Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

I read this fascinating article about luck a few weeks ago, but I’ve been saving my discussion of it until after my luck story came out because I love to be thematic.
The article talks about the research of Dr. Richard Wiseman, who conducted a study comparing “lucky” and “unlucky” people. He found that unlucky people tend to miss chance opportunities because they are so focused on specifics of precisely what they’re looking for, whereas lucky people tend to be more aware of what’s actually going on and are open to different outcomes. Basically, his research supports the idea that we make our own luck by noticing and taking advantage of whatever opportunities happen to present themselves.

We’ve all heard this advice in relation to dating. “You’ll find your future boyfriend/girlfriend when you’re least expecting it.” I don’t think the catch phrase actually covers it. Did I expect to meet my future husband at the specific housewarming party where we first talked to each other? No, of course not. (Is there ever a situation in which one does expect such a thing? Unless, of course, it’s a pre-arranged relationship of some sort.) But I also didn’t think it was impossible. I was open to meeting new people and having a new experience, and I went to that party with the hope that I might make some new friends. And I felt I was ready for a romantic relationship should one present itself to me.

Here’s the kicker. You might say I was lucky to meet my husband that night. He might have decided not to attend that housewarming party. Or he might have had a conflict, or received a phone call and left before I arrived. But because I wasn’t attending the party for the sole purpose of looking for a boyfriend, I think we might have met later on anyway. I would have become better friends with the party’s hostess (who later officiated at our wedding), and she would have held another party, or invited friends to go to a group dinner, or whatever, and I would have met my husband then instead. Or I would have become friends with other mutual acquaintances met at that party, leading to the same results.

It’s very easy to think about luck as relating to one specific outcome. What if, instead, we were to think about luck as more of a continuum that depends upon both our choices and our engagement with the world around us? We have to both notice opportunities as they arise and decide to act on them.

I’ll give you another example of how paying attention can work wonders. In college, I did my senior music recital in composition. I didn’t know any undergrads who had done such a thing, but “luckily” for me, I read the Music Major handbook carefully and learned that it was an option for me. Even better, after I received permission for my recital, I allowed other students to pursue the same opportunity because I had proven it was a possibility. Was I lucky? Sure. The composition professors could have decided they didn’t want the hassle of advising an undergrad composer (or been too busy to do so) and found a reason to reject my application. But I also proved the veracity of the quotation about diligence being the mother of good luck. I had formed positive relationships with the relevant faculty members; I had pulled together a decent proposal with a realistic timeline; I had thoroughly researched my major. I would never have been the recipient of this good luck if I hadn’t thought outside of the box (in this case, that all undergrad recitals were given by instrumentalists and vocalists, not composers).

What do you think? Do we create our own luck? Do you consider yourself to be lucky or unlucky (or neither)?

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A few weeks ago I read an essay by one of my favorite bloggers, Penelope Trunk, about how to think outside the box. The entire essay is well worth the read, and I might discuss other aspects of it some other time (yes, that’s how good it is). But for now I’m going to focus on just one brilliant paragraph:“We are all creative. The only thing we really have in this world is the ability to craft a life. One day your life will be over, and we are largely unsure what happens next, but during the time we’re alive, we get to choose what we do. We create a life.”

Crafting our lives is the ultimate form of expressing ourselves, and we all do it, every single one of us. The decisions we make on a daily basis form the shape of our story, both in our own heads and in the outside world. That’s one reason why I’m so big on priorities: your priorities can quite literally determine the direction your life follows. Our priorities are the guiding vision for the complex artistic creation of who we are.  (more…)

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I have loved musical theater since I was a little girl obsessed with watching movies such as The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, and Annie over and over.  I watched those movies so often that I memorized the accompanying commercials.  I’ve studied musicals seriously over the intervening years, as a vocalist and performer, as a composer, as a critical audience member, and as a musical director.

I’ve noticed that my associations with musical theater are very different from those of many people I encounter.  I often don’t mention my interest, and when I do, it’s even odds whether my companion’s eyes will glaze over, or he’ll try to change the subject, or worst of all, she’ll make a derisive comment.  About musical theater.  To ME.  Musical theater has gotten a bad rap, and ignorance is rampant about much that moves and interests me about musicals.

Not every musical is an Oklahoma!, with energetic grinning and almost insanely enthusiastic dance numbers that consist of singing about the weather (and once you’re aware of the historic connotations of Oklahoma!, it’s a lot easier to take the aggressive cheerfulness).  Not every musical is a puff piece of finely spun sugar that melts in your mouth, leaving nothing of meaning behind.  Not every musical is overwrought rock opera from the 80s.  Not that I have anything against any of these types of musicals.  I enjoy and am interested in musical theater of all shades.  But.

Not all musical theater is created equal.

My very favorite type of musical theater may or may not feature any dancing.  It often consists of a fairly small cast.  There may or may not be fancy lighting or other technical derring-do; in my musicals of choice, the spectacle of the experience is not the point of focus.  I tend to adore musicals that have something to say and say it with passion.  I look for deep characterization and a satisfying narrative arc.  I want lyrics that are both clever and true, and music that drives home the themes of the piece.  My goal is to take something away after the show that has nothing to do with a snatch of a tune to hum for the next month.

Musicals are a form of performance art, and like the best theater, are capable of teaching us about ourselves and the world around us.  They make us feel, they make us question, and they make us wonder.  My favorite musicals will linger with me for months, or in many cases, my entire life.  Yes, musicals do feature characters who spontaneously burst into song (unless it’s through-sung like opera), but if done well, the music can harness the emotions of the character and present them in a visceral and memorable fashion.  If done by a master, the music can actually both cause and illustrate character development.

This post is the beginning of a series I plan to write and publish every Tuesday for the next month or so, discussing each of my favorite modern musicals (I currently have four), all of which were written and produced in the 1990s and 2000s.  I’ll be talking a small amount about the music and lyrics, but my main focus is going to be on the narrative and thematic ambitions of each piece.

For now, if you’re a musical theater buff, what shows are your favorites?  And if you’re not, what is your general impression of musicals?  Do you like Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling” or “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog”, or are all musicals equally anathema to you?  Weigh in and let me know!

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My friend Sean Craven recently wrote an essay about practice.  (Has anyone not heard of Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of practice makes an expert theory?)  The entire essay is interesting, but what particularly struck me was this section:

But I have noticed not just in myself, but in most of the serious beginning writers I know, a sense of stern duty, of feeling that we must steel ourselves for the rigors to come. Writing these days feels like a polar expedition, where we expect to lose a finger or nose to frostbite in the process of starving to death while surrounded by bears.

I laughed out loud in recognition, of both myself and many of my writer friends.  In the last few months, I’ve lost contact with that touchstone of living an artistic life: remembering that I love what I do, and making sure I continue to love it.

It’s so easy to become concentrated on the duty aspects of learning a craft.  I must practice this many hours per week, or I must meet this minimum daily word count.  I must write x number of short stories, or add x number of songs to my repertoire.  I must work diligently on mastering a, b, and c issues that I know are holding me back from being the artist I want to be.  I need to submit or audition more, write better and faster, keep up with Writer K who seems to be achieving SO MUCH MORE than me in the same period of time.  And maybe I should consider attending another workshop or masterclass.

It’s not that these goals are inherently wrong or bad (except possibly for keeping up with Writer K, which is a slippery slope filled with disappointment).  But when your brain is filled with the ear-splitting chorus of duty, sometimes it becomes hard to remember why you started in the first place.  In other words, once a beloved hobby transitions into being “work”, how do we keep the fire going?

I faced a similar transition when I moved from office work to teaching music.  I worried that by making my living with music, I might lose my love for it.  This fear proved to be  unfounded because:

1. Teaching music was infinitely better than the office work I had previously been doing.

2. I really like teaching and working with kids and teens.

3. I really do love music and singing and particularly musical theater that much.

4. Finally, and I think this point is crucial, my job was to spread a passion for music, so I was constantly reminding myself of how cool and amazing music was and pointing out these elements to others.

I had to make some small adjustments to keep myself going: I transitioned away from teaching how to sing pop music, for example, because it began boring me to tears.  And my job was certainly not free of duty, not by a long shot.  But when I closed my studio this summer, I still loved music, singing, and musical theater just as much as when I started.  Thinking about this now, I realize I achieved no small feat in keeping my passion alive.

It is my belief that I love writing, fiction, and narrative just as much as I love singing and musical theater.  I’m just so weighed down by duty that I forget to think about the positive, and unlike at my studio, one of my principle duties isn’t to show how amazing writing can be.  On the contrary, I sometimes feel a certain amount of grumbling is required just so people understand that I’m actually working at all.

So I’m going to be trying out a little experiment for the next few weeks.  When I sit down to list my five happy things, I’m going to add something to the end: reminding myself of concrete reasons why I love to write.  My hope is that this exercise will allow me to enjoy writing more thoroughly, not because it’s an item on my to-do list but for the sheer joy of it.  When I stop and think, it doesn’t take me long to realize what a privilege it is for me to have artistic and challenging work.  I’m officially giving myself the time to remember.

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She works for a video game company, writing in a universe she’s loved since childhood.  In return for doing this job she loves, she gets a salary, vacation days, health benefits.  This is a dream.

She discovered the story of a brave boy in New Orleans, who during Hurricane Katrina drove a busload of people to safety.  Lack of publisher interest didn’t make her lose faith in her story and the courage of this boy, and she decided to self publish to make sure his story was told.  This is a dream.

She worked on her novel for several years, joined a critique group, participated in the writers’ community, and kept trying.  Her debut novel is coming out in the spring of 2012 from a major publisher.  This is a dream.

He made his own publishing deal with a small press and has his second novel in a series (third book total) coming out in 2011.  He was nominated for a Hugo, and was invited to be Guest of Honor to a regional convention.  This is a dream.

She started her own business, which would allow her to support herself comfortably only working halftime.  She spent the rest of her time engaged in whatever creative projects struck her fancy.  This is a dream.

Her dad wants her to attend an Ivy League college she couldn’t afford.  She wants to study voice, composition, and writing and live abroad for awhile.  She’s like an echo of myself, but she’s not.  This is a dream, and it’s hersHere’s hoping she gets to live it.

Allow people to live their own dreams.  Every dream is as different as the dreamer, and each one is valid and special in its own way.  When we look down on someone else’s dream, it’s because it threatens something inside of us.

We can do better than that.

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A fringe benefit of being a writer (or other artist, since this certainly applied to my songwriting and singing) is that everything that happens in your life can be recycled into your work later on.  And by everything, I mean the bad stuff.  I recycle the good stuff too, of course, but while that good stuff was happening, I probably wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is character building and I can use it in a novel someday, which will make it worthwhile in end.”  I was probably just enjoying my happy moment.

No, it’s the repurposing of the bad stuff that is the real benefit.  I find it oddly comforting that when life throws something unpleasant my way, it might come in handy later for some character or plotline.  Of course, we’ve all heard the phrase “stranger than fiction”; one has to be careful not to stay too true to the actual facts for fear it will sound unbelievable (or be offensive to the involved parties) — I’ve personally had a story slip into the implausible from mirroring reality too closely, from which I learned that writing in too autobiographical a fashion can be a mistake.  But the feelings, those are a rich mine to draw upon, as are the general categories of experience.

Write what you know is the kind of writing advice that is misleadingly simple.  If writers literally only wrote what they knew, there would be precious few fantasy novels and no science fiction novels whatsoever.  Instead there would be a lot of boring novels in which nothing much happens and a lot of time is spent sleeping and doing chores and working in tiny increments towards the exciting goal.  I’ve never known anybody who was murdered, for example – does that mean I can’t write a murder mystery?  Plus, even when I do write what I know, sometimes I can’t remember all the details, at which point I’m still back to relying on Google to fill in the gaps.

But I think write what you know hides a deeper truth.   Maybe we should say instead: write what you feel.  Write what you believe in.  Write what matters to you.  Look deep inside and see what all that life stuff, good and bad, has left you with, and write about that.  Don’t shy away from the stuff that’s dark or scary or sad, because some of that will give your work the lasting resonance you’re looking for.  But don’t feel you have to look away from your streak of idealism or optimism, either.  It’s all material.

So I write a lot about death and mortality and family relationships.  At some point I’ll add in a dash of chronic pain and difficulty walking.  I also write about romantic relationships – usually in which something goes crashingly wrong (the story’s got to have a secondary conflict, after all), but once in awhile in which it goes wonderfully right … at least for awhile.  If I didn’t feel these things myself at some point in my life, I wouldn’t be half as convincing when writing about them.

And the stories that it kills me the most to write are the ones without happy endings.  Because fundamentally, I believe in the happy ending the most.  Or at least the silver lining ending.  Just as in life, in my narratives, I’m always searching for that silver lining that will make even the bad stuff worthwhile.

Ask yourself: what material has your life given to you?

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Another reason I really like the Newsweek article on creativity is that it explodes the myth of creativity has some kind of magical, inherent talent that someone either has or doesn’t have.  No, creativity can be learned, creativity can be taught, and creativity can be practiced.

When decoupled from its traditional fused relationship with artistic pursuits, this assertion makes perfect sense.  Thinking creatively is just another way of processing information, and if the human mind can be trained to memorize (and believe me, my brain was resistant to this one), it follows that it could also be trained to work creatively, that is, to combine divergent and convergent thinking into a coherent and well-practiced process.

Artists know this about creativity already, at least subconsciously.  It is why we obsessively practice.  Not only are we practicing our craft and our discipline, but we are also practicing creativity.  I’ll give myself up as an example.  I wanted to write a musical for several years before I sat down to do so.  Why did I wait so long?  Partly because I had no idea what to write about.  I couldn’t think of a single idea that I felt had enough merit to pursue.  I eventually had an idea, sat down, and wrote my musical in 2006-2007.  After a short-ish break, I wrote my first novel in 2008.  It was still hard for me to think of ideas, and I’m not just talking about that one break-out idea that is the best thing I ever thought of.  I had trouble coming up with any ideas, but at least it wasn’t as difficult as thinking up the idea for the musical.  During this time period, if I had a truly good idea, I felt like I had to hoard it, save it away until my writing skills improved enough to do it justice.  I certainly didn’t want to waste a good idea, after all.

It’s been two years since I started writing that first novel, and now I have lists of ideas.  There are so many of them that I’m sloppy and sometimes don’t write them down.  It feels as if there is a never-ending FLOOD of IDEAS pouring from my brain that I will never have time to explore.  I can sit in the bath and come up with two or three ideas that I believe have merit in twenty minutes.  No kidding, I did that last week.  Granted, coming up with novel ideas is still more fraught than thinking up ideas for short stories, because writing a novel is a much bigger investment of time and effort, so I want to be sure I’ve picked an idea that will still appeal to me in three months, or six months, or however long.  But it doesn’t seem to be the insurmountable task that it did only two or three years ago.

Why the radical change?  I think it’s because I’ve been practicing coming up with ideas to the point where it’s not a huge deal anymore.  Ideas don’t seem like rare precious things to hide away; the more I play with them, the more of them are born.  This may also be why there’s this huge disconnect between readers, who always ask where ideas come from, and writers, who get so sick of what seems like an obvious question that they sometimes lapse into snide remarks.  Writers have trained themselves to come up with endless ideas.  Readers who don’t also write have not, so to them it remains a mysterious process.

I don’t want to get into a big brouhaha about the current educational system in the United States, and how it’s not training creativity much at all.  Feel free to rant in the comments if it makes you feel better, but I’m just going to take lack of creativity nurturing in the public schools as a given at present.  Until this can be changed, the onus of teaching children how to think creatively lands squarely on the shoulders of parents.  I don’t have kids so perhaps I’m not the best suited to speak on this topic, but I have spent many years teaching kids, so I’ll have a go anyway.

Creativity Training for Kids:

  1. Avoid over scheduling. I’m serious.  Even if it’s all artistic classes, having constant structure even when at play is not going to foster kids’ opportunities to role-play, play make-believe, make up elaborate fictional worlds, or even develop the ability to entertain themselves.
  2. If a child shows a passion for a certain artistic or creative pursuit, encourage it. If he shows an interest in music, see if you can get him music lessons.  If she shows an interest in building complex buildings with Legos, see if you can provide the materials necessary for really innovative construction ideas.
  3. But don’t force a passion that doesn’t exist. As a long-suffering piano teacher, I can attest that forcing a child to play an instrument they hate is probably not going to encourage them to think creatively, unless they get elaborate in coming up with reasons why they can’t practice.  Instead, the child will develop negative associations with an activity typically associated with creativity, and therefore might ultimately devalue creativity itself.
  4. Allow a child to reason out the answer to her own question. Help her out if she needs it, but let her be an active participant in the process.  Also let the child hear you going through creative problem solving processes out loud, and if he wants to , even let him join in.
  5. Limit time with more passive, less creativity-motivating media. Yes, like TV.  I’m not saying no TV, but spending less time watching TV will give a child more time to do other activities that will engage their creativity.
  6. Read read read. Yeah, I know this one is obvious, but I couldn’t resist.  Read to your child, encourage your child to read to herself, ask your child questions about what he has read and what he thinks happened after the story ended.

Let me know if you have other ideas for how to help kids think creatively.  Also feel free to throw out your ideas of how you stimulate your own creativity.  (If you have no ideas about the latter, check out the blog post I linked to yesterday for a starting point.)

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