seen students who know the molecular weights of elements Google the weight of a compound instead of simply adding the weights together.
This seems small, I suppose, but I think it’s probably… not small.
When we stop calculating, we slowly lose the ability to check Google’s responses. When we stop memorizing things, we forget how to. When we don’t have stories and details and random facts that we find cool stored in our heads, we have nothing from which to create new worlds and solve the problems of this one. Memory is the mother of creativity.
It behooves us, then, to increase our memory. We need to go to the mental gym, not just the muscle gym. Those things that help us remember things? They’re called mnemonics, from Mnemosyne. Here are a few that always work.
 
Tell a story. If you want to remember a fact or a lesson, give it a narrative. We love stories (as evidenced by the fact that squarely seven and a half of those muses work in words). If you want to teach children to stay away from strangers, you tell them “Little Red Riding Hood.” If you want to teach them multiplication tables, it works there too. (There’s a video called Times Tales that animates numbers with narratives and helps kids memorize even math facts with stories).
 
Make a list. When we group things together that are similar, we visualize them together and see how they connect to each other. We have a tremendous ability to remember lists, whether we make up jingles for them or see them in our mind’s eye. Thinking of things’ similarities helps us remember them.
 
Visit your Mind Palace. Long before the BBC Sherlock visualized his Mind Palace to recall things, medieval folks imagined mental cathedrals, slotting facts or story blocks or shopping lists in to the stained glass windows of a cathedral and imagining themselves walking through it, seeing the items in order.
There are many more. When I have my students create journals for my Myth as Literature class, I give them complete freedom to use whatever tricks they can to help them remember the stories. Some make elaborate family trees. Some draw comics of their favorite scenes. Some write Tinder biographies of all the gods. Some theme their whole journal around what drink a god or hero would order at Starbucks and why it’s appropriate.
We need to do more of this, not less. We need to figure out what method works for us individually and what has a good track record on the whole, and we need to start employing these tricks. I’m heartened by the resurgence in Commonplace Books and Art and Bullet Journaling;  there does seem to be a trend currently to write things down that we want to remember.
Whatever we do, we need to combat the tendency to offload all our knowledge in to data files and websites. Otherwise we risk not only losing our ability to be creative, but also our own stories, our own lives, in the waters of Lethe, the River of Oblivion.
Writing

Cleaning the Writing Pipes

I have written academic prose for a number of years now—mostly about teaching, but also about literature. It is a mode I still don’t find natural, despite (cough) over two decades experience. I can do it, but it takes effort. When I argue, I do not sing.

Academic writing takes research and planning and more planning, and then writing, then revising, then editing. So does writing fiction. But somehow one feels like work to me, and one feels like play.
In fact, writing fiction feels so much like play that I haven’t let myself do much of it. I’ve needed to get a job, to get tenure, to get promoted, and fiction hasn’t figured in to that. And now that I have reached a point in my career when I can write what I want, I still put up roadblocks.
In the worst sort of self-sabotage, I now feel like I’ve built a career writing academically:  how will I remember how to write creatively? So here’s how I have done it—am doing it:
I’ve read books about being creative, and finding time to fit creative work in around a career. I’ve taken an online coaching class for creative folks who feel blocked. I’m reading and workshopping with The Artist’s Way. And once, last fall, I participated in an all-day write-a-thon whose goal was to produce sample fairy tales, folktales, and fables for a collection aimed at elementary classrooms.
That was an exhilarating nightmare. And it unclogged my writing pipes.

The setting was a room full of tables and laptops, and about twenty writers. Over the course of the day, each writer produced nine pieces, in thirty minute time blocks, on themes and subjects that were assigned on the spot. “Here’s your topic. Write a story. Go.”
For fairy tales, we had to retell a tale we remembered from our childhood in our own words–in thirty minutes. We had to tell one about a princess that started traditional and ended postmodern–in thirty minutes. We had to concoct a ghost story for the folklore section based on a tabloid headline we drew at random–in thirty minutes. You get the idea. Nine texts.
I do not envy the editors their job of clean-up and presentation. I am not proud of all those pieces; there is one, even that I would be truly mortified to see in print.  But the process of cranking out story after story really got my head in to a whole new space.
The experience was invaluable. For someone who doubted her ability to write creatively, I had nine texts to show for myself. Some had come in part from stories I knew, but some were utterly original—about subjects I had never considered. I learned that I had enough story-stuff in me to pull together when I needed it, AND if I needed new material, I could be counted on to produce it.
I had not written against a clock since my last grad school midterm, and then I knew what I had to say; it was just a matter of writing it down fast enough. This was an entirely different experience: making things up that I didn’t have a plan for–and making them presentable–was trying in ways I could not have predicted. It was physically exhausting also—the drive home from Los Angeles is a blur.
The journey to viewing myself as a creative writer is long and winding and not over, but I took some giant strides forward that day. It is my fervent hope that others don’t make it this hard on themselves, but I suspect many do. Is it our culture of productivity (despite being fraught with early death and stress-related ailments)? Some vestige of a Puritan work ethic that says we shouldn’t enjoy work too much? Just a personal fear of letting ourselves “play” as adults? Do we worry that an art career doesn’t come with a 401K?
It doesn’t matter at the moment. What matters is I’m kicking all of that to the curb. And whatever else I have been or am, now I am a writer too. And I’m finding my singing voice.
(The Artist’s Way is by Julia Cameron, and there has recently been a 25th anniversary edition released.)
Teaching

The "I can Google that" Trap

It is a mistake to think we don’t need to remember anything, that we can look everything up.
It’s true the Internet is changing the way we think and learn, but the shift to teaching skills, not content, I think, is misguided.  In English departments (particularly literature programs) we have been told that the way to make our programs relevant and marketable is to teach skills that students can apply in other contexts, rather than worrying that everyone has read the same set of “classics.”
(Before we start arguing, notice I put classics in scare quotes. And understand that I don’t have a hit list or a canon of literature in mind, really. This is an argument for content, but not necessarily for specific content.)
I do think literature teaches important, transferrable skills. Close reading, understanding the context in which a work was written, analytical writing—all of these are good things and all are very useful across the job market.
But it matters, too, perhaps more than we’ve thought recently, as information changes so rapidly that people don’t bother remembering things, that we fill our heads with cool stories and beautiful works. It turns out that having material in our heads is still important.

Memorizing passages is useful. Reading widely and having lots of stories to consider and connect to one another is vital not just to looking well-read (the appeal of which should not be underestimated among English majors). It matters because we use the material, the stories and experiences we have in our memories, to help us move forward.
There has been work on this in multiple areas recently. In an article on how kids’ reading comprehension increases in step when they have exposure to more subjects and experiences (demonstrating that kids’ comprehension skills improve when they have some knowledge of the subject matter they’re reading), Daniel T. Willingham shows that kids who have broader knowledge develop reading skills faster. The more you know, the better you learn.
Another facet of this is the impact of a rich, full head on creativity. When people aren’t
encouraged to memorize anything because literally every subject can be quickly researched on the Internet, we are making it harder to be creative. Art Markman argues in his book Smart Thinking, that the more knowledge you have, the more material in your mind, the more you can mix things up and create something new. Those with less stuff in their heads have less to play with.
When I teach literature I ask my students to think about what other texts (books, movies, video games, whatever) the text at hand reminds them of. We try to build connections between stories and scenes and characters, so that the next time we encounter a Reluctant Hero, we recognize her. It stands to reason that the more stories we have in our heads, the more access points we have to understanding a new text.
But this has wide application, according to these other studies. The upshot seems to be that the more we read, the better we read; the more we learn, the better we learn; and the more we know, the more we can create.
So go on. Build yourself a beautiful constellation of interconnected stories, images, and facts.
Be your own Google.
And here are links to articles I mentioned.  On reading comprehension: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/25/opinion/sunday/how-to-get-your-mind-to-read.html?smid=fb-share