Just to be clear, I don’t find “success” a particularly useful concept in the arts or life. Still, I admit the word sometimes crosses my mind on a cloudy day. We hear of a successful painter, actor, novelist, or musician. They tend to be the famous ones; that’s why we hear of them. Comparing oneself to them is probably unconstructive.
Success is the achievement of a goal. Whether you’re successful depends what you’re aiming for. That needn’t be fame and fortune. It needn’t be overt; some people like explicit goals, some don’t. For decades of freelancing, I aimed to earn a living by writing and succeeded in doing so. Now I aim to do what I love and improve my craft. My most useful measurable goals are the little ones: finish drafting a chapter by the end of next week, post a blog entry every Monday, pull weeds around the irises. Where it all may lead, I’m willing to wait and see.
Life is a collaborative, creative, improvisational art. I’ve been trying to apply Tina Fey’s four rules for improvisation:
1. Always agree and say yes. Respect what your partner has created.
2. Yes, and. Add something of your own; don’t be afraid to contribute.
3. Make statements. Don’t just ask questions or point out obstacles; be part of the solution.
4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities.
When I remember, this approach does wonders for my relationships with self, others, and life. I’ll chug merrily along on some plan or routine till life ups and changes everything: “Hey, Sarah, how about this?” The creative improv response is to go with it and decide my next move. Acceptance, yes, but far from passive.
Improv makes you pay attention and stay in the present. There’s no time to second-guess yourself or fret over how people see you. Granted, life can’t always be improv. Sometimes an issue requires reflection, and agreement isn’t always possible. More often, though, living as improvisation can pull me out of myself to say yes and move on.
Thanks to Rev. Karen Armina of Madison WI for suggesting this take on the rules adapted from Tina Fey’s Bossypants (2011).
Does anyone else remember “memory lines” from high school and before? In English classes, we chose the poems to memorize, up to an assigned number of lines. In social studies, we memorized the opening of the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the United States Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Having such bounty at my mental fingertips is a gift, for instance when I’m in the dentist’s chair wanting something to focus the mind.
Memorization went out of fashion years ago. Educators argued that it stifled creativity or analytical reasoning. Now people ask, why remember anything when you can look it up on your phone? I submit that the process of memorization exercises mental muscles, so to speak. It promotes gray matter and neuroplasticity. Creative connections draw on a supply of remembered material to connect.
When my late mother-in-law could no longer carry on a conversation, she loved to join in reciting Christopher Robin poems familiar since childhood. In a hopefully distant future, I’d like to think snippets of memorized poetry will still be with me after all else fades into oblivion.
If you happen to be near Leicester, England, tomorrow (May 29, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.), you can attend the first Richard III Annual Lecture, co-sponsored by the University of Leicester’s Medieval Research Centre and the King Richard III Visitor Centre.
Has any monarch provoked more debate after such a brief, long-ago reign? Shakespeare portrayed a hunchback villain who murdered his young nephews to usurp the throne in 1483, only to lose it—and his life—to Henry VII two years later. Historical investigation by the fictional detective in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) concludes Henry VII murdered the princes. Ricardians—Richard’s admirers—insist on Richard’s innocence and praise his judicial reforms. Click here for a teaser about the recovery of his bones.
You might find more Ricardian passion at a Society for Creative Anachronism event than a scholarly symposium on late medieval England. Ricardianism is part of a perennial grassroots rebellion against the perceived elitism of trained experts and smug academics.
It also reflects a human insistence on seeing our public figures as either saints or villains. Real-life trained historians are capable of thinking the same man a judicial reformer and a child killer, with morals irrelevant to the shape of his back.
American fascination with the British royal family used to leave me cold. Didn’t we revolt in 1776 partly to abolish such trappings? Lately I’m caught up in the excitement of royal courtships and weddings. The heritage of “the people’s princess” Diana moves forward with a new generation who talk openly about their feelings, promote human causes with empathy, and marry for love.
Some say instead of calling your daughter a princess, you should tell her she’s strong, or brave, or smart. (Or persistent, or hard-working, but that’s a topic for a different post.) Why not all of the above? Sleeping till kissed by a handsome prince makes a poor role model, but not every princess is so passive. One grew up to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
For an African American girl, a girl of mixed race, a geeky high achiever, any girl who knows she’s strong or brave or smart, why insist fairy-tale beauty and grace are always for somebody else? A princess can be smart, strong, brave, and hard-working. A princess can be a leader who influences a nation or culture. Just look at Diana, Kate, and Meghan.*
* Never mind whether they all hold the title princess. This is about images, not titles or technicalities.
How do so many authors roll out one mystery novel after another, every year or two? Plotting a mystery is one of the hardest puzzles I’ve ever tried to conquer. Granted, it’s not in the same category as human and relational matters, or organizing for social and political change, or health or spirit or physical feats. But as mental challenges go, creating a mystery plot ranks right up there.
Beyond the central crime, investigation, and solution, mysteries interweave subplots and red herrings, motives and dangers, missteps and misdirection. Multiple points of view must dovetail, even when only one is overt. Pacing must vary without letting up. Playing fair means giving readers all the essential clues without giving away the solution. Every mystery I read sets me trying to figure out not only, Who’s guilty? but, How did the author do that?
Corrine is a visual artist. In response to my second-anniversary invitation to suggest a blog topic related to writing, reading, history, imagination, or the creative life, she writes, “Your five broad topics are a part of all of my art projects. I love to include words and read a lot to find just the right ones, or they find me. I research the history in art techniques and creations to fuel my imagination and creativity.”
The part that swirls in my mind most persistently is her use of words in visual art. I’ve heard since childhood that verbal and visual processing are distinct phenomena, opposites even. Pop psychology says left-brainers deal in language and logic, while right-brainers generate creativity and art. Where does that leave those of us whose creative medium is language?
Barring brain injury, the sides of the brain work together, though their differences are real. The left is more involved in speech, the right more attuned to “Aha!” moments. The right perceives an image and the left concocts a story to interpret it. Brain scans refute the myth that being rational or intuitive reflects which side dominates. Both analysis and creativity emerge in the connections between the halves. As Corrine suggests, art draws on all the parts working together.
What comes to mind when James wants to write, he commented in March, is his life experiences mixed with current events.
Current events only matter because they affect life experience. Some effects are dire: reservists sent into combat, undocumented families torn apart, invalids denied insurance. Others are a matter of awareness and memory. Most American adults remember where they were when they heard about planes flying into the Twin Towers in 2001, or—if they’re old enough—President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 or even the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Forty-eight years ago today, President Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Protests erupted. The Ohio National Guard shot four Kent State University students dead that Monday. Effects rippled out. A mother couldn’t cross town to pick up her toddler from day care because riots blocked the streets. Another couldn’t find campus housing for her returning veteran spouse because college offices closed in the wake of the crisis.
Such experiences, largely unrecorded but seared into the memory of those involved, are the collateral damage of major public happenings. They’re partial answers to the question, what was it like to be there? Letters, diaries, and oral histories offer precious clues rarely captured in history books. Historical imagination helps fill in the blanks.
Well, duh, say the writers among you. Of course it does; we’ve had it. I propose a contrarian view. Any practice that demands continual creativity is likely to have dry spells as well as fertile ones. Don’t composers, philosophers, scientists, preachers, comedians, and cartoonists have times fresh ideas won’t come? Chefs known for culinary innovation, teachers or parents in search of new ways to capture a child’s interest—don’t they sometimes run dry? Are writers any different?
Yes, a writer may stare at a blank page and go blank. It can last an afternoon or five years. It can result from over-analysis, stress, perfectionism, trying to live up to previous success, fear of critical reviews, fatigue, distraction, or the inevitable ebb and flow of life. Of the two dozen recommended antidotes I’ve seen, most boil down to two: keep plugging, or take a break.
Maybe giving a name to creative dry spells magnifies their power. The mystique of the tortured writer paralyzed by writer’s block doesn’t help much but the ego. At least I suffer for my art. There’s less hubris in saying, I haven’t been writing much lately. It states a fact, not a condition. Putting less weight on the matter frees you to consider whether it’s a problem or just part of the ebb and flow of life.
In a poetry class at Wisconsin’s Write-by-the-Lake program, instructor Rita Mae Reese took us to the university museum to soak up a painting and write a poem about it. On a grander scale, that’s the core of Terry Tempest Williams’s Leap, a memoir of her love affair with the three-panel Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Williams writes with the eye of a naturalist, the pen of a poet, and the religious heritage of a Mormon who first watched birds from the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
Leap was in the house for years before I picked it up to read. What changed is that I assembled a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of the painting this winter. Sure, I’ve always liked Bosch, and a copy of the painting is bound into the book. But no matter how long I might stare at the Garden, there’s no way I’d study its detail as closely as in working the puzzle. Two months later, I can picture the birds flying out of a mountain or naked bodies in a pool as soon as Williams mentions them.
Her grandmother posted prints of the side panels, heaven and hell, over her childhood bed. Williams is an adult in the Prado museum in Madrid when she first sees the center panel: earth, play, discovery, sensory experience, body, passion, delight, the fullness of this life beyond good and evil. She returns day after day. She counts the cherries. Museum guards stare as she takes out binoculars and notebook to list every species of bird.
Solving a jigsaw puzzle temporarily changes my perception. Normally more attuned to maps and spatial relationships than to visual detail, for a few days or weeks I notice lines, dots, and spots of light in the world around me. I see gradations of color that I can’t usually distinguish. Poets and naturalists may see this way all the time. To strengthen my writing for sensory detail, I could do worse than to work jigsaw puzzles.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.