The Heath Fair and the Creative Process

I participated in a book reading/signing over the weekend at the annual agricultural fair in Heath, Massachusetts.

The Heath Fair is my favorite fair in the world. One can walk through the entire thing, from the exhibit hall to the grandstand for tractor and animal pulls, in 20 minutes … although generally it takes much longer to walk through it since one has to stop to look at wares for sale, buy something to nibble on, check out the animals and the children’s games, and talk to the people passing by.

(The Heath Fair is like our local general store. It’s impossible to go there without running into people one knows.)

Composer Alice Parker and I, the Divas of Hawley, were scheduled to discuss our writing around midday on Sunday. The local-author tent in which we appeared was organized by Jack Estes and Betsy Kovacs, who run a small press called Pleasure Boat Studio from their homes in Heath and New York City.

The discussion crystallized some thoughts I had been having about the nature of creativity.

I recently read Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer talks about the ways in which individual brains and groups of people work most creatively. His book has been recalled by the publisher in recent weeks because the author got a bit too “creative” himself and made up quotations from Bob Dylan. (I have never been able to understand the suicidal impulses that lead some journalists to exaggerate their reporting in this fashion.) Nevertheless, Lehrer’s writing helped me understand the ways in which I work.

His “individual brain” section indicated that there are two particularly fertile ways in which brains can come up with new ideas. One is by just working and working and working and working away at a problem. The other, ironically, is by letting go of worry, letting go of conscious thought, and daydreaming. Somehow when one does this, he argues, the brain can make totally new connections that shed light on the problem at hand.

I realized as I read the book that I indulge in both of these modes when I’m writing something important to me. I outline and make lists and write and rewrite. When I’m really stuck, however, I lie down, close my eyes, and let my brain drift. Frequently, a moment of insight occurs during these drowsy moments.

Our discussion helped me hone that realization … and apply it to singing as well as writing.

Alice read a passage from her book The Anatomy of Melody, in which she described the process by which Ella Fitzgerald might have approached a song by George Gershwin. Alice’s point was that Fitzgerald was truer to Gershwin when she left the written music behind and interpreted a song than she would have been had she just sung the notes “as written.” In fact, Alice suggested, a song doesn’t really exist “as written”; it is dead until a singer breathes life into it.

The next author to speak after us was religious historian and philosopher Jim Carse. Jim talked about (among other things!) the ways in which he learned to write, think and talk by NOT thinking. The trick, he explained, was to think and think and think and do lots of research and then stop thinking and forget all the research.

Jim Carse at the Heath Fair (Courtesy of Betsy Kovacs)

Alice asked me how I learn a song. I explained that I start with the notes on the page—or, if I’m lucky, with a tape recording of the melody. Once I get the melody running through my head, however, I let go of the notes and start playing with them. I act them out and feel them.

“A song is emotion,” I said. “If you’re not feeling it, if you’re just thinking it, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Some days I’m a little profound. (And some days I’m a little immodest.)

Today as I remember our discussion I feel lucky … to have meaningful work to do that involves my mind and heart, to have creative people to listen to and work with, and to live in a community that offers events like the Heath Fair.

I hope I never stop learning … or enjoying country pastimes.

For more details on the Heath Fair, including photos of the fair in general and author links, visit this post by the wonderful Pat Leuchtman, another author who appeared at the writers’ booth!

The Divas of Hawley

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Sports and the Single Girl

My onscreen Wii persona. We both wear glasses to help with our depth perception … although OF COURSE I take mine off when the machine weighs me!

How do you get better at something for which you have very little aptitude?

Slowly.

I have always been a klutz at sports. One of my legs was slightly misshapen when I was very small (I have very early recollections of wearing a brace), and although it was more or less fixed the two legs don’t always work together very well.

Of course, the doctors warned me that I was supposed to wear nothing but lace-up, supportive shoes for the rest of my life to keep my legs in line. But I’m a sucker for high-heeled mules, ballet slippers, and clogs so I haven’t paid any attention to those warnings since I was eight and bullied my parents into buying me my first pair of heels. (I was only allowed to wear them for dress up at home, but I adored them. They were red!)

I made my legs and balance worse a few years back by slipping on the ice TWICE in the same winter and banging my right knee both times.

In addition to the leg issue, I have poor depth perception (my glasses help a little but don’t solve the problem) and pathetic hand-eye coordination.

The only game I played with any skill in my youth was tennis. The racket was big enough to give me a good chance of hitting the ball even if I couldn’t see exactly where the darn thing was. I wasn’t a great tennis player, but I had fun. Ironically, I mastered the form well enough so that in high school I taught tennis to the other girls in my physical-education class. My pupils could beat me at the game almost immediately, but teaching them gratified me nonetheless.

In general in my adult life my sports of choice—if one doesn’t count bridge as a sport, which I really think one should!—have been walking with the dog and swimming. I don’t do either very quickly, but they keep me moving and breathing. Let’s call them physical activities rather than sports.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been a good summer for either activity. My little dog finds it too hot to walk. Since her car accident last year she walks even more slowly than I do when I manage to get her out onto the street. (I’m the slowest human walker I know.)

And my usual swimming hole, the Dam down the road at Singing Brook Farm, was hit hard by Hurricane Irene at the end of last summer. We hope it will be fixed in time for next year, but the process of getting the proper permits to do anything in a waterway is cumbersome and lengthy. So swimming more than a couple of strokes is out.

With fewer walks and fewer swims I have hauled out the Wii fitness program I purchased a couple of years ago.

The Wii can drive me nuts. It loves to weigh me (never my favorite activity) and to administer little tests that allegedly determine my “Wii Fit Age.” Depending on the tests the machine chooses, that age can vary by as much as 30 years. I have learned to ignore it.

Many of the tasks the Wii prescribes to correct my balance and hone my coordination remind me of the difficulties of my youth. I gave up skiing after a few tries because it was almost impossible for me to move smoothly on the snow. And skating … well, the last time I went roller skating I spent more time on the floor of the rink than on my feet. My roommate informed me that the black-and-blue marks made me look as though I had a REALLY abusive boyfriend.

Still, I keep at the tasks. Each day I get ever so slightly better. Most of the time the Wii still tells me that I’m “unbalanced,” not precisely an adjective a girl likes to use to describe herself. My scores are improving bit by bit, however, and in some of the games I have graduated from “unbalanced” to “amateur.”

Despite its critical tone the Wii is easier to handle than some of the classes I took in my youth, in which I had to watch everyone else get better while I stayed the same. (I took beginning ballet for years, with no hope of graduating to toe work.) I can work at my own pace with no competition but myself. And I can try again … and again … and again until I more or less get the hang of the tasks at hand.

I’ll never be a candidate for the Olympics. I am learning to learn, however. And that’s an activity I can enjoy.