A Duty to Do Something Frivolous

I use Evernote to save various clips and thoughts. One of my files is called “For Further Reflection.” The things is, I rarely go back and reflect further. What is more, I forget just what further thoughts I was contemplating at the time I clipped the snippet. I have decided to do some idea housecleaning and revisit these. Here’s one I clipped in October 2014.

10185538Engaging in a Vice Can Stimulate Creativity… If It’s Framed as a Duty

Hong Kong found that people experience increased vitality and show greater creativity after being directed to do something — specifically, engage in a (very mild) vice. Participants who were assigned to buy a celebrity photo album (that’s the vice), as opposed to a computer-programming tutoring book, and then asked to write an ad for a bike were judged to show better creative performance than those who had been given free choice or assigned to buy the computer book (6.42 versus 5.54 and 5.72 on average, respectively, on an 11-point creativity scale), say doctoral student Fangyuan Chen and Jaideep Sengupta of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Framing a pleasure as a requirement reduces the guilt associated with it — thus the increased creativity and sense of well-being, the researchers say.

This is one of those studies where researchers found a pattern, and they can tell you it exists, but they can only speculate as to why it exists. They assume that being free of guilt is a more creative state. This doesn’t make intuitive sense to me.

Putting aside the question of just how much of a vice buying a celebrity photo album is for the moment, I would like to offer an alternative explanation.  The essence of creativity is novelty. A paradox or a shift in usual values gives a person a new way of looking at things. If you want to spark your imagination, you put things together that do not often go together. Being given an assignment to buy a computer programming book is not particularly novel, but it is novel to make it a duty to do something frivolous.

That’s all I’ve got in terms of further reflections, but perhaps I can make this into a challenge to the would-be creatives reading this. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to put frivolity on your to do list.




Books and Ballet

I am on a ballet tour, but I am not a dancer.

My primary career is writer, and my other job is ballet master class tour producer. It is not a “day job” it is a five months of the year job. Twice a year– two months in winter and three in summer– I bring over a Russian ballet dancer and we travel the country. He teaches classical ballet classes. I do the bookings, the driving. I play the music. Five months of driving across 47 U.S. states. Five months of plotting tour routes, checking in and out of hotels, keeping track of class times. The dancer is the star of the show. In Hollywood, I bought a t-shirt that has “crew” written on the front as an inside joke about my apparent role in things.  I’ve been called Mr. Lantratov’s helper a number of times. His assistant more often than I can count. One student said “it sounds like you’re his slave.” In reality I am the manager.

For a writer, it is a fragmented life. Ideas that come behind the wheel get written on hotel scratch pads and stowed away until I get home and have time to make them into novels, research, or book proposals. (Although I do some writing on the road as well when the situation warrants it. Parts of Oscar’s Ghost were written in a hotel in Dallas, most of the revisions of The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation were written in Cincinnati.)

Years ago, in a draft for an abandoned novel about a performance tour, I wrote:

Ballet, especially every day road ballet, is an endurance sport. The principal dancers glide effortlessly on stage, but once they’ve crossed the threshold of the curtain into the wings, they put their hands on their knees and bend forward, their chests and stomachs pumping in and out with every labored breath. They are sweaty, of course, and a little dazed from the rush of adrenalin and hormones. And after a few moments, they capture their breath, and leap on the stage again, looking, for all the world, like they are suspended by wires and need no energy at all to perform the feat.

That’s performing. I don’t know if it applies to what I do: writing. Having a front row seat to my partner’s work as a ballet master teacher, I find that while they are both arts, writing and ballet do not have much in common. In many ways, they seem to be opposite arts: the verbal and the non-verbal, motion and stillness.

They are, however, both old forms of expression that seem a bit antiquated in a modern digital world. There is something pleasingly quixotic in trying to preserve and pass along these arts to a new generation.

Touring involves both constant novelty and the constant familiarity of hotel and road life. It informs the imagination and produces its own kind of creativity, but opportunities to sit for a while in solitude and just write are few and far between. I come to find that writing in a state of flow is a bit like a drug. You crave it when it is missing.

I started reading ballet dancer David Hallberg’s memoir A Body of Work. He is the only author listed on the cover, no “as told to.” So if he had no ghost writer (authors always wonder about such things) he has a writing talent. He writes about the memory of being in an artistic state of flow, and missing it when he is away from the stage.

I remember what it feels like to dance. To move so freely that my body releases ad creative intuition takes over, leading me beyond the worry of executing technique to a realm where nothing exists but the movement, the music, the emotions… Moments like this are worth it all. The doubt. The sacrifice. The injuries. The scrutiny. The burden of expectation. Those moments of living so intensely and fully on the stage are why I danced. Now, each day, I face one towering question: will I ever experience that euphoria again?

Flow is common to artists. It is why we persist in ridiculous careers. Yet as with most things ballet and writing, the process is inverted. For the dancer, the moment of flow is a culmination. For a writer, flow is that moment of inspiration. The writing that comes before the hard work, the revising, the attempts to get published. It all happens long before there is an audience.

The downside for the performer is that he needs the audience to have that moment. The writer can sit down and write no matter what, a lack of an audience is no barrier to achieving the state of flow. The downside for the writer is that this results in a constant lack of closure. By the time a book gets to its audience, it is disconnected from the writer, there is no great sense of culmination. The only soothing balm is to go back and write and start that process again.


Now I need to check out of this hotel and get on the road…

Creativity from Constraints: The Dr. Seuss Edition

People tend to think of creativity as complete freedom, but often it is not freedom but playing within constraints that creates art. This example, about children’s author Dr. Seuss, comes from Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt.

Besides made-up words and rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s biggest trademark is the simplicity of his writing. Even compared to other children’s authors, Dr. Seuss pushed the limits. We can partly thank his Houghton Mifflin editor, William Spaulding, who after a string of successes presented Seuss with a list of just a few hundred simple words in the mid-1950s. Seuss had already published Horton Hears a Who!, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo. But, as detailed in the New Yorker article “Cat People,” Spaulding wanted Seuss to go after an even younger audience: “Write me a story that first graders can’t put down!” Seuss would later describe how he struggled with Spaulding’s challenge: He sent me a list of about three hundred words and told me to make a book out of them. At first I thought it was impossible and ridiculous, and I was about to get out of the whole thing; then decided to look at the list one more time and to use the first two words that rhymed as the title of the book— cat and hat were the ones my eyes lighted on. I worked on the book for nine months— throwing it across the room and letting it hang for a while— but I finally got it done. The result was The Cat in the Hat. It clocks in at 220 unique words, and to this day ranks as the second-most-selling book of Seuss’s career. The one book ahead of it? It’s Green Eggs and Ham, which uses just fifty words. All but one, anywhere, are one syllable. Seuss’s two most popular books are those in which he restricted himself the most: Simplicity brought success.


Published Writers in Pain Part II

Some time ago, probably after the release of my second novel, I wrote a post called Published Writers in Pain about the phenomenon of post-publication depression. Today I came across another quote on the subject from a 1985 Washington Post interview with John Fowles.

After you finish [writing a book], you are intensely depressed. It doesn’t much matter whether the reviews are good or not. You feel empty, a field lying fallow, and you must let it stay fallow for a while. You love a book when it’s being written. You are so close to it. You’re the only person who knows it and it’s still full of potential. You know you can improve it. Then, suddenly, there’s the dreadful day when you have the printed proof texts. You get a feeling of ‘That’s it. This is the final thing and I shan’t have the chance to change it.’ It’s a feeling of death, really.


Quote of the Day: Space for Imagination to Play Out

We endure in a society where the mainstream orthodoxy would like us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. One of the last great taboos is money and the associated economic system. If you consider our mono-currency as a societal tool imposed from the top down, it shapes and informs how we behave and the values we are expected to live by. In a way, it is like DNA; if we can change the DNA of our economy we could create new exchanges, values and social relations. We have become so used to this abstract construct that it is the water we swim in and the box we need to think out of. In order for people to start thinking that another world is possible we need to open up a space for imagination to play out. Art, games and play are some of the few remaining arenas available to engage in speculation about the future.

-Neil Farnan from an interview in Furtherfield on Utopoly, a version of the board game Monopoly that encourages players to imagine society based on values beyond the economic monoculture.

Whether You Write Or Not

As a professional writer, I am exposed to more than my fair share of literary journals, blogs and writers writing about writing. There is one common refrain that I find bothers me more and more as I continue in this profession. It is the idealization of “writer” as an identity. I encountered it today in the comments on Jaime Clark’s article on Literary Hub “Why I Quit Being a Writer.” Clark wrote about what he calls the “dissipation of (his) literary ambition.” Clark no longer feels driven to write novels, although apparently still feels driven enough to write an article or two.

When I was in college, I majored in theater, and had the notion that I was to be an actress. My drive for that career dissipated to the point that my current, introverted, self can’t imagine wanting to go on stage. What was once a drive is now the memory of a drive. People’s goals do change. There were a number of commenters, however, who replied with variants on “once a writer, always a writer.” “You are a writer whether you have anything to say or not.”

Well, no. Not really.

There are aspects of this point of view that are true. There are people who have an aptitude and desire to write and who will prioritize that above common sense things like earning a living wage. Sometimes a writer finds herself in a dry spell or in one of the almost constant career crises and needs a bit of encouragement to continue. What annoys me about the rhetoric of the writer as a (glorified) type of being is that it obscures the most important thing that a professional writer does– work. If you are a “writer” whether you write or not then what exactly does being a writer mean?

Years ago, I had what was to me an epiphany. After reading all of those books about finding your muse, books which called themselves guides to “creativity,” it dawned on me that the main aspect of the word “creativity” is “creation.” It is not “idea having” or “inspiration.” Those are part of the process, as are fallow periods, and churning out material that may not ever be used in its initial form. But to be creative is to create. Creating a literary work, whether a poem or a novel or a biography, is much more than being a special kind of person who has an artistic temperament and great ideas. It means revising. It means editing. It means being open to criticism. It means seeing the work through to publication. It means, in short, doing the work.

There are two problems I see with the blurring of creativity and inspiration and the notion of the writer as a personality type. The first is that it persuades a lot of people that their rough drafts and diaries do not need to be changed at all to be considered art. The second is that it devalues the work that professional writers do by making it somehow equivalent to those rough drafts and diaries. No wonder no one wants to pay those noble creatures who go about naturally churning out sonnets.

Creativity from Constraints

“When you’re given a limit and you’re given boundaries, sometimes creation is even better.”-David Hallberg

A few years ago, in my book Broke is Beautiful, I wrote about the role of constraint in creativity. I was reminded of it today while watching the video above (in which the ballet dancer David Hallberg is not constrained by a shirt being a shirt and wears it like a wig).

Let me share with you some of what I uncovered:

Dr. Patricia Stokes studied artistic innovators such as Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright and determined that contrary to common belief, it is not complete freedom that leads to creative innovation. Successful artists move forward within self-imposed restrictions. Stokes calls these constraints “barriers that lead to break-throughs.”

Stokes makes a distinction between the kinds of constraints that invite conformity, “operators in well-structured problems with single correct solutions, like directions to memorize, calculate exactly, or copy correctly… preclude the surprising and promote the expected.” Other types of structures and constrains, however, provide a foundation upon which a person can build and innovate…

For 10 years, Arnold M. Ludwig studied the lives of 1,004 men and women prominent in a variety of fields including art, music, science, sports, politics and business. He published the results in the 1995 book The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. As part of his study, Ludwig identified a “template for greatness.” Among the traits of exceptional people were a sense of physical vulnerability, and the existence of psychological “unease.” …

“Denying limitation or obsessing on it keeps us knotted up in fear,” wrote Laurence G. Boldt, author of Zen and the Art of Making a Living, “Aritsts play with limitation… There are only so many words in any language, but that doesn’t keep the poet from writing. There is only a certain range of color the eye can see, but this doesn’t keep the painter from painting. There are a limited number of notes that we can hear, but that doesn’t keep the composer from composing… Don’t spend your time worrying that someone else has forty-eight or sixty-four crayons. As you are, you are basically adequate to life.”

The Complexity of Creatives: The Case of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

WildeFor some time now I have been reading everything I can about Lord Alfred Douglas and by extension Oscar Wilde. (This is, of course, backwards to the order in which most people approach these two.) This is what, in my insular little word, constitutes fun.

I was reading yesterday a book called Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction by Angela Kingston. I quote here from the introduction:

In the space of twenty-three years– from his first foray into public life to his death in 1900- no less than thirty-seven discernible portraits of Wilde appeared in novels and short stories by his peers… His refusal to take a definite shape clearly left many contemporary authors unable to resist the temptation of molding him themselves and offering their satisfying ‘complete’ Oscar Wildes to a reading public consumed with curiosity about the elusive man behind the self-fashioner.

This is, of course, why so many contemporary writers take him on as a biographical subject. It is a wonderful challenge to try to find the topic sentence of him. Each depiction of Wilde whether in fiction or biography is the product of someone’s fascination with some aspect of the man and most likely with its tension with other aspects of him. Every biography is a relationship between the subject and another writer’s imagination. It is because it is so difficult to sum him up that writers keep coming at it from different angles.

Alfred Douglas was every bit as contradictory, perhaps even more so. This is what has fascinated me about him since I first encountered him by reading his letters to Shaw. He is a monarchist, a traditionalist, fond of rigid rules and unchanging structure and yet rebellious, and contemptuous of public opinion. He is as polite and charming as he is volatile and argumentative. Romantically he liked the traditionally “feminine” role of being pursued, courted and nurtured. Yet he also liked the traditionally “masculine” role and wanted to be strong and dominant. (In his time with Wilde he managed to exercise both sides by being nurtured and courted by Wilde while being dominant with rent boys.) He will lift his eyes and plead for sympathy like a hurt puppy and then lash out like a junk yard dog. In his letters with Shaw he manages to be an eternal child and also a cantankerous old man, nostalgic for old-fashioned ways.

To say that these contradictory forces resided uncomfortably in him (or in Wilde) would be wrong. He managed to live with all of these personality aspects just fine, thank you very much. It was other people who found the apparent contradictions difficult to live with. It is hard for one person to love equally the rebel and the conformist, the polite and the rude, the free spirit and the rigid, the eternal child and the old fuddy duddy, the masculine and the feminine. Perhaps it took someone as complex and multi-faceted as Wilde to appreciate (or at least put up with) all of those contradictions.

When writers say of either man “He was not arrogant, he was generous and kind,” they are telling a kind of truth and also  kind of lie. They were both arrogant, selfish, generous and kind.

After reading the introduction to the Kingston book, I remembered the book Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which I read probably 15 years ago or so. It stuck in my memory not only because it is one of the few books in which the author’s name is twice as long as the title. Csikszen… The author had done an extensive study of the personalities of creative people and he concluded that the one trait that made them different from average people (I hesitate to use the term “non-creative,” as everyone has the ability to imagine and create something) is their “complexity.”

By this I mean that hey show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes– instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’ Like the color white that includes all of the hues of the spectrum, they tend to bring together the entire range of human possibilities within themselves…creative persons definitely know both extremes and experience both with equal intensity and without inner conflict.

He goes on to highlight a few areas in particular in which artists and other professional creatives tend to differ from the general population.

1. They seem to have a strong does of eros and at the same time a certain spartan celibacy is also part of their makeup.

Douglas especially personified this going from a wildly promiscuous youth to complete celibacy (and denunciation of sexuality) in his later years.

2. They tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.

3. They are both playful and disciplined, responsible and irresponsible.

Wilde was the perfect example of this. He was a prolific, hard working writer, and he also had a huge capacity for play. Although Douglas was better known for play than work, he chose for his art form the sonnet, which is not written without focus and labor. He took this work very seriously. As an audience we focus much less on this side of him simply because we moderns don’t care all that much for sonnets and get bored when he starts to pontificate on them. What fascinates me about Douglas as an artist is how he managed to channel his volatile energy and emotion into the “deliberate cage” of the sonnet. (The words in quotes are from his Sonnet on the Sonnet.)

4. They alternate between imagination and fantasy and a rooted sense of reality.

5. They harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.

Thus you have Oscar Wilde begging Douglas to come to him when he has gone away to write, and then cursing him for taking his focus away from his work. This is a very typical writerly behavior.

6. They are remarkably humble and proud at the same time.

“Another way of expressing this duality,” Csiks… sigh, writes, “is t see it as a contrast between ambition and selflessness, or competition and cooperation.”  Thus both Wilde and Douglas came across to some observers as unforgivably arrogant and to others as generous and kind. Douglas, it must be said, had a bit more of the arrogance than the humility. (He was “…abnormally, damnably, touchingly conceited…” as the artist Max Beerbohm put it.)

7. They have a tendency toward androgyny.

That is to say, regardless of their sexuality, they are able (and desire to be) both dominant and submissive, nurtured and nurturer, object and objectifier, artist and artist’s muse. Sarah Parker wrote an interesting chapter on Alfred Douglas and his wife the poet Olive Cunstance in her book The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity. Cunstance was attracted to men with feminine qualities and seduced Douglas by sending him a picture of herself dressed as a boy. Because their initial courtship was carried out by post, he was able to imagine this figure and fall in love with the personality in the letters. He had never been courted and wooed by a woman, and was thrilled to discover he had a capacity to love a woman. In her book, Parker explores how the gender roles in the muse/artist relationship were originally reversed with Douglas serving as the object– the male muse and Cunstance as the artist, and that the poles flipped when they married and Douglas placed his wife in the role of muse. This, she argues, had a detrimental effect on Cunstance’s ability to produce work and on their marriage.

8. Creative people are both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.

“Being only traditional leaves the domain unchanged,” wrote the author of Creativity, “constantly taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as improvement.”

9. Creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.

This applies to Wilde, but not really to Douglas who was absolutely certain he was a poetic genius and loved to dish out criticism of other’s work but could not accept any criticism of his own.

10. Finally, the openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

“…research shows that artists and writers do have unusually high rates of psycopathology and addictions…Divergent thinking is often perceived as deviant by the majority, and so the creative person may feel very isolated and misunderstood. These occupational hazards do come with the territory, so to speak, and it is difficult to see how a person could be creative and at the same time insensitive to them.”

Thus, Csiksentmihalyi had found, creative people seek one another out. They seem to need to be in the company of others who share the same struggles and who value the same “divergent” things.

Wilde made something of a religion of something that is a default psychological setting for artists– that the purpose of life is to experience everything and express what you observe through art. There are always people who will be wired this way, and they generally find themselves in conflict with social structures built around ideals of commerce or social status. Artists must be “willing to subordinate their own personal comfort and advancement to the success of whatever project they are working on.” This puts them out of step. Artists require reassurance on a fairly regular basis that their self-imposed poverty and lack of security have some greater meaning. Wilde was able to provide this to young poets in spades, and that is why they surrounded him.

The muse/muse relationship that is formed when two artists fall in love is fascinating and wondrous. 














The Joys of Failure

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”-Robert Browning

Writers are constantly failing. By this I don’t mean that writers must face rejection on a regular basis, although we do. I don’t mean that it is hard to get published and hard to sell your books when you do, although this is true. What I mean is that writers never quite manage to create the work they believe themselves capable of creating. The story is never as fully or beautifully formed as it is in some deep part of the imagination.

You reach for the perfect synthesis of language and idea, the ideal way to invoke a story with these symbols on paper or screens. Sometimes you get tantalizngly close. You write something and the process is complete flow, you lose yourself. When you go back to edit and revise, you’re surprised to find that it speaks to you almost as much as it did as you were getting the words down. You know that you have given all you can give and written the best that you were capable of at that time. Yet there is always a nagging sense that it could have been better, that your best was not what you wanted it to be. A famous writer once said that novels are never finished, they are simply abandoned. You could keep revising forever. At some point you have to make the choice that it is done even though you know that there is more in you if you can only find it, if you can capture that flash of inspiration and have the skills to do it justice.

We writers don’t compare ourselves to average people. We compare ourselves to the people we read– to Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde or Dostoyevsky. When you make comparisons like that you’re bound to feel like a failure. That’s not a bad thing. It is the sense of failure more than anything else that spurs the artist on. If you’re completely satisfied with what you’ve already done there is no reason to push for more.

This is a short film featuring the ballet dancer David Hallberg.

Although he does not use the word “failure” Hallberg describes what I am talking about: the inspiration that comes from not achieving the ideal.

“…That’s what keeps me motivated as a dancer,” he says. “It attracts me to this art form. There is this level that you will never attain but you so desperately reach for. No other art form does that in the way ballet does.”

(That sentence sounds much more poetic, I now realize, when it is combined with the visual of his movement.)

Ballet has its own way of reaching for perfection and falling short, but every artist, within the bounds of his own form, aspires to attain a level that is always just beyond his grasp– the impossible dream, the unreachable star. When the muse whispers in your ear, she says, “Good try, but you failed. You can do better.”

When you experience that flash of lightning and you write something that you know has stretched your ability as a writer, when readers respond to it, it makes the years of work, the rejection and everything else that comes with this career worth it. That feeling lasts only for a moment because right away you begin to wonder, “Was that a fluke? Can I do that again? Can I do better? Is there more in me? How do I get back to that place, that moment, when it all flowed and my training kicked in and the book seemed to write itself?”

“It haunts me,” Hallberg says of such moments. It is haunting indeed.

More Goofing Off and Daydreaming: More Creative Thinking

“This can be one of the trickiest parts of being a writer, this need to fool around to be creative, and to be okay with that.” From her book A Year of Writing Dangerously.

In his post In Praise of Goofing Off, psychologist Dennis Palumbo notes, “Some people call it puttering, or screwing around, or just plain goofing off. Others, of a more kindly bent, call it day-dreaming. Kurt Vonnegut used the quaint old term ‘skylarking.’


“What I’m referring to, of course, is that well-known, rarely discussed but absolutely essential component of a successful creative person’s life — the down-time, when you’re seemingly not doing anything of consequence. Certainly not doing anything that pertains to that deadline you’re facing: the pitch meeting set for next week, the screenplay you’ve been toiling over, the important audition that’s pending.”

More Goofing Off and Daydreaming: More Creative Thinking