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.
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!