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I have written a lot about living in a small Virginia town filled with beautifully restored architecture, about how different it feels to live in an environment steeped with a sense of history versus the clean-swept feel of the more modern cities I’ve lived.  There are rich stories that go along with each place here, the telling of which are supported by a local cultural emphasis on the importance of maintaining and sharing the beauty of what has been in order to nurture what is—our economy, our community, our individual lives.

In thinking about the importance of the stories as I have retooled my publicity and marketing business, I realized I have had a misperception about  the role history really  plays in our lives.  The study of history has always seemed a factual, academic pursuit rather than a creative one to me, like accounting or record-keeping.  Sure, artful presentation of history offers some creative outlet, but the content seems fixed by the rules of reporting. But when I read the following statement about memory and creativity describing a conference on body, memory, creativity and the art , my perception changed radically:

“Memory and creativity can be conceived as complementary dimensions of embodied perception and agency, where “memory” points to the acquired competencies of the body (the “I can”), both tacit and conscious, and creativity points to the contribution of embodied understanding and skills in carrying out artistic, intellectual and other tasks in original and interesting ways.”    (Body, Memory and Creativity in the Arts)

Substitute history for memory in this concept and what you get is a new sense of how the past interfaces with creativity on a more collective level.  By viewing history as the “acquired competencies” of a community or society, creativity exhibited by a group can be seen as an appreciation and understanding of our “stories” (what we are capable of) and a combined effort to stretch beyond capability to explore potential.  By conceiving history and creativity as complementary dimensions, problem-solving and innovation become effortless as the group connects knowledge with experimentation to create new ways of being and doing.

I think I finally get the history connection. Our stories are not just important because they show us what we can do and help us avoid repeating mistakes.  They are vital because they allow us to turn our dreams into reality.

Here’s acclaimed producer Ken Burns on history and creativity:

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I haven’t been sleeping well for a few months.  A new business endeavor, lots of appointments, the anxiety of uncertainty. Not an unusual plight these days–we all seem overstressed and overstimulated no matter what healthy coping or defusing mechanisms we manage to cultivate.  Anxiety and restlessness is often a fact of life.  But some of us seem even more sensitive and easily overwhelmed than others, dancing a fine line between being animated by creative energy or overloaded with sensations and ideas that can’t be released or executed.  For me, my long wakeful nights are the result of a mind over-filled with sensations and plans that I cannot shut off.

The catch phrase for this “condition” is high sensitivity, which is characterized by a finely tuned nervous system that takes in more of the subtleties of the environment than the rest of the population.  Research seems to show this is an inherited trait possessed by 15-20% of the population.

Learning to accept sensitivity as one of the avenues to creativity without being overwhelmed by the volume and speed of what’s coming at you (especially in today’s information and stimulation-rich world) is perhaps the key to being a successful, rather than an anxious and depressed creative individual. Think you fit the profile? Take a self-test.

More articles about High Sensitivity Personality at www.highlysensitive.org and A Lofty Existence and this great piece from Psychology Today, Sense and Sensitivity.

Creativity and Memory

I’ve been observing the creative process in others for some time now, always curious how the most prolific and profound among us manage to keep creating meaningful projects again and again.  Do they have a different chip in their brain?  Do they see the world through some other lens? Having done a great deal of reading about memory recently, it occurs to me that perhaps one of the things these folks intuitively understand is how our brains collect sensory input, then encode and retrieve it as memory.  They know to store what may seem like unrelated or unimportant data at the time in such a way that they can retrieve and connect the dots later, as more pertinent information appears.

MY brain collage by *jessemayberry on deviantART

It may be that consistently creative people however, not only store and process memory better, but understand and accept that memory and perception are constantly changing with the introduction of new experiences. Daniel L. Schacter points out in his fascinating 1996 book Searching for Memory that memory is the “complex constructions built from multiple contributors.” Schacter likens memory to the fragments and elusive remnants used to create a collage.  We are constantly integrating new information and experiences into our mental collages.

Establishing a durable memory of an experience depends on thoroughly encoding the occurrence by associating it with something that already exists in memory. We store experiences based on a number of factors—what we were seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling or thinking at the time for instance—then are able to retrieve the memory later when that encoding cue is introduced.  In most cases “successful recall depends heavily on the availability of appropriate retrieval cues.”

The most creative among us realize that while our perceptions and understanding of the world and our place in it depend on the complex workings of memory, memory itself is a shifting collage that is constantly incorporating new into old.  No doubt, creativity depends on being able to successfully recall old experiences when presented with the appropriate cues, yet also on staying open and receptive to what emerges in the present.  Releasing preconceived notions about memory as a stored picture of an experience or event and understanding it as an ever-changing process may be the key.

Daniel Schacter and Benedict Carey discuss memory encoding and retrieval on the Charlie Rose Show.

Jeff Hawkins explains why intelligence is based on memory and prediction, not behavior.  Which leads me to these questions…If intelligence is the ability to remember and be able to predict what will happen next, then is creativity the ability let go of predictions (preconceived notions) and open to all the other possibilities?  Is creativity an anti-prediction mechanism that keeps the brain from insisting that something that looks and feels the same as a previous experience is absolutely the same (the old looks like a duck, quacks like a duck syndrome?)?

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.   ~Henry David Thoreau

As summer solstice came and went last week, I remembered a  sweat lodge  I participated in a couple years ago that offered up a new theory for my curiosity over why some creative people are successful and others are not.

During the sweat I kept seeing the symbol of the beaver, which seems so appropriately connected to the question that has puzzled me–why do some creative minds manage to build foundations under their dreams while other very deeply creative souls trudge through life never quite touching the ground nor managing to share their talents with all the folks that would benefit most?  Is it just fate that some find the tools and help they need to anchor their air castles and others remain frustrated in their attempts?

AnimalSymbolismBeaver

The beaver symbol offered me a clue. A beaver dreams a dream and then methodically coaxes it to reality. He sees and engineers a dam that can change the course of river, believes it can happen and gets to work making it real. He doesn’t hear the voices that say one beaver can’t change the course of a river. He just dreams it and gets to work. But it takes time, diligence and patience. And it takes never losing sight of the dream.

But what strikes me as the most important lesson of this animal totem, is that the beaver does what he does with the intention of building something for everyone. Sans ego, the beaver isn’t looking for accolades or a monument to his enormous talent as an engineer; he’s building safety and security for his community. He’s contributing what he’s best at—dreaming and then doing—for the betterment of the group. The beaver instinctively knows how to balance creative dreaming with egoless doing for the benefit of all. It’s his nature.

Granted in the human realms of creative dreaming, there tend to be dreamers and doers, with few of us blessed with both gifts of beaver-like vision and persistence. And we have egos that will float the most amazing creative ideas out into the world like clusters of beautiful mansion-making sticks and leaves and floss in the hopes that someone will notice what great visionaries we are.  There’s a disconnect between dreaming and doing for many, and the easy way out is often to lament that creativity is neither honored or rewarded.

Somehow the example of the beaver tells me that what really keeps all those air castles adrift is the idea that there will be personal rewards for simply being creative or things will just happen by having a dream. Perhaps the wisdom of the beaver tells us that in order for our internal creativity to become a shared reality, we must dream outside our egos and be willing to build one stick at a time. Air castles (or floating beaver lodges) are a start, but it’s creative doing, which inherently understands the importance of community, diligence and patience,  that will turn creative dreams to reality.  Moving from the vision to action back to the vision again and again is the only way to turn creative dreams into reality.

Sand Hill Cranes

I stalked this pair of sandhill cranes one afternoon a few years ago near my old home in Florida, trying to get a good closeup of the parent and offspring (anyone know the parenting habits of cranes?) together.  They did a little dance with me, aware but tolerant of my presence as long as I didn’t get too close.  It dragged on for nearly an hour, the circling and repositioning, but really, the best shots I got were somewhere in the beginning, long before my ego got involved in getting the “perfect” picture.  As a result, I was dissatisfied with what I had.  If I had paid closer attention to what the moment was giving me, my experience might have been completely different.  I could have gotten myself out of the way.

Creativity is that same dance.  It’s painful when what you envision doesn’t materialize–when the song or the poem or the painting seem to be missing something or feel like they are grinding to an unsatisfactory place.  It’s tempting to circle and fret and take a million shots.  Tweak and revise and go again and again.  But truly creative people believe in what they are doing enough to sometimes simply sit with it, hold the idea softly and let the process unfold.  Most of the time it’s just about leaving well-enough alone and allowing the art or music or word to find its own voice.  It’s about getting ourselves and our ideas of success or beauty or perfection out of the way.  It’s about opening to all the possibilities rather than stubbornly demanding that THIS ONE is going to work no matter what. Creativity is about patience not pushing.  My favorite guru Pema Chodron puts it like this:

“Patience means allowing things to unfold at their own speed rather than jumping in with your habitual response to either pain or pleasure. ”

So even though it was painful to think there were better shots of those beautiful cranes to be had and I didn’t get them, no doubt my insistence on trying to force the moment let something else beautiful slide right by me.

Next time I’ll let the birds call the shots.

2-flannelcat-paisley-w

Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.
Samuel Johnson

I discovered this curious creature on my mimosa tree one spring day a few years ago.  At first I thought it might be a pod, a nest or a cocoon of some sort.  In the years I have spent exploring nature both in the woods and in the confines of my garden I have seen many ingenious delivery mechanisms for seed and larvae.  Something told me not to touch this furry little bubble though, in spite of it looking rather soft and inviting. Upon carefully twisting the branch to look at the underside, it revealed itself to be a caterpillar.

When I investigated the critter further, I determined it was the caterpillar of the Southern Flannel Moth Caterpillar – Megalopyge opercularis, also known as a Puss Cat or Flannel Cat.  It’s a variety of stinging caterpillars that can leave a nasty rash and painful sting, or even cause a dangerous reaction in people with histories of asthma or allergies.

So when I read the quote from Johnson about curiosity being the first and last passion, I thought of the dangers and rewards of being a curious soul.  Where does curiosity take us?  To the peaks and valleys, to places that test and reward, to new understandings and painful dead ends.  It stretches our perceptions in every direction.

Would this “cat” have killed my curiosity about him if I had touched him?  Probably not, but I dare say it would have been one of those painful stretches of perception!