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Archive for the tag “Creativity”

making things up: names and games

Kalkaska

The first thing kalkaskaI remember making up was a new name for my brother, Mark, who was born when I was three years old. I imagine I was not happy with all the attention he received merely for existing. When visitors thought they were being cute by asking me what my baby brother’s name was, I hissed “Kalkaska” and stomped out of the room. It was the name of a place where my father and his friends went hunting and the ugliest word I knew at the time. A few years later, I invented numerous ways to torture my brother, such as sending him out into the neighborhood dressed as an old woman.

brother-2.jpg

The look says it all: I still don’t get the point.

When my mother was expecting her third child, I was coincidentally agitating for a puppy. She suggested we have the new baby first and get a puppy the next year. I briefly considered the idea. But after my experiences with sibling number one, I decided it would be better to get the puppy first and a baby—if we absolutely had to have one—the following year. Needless to say, that didn’t work out the way I wanted it to. And it was another boy.

a proclivity for morbidity

During elementary school, I was the oldest of the neighborhood gang and both bossy and creative. After our ordinary games grew boring, I made up things for us to do. My parents’ backyard had several features that lent themselves nicely to these activities. The built-in brick barbecue grill, for example, had a large flat surface that proved ideal as a make-believe morgue slab. We kids took turns playing the “dead man” by simulating a deceased person spread out on top of the slab/grill, the cannibalistic aspects having escaped me at the time. Everyone else formed a semicircle around it chanting, “Dead man, dead man, come alive; come and catch me with your big green eyes.”

It was not poetry and it didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was great fun. The rest of us had to remain in place chanting away (there were more verses) until the dead man jumped up and started chasing us. The kid who was caught became the next dead man. As with any game, there were rules. In this case, lots of rules. In fact, we had frequent “rule breaks” to decide important matters, such as which neighbor’s backyard we were “legally” allowed to cross into.

a star is born?

ticketThen there was the wooden picnic table that served as a stage for several variety shows, in which all the other kids performed—complete with costume changes—to an audience of ticket-buying parents and neighbors. I was the writer/director/stage manager/promoter, and general whip-cracker. This was not unlike some of my later roles in life.

The shows were a natural extension of my playwriting hobby that began when I was quite young. I painstakingly printed every word of dialogue and stage direction, completing well over a hundred “great works,” all of which are long gone. I can imagine—although I can’t remember doing so—ceremoniously dumping them into the trash one day, upon deciding I’d outgrown that phase. It’s something I would have done.

and we get credit for this?

Still in elementary school, I volunteered for the Entertainment Committee one year. My co-chair and I were given specific dates—holidays and such—for which we were to provide some sort of entertainment for the class. We could do just about anything we wanted to do—and in front of a captive audience! Our stellar events included three plays that I wrote, cast, costumed, directed, and rehearsed in the coat room in the back of the classroom. We were excused from class for rehearsal. I couldn’t believe what an incredible racket we got to run.

The first two plays were, let’s say, not a complete success. By Christmas, though, I had it down. That play went off without a hitch and received sustained applause. Props included baked sugar cookies, which one of the actors frosted with real frosting I brought to school in one of my mother’s aqua Pyrex mixing bowls.

the unbirthday parties

My favorite creation from that time period was the series of unbirthday parties. One weekday near the beginning of summer, my next-door neighbor and I were trying to get her little brother to leave us alone so we could clean out a room in the basement of her house. I bribed him by promising we would have a birthday party for him later if he would go away now.

unbirthdayHe went for it and left us to our labors. When we finished, we talked my friend’s mother, who was a stay-at-home mom and a good sport, into helping us with the party. I will never forget that cake. I think it was one of my friend’s pre-Easy-Bake toy oven mixes because it was very small. The inside was chocolate and vanilla marble. The outside was covered in Kelly Green frosting and multicolored sprinkles. It was a cake only a kid could truly appreciate—or look at without gagging.

We all bought presents from the dime store and wrapped them before the party, which of course was held in the freshly cleaned and festively decorated room in the basement. It was such a blast that all the other kids wanted parties, too. There were seven of us altogether, so for the better part of two months we had weekly unbirthday parties, each one slightly more elaborate than the last. Both moms had to get involved when it was finally time for my party.

a rose by any other name would still call her brother Kalkaska

Eventually, I developed somewhat of a reputation in regard to my ring-leading nature and choice of activities, especially with my neighbor friend’s father. Whenever he thought something we were into was the least bit odd, he could be heard muttering that it must have been Joycelyn’s idea. Only he didn’t call me Joycelyn because that’s not the name my mother gave me. That’s the name I made up for myself some 40-odd years ago.

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can the enneagram make you a better writer?

F2G Enneagram_transparentAt a SouthWest Writers meeting several years ago, a fiction writer at my table mentioned she didn’t always know what choice her character would make when faced with a decision, an obstacle, or a fork in the road. I had no opportunity to pursue the conversation with her, but I wanted to tell her about the Enneagram and how it could help her solve that problem.

I admire her for being honest about an issue many writers struggle with. Anyone who writes character-driven stories, real or fictional, must have a basic understanding of human nature. While some aspects of being human are common to all of us, we do differ from each other, sometimes in significant ways. The ways we’re different aren’t random, however. A writer can’t just throw together a hodgepodge of attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics and hope to come up with a believable character. Discerning readers recognize poorly drawn characters, whether they are two-dimensional or too multi-dimensional.

Our characters don’t just have to be believable to our readers; they also have to be believable to us. We have to know them better than they know themselves. Yes, we need to understand what they want and what’s in their way, but we also need to know what they’re afraid of, what they resist, what their unconscious motivations are, and what internal obstacles they must overcome in order to succeed. Having a good personality typing system to work with can make that so much easier. It can also help your characters stay on track instead of swerving off the rails.

cookie-cutter characters need not apply

cookie cutter personThe primary objections writers have to typing their characters are no different from the objections many non-writers have to being typed.

Don’t box me in. Some people believe they’re unique, so being typed diminishes them somehow. They think typing puts them into a box. But typing doesn’t put people into boxes; it identifies aspects of the boxes they’re already in. It points out what’s inside the box and what’s outside, both of which are equally important.

Typing equals stereotyping. That’s true. But stereotyping is just a form of categorizing, and categorizing is a function of the kind of thinking the unconscious part of the brain does automatically. We can’t stop the brain from categorizing, which means we’re already stereotyping other people. Understanding the elements of personality can result in informed rather than uninformed categorizing by the brain.

There’s more to me (or my character) than my type. It’s true that personality type doesn’t explain everything, but that’s not a good reason to dismiss it. Humans have a capacity, called mentalization, that allows us to understand our own mental states or thought processes and—more importantly for writers—to attribute mental states to others. We can recognize that others have beliefs, intentions, fears, and desires that are different from ours. Without this ability, we wouldn’t be able to get inside the heads of our characters. The better we’re able to understand where other people (real or imaginary) are coming from, the more true-to-life our characters will be.

why choose the enneagram?

The Enneagram isn’t the only personality typing system available. What I like about it is that the surface simplicity makes the basic concepts easy to grasp. But it is also comprehensive and multifaceted, both broad and deep, which allows for plenty of subtleties and variations.

Enneagram is a Greek word that means “diagram of nine.” The symbol consists of a triangle and a hexad within a circle. The resulting nine points represent nine basic, or core, personality types, each of which has a unique perspective and approach to life. The theory of the Enneagram is that we tend to polarize at one of the nine points, overdeveloping the characteristics associated with that point, while leaving undeveloped many of the characteristics associated with the other points. So each type also represents a particular kind of imbalance.

An individual’s core personality type remains the same over the course of a lifetime, which is why having a character change too much or too abruptly, or behave totally “out of character,” usually isn’t believable. But every character has the possibility for change, either positive (growth) or negative (deterioration). Any character can learn how to moderate and overcome his or her innate predispositions or be done in by them. In fact, that’s the basic arc of just about any character-driven story.

the nine types

Very briefly, these are the nine types:

  1. The Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist. Principled and responsible, but can also be rule-bound and critical.
  2. The Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner. Compassionate and altruistic, but can also be co-dependent and manipulative.
  3. The Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, and the Status Seeker. Self-assured and accomplished, but can also be competitive and performance-driven.
  4. The Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person. Creative and inspiring, but can also be overly dramatic and fault-finding.
  5. The Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker. Perceptive and curious, but can also be cold and detached.
  6. The Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate. Organized and hard-working, but can also be indecisive and overly-vigilant.
  7. The Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast. Cheerful and multi-talented, but can also be acquisitive and thrill-seeking.
  8. The Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter. Courageous and magnanimous, but can also be combative and domineering.
  9. The Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist. Deeply receptive and serene, but can also be disengaged and inattentive.

You can probably identify a few people—real or fictional—who might fit some of these descriptions.

getting under your characters’ skin

masks 2One of the benefits of learning how to apply the Enneagram in your writing is the ability it gives you to get under your characters’ skin so you can know them better than they know themselves. While many personality characteristics are apparent—meaning they’re expressed externally—the motivation underlying them is internal and unconscious. Your characters, like actual people, think they know why they behave as they do, but there’s a good chance they’re wrong.

The following sketches of the nine Enneagram types may give you some ideas in regard to your own characters (the ones in your imagination as well as the ones you interact with in the so-called real world).

Type 1: the Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist
Keyword: Principle. Ones are motivated to improve themselves and live the right way. They follow the rules, defend against criticism from the environment, and scan the environment for chaos or disorder to right. Sometimes they resent the fact that others seem to do as they please. Downside: They can come across as rigid, rule-bound, critical, and self-righteous. Upside: They can be highly principled and responsible with a strong sense of integrity and an ability to inspire others. Communication Style: Teaching, preaching, finding fault, admonishing. Self-talk: That’s not right. Fictional Example: Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Type 2: the Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner
Keyword: Persuasion. Twos are motivated by the need to be loved and valued and to express their positive feelings toward others. They scan the environment to see what needs to be done, keeping their own needs out of their awareness by focusing on the needs of others. Downside: They can be co-dependent, manipulative martyrs. Upside: They can be sincere, empathetic, compassionate, altruistic people who make a positive difference in others’ lives. Communication Style: Befriending, supporting, offering advice, getting personal. Self-talk: You need me. Fictional Example: Garp (The World According to Garp)

Type 3: the Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, the Status Seeker
Keyword: Performance. Threes scan the environment for approval and resist being undermined by the environment. Wanting to be well regarded, successful, productive, and efficient, they focus more on their outer appearance than on the way they feel. Downside: They can be competitive and overly concerned with performance. Upside: They can be charming, self-assured, high-spirited, and persistent, making outstanding contributions and achievements. Communication Style: Promoting, exclaiming, motivational speeches, success stories. Self-talk: Watch me shine. Fictional Example: Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)

Type 4: the Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person
Keyword: Passion. Fours scan the environment for raw material and defend against being pigeonholed or limited by the environment. They search for what life means and try to understand their feelings and to avoid being ordinary. Downside: Since they compare reality with what could be, they find fault with who they are and what they have. Upside: They can be highly creative and inspiring and have the ability to transform all their experiences into something valuable. Communication Style: Longing, lamenting, poetic turns of phrase, self-expression. Self-talk: I’m feeling…. Fictional Example: Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Type 5: the Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker
Keyword: Privacy. Fives scan the environment for information and defend against intrusion from the environment. They want to be self-sufficient, to know and understand, and to avoid feeling invaded; they enjoy being alone with their own thoughts. Downside: They can seem cold and detached, preferring their own minds to the company of others. Upside: They can be highly perceptive, insightful, curious, mentally alert, and open-minded. Communication Style: Detailed explanations, facts, precise instructions, definitions. Self-talk: I’m thinking…. Fictional Example: Sherlock Holmes

Type 6: the Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate
Keyword: Participation. Sixes scan the environment for agreement and support, defending against instability in the environment. They tend to be cautious, compliant, and dependent, but they can also be indecisive and overly vigilant. Upside: They can be great community builders, who are responsible, organized, and hardworking. Communication Style: Questioning, second-guessing, trouble-shooting, warning. Self-talk: But what if…. Fictional Example: Hamlet

Type 7: the Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast
Keyword: Pleasure. Sevens scan the environment for gratification, resisting frustration from it. They want to be happy, to contribute to the world, and to avoid pain and suffering. They suppress anxiety by making lots of plans and keeping busy. Downside: They can become acquisitive and materialistic, focused on avoiding boredom and amusing themselves. Upside: They can be resilient and cheerful, multitalented, accomplished achievers who bring people together. Communication Style: Storytelling, joking, entertaining, imagining. Self-talk: On a lighter note…. Fictional Example: Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

Type 8: the Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter
Keyword: Power. Eights scan the environment to see where the power lies and resist impact from the environment. They want to be self-reliant and strong and to have an impact on the world. They readily express their anger. Downside: They can be combative and adversarial, attempting to dominate their environment. Upside: They can be courageous and magnanimous, natural leaders who champion people and focus on achieving their vision. Communication Style: Debating, arguing, giving directions, taking aim. Self-talk: Do this my way. Fictional Example: Jo March (Little Women).

Type 9: the Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist
Keyword: Peace. Nines scan the environment for union or merger, defending against conflict or disharmony. They are the type most likely to identify with the other types. They blend in, accommodate others, and forget their own wants and needs. Downside: They can become disengaged, unreflective, and inattentive, expressing their anger indirectly. Upside: They can be deeply receptive and trusting, stable and serene, and excellent mediators and communicators. Communication Style: Recounting sagas and epics, generalizing, daydreaming aloud, wondering. Self-talk: Nice ‘n’ easy. Fictional Example: Chauncey Gardner (Being There)

enneagram characters…in character

knitting womanUsing a personality typing system the wrong way can lead to creating stereotypical or cardboard characters.

But stereotyping results from generalizing based on a few personal characteristics of any sort, including nationality, religion, gender, race, height or weight, occupation, hobby, pet ownership, age, relationship status, or even eye or hair color.

It’s easy to turn a single (relationship status), 60-year-old (age) woman (gender) who knits (hobby) and owns a cat (pet) into a stereotype. You can probably picture her. Maybe you know someone just like her—or think you do.

Using her as a stock character is economical because the author doesn’t need to provide much additional information for readers to fill in the gaps. If this character is to play a more significant role, however, she can’t remain a stereotype. Let’s try looking at our single, 60-year-old female cat-owning knitter through the lens of the nine types of the Enneagram.

Type 1: The Critical Knitter: Fran is an intake coordinator at the local animal shelter. She always follows the policies and procedures, which is not the case for her co-workers whose mistakes she has to correct. She believes she is more qualified than her supervisor. Her tight-lipped attempts to remain composed and professional instead of telling everyone what she thinks are exhausting. In the evening, she attacks her knitting furiously, often tearing out several rows at a time because the work doesn’t meet her standard of perfection.

Type 2: The Self-Sacrificing Knitter: Marcia knits blankets, scarves, and sweaters for her siblings’ grandchildren, from whom she rarely receives a thank-you note or phone call. Even her nieces and nephews are much less grateful than they used to be. She wonders if they use the things she sends them, but it wouldn’t feel right to stop making them. So although she’d rather spend some of her knitting time reading or going out, she stays home to knit and to make sure her aging cat is comfortable.

Type 3: The Competitive Knitter: Lisa began making her own clothes in order to develop a distinctive personal style. She turned her clothing designs into a successful business which she’s currently still running. She recently took up knitting as a way to relax while being productive. But when she found out the largest yarn store in town awards prizes at an annual contest, she committed herself to besting the previous winner. Her cat is now banished to the bedroom so he won’t mess with the yarn.

Type 4: The Expressive Knitter: Olivia enjoys the various textures and colors of yarn and likes to make one-of-a-kind pieces that represent things like openness, love, or loneliness. She incorporates found objects into each one to give them added dimension. However, she tends not to follow patterns so her creations don’t always turn out the way she envisions them. That can be wonderful or utterly devastating, depending on the results. On the days she’s tempted to toss all of it into the trash, she’s sure her cat is judging her.

Type 5: The Speculative Knitter: Erin taught herself how to knit when she was 10-years-old. Having mastered the technique, she doesn’t have to think about it while she’s doing it. Instead, she uses her knitting time to ponder how to solve the world’s—and her own—problems. She enjoys thinking about things much more than she enjoys spending time with others, including her boyfriend who has become increasingly demanding of her attention. Her cat, on the other hand, has become more withdrawn. When did she last see him?

Type 6: The Anxious Knitter: Sandra has a long bus commute to work five days a week. She tried reading to pass the time but was so distracted by the scenery, overheard conversations, and passengers getting on and off that she lost track of the stories. Knitting absorbs less of her attention yet it keeps her hands occupied. That helps calm her, but it also allows her mind to ruminate about the upcoming company merger, the health of her 16-year-old cat, and the next-door neighbor she’s sure is dealing drugs.

Type 7: The Enthusiastic Knitter: Amy just learned how to knit! She loves it! In fact she’s told all her friends about it and has started a knitting circle. She carries her knitting bag everywhere so she can continue working on one of her projects. Switching back and forth keeps her from getting bored like she did with watercolor painting and photography. Last week, she had to have her cat put to sleep, but she plans to get another one at the animal shelter on Saturday.

Type 8: The Driven Knitter: Carla has a demanding job and volunteers at a women’s shelter. Recently, she agreed to help her neighbor with the crafts festival at her son’s school. She has little down time, so she took up knitting to relax. That backfired, though, because now she’s running a group that knits hats and scarves for women at the shelter. She’d like to get more exercise and eat healthier, but who has time? At least she takes excellent care of her cat.

Type 9: The Avoidant Knitter: Justine works in a large office. For some reason, everyone comes to her with their problems. Sometimes she’s able to help, but it’s very distressing to have to listen to them. She’d rather not get involved. Hoping to be left alone during her breaks, she started bringing her knitting to work and made a sign to hang on the wall of her cubicle. It says “Knitting in Progress” and has a picture of her cat so people will know not to be offended.

The brief sketches of these nine different knitters indicate some of the strengths and weaknesses—and opportunities for conflict—inherent within each type. The Enneagram also identifies how they are likely to act and react, their deepest fears, and the challenges they need to overcome. This information can help writers create characters that are both interesting and believable.

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NOTE: This post was originally published as a series of articles in the SouthWest Sage, the newsletter of SouthWest Writers.

For more information on the Ennegram, please visit my Enneagram website, Nine Paths.

reflections on a tea-soaked madeleine

How does autobiographical memory actually work—and how reliable is it?

proust madeleineThe scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera, for example, that it just records, and it files things away in mental DVDs that we can pull down and set playing. And in a way, that’s not surprising, because we see memories as foundational for who we are. We commonly feel that we are our memories; our memories define us. So something needs to change. … Accepting that memories are not literal representations of the past as it happened doesn’t mean that we have to forget about them or start disbelieving them all. But they’re shaped by who we are now. They’re shaped by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are. (Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light)

According to neuroscientist Karim Nadar, it may be impossible to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way. Memories we replay mentally over and over or talk about a lot with others are especially susceptible to such alterations. And when you retell it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory.

What we now know is that our brains happily reconstruct memories, though we are frequently fooled into thinking that the reconstructions are seamlessly recorded recollections. … Even for the sharper memories born from strong emotions (often called flashbulb memories), time erodes the infrastructure, leaving cracks and gaps. Instead of remembering specific, perfectly accurate details, what constitutes memory over time are general impressions of events with spotty details—and the older we get, the spottier they become. (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow)

There is more than one way to lay down a memory. We’re not talking about a memory of different events, but multiple memories of the same event—as though two journalists with different personalities were jotting down notes about a single unfolding story. … The conviction that memory is one thing is an illusion. (David Eagleman, Incognito)

The world is made of stories, not of atoms.

So said poet Muriel Rukeyser. And she was correct. The world of atoms is composed of facts, details, events, objects, phenomena, information, etc. In the world of atoms, things happen (events take place).

The world of stories consists of our perceptions and interpretations of what happened, as well as the meaning we assign to it.

The things that happen to or around us and our stories or explanations about those things are not the same thing. But because of the speed with which our unconscious brain (a/k/a System 1) processes information—and the fact that we’re not aware of what it’s doing—we think that our story about what happened is what happened.

  • Something happens.
  • We pay attention to selected aspects of it. How do we decide what to pay attention to? For the most part, System 1 (our unconscious) makes that decision for us, based on the model of the world it maintains.
  • We miss most of it! We’re not capable of consciously perceiving everything that is going on around us. Our unconscious can process around 11,000,000 bits of information at a time compared to the 40 bits we can process consciously. There’s an amazing amount of filtering going on all the time.
  • We come up with an explanation for the parts we paid attention to. We have an inner interpreter/narrator whose job it is to maintain an ongoing narrative of our lives, creating order out of chaos, making cause-and-effect connections, and generally leading us to believe we understand what’s going on. Our inner narrator is a great confabulator. If it doesn’t have all the information, it will make something up. And we will almost always believe what it tells us. And we can’t stop ourselves from interpreting or explaining.

A set of brain circuits—usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish—force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. Our minds constantly struggle to extract meaning from the data rivering through our senses. … In the same way that your mind sees an abstract pattern and resolves it into a face, your imagination sees a pattern of events and resolves it into a story. If there is no story there, we are only too happy to invent one. (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal)

  • We assign meaning to our explanation of what we paid attention to or noticed. We decide the meaning of things. And we can’t stop ourselves from making meaning.
  • After the fact, we have a memory of what happened, which is really a memory of our fragmentary perception overlaid by our explanation and the meaning we attached to it. This is not a memory of what actually happened in the world of atoms. Our memory tells us stories. So what we get to keep from our experience is a story. The kinds of memories that make the best stories—and the easiest ones to recall—are of events that had a strong emotional impact.
  • Each time we tell the story (to ourselves or others), we edit it. Talking and/or writing about an experience interferes with our memory of it. We remember not what we have experienced but what we have said about what we experienced. Usually the editing is unintentional, but if you pay attention, you can catch yourself in the act of editing to suit your audience, your purpose in telling the story, the impression you’re trying to make, or even your mood.

We have a tendency to reshape the irregular features of our world into smoother, more symmetrical forms. Inconvenient details tend to be pruned from our memories, and facts that do not fit together in a coherent way tend to be forgotten, deemphasized, or reinterpreted. The process of retelling a story in our own narrative style places certain constraints on what we recall, and these constraints guide our reconstruction of events. (Joseph T. Hallinan, Why We Make Mistakes)

  • What we are left with is the latest version of our altered recollection (and selected perception) of something that happened and what it means to us.

When you’re writing a story from a character’s point of view, you include only what that character is aware of. Unless you’re a really bad writer, you don’t include random bits of information just because you find them interesting or because you discovered them in the course of your research.

Everyone always has a point of view, in real life as well as in stories. We—and our characters—can’t help but view the world subjectively. Everything that happens happens to us.

Your P.O.V. character acts, reacts, and interprets events based on his or her model of the world the same as we do in real life. No one is a completely reliable narrator because we are all selectively paying attention to—or screening out—various things, interpreting what we pay attention to, creating cause-and-effect explanations, and assigning meaning.

Furthermore, our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a true story. A story can be more or less “truthy,” but never completely true.

exploring the link between creativity and mental illness

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles B...

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford

Do the words tortured and genius go hand-in-hand? If you’re highly creative does that mean you’re more susceptible to mental illness? Do you, in fact, need to have a mental illness in order to be creative?

The link between creativity and mental illness has been a subject of discussion and speculation at least since Aristotle suggested there was one. More recently, it has been the subject of much scientific study. The topic is in the limelight once again due to Robin Williams’ suicide.

This edition of Brain & Mind Roundup (#5)  links to four articles by, or citing the work of, Nancy Andreasen and Shelly Cooper, two researchers who study creativity and who have published books on creativity and the brain.

Click on the titles to read the full articles.

secrets of the creative brain

Nancy Andreasen (The Atlantic)

Andreasen is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who began exploring the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness in the 1960s when she studied a group of writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She writes:

I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? 

the relationship between creativity and mental illness

At brainpickings, Maria Popova provides a beautiful and thoughtful presentation of Nancy Andreason’s book The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius. Popova says:

One of the most interesting chapters in the book deals with the correlation between creativity and mental illness, bringing scientific rigor to such classic anecdotal examples as those evidenced in Van Gogh’s letters or Sylvia Plath’s journals or Leo Tolstoy’s diary of depression or Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. Having long opposed the toxic “tortured genius” myth of creativity, I was instantly intrigued by Andreasen’s inquiry, the backdrop of which she paints elegantly:

Did mental illness facilitate [these creators’] unique abilities, whether it be to play a concerto or to perceive a novel mathematical relationship? Or did mental illness impair their creativity after its initial meteoric burst in their twenties? Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?

And this is where the monumental importance of her study shines: What Andreasen found wasn’t confirmation for the “tortured genius” myth — the idea that a great artist must have some dark, tragic pathology in order to create — but quite the opposite: these women and men had become successful writers not because of their tortuous mental health but despite it.

the real link between creativity and mental illness

Scott Barry Kaufman (SciAm)

Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, investigates the measurement and development of imagination. He questions Andreason’s findings and looks deeper, writing:

The oft-cited studies by Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Andreasen, and Arnold Ludwig showing a link between mental illness and creativity have been criticized on the grounds that they involve small, highly specialized samples with weak and inconsistent methodologies and a strong dependence on subjective and anecdotal accounts.

Is there any germ of truth to the link between creativity and mental illness? The latest research suggests there is something to the link, but the truth is much more interesting.

It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible. Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas. Indeed, Shelley Carson and her colleagues found that the most eminent creative achievers among a sample of Harvard undergrads were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition.

Latent inhibition is a filtering mechanism that we share with other animals, and it is tied to the neurotransmitter dopamine. A reduced latent inhibition allows us to treat something as novel, no matter how may times we’ve seen it before and tagged it as irrelevant. Prior research shows a link  between reduced latent inhibition and schizophrenia.

creativity and psychopathology: a shared vulnerability model

In this paper, Shelly Carson, Harvard researcher on creativity, psychopathology, and resilience, and author of The Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life, reviews “the empirical evidence for an elevated risk of three disorders in creative individuals: mood disorders, schizospectrum disorders, and alcoholism.”

While creativity is considered a positive personal trait, highly creative individuals have demonstrated elevated risk for certain forms of psychopathology. [In] this paper I argue that a model of shared vulnerability explains the relationship between creativity and psychopathology. This model, supported by recent findings from neuroscience and molecular genetics, suggests that biological determinants that confer risk for psychopathology interact with protective cognitive factors to enhance creative ideation.

Carson

Elements of shared vulnerability include cognitive disinhibition (which allows increased stimuli into conscious awareness), an attentional style that is driven by novelty-salience, and neural hyperconnectivity that may increase associations among disparate stimuli. These vulnerabilities interact with superior meta-cognitive protective factors, such as high IQ, working memory capacity, and cognitive flexibility, to produce an enlarged body of stimuli that is available in conscious awareness to be manipulated and combined to form novel and original ideas.

~ ~ ~

Reading and writing about this topic inevitably makes me think of my partner, who died nearly 10 years ago. He had a very high IQ, good working memory, and great cognitive flexibility, all of which seem to have mitigated the vulnerability factors, which were also present. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which wreaked some havoc in his early and mid-life before it was treated. At times, he was more than a little eccentric, with maybe a touch of mad genius about him. (Always interesting, that’s for sure!)

He was extremely creative, prolifically so, in a variety of areas–especially writing, art, and music–and he continued to be creative while he was on medication, which was very effective for him. So clearly his bipolar bent, if you will, didn’t cause him to be creative. But there was definitely a link there. Those areas of shared vulnerability were significantly moderated by medication, but also by his own awareness and self-monitoring. And maybe that’s something to take away from this, too. Self-awareness and self-monitoring are great tools for keeping us grounded even in the midst of our wildest flights of imagination.

NOTE: Originally published on farthertogo.com.

Your Brain on Art, Writing, and Music

brain

 

 

Here are some recent stories about what goes on in the brain when we’re writing, making music, and appreciating art. (Originally posted on Farther to Go!)

Click on the titles to read the complete articles.

 

Our Brains Are Made for Enjoying Art

Ann Lukits (The Wall Street Journal)

Analysis suggests art appreciation is a natural biological process.

“Viewing paintings engages a number of different regions of the brain, suggesting art appreciation is a natural biological process, according to the report in the June issue of the journal Brain and Cognition. The study found that paintings activated areas of the brain involved in vision, pleasure, memory, recognition and emotions, in addition to systems that underlie the conscious processing of new information to give it meaning.”

This is Your Brain on Writing

Carl Zimmer (The New York Times)

Becoming skilled at writing may activate the same areas of the brain that are activated in people who are skilled at other things, such as sports or music. This study showed that the areas of the brain activated in novice writers were not the same as those activated in the skilled, “professionally trained,” writers.

“During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.”

It would appear that training is training is training—no matter what the training is for.

Musical Training Increases Executive Brain Function in Adults and Children

Jeremy Dean (PsyBlog)

“Both the brains and behaviour of adult and child musicians were compared with non-musicians in the study by researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital. They found that adult musicians compared to non-musicians showed enhanced performance on measures of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency. And musically trained children showed enhanced performance on measures of verbal fluency and processing speed.”

Music Changes the Way You Think

Daniel A. Yudkin and Yaacov Trope (Scientific American)

Different music encourages different frames of mind.

“Tiny, almost immeasurable features in a piece of music have the power to elicit deeply personal and specific patterns of thought and emotion in human listeners….Ponderous, resonant, unfamiliar tonalities—the proverbial “auditory forest”—cause people to construe things abstractly. By contrast, the rapid, consonant, familiar chords of the perfect fifth—the “auditory trees”—bring out the concrete mindset….That music can move us is no surprise; it’s the point of the art form, after all. What’s new here is the manner in which the researchers have quantified in fine-grained detail the cognitive ramifications of unpacked melodic compounds.”

nightlight

Moth
drawn to the light
the nightlight

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Watch…
I am drawing light
and growing;

Drawing butterfly pictures,
spectral ink blot samples
of a state of mind,
a moment in time,
a momentary rhyme,
a sign;

Tracing the sunlight
on paper
or determining the nature
of myself
of yourself,
and the world
of light flowing,
water growing,
earth shining

On this space
between places
we have found
to live in for a while.

word pictures

There’s so much creativity happening on the internet. I love this site called Tagxedo, where you can take the contents of, for example, a blog post and make a graphic design element out of it.

This one is from one of last month’s blog posts,  just driving:

just driving tgx

You can see many more examples on their Facebook page.

OK, your turn to go play now!

masks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I would but find what’s there to find,
Love or deceit.”
“It was the mask engaged your mind,
And after set your heart to beat,
Not what’s behind.”
–from The Mask, William Butler Yeats

Masks have always fascinated me. People have been making and wearing them for thousands of years. The earliest ones found are over 9,000 years old.

The only piece of art I’ve ever regretted not buying was a teal colored plaster mask of a woman’s face on display in a booth at the Sausalito Art Festival many years ago. The mini installation above consists of a leaf-shaped fan I’ve been carting around for years, an elaborate dream catcher my partner and I got from an artist at the downtown farmers’ market in San Rafael one summer evening, and a paper mache mask he made of the upper part of his face before I met him (and before his deviated septum was corrected).

I’ve always thought it would be interesting to make a mask from a mold of my own face. For a while, I knew of a local artist who taught mask-making classes, but I never followed through. I might yet do it, though. I found these detailed instructions on how to make a paper mache mask. It’s a messy process and seems like the kind of thing that would be more fun to do in a group.

Beyond being fun, making a mask can be a more meaningful, even a transformational, experience:

Artists use a wide range of materials for the masks they make. Spokane artist Annie Libertini makes gorgeous leather masks. Click the link below to check out how she does it and what her creations look like.

Watch Transformational Masks on PBS. See more from Northwest Profiles.

you: a work of art in progress

If you thought of your life as a work of art in progress, what existing art form would it most resemble? The idea of living one’s life as a “work in progress” is not new, and I have come across it many times in my travels. More than a few years ago, when I was struck afresh by the rich possibilities of artistic metaphor, I took a look at my own life in this context and also surveyed some friends. My own answer to the question was immediate and obvious, but I was surprised by every single answer I received from my friends.

An ex-insurance industry executive said that his life would be a multi-media performance piece. A writer described her life as a sculpture, while a musician called his life a “junk” sculpture. A computer  programmer was clear that his life was a symphony. Several years later, I posed the question to several different people and got a whole new set of answers, including:

Kelly words

At that time, I saw my own life as a play and this is what I wrote about it:

The things in my life are all stage props; I’m very aware of setting my scenes. All the people in my life are characters in my play and so, of course, am I. I just happen to be writing, directing, and starring in this production which, a friend remarked, would probably be the most expensive play ever produced.

There’s an inherent discipline in living one’s life as a play in progress. This is different from the discipline that’s part of living life as a sculpture or as a painting or as a symphony. In a play, props and scenery are vital–but only to the scenes in which they belong. One can’t become too attached to any particular props. Staging is also important and so are timing and pacing.

I recall being conscious of things as background props and of people (including myself) as characters from an early age. I wrote plays, read plays, directed amateur productions, and hung out with the local drama group. I thought up names and descriptions of characters, along with elaborate decorating schemes, to amuse myself. When I was old enough to notice I decided this was an odd way to think about things. Whereas other people seemed to make choices almost by instinct, I could consider a range of alternatives: the final choice depended on the requirements of the scene or the plot line; choosing otherwise seemed  arbitrary.

That felt like a strange approach, but strange or not, it was my approach. When it came time for me to reinvent myself at a major twist in the plot, I had no difficulty changing my wardrobe, my style, my attitude, and even my name. After all, this isn’t real life–whatever that’s supposed to be.

I wouldn’t use the same metaphor to describe my life now. Some days it feels like a surrealistic jigsaw puzzle: challenging, colorful, so much to look at, still not put together, and not at all what you’d (or I’d) expect.

What about you? If your life were a work of art in progress, what metaphor would you choose to describe it? Would it be a painting, a sculpture, a black and white photograph? A novel, a short story, a play, a poem, an essay? Would it be a symphony, an opera, a collage, a Rodgers and Hart musical, a movie? Or…what?

permission to fail

FAILURE IS REALLY YOUR BEST OPTION

(Photo credit: American Artist Ben Murphy)

A handful of quotes to inspire you to fail and fail again because failure is an essential part of the creative process. It’s also a part of life.

If we’re not failing, we’re just not trying hard enough.

So go out there and fail better, fail faster. Rack up as many failures as you possibly can!

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.

–Edwin Land

Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.

–Winston Churchill

The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.

–E. J. Phelps

It takes sixty-five thousand errors before you are qualified to make a rocket.

–Werhner von Braun

Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

–Leonard Cohen

I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot… and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed.

–Michael Jordan

To develop working ideas efficiently, I try to fail as fast as I can.

–Richard P. Feynman

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success.

–Thomas J. Watson

An inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once then he’s in.

–Charles Kettering

I failed my way to success.

–Thomas Edison

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

–Samuel Beckettt

To be wrong is nothing unless you continue to remember it.

–Confucius

Also:

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

–Linus Pauling

If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied.

–Alfred Nobel

So try not to be too attached to any of the ideas you currently have.

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