Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On Creativity Part One..."Tantrums of Genius"

I got this hard-to-put-down book from Tatus for my birthday. It's called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. It's a fascinating look into the creative mind from a scientific and research-based point of view. Ironic, really. A scientist exploring creativity. An ironic yet very thoughtful book to give to someone like me. I'm learning a lot about myself, my creative brain, my cognitive functioning, the art I put out and, perhaps even more importantly, why a smart, artistic, intellectual might fail at a job as seemingly simple as the one at the medical practice, which isn't rocket science.

I've deduced the following regarding the latter fact: There was literally no break in the action and pace of the job. Sure, it was quieter in the office if one or more docs were out of the office, or when I'd go outside to quickly smoke 2 cigs in 15 minutes of break time, but the phones still rang incessantly, lab patients, and there were callbacks to do, other doctors calling, nursing home bullshit, Rx's to fill, always something.

The truth of how my brain interpreted such an environment was to shut down almost completely on occasion. My famous "big ball of ick" as I would describe it to my therapist, that I couldn't dissect and the practice co-workers didn't understand or sympathize with. With an inability, cognitively, to recall and dissect tasks, I had to write myself notes about what to do with almost every command. Overload. Clinically, for bipolar patients, such a malady is called "Psychomotor Retardation."

For bipolar people who do work through some of their less serious episodes, they may be suffering from what is called “psychomotor retardation”. This is a symptom of the depressive periods of bipolar disorder that makes everything seem like more work than it would otherwise be. At its most serious, people with psychomotor retardation find it hard to even get out of bed, but people with bipolar disorder can often work through less severe forms.
However, when suffering from psychomotor retardation, everything feels like it is taking twice or more the normal amount of effort. As a result, people with bipolar disorder may need more frequent breaks in order to recuperate than other people might. That one hour between normal breaks feels like two or three. When in a state of psychomotor retardation, bipolar people burn out faster and will actually accomplish more if they can take more frequent breaks (consider why breaks are good for efficiency in the first place).
In addition, the breaks may need to be a little longer. After all, the work feels more intense. By balancing frequency and lengths of breaks, bipolar employees will be able to accomplish more through periods of psychomotor agitation.
Because bipolar employees can often be unsure of where their moods will go, larger projects that are not divided into parts can often be overwhelming. Many bipolar people have learned to divide up projects into smaller parts to compensate for this, but in some cases, employees are given large projects that can’t be divided up except by a supervisor, and the employee ends up working on several aspects simultaneously.
One way to overcome this is to divide up projects into a series of parts, each of which can be done in succession. This allows people with bipolar disorder to focus on smaller projects that are less anxiety provoking, while at the same time allowing them to better slot in those parts as their moods fluctuate. 
(Source: http://www.bipolartoday.com/accommodating-bipolar-disorder-in-the-workplace-part-iii-emotional-support/)

It's interesting, physiologically, as well, to point out that my attacks of hypoglycemia have passed with rare occurrence since I left my job. They still strike unanticipated at inopportune times, I still don't do well with carbs in the morning, but my body is better trained to fight it out and stay awake, and I don't slur my speech a lot, or almost pass out anymore. I'm still not trusted to drive distances. When it overcomes me, and I'm at home, I do lie down, but I try to limit myself to an hour asleep. I DO still walk into walls, but please, I've always done that. I'm a chronic klutz.

(Plus, as I have said in the past, the tasks were mostly left-brain heavy or spatially oriented acts of multi-tasking, neither of which were my strengths.)  I believe that the book illustrates nicely the way of and importance of breaks in the action during the course of the work day to encourage greater functionality and results. At Balderdash & Verities, the pace was always that of immediacy, of urgency, of delegating and being delegated. If a doctor wasn't in, and one had to page him, it was nerve-wracking waiting for him to call back, and fearing he'd be upset by being bothered. Patients were clamoring at the window when the doctors were running late, saying "Did you forget me?" NO. SIT YOUR ASS DOWN.  It was, overall, just...SO. TENSE. ALL. GODDAMN. DAY.

It didn't help that I felt shitty physically a vast majority of the time throughout the course of my 3 year tenure at the practice. I was never in such poor health in my life as when I was at Balderdash & Verities.

Just a chapter or two into the book, I'm finding what were my artistic failures and blocks similar to Bob Dylan's creative slump in the mid-60's. There's a well written, overly kind ode to the lack of creativity we so often encounter after putting out a prolific amount of art--in any medium--in this case, the context of Dylan's songwriting in the earlier 60's (which, for me, is either my blogging, which I abandoned in 2008, or the lengthy emails I'm capable of writing, which I take very seriously, or completing a writing major, concentrated on poetry for 5 years, then ceasing to write poetry for 17 years afterwards).

Dylan grew tired, of himself and his own music. Of being in the spotlight. Of being fueled by drugs. For having fans hang on his every word as if he were a reflection of the Second Coming. He had to back out of the constraints of NYC on a motorcycle, his soul barely intact after a tour of London wrapped up, and retreat to Woodstock even sans guitar, bringing only a notebook and a set of pencils. Even if not the greatest musician, Dylan was and always will be a master lyricist and poet.

He did not think the moments of silent reflection and introspection would ultimately allow him pen one the most memorable songs of his generation, "Like a Rolling Stone." (**Staying in Woodstock would prove to be a good move for Dylan, from both a familial and artistic standpoint. The book doesn't go into this detail but I already knew that Dylan's wife, Sara, and their children joined him in Woodstock, where he famously penned, along with George Harrison, the beautiful "I'd Have You Anytime," which Harrison would record himself.**)

Sometimes, I guess, even artists (whose lives seem crazy to the bland people in the world) need some quiet time. Maybe my insanity and addictions, coupled with a frenzied life, are more behind what stalled my writing of poetry for 17 years, rather than merely me doubting my abilities. True, I was out of practice in writing poetry, but once I started the task, it flowed with scant effort.

Lehrer is quick to point out that most artists/writers/musicians/inventors produce their best work first thing in the morning. That something about being half-asleep results in the most effective creative breakthroughs. A half-dream world. He says that often times, unfortunately, creative people suffer from ADHD, or are misdiagnosed as having it, and are put on stimulant drugs like Adderall or Ritalin to provide them the capacity to concentrate for 8 hours straight, or they rely on caffeine or other stimulants. No small coincidence that most of my best blogs are written early in the morning, over coffee or tea. Physically, anyway, often times, I'm writing said blogs with only one eye open, but they flow cohesively. To me, anyway...sometimes, when I'm on the editing block later in the day, I wonder what the hell I was thinking.

(FYI...Lehrer notes, later in the book, an interview with Rolling Stone Keith Richards from 2010, where he tells the story of having written "Satisfaction" in his sleep, or so he thought, in a relative dream state, as he awoke one morning and found the loop of tape at the end of the recorder, thinking he'd just pressed "record" and gone to sleep. In all fairness, he was probably also doped up, but that's a separate issue. People wonder what I'm doing, blogging at 5am?)

When Dylan would have a great idea that he later thought was crap, he'd crumple it up in the garbage can and, if Marianne Faithfull was around (she was a singer herself, most famously a long-time girlfriend of Mick Jagger during the late 60's), she would call those moments in Dylan "tantrums of genius." Every writer, at some point in his/her career or artistic practice, thinks of an idea or symmetrical lines of thinking that we're sure are nothing short of genius. I've not met one writer who, at one time or another, didn't advertise his/her intellectual superiority while telling everyone else to fuck off if they didn't understand the writer or intent. That, to me, was the beauty of, for example, our senior writing portfolios at Knox. Our poetry writing critiques, where criticism from a vast variety of personalities (not just that of your professor; rather, your peers) afforded the writer the capability of perspective and retrospect. Even if you didn't, as a writer, enjoy your piece being turned from your inner vision to a collaborative effort. Please. We all had "tantrums of genius" and none of us is guilt-free in having taken criticism personally, as if we were all horrible writers who should give up the craft in favor of a more practical college major.

The author of Imagine tells the anecdote of the 3M company and the inventor of masking tape, Dick Drew, who was a sandpaper salesman by trade in the 1930's. After a visit to an auto body shop that was painting on cars, applying tee adhesive, separating the painted from unpainted parts too strongly and stripping the the new paint off the cars, he tirelessly tweaked adhesives at 3M in order to come up with masking tape, then later, Scotch tape (an idea based off some unused cellophane) and the 3M gang came up with Post-it Notes and their R&D team has since invented hundreds of useful products found in every home that we take for granted. Point being, he was evolving around the team of co-workers and often, as the corporation grew in spades, they innovated the concept (long before Google did it) of allowing researchers and developers time to veg out during work, for the forced notion of churning out product was simply too taxing on any one mind.

Whether that vegging out time is spent playing pinball, taking a walk on one of the many campus park-like walk paths, or playing ping-pong with someone, doodling alone or even lying in the sunshine on a nearby couch--it's in the solitude and emptying of one's own thoughts, expectations, and pressures that often the brightest, most innovative ideas thrive. It's a time-tested method of operating a business largely focused on research and development. De-cluttering of one's mind often brings forth ideas and solutions to problems that seem too difficult to tackle head-on under a continuously pressurized environment for long periods of time, which is why 3M rotates it's researchers from department to department, project to project, on a semi-regular basis. A fresh pair of eyes and brains can be very helpful. (Just like at the medical practice...if one of us couldn't read a doctor's scribble in the chart, we'd often times have another girl look at it and it would make perfect sense to her and be clear as day. That was something I WAS very good at.)

Daydreaming, according to the author, often stimulates the brain to find answers to problems and innovations that wouldn't have otherwise materialized. He calls it "fountain spurting." From a practical standpoint, daydreaming (even if for only a few minutes) helps us recharge and regain our balance. At my former job, not only was daydreaming frowned upon severely, it was punishable. Even if you just wanted to take 30 seconds to deeply breathe, look out the window and people watch the parking lot. Tell me, pray tell me, what else you were supposed to do while you were idly, mundanely feeding faxes through a machine next to a window, out of reach of the phone, after you'd charted all the Rx's and paperwork? Sometimes I'd put stickers on charts. Other times, I said "fuck it" and just daydreamed anyway.

Oh, and I was told ESPECIALLY not to let one particular doctor SEE me LOOKING out the window or I'd get HELL. (This was one of many "warnings" about him being the in-house King of Perfectionism and Utter Formality, of which I was told when I started and he was on vacation at the time, before we met, and once we did meet, I was like, "Wait a sec! This guy's nice! He actually calls me by my name! He thinks I'm not an idiot!") What a stupid rule at work and not a team-builder. Or if we girls tried to release tensions by laughing over randomocity for a few minutes. They'd say to do that on your break or lunch, which, fine, but that's another stress-filled tiny microcosm of time allotted to your own thoughts, which largely consisted of worrying about making it back in pole position as efficiently and expeditiously as possible after trying to digest food and catch up on your social networking (or, after I left, evidently the entire office reading my blogs).

It's not unlike a creative artist, this idea of a researcher, scientist or developer, to walk away from a project, gain perspective, and return to the project at hand. I do it all the time. I walk away from a piece of writing, paint on my Buddha board, or go about my day, to return to a blog entry hours later, often with fresh, new ideas and opinions to pen. Or sometimes, I decide to chuck a draft entirely. Other times, the loss of concentration expels the flow. On the occasions when introspection proves fruitful, you feel re-charged. When ideas, all-be-them brilliant a few hours prior, poop out, that's when any writer or artist will deflate, deeming his or herself an utter dullard.

(I did it today. I was on a roll here but the tasks of the day had to be completed, so this blog entry had to be put aside until tonight. I'm still not focused completely on this entry, though I did compose an entire separate entry with regard to my day's doings, which streamed so quickly, I wrote it, edited it and posted it for publication all in less than an hour. (See http://theoffbeatdrummer.blogspot.com/2012/05/karmic-wheels-go-round-and-round.html.) In all art, there's room for instant expulsion that needs to be balanced with introspection and deeper thought. A stream of consciousness, flowing freely, is a gifted trait. The ability to execute it articulately is a whole different can of worms.)

Going back to Dylan's experience, he likened his creative breakthrough, according to the book, to "vomiting" out ideas. He composed 20 pages of lyrics in Woodstock in a very short period of time. He, himself, can't rationalize how the dueling hemispheres of his brain allowed him the capacity to create. I can relate. I took a 2-years plus break from writing and blamed it all on my bipolar stability and medication management. Somehow, I convinced myself that the trade-off for sanity HAD to be giving up my craft. Feeling uninspired and distant from my creative brain, so focused on trying to work at a hopeless job, exhausted me internally. The meds, I assumed, sapped me of any and all creative energy I had, because before I was medicated properly, I was SO over-the-top prolific that even I had trouble keeping up with myself. While much of that can be attributed to manic or hypomanic episodes, in retrospect, I was fortunate to have been writing period, while I was unmediated, as I did in college, as I did on drugs and booze, my self-medication. What was unfortunate and downright psycho to read, were those blogs I wrote nearing rock bottom with alcohol and sick with mental illness. My ideas, to me anyway, were brilliant, lengthy and well thought out, when in reality, they were choppy, illogical rants, apart from dialogues between my son and I, which, because I have a photographic memory, I could remember line-by-line. When I was finally sick of being silent, sick of living my whole life just in my mind, I brought up the idea of restarting the blog to my best male friend. His advice, as an artist himself? "JUST FUCKING WRITE."

Lehrer teases his readers with puzzling logic tests, which, if I read them and was still stumped, he answered soon thereafter, as an illustration of how one-side-brained each one of is dominated by. There were two I *did* figure out.

1) A pyramid has a $100 bill underneath it. How do you get it out from under? It took me a while, dreaming up elaborate gadgetry, until I realized that at no time during the question, did Lehrer ask us to get the bill out INTACT. The answer? Burn the $100 bill. Bingo. My brain had to run through a dozen impossibilities and theories, practical and impractical, before I entertained the idea of torching the bill.

2) III + III = III. Admittedly, an even harder puzzle for a right-brainer to figure out. I thought of inserting zero in somewhere, but that didn't work. I was concentrating too hard on the numerals, instead of the equation being equal. The answer? III = III = III. It was all about the mental connection and not necessarily the end result.

Simple answers to quite complex logic problems.

More on this fascinating book to come.

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