Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

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’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.

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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.

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This may be my favorite photo of all time, simply because it shows me taking a kind of risk I am not known for.  I have always been the person watching and encouraging other folks to be creative, to perform, to play with their own self-image, to risk being thought a little foolish for the sake of art and fun. I’m the promoter, the stage manager, the organizer but NEVER the front person. I don’t like to be the center of attention, and I have to admit part of it is because I’m afraid of making mistakes, of not being good at what I attempt. I worry about being perceived as foolish.

But this quote by Marilyn Monroe aptly describes the spirit of me donning orange wig and pink coat and stepping outside that fear once in awhile:

Imperfection is beauty; madness is genius and it is better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring. ~ Marilyn Monroe

You have to  risk  feeling a little ridiculous to be truly creative. 

What’s your version of an orange wig, pink coat moment?

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After attending several sessions of a fast-paced, fun open mic for creative ideas called Ignite Staunton recently, I started wondering how the demographic of this small town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia appears to have shifted from more traditional over 35 business types to a decidedly “hip” group of entrepreneurs interested in green, creative and grassroots business ideas.  Where did these folks come from and what does it mean for our local economy?  Why here?

Then I ran across this article on NPR “The Hipsterfication of America” and it totally made sense.  “Hipsters, after all, know how to adapt: how to make the cheap chic, the disheveled dishy, the peripheral preferable. A shaky, shabby economy is the perfect breeding ground for hipsters….Hipsterishness is a state of mind.”

So a room full of young ideas from every possible age group…presenters ranged from 10 years old to the AARP eligible…convinces me that the hipster state of mind has totally arrived in this tiny community.  Why? It used to be that odd, creative minds fled small town America’s scrutiny for the anonymity and comraderie of other weirdos in the big city.  What’s different here?

My theory is that despite its reputation for being a  little pocket of Southern conservatism, Staunton has always embraced creativity and the arts.  It’s not just a charming historic town.  It is a place willing to take creative risks, to accept quirkiness.  And despite the usual obstacles and threads of old power getting in the way at times, there’s a local state of mind that embraces innovation as the key to surviving and thriving.  And the hipsters feel it.

The hipsters have arrived, and they are heating things up.   Keep your eye on Staunton, it’s slowly lighting up the Valley.

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Stuck for material?  Here are four minutes chock full of inspiration.  It’s the moments that hold the creative spark.  Grab some more ideas from Kindling: Ideas to Fire You Up.

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Are there moments of high lucidity while swimming in a big mud puddle of stress and disaster?  Yep, they’re there, just have to shift your perspective and remember from manure amazing flowers grow.  A great reminder from Create and Connect.

When shit hits the fan can we still be creative?


hitsthefan Pictures, Images and Photos

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