Tag Archives: creativity

Cactus…


“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. To ”Why am I here?” To uselessness. It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.” Enid Bagnold

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Patterns, intelligence and the present

In response to a post over at Cafe Philos, I commented that:

“I think one of the crucial parts of intelligence is the ability to make links and detect patterns – which is vital for experiencing the present as well as predicting the future .”

Paul responded:

“I’m very curious about what you said there. Would you elaborate please on how making links and detecting patterns is vital for experiencing the present?”

And as often happens when someone asks you to elaborate on something you’ve said, I was to begin with stumped to know how to explain what I meant, and took a while to work my way through to it. But here, Paul, is my answer:

Perhaps the best place to start is a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but I found it a fascinating book. One of the key points it makes is that the way we perceive the world around us, normally, is not by seeing shapes and lines, but immediately interpreting those shapes and lines as things. Which isn’t very useful if you want to learn to draw… so the book encourages us to learn to look without interpreting. A fascinating and challenging exercise, that shows how fundamental making connections and interpretations is to our perception of reality. (A similar effect comes from trying to do a mindfulness meditation, where we just notice sensations without attaching any interpretation to them.)

If you want to draw accurately, you need to focus on the detail of what you are actually seeing, not what you think you see. But mostly we don’t have the time or the need to focus on detail – we need to get a quick gist of the forest. I look out of the window now and I see a hillside covered in houses. If I focus, I can see the red and black and green colours that make up those houses – the shadows and perspectives that make me see them as on a hill. And would help me draw them. But mostly all I need is to know, ah, there are houses on that hill.

So as we watch people and things I feel we unconsciously look out for patterns – something as simple as the cadence of someone’s speech, or as complex as a personality trait. Visual patterns – verbal patterns. We can’t process the details individually, so we have to find some way ofrelating to them as a pattern. Like a computer’s zip utility – that looks for repeated sequences of characters that can be captured more simply. Or, as a former music teacher used to say, “don’t listen to the notes, listen to the music”.

But that quote also brings out the fact that what we look for is more than a mechanical pattern. The patterns we find often have a deeper meaning than the details. Emergent properties. We not only look for patterns in the present, but with things in our memories… so I see a poorly built house and remember what it is like to be in a house like that, and a little bit of that remembered discomfort sneaks into my perception.

Let me give you an example to show how this shapes your present. I imagine there’s a cup of coffee (half empty, half full or steaming hot and ready to drink;)) somewhere near your computer right now. Your perception of that cup of coffee is shaped by your associations with coffee, your memory of how long ago you made it, where you got the cup from, the colour and texture…. all these things brought together shape your experience of that cup. If you forgot those associations, or were someone else who had different associations, it would be a different experience.

It’s like every single thing that we experience is the centre of a kaleidoscope of associations. It’s true of simple objects – but even more so of people. People are even more resonant with links and memories – memories we have of those people themselves and of others that were similar in some way.

By contrast, imagine being an amnesiac, or someone who couldn’t make associations. You’d be experiencing the world in black and white, compared to our normal technicolour! Indeed some descriptions of autism I have come across suggest it is this inability to reduce detail to comprehensible pattern that makes the world so difficult for an autistic person to process.

For me that complexity is an intrinsic part of our perception of the present, though so instinctive that we normally don’t notice.

To go beyond that, then, to link it to intelligence… Firstly, think of a standard IQ test – so many of the tests, whether verbal, numerical or patterns, are about detecting patterns and then applying that pattern. To decide what is the next number or pattern in the sequence, or the word that is to x as y is to z, we must find the pattern that we have been given. Once we have found that, the next step is easy.

I also feel that this sort of pattern-making is crucial for problem-solving. To apply what has been learnt in one situation to another is often the best way to make a breakthrough.

Making links is also vital for creativity – particularly when they’re unlikely links. Metaphor. Imagery. Association.

I suppose what I come down to is that the more intelligent we are, the more patterns we perceive, and the richer our perceptual world becomes. I’m not necessarily talking about a cultivated, educated intelligence here – education can often limit us to seeing a certain set of patterns, where a spontaneous intelligence can see a wider range. But the ability to interpret, see patterns, and make links, is for me a vital part of our connection with the world and of our existence as intelligent beings.

Does that answer your question, Paul?

(the beautiful photo is by James P Blair and is included in National Geographic’s gallery Patterns in Nature)

Creativity – a bout-rime sonnet

Something inside the human yearns to be visible,
Whether as a diva lime-lit on the stage,
Or a writer proud to publish her scribble.
Something to show when we arrive at old age,

A souvenir of the lives we have been touching.
Yet the words and sounds slip from our fingers,
Revealing as cliched the phrases we thought fetching,
Untamed is the symmetry of our mind’s tigers,

Becoming too self-critical is the ultimate buzzkill.
As a child it was easier – an effortless joy ride,
Yet the words flow harder as age plunges downhill.
Still, sometimes we catch again the muse’s high tide,

And our pen becomes a perspicuous harpoon,
Capturing the essence of life’s high noon.

This is a bout-rime – the last words of each line are derived from a list provided by Christine at Read Write Poem, who explains that:

This is a writing game, started in France as a joke in the seventeenth century, and popularized in England during the Victorian era. The game is a collaboration between poets. One poet chooses the end words for the sonnet, and everyone writes a sonnet using those words. I’m including two sets of end words for you, a rhyming set and a non-rhyming set for those who eschew rhyme.

The caveat is to use each word in the same order, as an end word, and to only write fourteen lines. Those are the rules of the game!

Rhyming end words: visible, stage, scribble, old age, touching, fingers, fetching, tigers, buzzkill, joy ride, downhill, high tide, harpoon, high noon.

Some of the end words fitted rather more easily than others, but I think I managed to fit them all in reasonably smoothly in the end!

Telling an old story

Project 365 Day 11: Once Upon a Time...

Reading recent posts, it occurs to me that regular readers of this blog could be forgiven for think that I am still obsessed with my ex and having real difficulty moving on. Which is strange for me, because my life is very full with other things, and there are days when I don’t think about him at all. And yet somehow most of the entries on this blog are in some way related to our relationship. Even when given different and challenging prompts for poems, somehow the same story seems to keep recurring… I think there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, one of my original reasons for starting to write, and starting to write this blog specifically, was to give myself the opportunity to express the feelings that, because of his silence, I had been unable to express to him. Somehow to be able to express these feelings publicly and permanently has had a really healing effect – probably much more effective than expressing them to him would have been! This blog is the place where I express my thoughts about this relationship. In many posts, I have expressed some pain, or anger, or fear, and in the process taken another step towards healing it. They’re not painful emotions any more. But if I didn’t write about these things, I would be denying emotions that are part of my journey.

But I think there’s a more important reason.  What I have experienced in the last year has been an intense and powerful personal version of a universal human story. And like so many poets and writers and singers before me, it seems a neverending source of inspiration for creativity. (Judging by page views and comments, people also seem to be most interested in my posts about this relationship, which again says something.)

And I also hope that what I write can be helpful and inspiring for others. I am so vividly aware of how much I have learnt from this relationship and its painful ending, and how much stronger I am as a result of what I have been through. I hope that through my writing, and my songwriting, I can reach out to people and encourage them to see just how brilliant the light at the end of their own dark tunnels can be. 

The creative brain

“The scans imply that there is a very consistent pattern of brain activity linked to creativity: a pattern of heightened senses and self-expression with a lack of conscious control.”

This intriguing combination of factors is quoted in a fascinating article over at Not exactly rocket science on what happens in the brain of a musician who is improvising.

Not perhaps surprising, but it’s somehow satisfying to have confirmation of some of the tips for people trying to write:  pay attention to the world around you and to yourself and your own experience. And then switch off the bit of your brain that blocks inappropriate behaviours and the bit involved in planning and methodical thinking…. and wait and see what happens!

I wonder what they’d get if they scanned the brains of writers experiencing writer’s block – probably hyperstimulation of the controlling and censoring bits!

Creativity and constraints

Creating is a strange process. Something that holds you back from creating something one day can actually be a huge spur to creativity, once you get past being held back.

I’ve always felt that being a rather incompetent pianist was a real disadvantage in composing songs. It rather restricted the mood of what I was writing – so I could write slow pieces with delicate textures, but not wild and dramatic outpourings of notes. Not that I wouldn’t have liked the wild and dramatic, but I just would never have been able to get my fingers round the notes, even with the help of multi-layer recording!

Anyway, I finally decided that I want and need to write some songs, and that my piano skills will have to do! I’ve been working on one song which is slow and delicate, and I can play the accompaniment myself but I would also really like to set a poem that I wrote a few days ago called heartsong. Which is wild and passionate – about harps and wind and song, and I knew my piano skills aren’t up to composing the sort of music I want to write on their own.

So I needed to get some ideas from somewhere to make up for my inability to play the piano well enough. In a very short time my research came up with: the true aeolian harp (i.e. a wind harp), Chopin’s Etude Op25 no 1 (called the Aeolian harp), a piece by Henry Cowell called Aeolian harp which involves sweeping the hands directly across the piano strings, and the aeolian mode.

So much inspiration! At the moment the Chopin seems to be perfect for the mood of what I want to write, so I want to see how I can draw on the elements of it that I love in my own piece. I have found the midi files and the sheet music, but it’s still very challenging to start messing around with a masterpiece!

If that doesn’t work I’d be really interested to try something involving stroking the piano strings directly – even a pianist as incompetent as me can do that!

Here’s a gorgeous recording of the Chopin:

Taking a risk – in singing

A few days ago I wrote about how surviving a very personal rejection made me much more confident in expressing my own truth (taking a risk). I also wrote about my fears about contemplating a professional career as a singer (creativity, confidence and love).

Today I was amazed by the way these two issues came together in a singing lesson. (Not from my regular singing teacher, who’s not around much at the moment, but one of her former students, whose doing very well at present!) Essentially her approach was to focus on one very specific sensation in the cheekbones, and follow that sensation, allowing the rest of the body to be relaxed and responsive. And not to manufacture or influence the sound in any way.

It’s really hard, because up until the last 2 years I’d been doing all sorts of little tricks to make the voice come out the way I wanted. But the intervention actually gets in the way of the full resonance of the voice. It makes the voice much more “produced”, and less immediate and intimate.

I’ve been working to get rid of all the little tricks and tensions – but every time I felt a little nervous about a note, or wanted a phrase to come out a particular way, they would creep straight back in, and I’d lose more than I gained. A frustrating process.

Anyway, towards the end of the lesson the teacher said that what I really needed now was to own my voice. To dare to reveal it the way it is. To stop tweaking and listening and interfering. To let go of expectations of what sound I want to produce, and just let my body sing the way it knows best.

And so, in effect, to present my authentic voice – as I had been learning the confidence to be my authentic self.

I’d been thinking that the break-up, in stopping me singing for a few months, had really got in the way of my professional aspirations. But the break up also taught me some important lessons about confidence and trust in myself, and above all shown me that I can survive being rejected. I’ve taken a real step forward in applying that confidence to my life. I want to see if I can now apply it to my singing.

Rejections come thick and fast in the early stages of being a professional singer, and some people never get beyond that stage. Having your voice and performance rejected by a panel of auditioners, often without any explanation, is painful, because both voice and performance are very personal.

But I have survived a rejection of me on a deeply personal level, at the hands of an intimate and trusted lover. Why should I be afraid of being rejected as a singer by an audition panel of strangers?