by Marie Goodwin
My attachment to books is legendary. My grandmother used to relate how I would arrive at her house with a bag full of books and curl up in a corner chair at her house for much of the duration of every visit, absorbed in words. My parents tell similar stories of my love of books, but also recall how I seemingly abandoned my love of all things literary for horses (and then eventually boys). What they did not know was that I brought books with me on my trail rides, and would always find a cool shade tree under which I would read, allowing my horse to roam and graze nearby.
This love of reading was useful in school, where I was encouraged in this pursuit above all other types of learning. It became habitual to seek the answers to all of my questions from books – the internet was not yet invented – and this too was encouraged by both my parents and teachers. It never occurred to me that doing was the best way to learn something. Reading about a problem was sufficient, and provided the two essential pillars of my young life: getting good grades and adult approval. Of course I was learning by doing all the time: how to care for my horses (and a whole host of other animals that I raised at one time or another); how to manage a garden; how to drive a car; how to care for younger siblings; how to work low-paying jobs in the adult world. I did not, however, consider this to be real learning, important learning, profound learning. Neither did the adults around me, seemingly. I was encouraged to think about college as the single most important preparation for adulthood, where more book learning would prepare me for a career, as yet unspecified.
College offered more options for Real Work, but at first I did not take advantage of them. I chose a strictly literary major, ancient Greek. Ancient Greek is a dead language. It can only be read and dissected through learning the nuance of its complicated yet beautiful grammatical structure. Some advanced students learn to write it. I spent much of my college life holed up at my kitchen table translating Plato, Euripides, Aeschylus, or Sappho. People around me went on years abroad to various European cities, held semester or summer internships, learned to play or perfect instruments, went to New York City for art exhibitions. I translated, sure that my pursuit of literature was a true path to knowledge. My friends were merely entertaining themselves with diversions.
The limits of my philological talents were readily apparent to both me and to my advisor, an archaeologist whose passion was fieldwork. He suggested that perhaps my passion for the subject might be best channeled into archaeological pursuits, not literary ones. And then he did something that changed my life, although it did not seem earth shattering at the time. He contacted a colleague of his and had me apply to a program at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, a program usually reserved for graduate students. I suspect his influence was the single factor that convinced them to accept me.
At the end of my junior year, for the first time in my life, I boarded a plane and flew to Europe to experience a place that I had read about and to work in a field that I knew only from books. That summer program at the American School revealed a world to me for which I thought I was prepared, but in actuality I had not expected or understood: the smell of Greece, the landscape; the enormity of the Parthenon coupled with the obscurity of the ruins around Sparta; the grace of ancient temples and houses alike; the sight of paint still adhering to buried tombs of Macedonian kings, their portraits as life-like as any portrait created by Renaissance masters; intricate Hellenistic and Roman mosaics, still in situ, still gracing the floors of time-obliterated houses, evidence for the grace and sophistication of a long dead culture.
We traveled the country for nine weeks, and every day was a new site, a new insight. I was overwhelmed by the experience and returned to the states exhausted. When I resumed my studies that next fall, I found the focus of my work changed. My literary pursuits were now a means to answer questions – a million questions – that I had formed in Greece. All of the reading I did now was informed by this sense of place, of having been there. For the first time in my life, at the age of 21, I realized that doing is the primary way to learn, and that only reading about a place, a thing, has substantial limits.
My senior year was rigorous, in particular because I was taking advanced Greek from a legend. He was eighty years old, walked with a cane, chain-smoked, and could free-translate the most difficult passages of Thucydides with ease. To say this terrified me is an understatement. I was his only student that year, and every week my philological weaknesses were laid bare for both of us to dissect. After a particularly hard session with him, he asked me what I thought of Greece, and when I told him of my intentions to return the next summer, he asked me why I would bother. He, in his almost 65 years of studying the subject, had never been and never wanted to go. He preferred to know Greece from the language. The modern country of Greece would inevitably disappoint him, he argued. I sat and listened to him, stunned silent.
I began studying archaeology more seriously during my senior year and prepared to return the next summer to work in Athens. When my work in Athens began, my “real work” realization the year before was underscored by the vast difference between reading about archaeological theory (imagining it as glamorous and intellectually stimulating at every turn) and the day-to-day reality of archaeological fieldwork. Archaeology is dirty, hot, hard physical labor, rarely glamorous, intellectually stimulating only in short bursts.
This lesson illustrated again how reading can and should inform our interests, but that it is only in doing that we learn a thing completely in all its nuanced complexity. It is in doing that we integrate our mind and our body and allow them to work together, the mind informing the body and the body’s experience informing the mind. The idea of learning by doing is a simple one, and yet it took me twenty-one years to fully recognize its importance in my own intellectual growth. It is, however, one of the foundations of learning that I wish my still very young children to view as vital; that doing is the best way to learn. Books can provide a foundation for learning (and surely books provide rich entertainment), but doing a thing is essential. And fun. And contributes to our communities and to our lives.
Years later, I was told that my crusty, old professor had passed away, alone, in his office – probably reading Greek. I wondered if he ever regretted his decision not to visit Greece, the history of which he had taught for the last fifty years of his life. He was a marvelous teacher, his mastery of the language complete. I had to wonder, however, how he could fully understand the place when he had never known the smell of oregano and thyme growing wild on the hills around Athens, or the sound of the cicadas in full summer, a sound that surely Plato considered a backdrop to his life. Was he able to imagine the sun setting in Athens, the rusty shadows slowly enveloping the enormity of the Parthenon? I could not imagine never knowing Greece in this way…or learning entirely from books ever again. My transformation was complete.
This essay was first published in Open Connections Magazine, April 2008.
I met my muse in a startling manner seven years ago this fall. I was taking a wheel-thrown pottery course, and (like so many do) I found that it looked easier to do than it actually was. My hands did not obey my brain’s orders when encased in slippery clay and slurry. I had a bad habit of pressing too hard with my right hand. For the life of me, I could not get the feel of the centered clay, so any pot that I pulled from my slightly-off-kilter hump would look lopsided and, well, just plain bad. I really wanted to learn this skill, however, so I took two separate “beginners” classes over a period of about six months. As the months progressed, I began to get frustrated and considered abandoning my hopes of becoming a potter.
My muse came to me in a dream, in which I saw my hands on a hump of clay that was spinning on the wheel. My clumsy attempts to center were gone. Instead I carefully and effortlessly felt the clay as it centered, and then I pulled a pot carefully but with skill. I could feel every motion – the cold clay, the smooth centered wet mound in my hands spinning, the rubbing of the wheel on the edges of my hands, how my fingers were pressing delicately to thin out the sides – everything finally made sense. I woke the next morning, eager for my class later that day, sure that I could now center my pots correctly. And I was right. I could, from that day forward, center my pots with ease, although admittedly, there have been many other potting challenges since then.
How many times have you been able to solve a problem from a vivid dream as I was, or thought of the perfect response to a question in a conversation – two days later? How many of you have had “ah-ha” moments about a home renovation dilemma while cooking dinner, or the solution to a simmering problem after not thinking about it for a week or a month?
This is your creative mind at work, but it is only one step in the entirety of the creative process. Granted, it is the step that gets the most attention in people’s imaginations or storytelling (think Newton’s apple), but it is only the last step in a three stage mental process that defines the core of what we know about creative thinking.
The Three Steps of a Creating Brain (1)
The first step is data gathering. When presented with a problem, humans tend to first search out information about the issue. We read books, magazines, journals, and Internet articles. We interview people who know something about the issue. We do a lot of talking to others and ourselves about the problem at hand. We move three dimensional objects in space, or draw out the problem in an effort to visualize its solution. This part of the creative process requires a specialized skill-set: being open to conflicting information, the ability to take in and process information from varied sources, as well as the ability to listen without judgment. Young people are naturally good at these skills and readily apply them to all problem solving experiences. Adults, however, seem to unlearn these creative skills as they mature, tending to approach varied problems from reiterative perspectives as well as self-censoring themselves based upon past experiences or the judgments of others.
An important aspect of our ability to be fully creative is whether we have enough “background information” to make sense of the task at hand. Do we understand the language well enough to know exactly what the problemto-be-solved is? Do we have skill-sets that allow us to tackle some parts of the problem? Have we had experiences in our lives that inform us about parts of the problem? If we have too little experience or understanding, our mind cannot be creative to its full potential. If we have too much information, the problem is simply solved and boring. There is a space of opportunity, where our skills match the problem at hand, and that paring of ability and challenge allows for a state of mind called “flow” by neuroscientists.(2) Flow is that time when one is completely absorbed by a problem, and time seems to stand still or move slowly.
Why is it that young people are so good at gathering information and processing it in novel ways? Why is it that they enter “flow” with such ease? Preadolescents have a different brain wave constitution than adults. Their brain activity is rich in theta waves.(3) Theta waves are rare in adults but occur frequently in that in-between state when we are just falling asleep, that jumble of images, memories, and ideas (what my son calls “the twitching time.”) Puberty changes the brain structure dramatically,(4) and the theta waves are no longer dominant. So the brains of young people are naturally filled with this creative jumble of images, ideas, and connections that are so rich during the adult theta wave pre-sleep state, allowing them to make associations that are unconventional and novel.
The second process of a creative mind at work is the digestion of the information. Only a small part of this process is done consciously. We are unconsciously working on problems most of the time, our brain searching neural pathways and networks for connections as we eat, sleep, talk, play, and generally live our day-to-day lives. Even if your conscious mind is really struggling with the issue at hand, your brain is at work on more subtle levels, looking for creative connections. Your unconscious mind uses memories as well as emotions to try and find new and unlikely associations. Quite often, if the problem is particularly vexing, unconscious mental space is needed to allow the brain to do “its job.” It is helpful to engage in unrelated activities, such as thinking of other things, or slipping away from problem solving mode by meditating, sleeping, exercising, playing with your children…doing anything that keeps your mind relaxed and at peace.
The third process is when the insight comes to you.(5) There can be big “ah-ha” moments, or slow, processinfused “ah-ha” moments (i.e. those that come to you as you work through complex problems one step at a time, so there isn’t one big solution, but several small ones that work in conjunction.) There are few feelings as good as when you have creatively solved a problem that is vexing to you or you have found your creative voice in an artistic manner. For me, it is one of life’s great joys.
When asked to define creativity, most people focus on artistic achievement. That is only one specific aspect of the overall view that neuroscientists promote as creativity. For them, true creativity is defined by using a new approach to a problem, whether that problem is novel or common. Howard Gardner, the author of the seminal book on multiple intelligences entitled Frames of Mind, (6) suggests that everyone is creative in their own way in areas of interest to them. Creativity, however, needs to be used and encouraged early in life, thus building confidence over time in one’s own creative abilities. Young people, as well as adults, need opportunities to learn to listen to their creative thoughts and instincts in order to develop flexible thinking skills – skills that are important to thriving and contributing to our world.
Creative thinkers tend to exhibit many of the following traits: they feel free to challenge all assumptions about a problem, including core beliefs (morality, “givens,” scientific or social “laws,” etc.) Most creative thinkers have a fine-tuned sense of intuition and they listen to it. Everyone makes mistakes, but creative thinkers take pleasure from their mistakes, seeing them as opportunities to learn and fine-tune their problem-solving skills. Creativity requires working within community, and creative people know how to listen to others’ ideas without dismissing any as impossible or implausible. When you find people having fun with their work, you will often find creativity at its finest. It is easier to be creative when your whole being enjoys the work at hand. And finally, creative people tend to have a supportive environment around them; positive people, whom they trust and respect, necessary supplies, and aesthetically pleasing habitats are examples of this.
So often, however, we stifle creative thinking by employing “creativity killers.” These come in many packages. It is hard to be creative when you are watched and hovered over. Another hindrance to creativity is the feeling that you are being evaluated and will ultimately fail. Similarly, feeling like you will fail, and in failing, that you will be judged (or lose face) removes all joy from an activity and focuses the participant to merely “get it over with” rather than spend time creating. Creativity is also stifled by being told how you “must” do something rather than being able to explore things on your own. Feeling a pressure to perform, whether that pressure is internal or external, also hinders creative thinking. Finally, time limits that interfere with “flow” take away our ability to work through problems thoroughly and at our own pace. Encouraging the positive traits of creative thinking while reducing the “creativity killers” in your life and in the life of your child can maximize the creative process for your family.
And now, since I do not have a grand finale to this article readily available in my mind, I will move on to another unrelated task and hope that one comes to me before I have to submit this article to editing. I have gathered all of my information and processed it over several days before writing this article. Perhaps I will be granted an “ah-ha” moment in an hour, while picking my son up at an activity, or in a day or two. Perhaps it will come the day after the deadline for this article. That’s more like my luck! I will acknowledge and banish all of the creativity killers lingering in my mind, and then sleep on it. Perhaps if I go out and play with my children and enjoy the beautiful fall day with them and meditate on their innate and quite active creative minds, maybe then I will find some inspiration. We’ll see.
1. The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. Nancy C. Andreasen. Plume (2006.)
2. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. M. Csikszentmihalyi. Basic Books (1997.)
3. Creativity and the Brain. Kenneth Heilman. Psychology Press (2005.)
4. The best description that I’ve found of what this brain restructuring is and what it means to teens is in The Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pierce.
5. Ibid. 3.
6. Frames of Mind. Howard Gardner. Fontana Press (1993.) An updated work is Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons, by the same author (2006.)
First published in Open Connections Magazine, October 2007
Sadie has wandered late to words. She's taken the path of nature and imaginary play, and turned her nose up at the stories others might give to her in books. She's not yet interested in other people's stories. But lately, there is a tint (just a vague, almost invisible ruddiness) of interest in writing down some of her thoughts and questions.
We took a walk the other day, mostly to calm my mind about the state of our country and the world, which seems to be fraying at the seams of ignorance and anger and self-righteousness lately. I asked the kids to bring notebooks and use the world as a source for some writing and deep observing, and then sent them off on their own. Mostly so I could hear myself think and listen to the wind and the birds and the water.
Sadie, who used to sob when confronted with the written word, handed me this.
I Move with the Water
When I hear the water I feel like I am calm,
like I could live forever.
It makes me feel like I might fall into a deep trance;
and I fall deeper every time.
It is see-through.
The reflection is amazing.
The water and the music it plays heals my soul.
It is a race against time;
every drop is in the race and
I am in the race too.
I move with the water.
It's not The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, but I couldn't be more happy that she is finding her voice and letting us all know what is inside waiting to come out.
I am reminded of my unschooling mantra, which I find myself remembering daily these days: Let go of attachment to outcome and they will arrive just where they need to be.
Photo by Berit from Redhill/Surrey, UK (Creative Commons)