Sunday, July 22, 2018

What is your Creativity Myth?

All creative people use their imaginations to develop their work. But we can also use imagination in how we approach the creative process and in our relationship with our work.

Here’s an example.

A common approach is to think of “conquering” your novel, or poem, or art. As though the work is something to be dominated. This more traditionally “masculine” approach tends to create a sense of urgency, worry, and even manipulation, which can undermine the creative process. Instead, I encourage the writers I mentor to think of themselves as explorers instead of conquerors. Explore the problem before you, the letting, character, plot, image, etc. This immediately allows your to relax, to take a gentler, more inquisitive approach to writing.

This week I read an interview with Evelyn Fox Keller, who wrote the biography of geneticist Barbara McClintock, winner of a Nobel Prize. The title, chosen by McClintock, is A Feeling for the Organism. “It’s her (McClintock’s) deepest belief that you cannot do good research without a feeling for the organism.”* That resonated with my own idea of being an explorer of your work. Think of your writing as an organism, as it’s own living self that you are discovering or coaxing into existence.

I invite you to use your own imagination to work with metaphors in your approach to creative work. What underlying metaphors do you use that you may not even be aware of? What is your creative “myth?” I like Sam Keen’s definition of myth. A myth is simply the “unconscious systematic way in which your experience is formed.” Once you're aware of your creativity myth, use your imagination to shape it.

*The interview with Evelyn Fox Keller is on p 77 of Bill Moyers A World of Ideas

Thursday, March 22, 2018


Intimations of Imagination

During author visits, I’m often asked how to increase our imaginative ability. One way is to learn to pay attention to moments when you’re surprised, startled, or captured by something. Perhaps an image, event or idea. A moment of beauty or repulsion. Such moments mean something is resonating in you. These are “intimations of imagination.” Intimation is the act of making something known. These moments are seeds of imaginative potential and carry tremendous energy.

Often we are too busy or distracted to attend them. A creative person needs to tune herself to catch these energies. Hence the pencil stub and bit of paper always in the pocket.

Here’s an example. During an acupuncture session, a vivid image flashed in my mind. A poem wanting to be. But, being a human porcupine, I couldn’t grab a pencil. Afterward, I considered jotting it down, but rush hour traffic was increasing by the minute. So I didn’t. That night, I was distracted by life’s unending necessaries. When I at last opened my notebook the next morning, the poem was gone. Oh, I still had the image, but it was as bland as egg whites. All the energy it carried had fled.

A week later, shortly after I went to bed, an image and a phrase came. So did the energy. But I was already late to bed. However, recalling the lost poem, I thought, this is my job as a creative person. And that job comes with irregular hours and starting bells that ring at odd times. So I stumbled into the kitchen and opened my notebook. A poem flurried onto the page. With work, that poem may be a good one. It contains a possible picture book story, too.

Joseph Campbell wrote, “the goal is to live with godlike composure on the divine rush of energy.” Writing is the same. If you show up for the intimations of your imagination, that rush of energy will do most of the work for you.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Classroom Project: What's Missing? Story Structure

From the private Creative Writing mentoring I do for both adults and kids, I’ve discovered many people have a poor understanding of story structure. It isn’t really taught in general creative writing classes, beyond perhaps pointing out that a story needs a beginning, middle, and end.

Perhaps this lack isn’t surprising, if you consider all the many and often complex techniques of looking at story structure. You can read Story by Robert McKee, for a super in depth version. But the simplest, quickest technique I’ve found is in Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s book, How to Write a Children’s Picture Book, Vol. 1: Structure. She developed her story structure chart for picture books, but I’ve found it very useful to give me a quick snapshot of novel structure. And an easy way to try many ideas out quickly.

Bine-Stock explains the chart using well known picture books as examples, so this book would be a useful and accessible way for a middle school or secondary school teachers to teach story structure. Have the kids look at a few middle grade novels using the chart as well. Whether teaching literature or creative writing, this book would be a great tool for teaching story structure.

Monday, March 12, 2018

When You Don't Know What to Say

What do you say to kids when there is so much trouble in the world, and at home? What books do you hand them to read that might speak to this? I think of the traditional hero stories where one individual can change the world by fighting the darkness. The character Will in Susan Cooper's The Darkness Rising. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.. But most of all right now, I think of Ged, in The Wizard of Earthsea.

Through an act of great hubris, Ged released a shadow into the world. To catch and put the shadow back Ged worked to discover the shadow's name.Naming a thing gives one power over it. But Ged couldn't find the name.  Only when he realized the shadow was his own, could he name it: Ged. And integrate it back into himself.

We all tend to project our own shadows--the dark, repressed, unacceptable parts of ourselves, thoughts or emotions--onto others. And are blind to it in ourselves. Countries and cultures and religions have shadows, too. They project these onto cultures or people who are different. They become "the evil," or the cause of all the bad things happening.

In my opinion, in our recent presidential election in the United States, we have chosen to be led by the collective shadow of our country.

So what do we say to kids when there is so much trouble in the world and at home? Let's start by looking closely at our own shadows so we can own them and name them. Then we'll be less likely to project them onto other people or groups. This examination is a heroic act. One individual can change the world if she begins by fighting the darkness in herself.

And be sure to hand the kids, The Wizard of Earthsea.

Wishing you joy,

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Doctor of Imagination?

Wouldn’t you love to be a Doctor of Imagination? Sorry, a quick search reveals there are no PhD programs in Imagination. Why not? Imaginative ability is the most precious human resource we have. It should be studied, cultivated, and taught as an end in itself.

At least the University of St Andrews school of divinity, St Mary’s College hosts an Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. Not quite what I’m thinking. Too connected with Theology.

Closer perhaps is Arizona State University’s new Imaginary College. It’s under the umbrella of the Center for Science and Imagination. (In case you didn’t notice, science still comes first.) Their college members are divided into two categories.

1. Imaginary College Philosophers: “Sages and provocateurs who epitomize imaginative thinking and practice and provide inspiration for our work.” One of these is Margaret Atwood.

2. Imaginary College Fellows: “Rebels, hackers, wizards, inventors, and alchemists driving path breaking research, teaching, and outreach projects.”

As far as I can tell, this is still not a PhD in Imagination. You can get a PhD in mythology, in transformative studies, and there are various programs that connect design with imagination. Many psychology programs have an imagination connection, such as the one at University of Oregon. Their Imagination Research Lab in the Psychology Department focuses on “the development of imagination in children and its relation to social understanding, creativity, inhibitory control, and narrative skills. In particular, we are interested in children’s creation of imaginary companions and the role they play in social and cognitive development.”

Anyone else seeing a gaping hole here? And just what does that say about how much we truly value imagination?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Sleuthing the Snow Queen: Classroom Project

I recently read Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. Karen Foxlee's middle grade fantasy novel centers on the myth of the Snow Queen. This mythologem can be traced far back in our history, sometimes as an ice queen or ice princess.

A fascinating project for kids would be to take this image and trace it back. We find it in recent literature, like the White Witch in Narnia, and of course Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen. And of course Disney...with its liberal reinterpreting with all things marketing in mind.

Those stories have their antecedents in older mythologies. Like the Norse Goddesses Skadi or Hel. Robert Graves' The White Goddess also explores the myth.

I'm no scholar, but I've read enough of Carl Jung's work to recognize a powerful archetype in the Snow Queen. And powerful archetypes ignite imagination. So turn your students loose into an exploration of the Snow Queen archetype. Then have them write their own version.