Creativity and Contemplation

Sometimes, when I return to a well loved book, I wonder what gave the author their inspiration. Where did the spark come from that created Jeeves, or Aziraphale and Crawley? What pushed Agatha outside her normal sphere into writing Endless Night? When various and sundries were up late drinking and thinking, what made them say “Your fazzer was a hamsterrr and your muzzzer smelt of elderberrrries.”?

What led to creativity in people we now call geniuses? Because let’s face it, if we met Agatha Christie, she would be embarrassed by our slavering zeal. Neil Gaiman lives without pomp in Minnesota (odd choice. Wisconsin’s nicer, Neil, and I live there….) Einstien didn’t run around buying bay leaves for himself to prove that he was a champion thinker. These people, while recognizing that they have abilities and talents, consider(ed) themselves ‘just folk’. But they are just folk who have contributed such deep oceans of knowledge and art to humanity that this modern generation cannot live without them. (that includes Monty Python. Imagine life without it. Imagine the Gobi Desert. Same thing.)

In this not-so-scientific article, I would like to posit that three things drive creativity. Quiet, Contemplation, and Persistance.

It has been said by someone (no footnotes for me, I’ve graduated) that ideas come on the bus, in the bath, and in bed. Sometimes this is the only time you have. If life is busy (and whose life isn’t busy), you are alloted these small moments of quietness when your mind can drop out of its frantic alarms and rest for a moment. If there’s never any quiet, there is never ever ever a chance for the brain to rest. Even music playing in the background has to be focussed through. Many people say they cannot think without music or the TV in the background. I do not understand this. When there is something in the background, a goodly amount of the brain must be devoted to drowning that out. Turn it off. Sit in the silence. Wait.

You will find that you being to think. To really think, and not just on the superficial fast paced level that today’s society has come to value. Modern America values the person who can make snap decisions and race hither and thither bossing people around and generally looking like the Road Runner after a cuppa. This, however, is not the kind of thinking that produced the great art, liturature and music of the past. There is plenty of documentation as to the lifestyles of Agatha Christie and Brahms. Look it up if you don’t believe me. They took a lot of walks and ate a lot of food. They were quiet people. And that gave them room to think. Think deeply, and without hurry. Really chewing over the problems and solutions they set themselves. They spent hours in contemplation.
~As a companion to this, I think there is a component of conversation as well. Again, not the style of mindless chat we tend to call conversation today. Time consuming discussions that require reasoning. The people we call geniuses of creativity conversed with friends to get to the bottom of the matter. But not all the time, and you know, before you can converse, you have to contemplate. So conversation is crucial to creativity, but is also only constructive when preceeded by contemplation. (Sorry, that devolved into academia. I was trying so hard not to do that…)

Finally, never underestimate the work that creativity takes. We’re human. We don’t get to say “let there be light”. Creativity doesn’t happen all of a flash. That’s a nice thought, widely publicized by cartoons. LIGHT BULB, and the problem is solved. I’m sorry. Creativity takes research and practice. The first solution is probably not going to work. If it does, put it aside and look at it suspiciously for at least a day. It would be better if you left it for a week. Do you think vulcanized rubber was invented in one go? It wasn’t. It was about the millionth experiment, and the apocryphal story is that the inventor’s wife came home in the middle of the experiment and the man guiltily thrust the offending product in the oven to hide it. I don’t know if that’s true, I read it in a kid’s book years ago, but it still highlights a fundamental truth. Inventors have to work hard for their creativity to pay off. Practice creativity. Practice Practice Practice.

So if you were writing a recipe for creativity, you have to see by now that the chief ingredient is Time. There is only the tiniest bit of inspiration as yeast. You have to give it time, and you have to work hard at it. I don’t know, you might be a genius, if you gave your mind space and time to think. I bet you are. Come, show me what you can do.

(But if you are short of time…there is a way to be clever. Perhaps not all the way to inspired, but certainly very, very, clever. It’s called a bottle of Jack and a good friend.)

Words Served Neat: Gerard Manley Hopkins

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.


Í say móre: the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is

—Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Photography and Poetry

I grew up in a household of art. My father has an absolutely unerring eye. By watching him, and by constant exposure to great art, I have a pretty decent eye myself. An eye for light, for focus, for composition. A love of the 6 1/2  minutes before the Purkinje effect, when the light is more gold and the world is rich with hues and overtones. And an ability to see beauty in unlikely and overlooked places.

The grand vista and the sweeping horizon are lovely, but capturing that…everyone sees that. It inspires awe, but it doesn’t reveal anything new. Nothing wrong with it, of course. Inspiring awe is one of the great and noble purposes of artists. I don’t intend to demean vistas or horizons. I love me the sunset and the mountains. I can’t get enough of distant islands seen from a ship.

However, the revelation of things overlooked and things of daily use as things of beauty is a noble purpose of art. I have seen this, most notably, in the art of photography. These are the photographs that really stand out in my memory. A door, a bouy, the corner of a house, the eye of a zebra. These close up views make me pause, scrutinize, realize. There is beauty in the light on a sloppily tiled roof? Yes, there is. There is beauty in a dandelion? Get the weedkiller, but yes, yes there is.

I was sitting in the balcony of a church last week, waiting patiently for the pastor to quit sermonizing so I could play my violin for the offeratory. I had already heard the sermon once, and round two wasn’t holding my mind, so I gazed around. That was when I noted the beauty of morning light on the corner of a roof. It was a tiny square of light, and saggy section of roof. I don’t know why it held me so enchanted. But there was beauty there, and I didn’t have a camera.

But there are many ways to capture the loveliness of light, and my medium isn’t really photography. My father takes pictures and paints in watercolor. My brother loves to daub in oil, and does a fine job of it. But I am not that kind of artist. When I want to capture a concrete beauty, I reach for a pen and start to scribble. In rhyme, in meter, and in English.

But my job is the same job. I must show you, make you see, point out and illuminate (all of that), something that you ordinarily would overlook. I am nowhere near the kind of artist that I’d like to be, but I hope that through practice and the constant pursuit, I may one day be able to use words to reach hearts the same way I am reached by excellent  photography through my eyes.

Meanwhile, I will enjoy the art of my fellow artists when it inspires awe or shows me something beautiful and new.

New Tools

I haven’t written any successful poetry in weeks. After I finished Spendthrift, I really didn’t have any spare thought.

Now, I am going back to the daily discipline of trying to write. I’m a bit rusty, but not too bad. The only thing is, that I find myself gravitating to the sonnet. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Sonnets are masterful forms that transcend time and space. But it’s the only form I am actually practiced with, and therefore the only tool I have.

But some thoughts just don’t fit into either the doggerel, the limerick, the clarihew or the sonnet. Somethings just don’t work. You can’t nail in a screw. You can’t screw in a nail. I’ve got to get some more tools.

So I set out on a journey. I am wrestling with the villainelle. Go ahead, laugh. That’s fine. I haven’t successfully written one yet, so the progress report is pretty brief.

Take your.

Spell, sell, pell, dell


So far, my villanelle is a palimpsest. Well, at least that sounds interesting. Until you look it up and the depths of my failure show up on my threadbare sheaf. Wish me luck!


In my undergrad years, I had a bit of trouble with combinations locks. I went through 6 in my freshman and sophomore years. The trouble was not with the lock. It was with my head. Nothing I can do induces me to remember number combinations. I had to go to the custodian 6 times to have my lock cut off my locker. Embarrassed and at my wit’s end, I went to my mother (obviously. I was only 19. Who else could I tell? no…who else could I tell that didn’t already know…this was music school after all)

I am not a number person. Clearly! So my mother and my sweet brother went out and purchased a word lock. Have you seen one like that? The various barrels have letters and you line up the raised letters to spell a word. You can set it to a word that you remember. It was set for GRACE, which quality I desire.

I still have that lock, and it still works. Thank Goodness.

So here at IU, I got a locker, and it came with a lock. A number lock.


How am I supposed to remember 0271? I wrote a poem. It’s not a good poem, but the syllable count corresponds to the number I need next. In fact, it is a silly and dumb poem, but it worked.

Here it is!


They say
That all hard work gives profit.



The identification, classification and organization of subtle minutiae consumes every specialist’s life. I’m a specialist (…happy nerd)  in a couple of areas. The important ones like music, violin playing and teaching , hymnody,  are impressive and will one day be colossal palaces of knowledge. The less immediately imperative spheres I relegate to a voracious amateur status. Nevertheless, I love them all, and am not afraid to tell you about WWI poetry, 15th c. Netherlandish iconography, or eating gluten free food without hating your life.

The difficulty is in the filing and referencing of all these tidbits. Improperly placed in the mind, you may find yourself reaching for the wrong anecdote. Remember that bad timing isn’t just bad comedy. It’s bad poetry, bad music, bad manners. Be especially vigilant with topic filing in moments of stress or you may find yourself in a sticky wicket.

At this IU upper string pedagogy seminar, I and 25 other detail oriented violinists and violists are filling up our heads with massive amounts of minutiae. The glory is really getting to be too much. On Saturday, we had 7 hours of lectures, 3 hours of masterclasses and a 2.5 hour concert.

Half way through the day, we took a break, and I noticed my brain drip out of my ears. A colleague and I were comparing notes and gauging our comparative “whelmed-ness”.

It is a fact, that one can be underwhelmed. One could certainly be overwhelmed. What is it to be whelmed, satisfied and with expectations met perfectly?

It’s like this, I said. Last year, I went to Greece and set forth in the Aegean to discover the point of being just whelmed.It was to be for posterity, and I meant to be my own brand of scientific.

I walked out into the ocean and stood to my waist. But there, I was half sticking out of the water. The waves came to my neck and I was underwhelmed.

I resolutely strode forward to meet the rolling salt cobalt sea. Oh! Too far! If you stand up to your neck in the Aegean, that’s nice, but the waves crash over your head. I was fully overwhelmed.

In the end, I found that to stand up to the armpits was just perfect. Wholly whelming in the Aegean.

I continued my tale, prattling dizzily to my colleague. Of course, this only works for the Aegean. The Atlantic is less sheltered, the waves of the South Sea are wholly other. But in the Aegean, one is just whelmed by standing to the armpits on a clear June day.

You know what I mean?

“I’m from Nebraska.”

Ghost of Music Camps Past

This spring, I registered for Mimi Zweig’s summer pedagogy seminar, and now, the day has has come, and I am here. It’s going to be an amazing course of study, and look forward to the cocky level of self confidence I anticipate leaving with. After all, I am here to gain method to my teaching madness, but I already love teaching. Isn’t that half the battle? (It better be…)

It is true that this course will be a wonderful thing for me, but the biggest, bestest thing is that I get to stay with a very good friend. And second to that, I met another friend when I got to orientation.

Standing there, face to face with another violinist, I suddenly remembered everything about the day that we met. It was not a good day. I was going off to Meadowmount, for the second summer to be a counselor. That, of course, meant that I had to be about a week early. So I arrived at the tiny Burlington airport alone. The taxi man took me to the wrong ferry, and I crossed Lake Champlain too far north, landing some 45 minutes from the camp in the middle of absolutely nothing. I was freshly college graduated (…penniless) and in the Adirondacks (…no cell reception). Eventually, I was able to get JUST enough cell reception to the head counselor to call, but she didn’t answer because she was off doing counselor things (…looking for me at the wrong ferry stop). It took 2 hours to get in touch with someone and of course, another hour and a half to get to Meadowmount after they dispatched two other, more reliable counselors in a van to come get me.

They’d saved me some dinner. It was roast beef and potatoes. I sat there, eating while everyone watched. I was very animated and may have been waving my cutlery erratically. Throughout the vasty saga, I was staring into the intense but unmoved gaze of a man with very blue eyes. He was so unamused by my tale that I began to spin it like a demented spider attempting to weave a web to catch a mackerel (… crazily). I don’t think he ever laughed. By the end of camp, we’d spent enough time together to understand that I was trying to get a reaction, and he was worried about getting stabbed.

That was four years ago yesterday. I know because it was my birthday. Today, I saw the blue eyed man again, and we greeted each other affectionately. I met his lovely pianist wife and she said the scary phrase. “Oh yes, he has told me all about you.”