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Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

black lodge 2

I loved it. Identified with it. Bought the soundtrack and made copies for all my friends.

Even so, something about it turned me off.

Every few weeks, my fellow freaks and I gathered in a friend’s living room to marathon-watch taped episodes of Twin Peaks on Betamax. We buzzed over Laura Palmer’s diary and even tossed around the idea of dressing up as the show’s characters for Halloween.

When they tapped me to wrap myself in a plastic drop-cloth, I balked.

Because something about it turned me off.

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romanesque-architecture

Assignment #1: Prepare an action plan for reaching a medium-term writing goal. You have seven days to complete and submit plan.

Assignment details:

Write up an overarching SMART goal and then generate a series of intermediate objectives, each with its own subset of deliverables.  The objectives and deliverables will use measurable action words, such as those in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and will themselves include all the elements of SMART goals (most importantly, specificity and timeline).

As the details of the interim requirements resolve into view, they may reveal that the Big Papi goal is itself problematic.  The goal might be too ambitious or your schedule unrealistic. Revise as necessary. The plan will be more effective if it emerges from an adaptive exchange between desired outcome and deliberative process.

Here is an example of my possible Big Papi writing goal:  By May 1, 2017, prepare for submission a working draft of book proposal (with complete outline), introduction, and chapter 1.

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creaturehood

As I shift, so does my son.  I invite him to “special time,” a goofy name for a powerful connection, and he first rolls his eyes. “I’m not doing that.”  The idea of playing just with me for 30 minutes is near the bottom of his list.

“You get to be in charge,” I explain.  “It just has to be between here and the park.”  Also, no screens, and no one’s hurting anyone else.  Other than that, we can do anything he wants.

“Anything?”

“Anything.”

“Can I throw pillows at you?”  His eyes have stopped rolling and now they’re fixed on me.

“Sure, as long as you’re not hurting me.”

“Can we go outside and play a tag game?”

I laugh “Of course.”  Tag is the one thing that I almost always resist when he suggests it.  Chase  my son endlessly around the neighborhood?   I’d rather stay in and clean hair out of the bathtub drain.  As it turns out, it’s not tag or pillows.  “Pirate ship!” he shouts, and runs into the living room to start moving furniture.  We pull out the ladder for scaffolding, king-sized sheets for the mast.  Bug creates turrets using plastic wine goblets.  He also creates something called a “maker” which is a kind of on-deck factory that turns raw materials into weapons.

If someone asked me to describe my son with naked honesty, I might say obstinate, aggressive, bright and powerful.  Curious but easily frustrated.  Sometimes cold and snubs emotional connection.  The boy hates to lose.  He’s an Eeyore on steroids.

If that same someone were to walk into our house during our first shot at Special Time, they’d see an entirely different boy.  Here is a child who is eager and spunky.  He’s creating an elaborate game with unclear structure, and he’s persevering with enthusiasm.  As he turns the form of Minecraft into a real-life activity, he’s engaging me in fizzy conversation.  He’s cracking jokes.

The visitor in our house would meet a boy who is close to his mom, sharing and cooperating, confident enough to be fine with uncertainty.  Here is a Piglet who is ready for anything.

So which boy is he?

We like to think of personality as fixed.  That person in our life is a certain set of characteristics:  maybe kind, a little introverted has good follow-through on commitments but fumbles in front of crowds. This is the person we know, and because we know she’s this way, we have a sense of predictability in our friendship, workplace, or marriage.  If people are changeable, how could we function in our roles?

Indeed, we haven’t needed to ask this question much because most of the common (if mistaken) personality theory that dominates our lives reinforces the notion of consistency.  It’s how we end up with ENFJs in workplace training with ISTPs, figuring out how to cooperate on a team.  Nevertheless, as anyone who has taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) knows, the test has its flaws.  A question comes up:  “As a rule, you proceed only when you have a clear and detailed plan.”  The test-taker then has to think, In a project meeting with my co-worker?  When coaching my kid’s basketball team?  Cleaning my closets?   Working out at the gym?

Which rule for “as a rule”?  The trainer is little help.  She’ll say, “pick one area of your life and stick with that.”  This test is supposed to map a person’s defining characteristics yet allows the random selection of context and perspective?  A little skepticism is fitting.

The fact that organizational leadership and development professionals still rely heavily on the MBTI is not confirmation of its reliability.  Indeed, there is no replicable research to back it up, and the science is flimsy at best.  The lack of connection to any empirical evidence about “personality type” should gut its foundation and release its hold on us.

“What concerns me is the cultlike devotion of many consultants and practitioners to it without the examination of the evidence,” says Adam Grant, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.


– Lillian Cunningham, “Myers-Briggs: Does it Pay to Know your Type?” in The Washington Post, December 14, 2012.

Corporate training is a $50 billion a year industry.  Its influence is one reason we still believe so firmly in fixed personality traits.  Another is based in the theory that we simply see what we want to see, that we seek out examples of certain traits and fix them to people.  Personality, then, is an illusion.

Yet another curious idea is that personality, while unfixed and changeable overall, is consistent in a particular context.

Lee Ross, a psychologist at Stanford University, has another intriguing idea. . . He thinks we actually are seeing consistency in human behavior, but we’re getting the reason for it wrong. “We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation,” he says.  Most of us are usually living in situations that are pretty much the same from day to day, Ross says. And since the circumstances are consistent, our behavior is, too.”


– Alix Spiegel, “Is Your Personality Fixed, Or Can You Change Who You Are?” from Invisibilia on NPR.

Every so often, I look up exes to see where they’ve wandered.  It’s a rare indulgence — rare enough that when I find them again, they have crossed oceans of life.  One fellow was all braggadocio masking incompetence and sloth.  He was stuck in debt and working a customer-service job he hated.  Now runs his own business.  His company lead tours in the mountains and edu-tains high school groups in the nation’s capital.  The contrast is startling.  It’s a marvel that he’s so completely not who I thought he was. . . or rather, that the man he was at that time and place was only one slice of a much larger, evolving person.

Traits may not be as inherent as we assume.  Change the context, and the person himself can change.

If I want to become someone different (as indeed I do, with regard to how I approach my career and family), it’s not going to work for me to do so in the current stage-set of my life.  If an environment rewards mediocrity, how can a person develop drive?

Shifting the situation invites a reworking of the self.

Taking on a project in a volunteer setting, or stepping into a leadership role in the kiddo’s school, or diving into HOA budget management, or committing to a regular childcare exchange with other parents in the community. . . these are just a few of the ways to “become” someone different.  A new role in a new context allows for the cultivation of qualities not yet fully formed in the familiar self.

My son and I are not “who we are,” despite the inane it is what it is trope that comforts our dissonance and excuses our inertia.  If we aim to invite a fuller version of ourselves, then we must change what we do, and where, and when, and how.


 Image:  Micah Bazant from the Trans Life & Liberation Art Series

 

 

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Paul Heaston Sketch

For the past year at least, I’ve been struggling with writing.  The struggle is against a sense of futility about words that begin in my journal as reflections on my own mind and experiences.  Who cares about my son’s bedtime, the trees leafing out along a bus route, the music the metro escalator makes as it howls and sings along its rusted track?  My words are outdated vehicles for tired ideas, or so my jerk-brain tells me.  I “should” be writing well-researched pieces about student development.  Or finely crafted poetry.  Or even fiction.  But I don’t.  Instead, snapshots of this little corner of the world (and my bumbling interactions with it) fill my journal and eventually make their way into my roughly drafted pieces.

To journal is to doodle.  This is what I do.  The act lacks structure.  It meanders.  It is satisfied with mediocrity and unconcerned with its lack of purpose.

This narrative turns those snapshots into junk.  Why bother writing them when they are so clearly pointless?  If I’m going to doodle, I might as well do it properly.  So I shifted gears and recently started filling my journal pages with shapes and wriggles instead of words.  It’s a way to kill time and feel creative, and honestly, it’s nice to be an amateur at something.  No pressure to craft a narrative.  No need to be good.  The standards stay right down there in the basement where they can’t even nip at my ankles.

Convalescing after a recent knee surgery might have been a perfect opportunity to write.  Unfortunately, writing loomed too large, and I lacked the courage to push past the judgments.  Drawing was a more soothing distraction.  First I explored Zentangles, an obsession of a friend.  Their form was too stifling so I tried playing with graded lines, gesture drawing, and sketching objects around my room.  The upside-down face of W.E.B. DuBois graces one corner of a page.  On another, a single crutch.  A chair, a table, a pill bottle.

Now back at work, I kill time on the metro and at meetings drawing .  I turns out — much to my surprise — that sketching and doodling are  different activities.  One is trying to capture what I see, and the other is trying to give shape to something not yet see-able.  One is tight, one is loose.

Slipping back and forth between these visual exercises illuminates their dissimilarity.  The media may be the same — black ballpoint pen, page, setting, a segment of time — but within these parameters, the activity itself changes depending on form.  Undoubtedly entire nations of artists have debated the terms for these approaches.  For me, the words are much more familiar as metaphor.  Someone sketches a plan, someone draws out a response.

Doodling wanders.  Sketching renders.

Within the parameters of setting, time, and media, sketching zeroes my gaze in what is in front of me.  It tries to, at least.  Rendering the pitcher and glasses on the table here is so different than the symbol of “pitcher and glasses.”  Indeed, this is what I want to see:

pitcher glass drawing

My untrained mind holds these flat shapes as a sufficient representation.  But if a pitcher and glasses are on a table here in front of me, they are as removed from this symbol as map is from place.  I actually have to un-see what my vocabulary throws in front of me through the prism of language (look! A pitcher! And glasses!) and instead see only What Is.

This means shifting my gaze to catch light, shape, grades, boundaries.  It means noticing texture.  On the table here, the the cloth is black, the pitcher silver and sweating with condensation, and the glasses striped with the silvery-white reflections of a dozen bulbs. The objects are much lighter than field, which means their edges cannot be drawn in black pen on a white surface.  My ink has to capture absences.  I work from the outside in.

The name of the object and its functional purpose are irrelevant.  My rendering is inversion.  The image must rise from a forced unfamiliarity, from a choice to view this place in front of me as a completely alien terrain.

This inversion also turns the initial assumption inside-out.  Is journaling doodling?  Or is it sketching?

Is it drawing?

Is it art?

Right at the moment when my doodles are taking up more space than words, I read Holly Wren’s difficult and lovely reflection on her poetry and on the value of what we make, simply because we make it:

It’s not so different from my commitment to laying a beautiful table, using my grandmother’s linens and good silver, even on a Monday night. These acts originate in my commitment, my pact with myself, to pay attention to life—my one and only life—and the little world I inhabit. They also give me pleasure, make me happy, and provide a way to create beauty, through meaningful work, using really basic materials.


– Holly Wren Spaulding, “Worth”

“Pay attention.”  This directive blurs the distinction between these forms of art.  Yes, journaling is doodling, and it is art if its images rise up from an awake and playful mind.  Yes, writing is sketching, and it is art if its slices of the world resolve into focus through a gaze that’s chosen to see.

Attention is the condition that defines an act of creativity.  Attention differentiates between junk and treasure, between monotony and energy.

Now I give myself permission to follow my intrigues and let my gaze settle wherever it chooses.  My journal is a museum of curiosities.  On June 18th, an oval clock-face appears, surrounded by eyes and the filigreed teardrops of falling numbers.  This morning’s story is about communication and commitments.  This afternoon’s, Against his ear, a song thuds. He knows it but can’t remember the name his father called his mother before he spit her teeth from his grip.  Someone erased the story of his second beginning. 

The choice then is not to define the act but to position myself in a state of attention.  Journals and doodles, works and ink are, as Spaulding notes, “really basic materials.”  And they allow me to create small acts of beauty, to do meaningful work.

When I decide to see, the direction of the gaze is irrelevant.  Whether I am using line or letter is irrelevant.  Any medium will do.  Skill will come with practice.  Practice begins with presence.  All art begins with attention.


Image: Sketch by Paul Heaston at Paul Heaston Art

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What young self didn’t know was that cool is a lid that screws down tight on the swelling delight of yes.  From the edge of her ancient eye, older self notices women in the dark corners of the bar bouncing in their seats.  Girls titter near a post trying not to sway — girls who are surely women but seem so far from their fullness.

The dude in an oversized plaid suit and orange ponytail hollers into a microphone while the bassist ducks his eyes under his fedora and yanks on steel strings.  Two spaghetti-armed boys blow brass right through the back wall.

Older self stands and strips off her sweater.  She steps toward the unnamed sister, the one in a cherry red tank top and spiked gray hair. She touches her arm and draws her onto the space in the center of the room.  The worn Persian rug there is a far cry from a welcome mat, but carpet is no great challenge.  Years earlier, she sent her young selves scurrying off to road-test every surface. Concrete, rooftop, mountaintop, pier.  Boardroom, waiting room, snowfall, bed.  Every floor is a dance floor when it’s time to dance.

It’s always time to dance.

She pops her hip and snaps her hand, beckoning to the one across the room who’s been having trouble sitting still.  They are three now.  Soon they are five.  Soon nine.

Low ceilings press in on the battered cafe.  Amateur pencil sketches hang crooked the walls. Light shifts and a gleam slices across the bowl of the saxophone.  Soon it’s a glittering ballroom.  Soon the pulse of the Cotton Club on a Saturday night.

The wall of dudes collectively holds confines itself to straight faces and non-committal postures until one man, pushing 70 easy, steps into and sheds 10 years. The young women form a ring of cool, turning their taut backs out for protection.  The rest shimmy and grin knowing there is no outside and no in.  Guarding one’s soft parts is a survival skill for certain,  but the older ones have learned the taxonomy of danger.  They can differentiate battlefield from playground now.  It wasn’t always so clear.

Here, the belly is free to roll towards the snare’s smash and crack.  That’s lightning for sure, but older self unfurls anyway inside the grounded body of her scars.  She twists the lid loose and drinks the song’s bright rain.  She is growing older still.  Time is running out, so she runs out into it.  She fills her bones until they spill over with dance.


 

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Muffin Bank

The hunger for sensation collapses into craving.  The call seems to rise up from somewhere inside my flesh.  It is deafening.  My mouth obsesses.  Sweets, yes, and the feel of pastry on the skin of my tongue.  Nothing satisfies but the hook is in and pulls me from my desk, my book, my deeper pleasures.

Usually it’s in the form of a chocolate chip muffin from the supermarket.  It might be a bagel, a cinnamon roll.  Reason is useless.  Already eaten a complete lunch?  The craving hollers through a swollen stomach.  Had a slab of banana bread for breakfast three hours earlier?   It might as well have been last year.

The sugar high and inevitable crash are unwanted, the extra calories weigh me down.  Keeping a supply of baked goods in the house would be disastrous, so I don’t dare make them at home.  This means I purchase piecemeal, dropping somewhere between $1.50 – $3.00 a day to feed the craving.

I understand addiction now.  It never made sense to me before, not viscerally, how a person could turn repeatedly to a substance they knew was doing them in.  Why not quit?  How hard can it be just to stop?   Because I kicked smoking and drinking years ago, because I work out daily and stick to my job and my commitments, it all seemed so simple.  The real challenges in life are about cultivation — building capacity, learning skills, growing a web of community.  Those are complex processes that require creative attention and the involvement of other people.  But quitting a bad habit?  Straightforward.  Just stop.

Now here I am on this day just like yesterday just like last week last month last year, wasting money and loading up on “treats,” feeling like crap about my finances and my health, and then soothing that distress with more store-bought sweets.

Just stop isn’t so simple anymore.

The hunger for sensation is much more expansive than this collapse into craving.  It is a hunger to feel something other than worn out and confused.  Almost any positive feeling — curiosity, awe, enthusiasm, playfulness, flow — would fit the bill, but they are as distant as rescue.  Self pity takes over.  I am bared before a bright wall of need.  A mass of slavering humans behind, a vertiginous climb ahead.   Affirmation and joy seem impossibly out of reach.

What’s within reach?  Immediate gratification.  Pleasure in the form of chocolate and a buttered crust.  I heed the call and feed the mouth.

I’ve just swallowed the last crumb and tossed the empty paper sleeve aside.   The rush of comfort is over.  Scurrying right in on its tail is the next craving (more more more).

This pattern is a broken record.  My needle is stuck in a groove on a particularly ugly note.  I know this in my body, my mind, my wallet.  What I am doing is not working.  But hating myself for being stuck is ridiculous.  The only way out is through, and the only one to take that step is me.

So here’s what I did.

I made myself a pleasure bank.

The images made their way up and out of old calendars and magazines.  They capture art and dance, play and color.  They are bright reminders of what else these moments on earth can be, what we all are if we are able to tap that hidden spring.  I fashioned the box from bits of cardboard and cut a slit in the top.  No bottom, no way out, not yet.

Every day that I forgo the pastry, I drop $1.50 in the bank.  When I went to the movies with friends and everyone else bought candy and soda, I skipped the Twizzlers and later popped $4.00 in the bank.

It’s been a couple of months now.  The bank is heavy with coins, stuffed with bills.  When shopping at the supermarket, I have to wheel past the glass cases of muffins and donuts.   At work, I pass right through the maddening baked warmth of Einstein’s bagels each time I enter or leave the building.

Almost every day since the pleasure bank took up residence on my bedside table — not every day, of course, because I’m still a mess of needs and hungers, but almost — I’ve steered clear of the pastries

What will become of the money?  Ideas glimmer at the edge of imagination, but the final Pleasure has yet to materialize.  It will be a non-food gift to the spirit in whatever form this flighty spirit might take.  Maybe a sports massage, the 90-minute decadent kind.  Maybe dance lessons.  Maybe a down payment on a piano, a night at the theater,  a day at a water park with Bug.  The container garden could use a few decent flowerpots to replace our plastic cast-offs.  These tired feet could use a new pair of shoes.  Maybe the cash will go into the IRA to nourish the long-term pleasure of a stable retirement.

Whatever blessing the money takes, it’s a double pleasure to know that alchemy is an art (or maybe vice versa?)  When turning one life-sapping habit into another, it is possible to make gold.


 

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MudMaid2

“Can bowls swim?”  a question asked.  I knew the answer they wanted was No.  But bowls could float, even heavy bowls, if flat and large enough. The large, flat-bottomed bowl of an ocean liner, for instance.  If Paul thought like that, too, he’d give the wrong answer.  They meant small inanimate household bowls.  Not the bowl of the deep ocean, say, holding currents, coral, plants, and creatures — itself floating on the earth’s liquid core of iron and nickel, whose swaying produces Earth’s magnetic field. Not the bowl of the earth floating — or, with so many life forms, was it swimming? — in space.


— Diane Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love

It is all okay, just the way they say it is.  By every measure, it is fine.

Rise weary.  Shower off the animal, dress in unremarkable cloth.  Speak in operation manual dialect.  Meet only the eyes of the bus driver and snap straight the helicoid moment as you stride to claim your seat.

Write like a man, the librarian says.  She scrubs her emails now.  Each is an écorché peeled free of padding.  Each correspondence a naked, muscled machine, its purpose laid bare.

Maybe we danced before.

Maybe we pretend we haven’t forgotten the petronella turn.

We collect pennies as paperless assurance.  We eat, we mimic love.  We wish we could un-know what keeps pressing in on the periphery, even when we lock tight the frame: that ice cream and sex and even the names we whisper in the dark are all bound by the law of diminishing returns.

For vague yet persistent unease, a prescription is available.

This is all there is.  By every measure it is fine.  This is complete.  This is plenty.  Our dissatisfaction with this is obstinance.

Another name for resistance.

(what once surged up through our splayed wrists and out the emerald throat of our imagination)

The silence now is clack and need.  It is invisible traffic slamming body into cathode paralysis.  It drags us in its gallop towards an ever receding horizon line, a simulacrum of quest.

Be here now

Breathe

(they tell us)

(because they note with concern our multiplying menagerie of worries)

(and wish something for us that burns on in the smoke ribbons curling into the corners after the candles are safely doused)

(something we have tried, in the pressed cuff of of our indoor voice, to wish for ourselves)

Alas, this here now fits like rust blossoms and papercuts.

Somehow the body must press itself back onto a barren frame.  Foreign as those cables have become, we have to bend to the task.  Scoop up gelatinous handfuls of song-meat and poetic offal.  Pump synovial fluid into stark utility lines gone stiff from exposure.

We have to see again with eyes that roll loose in the waterlogged bowl of our skull, itself a bowl bobbing in our story’s fecund, fly-kissed quag.
 


Image: “Mud Maid,” Lost Gardens of Heligan
 

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