Collaboration is all the rage. Everyone’s talking about its importance and searching for ways to do it more effectively—not only within organisations but across government, education, and industry sectors.
Recent insight into neuroscience tells us that the brain is a social organ. In a concise YouTube video, Louis Cozolino, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Pepperdine University, says that the human brain evolved to connect with other brains and that we create an internal model of the experience of those we come into contact with. Good managers intuitively understand this. They concentrate on team-building and foster collaborative workplaces. In fact, many offices are now designed without walls as vast open areas so that employees may interact freely. The ‘team’ is now centre-stage in many organisational structures. More and more, disparate and far-flung groups are asked to communicate, cooperate, work together better.
As much as the Western world values individuality, there has been a huge shift in recent decades away from what an individual might accomplish in isolation towards what groups of talented people might accomplish by pooling their knowledge, talents, insights and energy. This shift makes perfect sense in an increasingly hyperkinetic world that relies on faster, smarter technologies.
It’s worth considering, however, that we may have overshot the mark. There are times, in spite of the brain being a social organ, when collaboration is distinctly brain-unfriendly.
Emotions are contagious
Because we create an internal model of the experience of those we encounter, teams can be hijacked by negative members, affecting productivity and morale. In an article for HBR Tony Schwartz, says the emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders. Negative emotions spread like wildfire and they’re highly toxic.
But there is something subtler at play. People are drawn to outgoing, dynamic personalities. The one who speaks the most is generally seen to be most intelligent. According to Susan Cain in an interview for Scientific American, we’re such social animals, we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realizing we’re doing it. The result is that if we are always working in groups or with groups in mind, certain types will dominate and quieter voices will be less likely to be heard.
Introvert v Extrovert
While the world is becoming more extroverted, the ratio of introverts to extroverts remains relatively steady, about one in four. These different personality types perform best in opposite circumstances and environments. According to many of the studies Cain cites in her book, introverted personalities are feeling increasingly stressed in a workplaces that are becoming less suitable to their working styles.
The greater the emphasis is on collaboration, the more likely the contributions of these workers, many of whom work best alone, will be overlooked—or perhaps not be generated in the first place.
Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a real need for dynamic leaders who can take a good idea and hit the ground running. But without that good idea in the first place, there is nothing to innovate. We know from neuroscience that creativity requires periods of quiet reflection.
Offices without borders
The current focus on collaboration, adaptation, and innovation has brought about fundamental changes to the way the office looks. The rigid ‘cube farm’ of the 1990s has lost its foothold to flexible offices that encourage employees to move freely within the space.
There is a downside, however. Proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have a spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the latest television hit or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.
Peter Wilson, the chairman and national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute, says:
There is no doubt the ‘jam the most number of people into a square metre’ approach, which was the style in the 1990s and a good part of the early millennium, has gone. It was associated with quite significant morale and productivity drops. The new wave of innovation is about activities for workers such as socialising, eating and locating themselves in all manner of different environments while they work.
The activity-based workplace is an environment with a range of different zones that support collaborative tasks and work that needs to be more contemplative, something that aligns with what we’re learning about the brain.
This new workplace design relies on cutting-edge technology to tie it all together. But creating a shiny, high-tech environment doesn’t necessarily foster better ideas or enhance collaboration.
A study undertaken by Ann Majchrzak at USC demonstrates the relationship of the physical work environment to work process. Her three-year research effort revealed that companies that reengineered their business processes, making workers more interdependent, and then supported these work processes with open, collaborative environments realized productivity increases up to a whopping 440%.
With statistics like this, many organisations have jumped on the bandwagon only to discover that placing workers in these fancy open environments does not mean they will collaborate. The key to achieving positive results is actually found in attending to work process first and then ensuring that the physical environment and the work process complement rather than compete with each other.
Employers are still in the experimentation phase as to whether these new trends will actually work in the office.
Cain is doubtful. She draws on research to argue that the modern office has been designed exclusively for extroverted characters who thrive on the atmosphere. In contrast, open-plan office design has been a productivity disaster for quieter employees.
“If solitude is an important key to creativity, we might all want to develop a taste for it,” she argues in Quiet.
“You think we’d want to teach our kids to work independently. That we’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy. Yet increasingly we do just the opposite.”
As she terms it, the “new groupthink” places a burdensome emphasis on teamwork, nearly all of the time. In her estimation, up to 70 per cent of employees in the US spend their working day in open-plan offices of some description. The question is: Just what does this mean for creativity?
The creative process
In a recent article on innovation and the importance of collaboration, Phillip Micallef, the former executive chairman of MCA and former CEO of Malta Enterprise, makes the case for innovation being an increasingly “collaborative pursuit that runs across firms, countries and sectors”. He argues further that
successful innovation occurs through an “innovative system”, linking together the ideas, technology, finance and production networks needed to successfully develop new ideas and methods and then bring them to scale in a particular industry sector. [It] thrives through cross-cutting networks, where ideas can spread rapidly and be tested in practice by many users.
Micallef makes a distinction between two areas of innovation that go hand-in-hand. He argues that innovation is often equated with investing more in research to create knowledge, but that true innovation requires the application of that knowledge in new ways that create value. While he is absolutely correct in noting the importance of new knowledge, placing the emphasis on its application—the easy part—comes at the expense of new and innovative ideas being generated in the first place.
Cain’s work supports the importance of solitude to creativity. Writing for The New York Times, Cain states that “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic.”She offers an explanation for these findings: Introverts are comfortable working alone—and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. She sites an observation by psychologist Hans Eysenck who claimed that introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”
Architects know that triangles make a structure sound. Good managers know that knowledge management and knowledge transformation require three key components. As Harold Jarche, an expert in innovation, states in a recent article, there are three types of specialists none of whom can succeed in isolation:
- The true genius: “a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation.” By themselves they are misunderstood.
- A thought leader: “a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad.” By themselves they are unsatisfied.
- The integrator: “a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people.” By themselves they are ignored.
Jarche argues that a diversity of talents is necessary for true innovation. If one side of the ‘talent triangle’ is missing, the strength of the idea will not be best supported—indeed, the idea may never originate at all.
Acknowledging that different personality types have different roles to play and allowing each the appropriate environment to utilise their talents is critical for true innovation. There are times when we can and should collaborate productively and times when we should be wise enough to leave each other alone.
This article first appeared in June 2013 in Brainwaves for Leaders.
Readers who enjoyed Michael Cunningham’s prize winning novel The Hours are in for a treat. By Nightfall is even better. With craftsmanship both delicate and powerful, Cunningham grapples with happiness: how we create meaning and reconcile the ravages of time.
As an adolescent, Peter Harris sits on a beach at sunset and experiences a transcendent moment when sexual longing, the beauty of youth, and sibling rivalry blur and merge, becoming a fixed constellation of ideas that will shadow his life. In that moment, Peter is overtaken by the tingling sensation of a divine presence, something he will later call beauty.
Many years on, this experience haunts a week in Peter’s life. At forty-four, he’s a successful New York art dealer, long married to the calm, lovely Rebecca and living comfortably in a lavish Soho loft. Then, Rebecca’s brother Mizzy arrives unexpectedly and becomes a catalyst for crisis. Peter imagines another life in which art is not a business and love is always heightened. He spends troubled days and nights struggling with desire, nostalgia and loyalty. Rebecca faces her own trial, something Peter fails to imagine; when he learns of it, all his fantasies come crashing down.
Cunningham is a master of interiority, atomizing moments to reveal their full psychological gravidity. What Peter and Rebecca experience is something that happens in all marriages. Contentment dulls while the tingling promises of passion, beauty, youth allure. Cunningham suggests the luckiest among us recognise these are transient temptations, that the real art of life is change itself.
Angry Penguins, Fakes, and Other Monsters
What we write, like what we do, can take on a life of its own. And there are a lot of ways it can get out of control. I recently saw the DVD of Capote, a movie about writing and about the cost of being a writer. In the epilogue to the movie, before the final credits, we learn that In Cold Blood was Truman Capote’s greatest book and that it was also his last. He had the literary genius to recognize that ‘mining’ the story of Perry Smith, a cold-blooded killer awaiting execution, would make for a compelling narrative. What he couldn’t predict was that it would also change the way fictional accounts of real events would be written—and read. What he couldn’t imagine was that he would never again be able to live with himself for betraying Smith’s trust for the ‘story’. The movie shows an artist fracturing before our eyes and, in his place, we discover a sort of Frankenstein-like figure: pitiable, lost, doomed. A few short years later, Capote was to die of alcohol-related illness.
Helen Garner got it right when she wrote in one of her essays: “Writers will insist on writing about everything. We are voracious monsters, ravening beasts who roam the world seeking whom and what we may devour. There’s hardly a corner or cranny of life that hasn’t been zeroed in on, exposed to the light and relentlessly verbalised by some maniac with a biro and a keyboard.”
A couple of years ago on a trip to Melbourne, I arranged to meet B.D., a friend who had recently returned to that fabled city from what he considered to be the dreary exile of Brisbane. The trip happened to coincide with the re-opening of the Gallery and we decided to meet there. With sparkling eyes and a big hug, the first thing he said was: “It’s like I’d never left Melbourne. All those years in Brisbane seem like a long weekend.”
We wandered around the Gallery, chatting, catching up, stopping for a moment before the Jackson Pollack painting, Blue Poles. “It’s odd,” I said. “There is a bench here as if they expect crowds to sit in contemplation, yet the gallery is empty.” B.D. told me of the public outcry at their purchase. In 1973, the Gallery purchased the 1952 painting for $2 million, which was then the highest price paid for a contemporary artwork. “I suppose the bench is an artefact of the protest,” B.D. mused. “Something they put there to placate the public, to suggest its value, to create the illusion that the public would eventually get its money’s worth.”
We moved on to the Gallery café, where I quickly became intoxicated on too many strong coffees. I chattered on, enthusing about “the sleek look of the Gallery, how absolutely lovely it was to have a weekend away, how fascinating I found public outcries—indeed, how I would so like to write a series of one-act plays about them, isn’t that a great idea?” (I have since cut back on coffee and never have written any such plays, but even sober, I still think it’s a good idea). “If you think that’s interesting,” B.D. said, pausing to sip the last of his flat white and raising an eyebrow, “let me tell you about Ern Malley.”
Most Australians grew up hearing about this great literary hoax and the outcry surrounding it, but it was new to me, and I found it delightful. I’ve thought about it often since that conversation and even did a little research. Ern Malley has his own website after all (http://www.ernmalley.com), which I suppose shouldn’t be so surprising given his larger than life dimensions. For anyone who’s forgotten, Malley’s creators, two bored young soldiers, decided to prank an old University mate. Max Harris just happened to be the editor of Angry Penguins, a literary journal the hoaxers considered to be pretentious, self-glorifying, and a bit ridiculous.
One lazy, wet Saturday afternoon, they sat down to write poetry according to a few explicit rules: there must be no coherent theme; no care was to be taken with verse technique; and they must only use phrases from the books that happened to be on the desk at the time (which included a military manual on mosquito control). The two later described the result as a “literary experiment”, “a wonderful jape!”, “a free association” test”, “utterly devoid of any literary merit as poetry”, simply “a grab-bag of plagiarised lines and snippets of bad verse.” Harold Stewart and James McAuley fabricated the poems the way Frankenstein was put together, without method or thought, but merely combining bits and pieces that were lying around.
Much later, they confessed: “Having completed the poems, we wrote a very pretentious and meaningless Preface and Statement, which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based. Then we elaborated the details of the poet’s life. This took more time than the composition of his Works.” Thus Ern Malley was born.
Peter Carey resurrects the Ern Malley ‘affair’ in his novel, My Life as a Fake. His version of the story results in a provocative, compelling and mysterious novel—almost a detective fiction—about layers of literary creation, about literature and reputation and the creative process itself. Setting the story within the dark framework of such a hoax, his novel explores how literary creation can take on a life of its own and lead to unexpected and dangerous outcomes.
My Life as a Fake is about the tension between truth and fiction. It shifts between seeing first one and then the other as the monster of the story. Truth is shown “dismembered and scattered” in the dead figure of Chubb, whose “substance, the blood that had coursed through his heart” is splattered over Sarah, the story’s narrator.
Carey most definitely has monsters on his mind. The novel opens with a quote by Mary Shelley. Later, the narrator recalls Milton’s fascination for Satan at the expense of the epic’s ‘hero’. And McCorkle’s journal, his work of genius, is described in various passages as though it were a living thing, with descriptive words like “rough and slippery”, and as a creature having “foreign stippled skin” and “claws”. When Chubb gives it to Sarah, she observes, “…when he laid his square hand on it and his cracked nails and liver spots made contact with its weathered skin, both book and hand seemed to be related parts of the same creature.”
Truth and fiction become intertwined, interchangeable. Literary reputation is called into question. At every level, life insinuates itself into literature, and literature insinuates itself into life.
There is a ‘twinning’ going on. There is the person who writes. Someone much like you and me. Someone who sleeps, eats, works, gets bored, worries, cooks, shops, reads to his children, laughs, and gets headaches. And there is the ‘author’. This is someone who exists as a separate being on a higher plane. We think of him as descending occasionally to launch books or give interviews; otherwise, he exists in a place apart from the rest of us, breathing in the rarified air of inspiration, nibbling the manna of creativity, producing one beautifully crafted passage after another.
Another of Carey’s novels—Theft, A Love Story—is about a different kind of artist, a painter whose reputation has floundered. I couldn’t help but think that Carey’s revisiting the question of artistic reputation, but from another direction. Is it that he’s exploring his own ambivalence towards success? Towards constantly playing the role of ‘author’? And who can blame him really? It’s something that every successful author must face, and it is a kind of monster. After all, how does one reconcile the private individual with the public persona? How much of oneself can one afford to give away? How much of real life is it safe to draw on? Even if characters are entirely made up, how does one keep them under control when they take a breath and begin to move, to act, to take on a life of their own?
I don’t blame Carey for this resistance. He is perhaps the most likely Australian novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in coming years. That prospect may be a thrilling one, but it must also be terrifying. Maybe in dealing with these themes, he’s battling with the monsters Reputation and Persona and Literature and Career. Because in the modern context, the journey of the artist in search of his art, his story, and his career can be perilous.
The Ern Malley website has a section called Ern Malley Today. Although the hoaxers are dead, Ern Malley is proclaimed to “live on!” Apparently, “his light is undimmed.” The page lists the books and productions and compositions he’s inspired. Indeed, some consider Malley’s ‘poetry’ to be among Australia’s finest.
Some creations refuse to live in the cages their creators have written for them. They burst off the page and out of the story. The Ern Malley affair has a happy ending. Indeed, it’s a playful and charming footnote to Australian literary history, summoning up an era of personalities and friendships not unlike America’s Brook Farm and England’s Bloomsbury. Carey’s version, however, is much darker. The editor commits suicide, the hoaxer is driven mad and eventually murdered. And don’t forget Capote’s vehement pursuit of “the story”, which created another kind of monster. One that resided within. One that led him to alcohol and eventually killed him.
I think Carey is doing it right. He seems aware of the danger and is facing it in his art, creating versions of literary monsters, playing out the possibilities, battling them over and over, and in doing so, keeping them under control. Just.
By Adair Jones.
(First published in Arts Hub in 2006.)
In 1305, the adjective ‘divine’ in English meant ‘of a god’. By 1470, a weakened sense of the word had evolved, meaning ‘excellent’. In the same period, the etymology of the verb form involved the idea ‘to make out by supernatural insight’. By the early 15th century, another concept emerged in association with the verb ‘divine’: the act of guessing.
What’s most interesting is that this shift parallels a change in the way western culture understood creativity. Prior to the Renaissance, a ‘genius’ was a guardian or spirit that watched over a person from birth. During the Renaissance, this spirit comes to reside within. Before, everyone had a ‘genius’. After, and through the last six centuries, persons of great talent—and only those persons–are said to possess genius.
When genius resides outside of the human mind, it is strong, supernatural, full of god. Once genius is seen to reside within the human, the meaning of ‘divine’ undergoes pejoration, the process by which connotations of a word become less favourable. While the meaning of ‘divine’ is still positive, it’s less so. The human genius may produce something excellent, but it’s something not quite as ‘full of god’ and perhaps created only by guesswork.
This may partly explain why artists and writers are so often disappointed with the final results of their creative work. In the early flush of an idea, all seems possible. We are closer to the earlier connotations of ‘divine’. Our imagination is capable of conceiving something of the gods, full of god; but our human capacity is weaker than our imaginations.
The imagined divine is a distant horizon, receding as we approach.
For an interesting take on the idea of creativity and genius, hear Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, give her inspiring views on TED.com.
A Vicious Cycle Anyone who’s ever written—and that’s just about everybody—has experienced what is known as writer’s block. Typically, it manifests itself as a paralysing anxiety brought on when the writer sits before a blank page or computer screen and is unable to find words for the task at hand. Whether it’s finishing that long-awaited novel, a term paper, or even a letter to a loved one, writer’s block can strike with debilitating force. The more one concentrates, the harder it is to begin, in turn, creating more anxiety.
It’s All Part of the Process During the dream stage of sleep, the body is paralysed. This has a practical purpose: quite simply, it prevents someone from ‘acting out’ what he is dreaming about, perhaps endangering his life and those of others. In the same way, a blocked writer should trust that the natural rhythms of the creative process are also serving an important purpose.
For one, the subconscious does a lot of creative work behind the scenes. While a writer may feel driven to pursue an idea, the subconscious may not have entirely worked it through. It’s much easier for the writer to understand that being blocked occasionally is part of the writing process and to have faith that work is being accomplished. Once the subconscious has worked it through, words and ideas will flow once more, richer, denser, more subtle.
Also, creativity has its own schedule. If an idea is in the gestation stage, it makes no sense to hurry it along. Forcing an early delivery tends to lead to an underdeveloped result. And there is so much extra effort required in order to produce it. It’s best to let the ideas simmer, trusting that when the time is right, ideas will flow naturally.
Strategies Even the most prolific writers experience writer’s block. However, professional writers tend to have a bag of tricks for dealing with it when it strikes. Some examples:
- Automatic writing—Spend twenty minutes with pen and paper writing whatever comes to mind, no matter how trivial. Many writers liken this to taking out the rubbish, freeing the mind to work on the important ideas.
- Write with the other hand—If you are right-handed, spend several minutes writing with your left, and vice versa. This helps to spark the creative side of the brain.
- Do something else—Procrastination can serve a purpose. Take a walk, clean the fridge, pull weeds. Activities like these take away the pressure of the blank page, allowing the subconscious to flow freely.
- Talk to someone—Find an interested friend and talk about your ideas. You may discover that you are much further along in the process than you thought. Plus, encouraging nods and praise may help you shape your writing further.
- Skip ahead—If one part of the project isn’t coming together, move on to something else. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting into the groove of writing.
The Stream of Creativity As with all worthwhile endeavours, writing requires perseverance and commitment. The creative process exists within. It’s simply a matter of cooperating with the hardworking subconscious and trusting in the results.
The only other patron was a young man at the far end of the café garden, writing furiously in a notebook, oblivious to everything but the rushing words. She admired his energy, the focus it took, and thought again of the story that had come her way all those years ago.
It would have served no one to tell it. She had always believed this. Early on, she mentioned her reticence to Guy.
True to character, he argued the other side.
“If you don’t write it, perhaps no one ever will. It may be lost, gone, forgotten.”
That had been a lifetime ago. Sitting here now, Winnie watched the scruffy writer turning the pages of his notebook, reading the words of his latest effort and taking arrogant drags of his cigarette. She was irritated by his presence and recogised the sharp splinter of regret.
Her gaze fell on a statuette near her table. Partially hidden among potted palms was the figure of what looked to be a monk carved from granite. His features were half worn away; an entire chunk was missing from the left side of his torso, giving him a stooped, crooked look.
“Something from the dismantled church,” Winnie thought.
Looking around she saw other sculptures hidden among clusters of plants, all of a religious nature. There were gargoyles, falcons and lions, other such lowly creatures resting on the flagstones. Higher up on stone bases were monks and humans in prayer. And turning around Winnie noted that the entire rear of the garden was dominated by a fountain graced by the figure of an angel with outspread wings and arms reaching heavenward. The sounds were lovely and cooling on this hot day and Winnie fell under the enchantment of the stylish young decorators of this trendy café.
What did it matter they were irreverent? She’d make her own sacredness.
Contemplating the twisted monk, she felt comfort in its company and thought more kindly about the re-use of these religious objects.
“For perhaps this monk was tucked away high on a gable or in a dark corner and never seen by appreciating eyes,” she mused. Then more darkly, “And the artist—rather artisan—unknown, unknowable, anonymous; his effort lost to the world.”
It was better, she decided, that there was someone to see his work, to appreciate it, and feel provoked. Otherwise, the rain would fall, the ice freeze, the dust rise and the very atoms of the stone wear away, crumbling into nothingness one by one.
The writer looked up from his writing and stared at her. She sniffed inwardly, sensing something defiant about him, and while she veiled her eyes and her expression, she did not look away. Instead, for his benefit, she looked around the garden with what she hoped seemed like intelligent interest.
He began writing again. Winnie wondered if he felt she intruded. She supposed it was more difficult to write if there was one other person nearby than if the café had been full and noisy.
At the same time, though slightly wounded, she felt this defiance he had towards a perfect stranger, indeed towards an old woman, was probably something useful. She certainly didn’t have it. She had never had it. All her ambitions, her talents remained secondary to that old fashioned idea of reticence and a respect for the people involved in an event, the myriad perspectives each inhabited.
She could never have been a journalist, all the rushing, the platitudes, the tidy arrangements words must take. Her job as a researcher, then as an editor, had been to add depth, to slow down the rushing. And, although Guy thought she had the mind for it, she couldn’t have pursued academia. It was slower, deeper, more detailed work, it’s true, but the air all around academic writing was too thin, she felt. She couldn’t have survived in it.
No, she had wanted something looser, more meandering, something thick and dense and mysterious, the stuff of life. Marguerite’s story, had she written it, might have been that, but for her scruples. Scruples and, she saw now, the overriding passivity that lay beneath each and every important event in Winnie’s life.
She realised she’d always been frozen. Her decisions had never been actions, hardly even reactions, but a kind of senseless drifting, like waves lapping at the shore.
“Sometimes life is something that happens to one.” Had Guy said this?
She couldn’t remember. But that’s what she felt on that hot day in the garden of the Cloisters Café, with its ancient ghosts about, and the young writer scribbling away with such purpose: That life had simply happened to her.
From The Tower of Forgetting.
Have you ever picked up an unfamiliar notebook and read something in your own handwriting you don’t remember writing? This morning, I found this:
In the afternoon, the house is quiet and I seek a nap. My beloved cat has been dozing for hours. A huge creature, Norwegian long-hair with some wildcat, I’m told.
I slip into a meditation, pressing my face against his fur. Images collide. The stuff of my unconscious rises up and meets the debris of daily life fluttering down. This is the place of poetry.
His paws smell of grass, and I have a vision. His eyes are twin suns. His purr, the rumble of thunder. Ears poke out from mouontains. Whiskers are tall gums and fur a savannah in darkness. He leaps from continent to continent.
The essayist in me arches a brow. The novelist thinks, “I’ll have to put this in a charater’s head.”
This is the raw stuff of verse: a dozing cat grown large.
You could light some incense or burn some essential oil to invoke your muse, but in most cases finding inspiration is a much messier, much less serene affair. Like a wayward pet, it doesn’t necessarily come when you call it. You might be sitting at a tidy desk with the promise of a long work day stretching out before you, and . . . nothing. Later the same day, at a dinner party perhaps, inspiration might crash upon you like some powerful and unexpected wave. There you are at the table, the perfect dinner guest keeping up your end of a conversation, while the writer in you is busy scrambling not to lose that great idea, that perfect solution to the crisis in plot that’s had you stumped, that way out of the narrative cul-de-sac you’ve been stuck in for days.
Quick, where are your pen and notebook? Would it be rude to pull them out and jot down a few thoughts while they are still fresh?
In most cases—depending on the company, of course—doing such a thing would only add to your aura of being a creative and eccentric writer, but I’ve come to learn that it really isn’t necessary to write everything down the moment you think of it. Go on and finish your meal. Continue the conversation. Have another glass of wine. Let your subconscious do the work alone, while you enjoy yourself. Those ideas and solutions are in you, and if they are worth remembering, you will.
Inspiration is an intangible quality that by its presence or absence makes a vast difference to any work of art. It distinguishes the ordinary from the extraordinary. And it inspires in turn.
The etymology of ‘inspiration’ has always been closely associated with the divine. ‘Inspiration’ is usually first defined as being under the immediate influence of God or of the gods, to be God-breathed or God-blown. This means that in the moment of inspiration, we are closest to divinity. Linguists have suggested that the Indo-European root began as an onomatopoeic word: it imitated the sound of blowing or breathing out. In Latin, it came to take over for the word for ‘soul’. But there is more to ‘inspiration’ than the breath of life. It is related to the word ‘spirit’. And to ‘aspire’, ‘respire’, ‘transpire’, and ‘expire’. It is also interestingly, though more obscurely, connected to the words ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘instinct’. All of these I find useful when thinking about and practicing creativity.
This leads to the more contemporary view of inspiration: the state of being influenced, moved or guided by some power we consider to be outside ourselves and yet at the same time to be somehow also within us. Nowadays, the subject has shifted. It is no longer the muse or God or ‘the divine’ creating the work of art through the artist, but the artist alone who exerts an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on the art. This doesn’t mean we are any less connected to divinity, just that we are plugged into the divinity that exists in all of us. In Ars Poética, Jorge Luis Borges says: “Art is the mirror that reveals our own face.” And, I would add, our own soul.
Inspiration is like the wind. It can’t be held or controlled, but it can be felt. I don’t try to schedule it anymore. That never worked anyway. Inspiration never arrives on call, but bides its time and, when it does come, descends in a variety of guises. It may appear like a clap of thunder or a creeping mist, like a powerful tide or like the tiniest flutter of insect wings. We may not even recognize it immediately. It may only occur to us that we were under its influence after the cloud of energy has lifted, and we are left facing the result of our efforts.
On the subject, Leonard Bernstein said: “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time….The wait is simply too long.” I think this is wise advice. I’m sure every writer has a variety of strategies to turn the grist of everyday life into inspired art. I know I do. First and foremost, I consider all the little things that happen to be a gift. Each tiny event, every conversation, the smallest detail, all are material for my craft. It’s simply up to my powers of observation and memory. Margaret Atwood has described the task of writing to be much like the “jackdaw building its nest”—a leaf here, a twig there, some shiny string borrowed from a rubbish heap, a little mud. And there you have it, a place to rest and raise nestlings.
So where do I seek inspiration? Everywhere. In art, music, poetry. In nature. In everyday life. Any creative act and all creative output hold a piece of the inspiration that went into its production. When we view any work of art—from a grand painting to a garden or a lovingly prepared meal—we find that divine piece of ourselves and connect with inspiration anew. It crosses time, space, landscapes, physical and emotional dimensions.
I keep a notebook on hand (and try not to pull it out too often at dinner parties). It’s filled with cryptic notes—fragments of sentences, disembodied words, locations. It isn’t where I do the work of writing. It serves simply as repository for clues: these are ideas and words I found interesting. Later, when inspiration is upon me, these simple jottings become the scenes and metaphors and themes of my stories.
For example, on a random page I find the word “nest” and the phrase, “wedding dress in a paddock”. “Nest” triggers a memory of the day when my children came running up from our wildly overgrown orchard with a small birds’ nest attached to a peach twig. Inside it was lined with a strange yellow fluff. It took us awhile before we realised that it was my husband’s hair! I transformed this funny little event into a scene I was writing about a man stricken with guilt. His daughter finds a nest lined with his hair, and all he can think is, “I can’t be all bad if a bird would use my hair to cushion its young.” The nest becomes emblematic of a turning point for this character. Up to that moment, he hasn’t acknowledged his wrongdoing or the guilt it has caused him. Facing it, he is able to take steps towards amends and renewal.
As for the reference to the wedding dress, a friend once told me a story about her childhood that has stayed with me for years. When she was young, one of six children under the age of ten, her mother surrendered her wedding dress to their play, just to get a little peace and time to herself. Perhaps I remembered this and wrote it down one hectic day when I was seeking some such amusement for my own children. At any rate, the image of small girls draped in yards of white lace and tulle and dancing in a sunlit paddock became the backdrop for another character, a woman in deep confusion over her marriage.
In the same notebook few pages later, I find a list of words: “skulk, untenable, jaunty, shrink, slink, clink, black despair, fervent, toothed, hamstrung, refraction.” Why I wrote them down, I don’t know. How the list might help me in my writing, I can’t say. But I trust that I was subconsciously drawn to them for some reason and that at some point having written them in my notebook will be useful.
I flip through a few more pages, and a political cartoon drops out. The next page describes a disjointed dream I had. A few pages on I read lines of poetry by Yeats that I’ve copied out. The facing page holds a conversation—I can’t tell if I’ve overheard it or made it up.
What’s in the notebook is simply the raw material of my craft. It tells nothing by itself. Without inspiration, my notebook is as good as empty. For inspiration’s mysterious power is what links the disembodied images and words, the political cartoon, the poetry and the dream fragments to what goes on within and between my characters. Inspiration breathes life into the world I’ve created. It gives my work soul.
So I keep alert for any incident or word or detail that resonates and take note. I trust the process. I gestate. I give inspiration every opportunity to arrive. Then I set to work. And when I get stumped, when inspiration departs, I stop. I do something else. I might put on some music or read poetry or go to a museum. I might call a friend or take a walk. Because in all these places, inspiration abides. I’m not so concerned about finding it—I trust that eventually it will find me.
First published in Arts Hub in 2005.
There’s the story about the teenager in Scotland who needed treatment for his text messaging addiction. He sent 700 text messages per week and 8000 emails per month, almost all to one person—his girlfriend. They have since broken up.
In New York, a current trial rests on the interpretation of a text message: was the defendant serious or just joking when he threatened to kill the victim? I love the one about the mobile phone firm that has launched a hand set designed specifically for the motor skills of four-year-olds—with text messages built in. The firm’s promotional materials announce that it targets parents who want to know where their four-year-old is at all times. (They say this casually, as if there are parents of four-year-olds who don’t.) And believe it or not, the Chinese are now allowing text messaging in Tibetan.
What is this fascination—this addiction—we have to text messages?
I watch my teenage daughter across the room. She has collapsed into an armchair, one leg slung over the side. She holds her mobile phone in two hands, adeptly pressing buttons with her thumbs (the texting method she prefers). When I ask what she’s doing, she replies, “I’m just re-reading my text messages from the last few weeks. I’ve sent 76 and …” she presses a few more buttons, “and I’ve received 76 too!” She looks up beaming. I peer over her shoulder and read: “meet aftr skl 2moz ill tll u da hole stry”.
This reminds me of those ads when I was a teenager: “If u cn rd ths ad, we cn gv u a jb.” Not ever wanting the job they were offering, I used to pretend I had no idea what it said. But now I feel discouraged. That coded ad is much easier to parse than my daughter’s message. And I have this feeling that more than a job rests on being able to do so. It’s the future.
Mobile phones carry social capital in and of themselves. What kind of phone do you carry? How expensive is it? How sophisticated are its features? Does it have a camera? What kind of keypad? What kind of case? What plan are you on? For those who know, these questions are answered the moment someone pulls a phone from a pocket. It’s a big business and growing. Ring tones alone are a $3.5 billion dollar industry. But it’s more than that. The very act of texting has cachet and communicates something about the sender. I’m told by my daughter that I look ‘uncool’ when I write my text messages. Apparently, I squint and frown a lot. And then, I peck at the keypad with an index finger. “Very uncool,” says my husband, who uses the one-thumb method.
Text messaging is irresistible among teens and young adults. Termed ‘Generation Text’ for their zealous take-up of new technologies, they tend to form close knit ‘text circles’ that connect small groups of friends in perpetual contact. My daughter claims she can tell who’s writing simply by the style of the message and the abbreviations used. It’s a type of ‘visual signature’. “Everyone has their own way of texting,” she says. “It’s individual.”
It’s also instant, location independent and personal. The use of non-standard orthography is a powerful but also a playful means for young people to affirm their identities, to differentiate from adults and align themselves with each other. In one study, 90% of teens claimed they used text messaging more than they talked on the phone. The same group admits to feeling ‘anxious’ if they forget or lose their phone.
This applies to adults as well as to teens. My husband forgets his phone on a day when he ‘really’ needs it. Passing by a phone shop, he enters with a question about an upgrade and walks out with a new phone identical to the one forgotten. He has also signed up for a new plan with great savings (which made the phone free), and, because of a holiday promotion, he’s received (also for free!) a Playstation Portable (PSP).
A few days later, my daughter loses her phone. At the local pool, she thinks. It is just before the holidays, so we don’t have a chance to hunt for it before the break. When we return from our annual camping trip, we find the phone among the sofa cushions (not at the pool after all). Her face floods with relief: “I feel like I got back a part of myself.”
Marc Prensky, a guru of digital game-based learning, tells a story about a young Japanese student who said, “When you lose your mobile phone, you lose part of your brain.” It’s this type of identification that goes straight to the heart of the matter. How healthy is our reliance on new technologies? What is it doing to our sense of self? How is it affecting our literacy? And what does this mean for the future of education?
People tend to fall neatly into one of two camps. There are the alarmists, those who fear for the state of Standard English and even more for the minds of our young. And then, there are others who embrace the use of such new technologies as innovative and who feel that playful shifts in language are inevitable.
Professor Patrick O’Donnell is of the first group. A psychologist from Glasgow University, he asserts that “new technology brings dangers which could signal the beginning of worrying trends.” Remembering the young man and his 700-a-day text habit, his claim has some validity. And many English teachers complain that the widespread use of SMS has led to language erosion, poor grammar and spelling, and loss of concentration. They worry that literacy will be lost, that English is being bastardized, that books will disappear. Books disappear?
I ponder all of this. As children, didn’t we all used to speak together in Pig Latin? In most cases, this had no detrimental effects on our schoolwork. We very easily switched back into Standard English when required. Then, in high school, we were assigned ee cummings, and that didn’t hurt us much either. Writers, poets and even ordinary speakers—that’s us—have always played around with language.
The notion of standardization in written language is itself a convention. Writing has always been an abstraction away from spoken language. Ironically, many of the typographic practices of text messaging offer more ‘correct’ or more ‘authentic’ representations of speech. When you think about it, there has always been a complex relationship between the spoken and the written word, and it tends to cause a lot of confusion. A fiction writer who is trying to show the emotions of characters in conversation doesn’t necessarily write speech that might actually occur. The trick is to capture the essence of spoken language in a written form. It must seem natural and authentic and true to life, even though it is something quite different. However, while writing ‘speech’ can be a constraining endeavour, writing in general has served as a liberating force. As an example, think of the complex oral tradition of the ancient poets. In order to remember scenes, sequences and long passages, they devise richly detailed conventions around versifying. Once the words were preserved in writing, all those choliambics, galliambics, and glyconic strophes could be relaxed. I can imagine that more than a few people felt that something was lost when the stories were written down. And while it might have been essentially liberating, and while we know that it led to a variety of new ways of organizing thoughts and words, it must have sounded strange to the ear initially.
Human beings are fundamentally creative. It’s hardwired into us. And while language gives us the ability to arrange knowledge in ways that lead to innovation, innovation in turn puts demands on the language. Of course, language will shift and change. It always has—and often for less compelling reasons than today’s revolution in mobile technology. All of it comes from our creative nature. Out of this new technology, we’ve devised another playful and inventive use of language. It merely adds to our abilities. Text language shouldn’t be feared or discouraged. It should simply be thought of as one more tool for communicating, which is what all language is when you get right down to it.
I read an article in the newspaper about the 2006 Shakespeare Festival, which will be held later this year in Brisbane. High school teachers have been invited to involve their students in updating Shakespeare’s plays. In other words, get ready for rap and SMS versions of Twelfth Night. I recall that at recent writers festivals there have been sessions dedicated to the forms and uses of text language. And ACID, a groovy, innovative Brisbane-based R&D company, is developing content for ‘mobile learning’, an interesting area that specifically utilizes the social capital that’s created by the use of SMS among young people.
It seems that everyone is on board. SMS and text language are being made use of in the most unexpected ways. As early as the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, performers put on a play, Static, that invited people who watched the show on stage to subscribe to daily SMS messages from the play’s characters. And last year in the U.K., The Guardian (not exactly an avant garde publication) held a poetry contest for the best poem written in text language. The winning entry*, written by Hetty Hughes, a 22-year-old undergraduate, was selected from over 7500 entries by two of Britain’s foremost poets. I have even found online ‘text’ translations of the EU Constitution and the Bible.
And what of the fate of books? Are they really threatened? The idea has me worried until one day lately with time to kill, I step into a used book store in Brisbane’s West End. Browsing, I come across an old copy of The Aneaid. Lifting the book to my face, I inhale the scent of leather and dust and mildewed paper, the familiar and comforting odor of an old book. I read a few lines. In the blink of an eye, I am transported to a day a long time ago in New York. It was autumn, and I was walking along Central Park West fresh from the first day of a literature class at Columbia University. We were assigned The Aneaid, and I had just had my first glimpse of a new world. I paused, sat on a park bench to eat my lunch—an apple—and thumbed through it. The hour was golden. The vibrant reds and oranges of the turning trees cast a spell over the city. All my senses were engaged: the crisp smell of falling leaves, the vivid colours of the day, the rhythmic ebb and flow of traffic, the taste of the apple. That moment from the past returned in all its sensual detail, tumbling across years and oceans.
Books have the power to do this. We shouldn’t worry. Books aren’t going anywhere. The Aneaid has been around a long, long time. But we shouldn’t forget that books are made up of words, and it’s the words that are powerful, not just the container that holds them or the form they are put to. It’s not about the choliambics or the galliambics. It’s not only about the genre: poem, play, or novel. It’s not even about that fascinating contraption we all carry in our handbags and our pockets: the mobile phone. It’s about the play of the words, the creative, witty, innovative play of words. Who are we to decide now that masterpieces will never emerge from text language?
Is SMS a threat, a danger, a worry, a mess? Nah!
*The Guardian’s winning poem:
txtin iz messin,
mi headn’me englis,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
Hetty Hughes, 2005
Article first published in Arts Hub in 2006.
The experience of reading Clay is like being in a dream. There are recognisable objects and familiar places, but everything is twisted round, suffused with the strange, the extraordinary, the downright miraculous.
David Almond is an award winning author and one of the finest writing for young adults today. Clay is recommended for children over 11, but it’s a novel that may be read and enjoyed (and marvelled at) as much by adults.
Davie and his best friend Geordie are just ordinary kids: altar boys, mediocre students, part of a gang full of mischief and rivalry. When Stephan Rose arrives, sent to live with his crazy Aunt Mary, because his father has died and his mother has gone mad, Father O’Mahoney asks that the boys befriend him. They resist, but Davie soon finds himself drawn to the strange new boy, fascinated as much with Stephan’s ability to create fantastic figures from clay as he is with Stephan’s taunting of Mouldy, the bully who’s vowed to ‘get’ Davie. Stephan has a gift, a real genius, for shaping figures that seem to live and breathe. He recognises something in Davie—some innocence, some goodness—that he can use, and begins to draw him into his plan. Together the boys create a monster from mud, a creature that not only lives but walks and obeys. Then something awful happens to Mouldy, and Davie must take action.
Almond captures all the energy and awkwardness of youth. A first kiss, sneaking cigarettes, goofing around in class, growing away from a best friend—all these scenes are woven into the darker story of Stephan and Davie’s creation. Underneath it all is a childlike egoism that makes these boys feel responsible for the bad things that happen: If we wish it and it happens, then it must have happened because of us.
In the tradition of Frankenstein, and more recently, Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake, Clay is a novel about artistic creation. It’s also a comment on the potentially dangerous nature of what we create. What we make just might take on a life of its own, a life we can’t always control. As a teacher tells Davie, “Our passion to create goes hand and hand with our passion to destroy”. For Almond, artistic creation dwells in the territory of danger and madness, at the border of evil.
Davie hears the words of the monster in his head, which gives us another way of reading the story. The psychological runs alongside and blends with the supernatural. Davie writes it all down, every last crazy thing. He challenges the reader to think it’s just a story. A dream, maybe, that lingers when you wake. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Clay offers no tidy answers and no redemption. The creative genius is loose; the will to shape and mould and breathe life into raw material is out there—and in us!—for good or for evil. This is a beautiful, enigmatic novel that questions and provokes, inspires and warns. Almond writes of this dark subject in spare, unadorned language flecked with sudden bursts of gorgeousness. Haunting in its intensity, Clay is destined to become a classic.
Clay, David Almond, Hodder Children’s Books.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2005.