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.)

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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.

Gradations

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.”

Lazy Sunday

I’m back in the saddle again. Audition season is coming up in September and I am aching not just do well, but to WIN this thing. You see, my favorite violinist, James Ehnes, is going to be in town. I have met him a few times, and aside from his showmanship and virtoustic technique, he is a great person. Unlike some artists, I have seen him come out into his audience to meet his fans. He is humorous and generous with all. And I have a chance to share a stage with him.

I’m practicing like a veritable fiend. Except when….

The Hammock to the Violinist

It’s too damn hot for Beethoven today
So cut the practice out and come and play.
Another metronomic moment more or less
Of droning, wearied, laboring excess
Won’t change the course of fortune anyway.

The snoozy, dozy Sun will melt away
The tension stored in shoulders, hands, and brain
With pulsing heat massaging out the stress;
But it’s too damn hot for Beethoven today

The music of the birds and trees at play
Inspires deeper vision, and you may
Be the better artist for a rest.
It’s a thought the Great Ones oft profess.
So cut the practice out, lie down and sway.
It’s just too damn hot for Beethoven today.

My Great-Grandfather

I went to Phoenix a few weeks ago for a job interview. It went well and all that, but, as life goes, what I will remember was not what I went there for.

Saturday morning before I flew home, I stopped at my great-grandfather’s nursing home. He will be 95 this year, and while he is looking frail, he is well, and quite alert.

A very friendly receptionist directed me to his room, and I found him watching TV with his friends. I put my hand on his shoulder and said,

“Grandpa, let’s go talk in the lobby for a bit.”

He said, “Sure!”

Now, I am the only daughter of his only granddaughter, so I assumed that my greeting and his affable acquiescence to this idea meant he knew who I was. Further conversation proved this to be untrue.

“Where are you from?”

“I live in Michigan for now.”

“My great granddaughter lives in Michigan. You remind me of her.”

“Grandpa, I am she!”

Joy flooded my grandfather’s face. The purest, warmest draught of delight I have ever experienced radiated through the room. Our laughter and happiness filled the lobby of the nursing home, and the receptionist wiped tears from her sympathetic eyes. We spoke of many things, mostly family and change and his missing hearing aids. Then he got restless, fearing I would miss my flight. I had hours to go, but after half an hour, his courtesy for my “busy schedule” required me to go.

“This was a happy reunion. I am so proud of you. I love you so much.”

And he was gone.

I’ve attempted to convey how sorry I am that I had to go, how much I wish I could have taken the job I was offered. Unlike my usual method, I didn’t employ a classical form, but rather listened to the meter and tried to harness the harmony of words to make a sort of song. I still don’t know what to name it. Suggestions are welcome.

Regret

Only a few minutes pass.

I would spend my life right here
Watching sorrow leave your face
Laughing, holding, loving you

But only a few minutes pass.

Graciously you hold your court
And give your family leave to stay
Beside your chair for half an hour

Only these few minutes last.

You are ancient, life is short
Those who love you hold you dear
I wish you’d let me stay with you

And only a few minutes pass.

Tempered

I’m not at all sure about this cabbage. There’s just something a bit off. Perhaps I added too much cinnamon.

And this pork chop. It’s a bit peculiar as well. What is up with this Dijon mustard glaze?

It’s been a day of successes, small and large. On the small but important hand, I filed my taxes. So early! How Mature! On a larger scale, my review at work was a roaring success. Fantastic. Grandly, I applied for a job I’d actually like to take but that was far far away and took a lot of courage.

This exhausted me. I came home and put some things on the stove to cook in a daze.

Now, through the haze of steam and cookery, I am doubting my choices.

Not my decision to act like a grown up and face forward with solemn courage. You know courage. That’s when you know the odds are 100 to 1 against you but you get out of bed anyway. When you thaw the freezing clutch at your heart with an act of Will and Faith. When you breathe through the pain and drive through the blizzard. Courage… I’m not doubting that.

But I do doubt this dinner. God give me the last ounce of courage to confront my suspicious cookery!

 

Peanut Butter Sandwich

It’s just a fact that sometimes things run smoothly and sometimes they just don’t run at all. Cars, for example. Or plans. Now I think, indeed, I think very much, that anything can be solved. Cars fixed, walls demolished, doors unlocked. IN the meantime, though, I do feel like having a tiny moment to say:

Why isn’t everything as easy as making a Peanut Butter sandwich?

In my egocentric bid for attention, I posted much the same thing on the Facebooks. Within minutes an old acquaintance of mine responded in his usual slightly off center way.

“Where is all this bread coming from? This isn’t a knife! Why is everything sticking together? WHAT WENT WRONG?”

Which of course made me remember that it’s not necessarily easy to make a peanut butter sandwich. I’ve just made a lot of them. In fact, a peanut butter sandwich is rather a trial to produce. The more radical you consider, the harder it is just to get a daggone peanut butter sandwich.

Did you ever write one of those “creative writing” exercises? So many of them are drudgery, but I really loved writing How To essays. My mother and a friend once made the 4 collective children write “How to make an Ice Cream Sundae.” Our mothers promised to follow our directions to the letter and allow us to eat whatever we could describe. Well! That is certainly a proposition we children were happy to accept!

We sat chewing our pencils for about an hour, meticulously describing all the delightful things and ways we wanted our Sundae to delight us. I’ll spare you the details, but tell you that my friend got a bowl of ice cream, a wooden spoon and a can of sundae fudge, unopened and balanced on top precariously.

It’s not easy to do all the things we do in daily life. We’re just used to them. Maybe getting through these problems will form habits for later so that everything feels easy. I hope so!