Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Post in Praise of Maria Popova's "Brain Pickings"

This is a plug, a plug for one of the most worthwhile, intelligent, well-researched, thought-provoking blogs anywhere on the internet. Brain Pickings, written by Maria Popova, is consistently packed with insight, and with explorations of fascinating written works both old and new. I am never disappointed when I follow Ms. Popova down the rabbit hole. In evidence, I submit a short section from her blog, her answer to an 11 year old girl's question "Why do we need books?"

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them.
Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.
And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe.
In many ways, books are the original internet — each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit — because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.
Looking for something worth reading? Go visit Brain Pickings. Looking to keep the internet a home for more than cute cat videos and celebrity gossip? Make a donation to Brain Pickings. Thus endeth the plug.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Creativity vs. Mindfulness

This summer, I read a lot about the practice of mindfulness - being present, in the moment. I felt it was work I needed to do, something with which I struggled. My mind has a tendency to wander, to get lost in the forest of thought, and I was feeling some negative effects of that tendency, such as leaving my body when my husband was talking to me about something, or losing track of where I was going when I was driving, or eating an entire meal without really tasting it, or worrying so much about the next things I had to do that I failed to notice the beauty right in front of my face. You know - little stuff like that. So, I read up on being present. I read books by Thich Nhat Hanh, and books about Christian contemplative practices, and Barbara Brown Taylor's AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD. And I practiced being mindful and present as I walked, as I ate, as I moved through my day. I started honoring a digital Sabbath every Saturday so I would choose presence over technology. I mean, I worked on this stuff.

But just now I am reading a book called THE CREATIVE MIND, by Nancy C. Andreasen.  It explores the nature of creativity, examines a wide range of studies on the subject and looks at the current neuroscience behind it. One section struck me today, a  section delineating what appear to be common threads to the creative process. The first such thread, or stage, is a kind of trance, an entering into another world, "a state apart from reality." I recognize this stage. It's something of an out of body experience. I sometimes liken it to going down the rabbit hole. I have talked about this stage in the process with other writers, too. It is a necessary step in the evolution of a creative endeavor.

And yet, you cannot enter this "out-of-body", creatively fertile mental state if you are practicing being present, being in your body. There is a kind of tension between the creative process and the practice of being present or mindful.

I must admit, I felt a slight eureka sensation as I struggled to articulate this idea for myself. I felt I had glimpsed, however briefly, the reason that I am prone towards absent-mindedness and struggle with mindfulness.

To have the raw material that makes poetry and fiction sing, a writer ought to practice mindfulness. After all, how can you fully evoke the sensations of a given place or experience if you don't allow yourself to be present and experience sensations in your own life. On the other hand, the writer must cultivate the capacity for non-presence, for that out-of-body "state apart from reality" in order to enter fully into the creative realm.

Perhaps if you are prone to creative endeavors you are also likely to struggle with mindfulness in your day to day life. Perhaps the line between presence and wandering is blurred for the creative mind. Perhaps this is where practice comes in. If you regularly engage in the writing practice and in mindfulness, your skills at slipping into and out of the two states - presence and the creative zone - become stronger, and more within your own control. Or perhaps it is a fool's game to attempt to control such things.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Teaching Children about Writer's Block

Last year, I explicitly taught my third graders about the term "writer's block." It was a remarkable thing to see how it changed their view of getting stuck or not knowing what to write about. They still got stuck, but suddenly, they knew this didn't mean they "couldn't write." They knew, instead, that this was something real writers, published writers, experienced and gifted writers, have struggled with throughout history. It made them part of the writing community.

Mind you, I didn't just tell them what writer's block was, I gave them some strategies writers use to try to break through writer's block. Their faces lit up in recognition as they realized some of these strategies are things they themselves have done, or could try. "I do that!" "That's what I do!" Getting up and stretching intentionally, in an effort to break through writer's block, with the goal of getting back to your writing, is very different than aimlessly wandering around the room sharpening pencils and annoying other writers.

It wasn't a fancy or complicated lesson. I simply told the kids that getting stuck happens to even the best writers, that it has a name, that they are not alone in this struggle, and that there are things they can try to help them get past it. I gave them a list of strategies, told a little about my own writer's block experiences, and about which strategies I or my writing friends used, and asked them to mark any of the strategies they thought they could try. I also gave them a visual, a quick sketch of a stick figure walking into a wall. We talked about the strategies as ways of dealing with the wall - one brick at a time, or digging underneath the wall or flying over it or going around it, etc. - thinking differently about it, in other words.

I revisited this lesson this year, with similar results. Suddenly, my students are seeing themselves as writers (which has been the goal all along, but it hit a new level after this conversation). "Is there an age limit on how old you have to be to publish a book?" asked one young man. "Can writers get ideas from other writers?" asked another, whereupon I told him about critique groups, and how writers plan times for working alone and times for connecting with other writers, and that it's important to know how to help yourself move through writer's block when you are working alone, but that another day I could teach them about writing groups.  At the end of the lesson, as we transitioned to the computer lab, the room was still buzzing. "Ms. McGean," announced another young author, eyes shining, "I broke through my writer's block today!"

When your enemy has a name, it loses power.

Popular Posts