Background artiste from 'Better than Stars'

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Where do all the stories come from?

Ever wondered? I started thinking about this - again - after reading an article in last week's Sunday Times. Part article, part review of Jonah Lehrer's book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Stephen Armstrong considers the brain science of creativity, and how to stimulate it. As the title The answer is blowing in my alpha waves suggests, the story of how Bob Dylan wrote an iconic number - actually Like a Rolling Stone - is used as an example.
... the singer decided to quit the music industry after a harrowing European tour, and set off to write a novel [*taking the easy option then!*] in a cabin in the middle of nowhere ... [He] wanted to do nothing much apart from avoid writing another song, but soon after arriving he ... grabbed a pencil and started scribbling.
The rest is history.

It's all to do with something called alpha waves. This isn't the place for a detailed examination of the theory - and if it were I'm not the person to do it. It's controversial of course, but seems to be backed up by some scientific research.

As Armstrong says,
In a process that has yet to be understood, these [waves] suddenly flood the right brain roughly eight seconds before an idea pops into the mind ... It is alpha waves that fire up when jazz pianists are playing [*I find that amazing*]. ... According to Lehrer, Dylan's frustration and isolation combined to trigger the right hemisphere of his brain, which drew all his disparate influences into one catchy song.
As I said, I'm not going to attempt to take on the science of this, but it does chime with my own experiences as a writer, and as a practitioner and teacher in theatre. In fact, although I'm primarily a writer now, I find I'm constantly going back to what I learned in acting - obviously about role building, but more fundamentally about creativity itself.
Armstrong's thesis is that the capacity for creativity is there in all of us, waiting to be triggered by the right conditions. Stanislavsky understood that. He said that an actor should believe in the life of their character, as a child believes in the life of her doll. We are all born with the ability and desire to role play, to make marks and sounds and to move experimentally and joyfully, and to tell stories. These abilities get locked in by society's expectations and judgement: you are are weird if you continue to do these things, unless you have unusual ability.

I once watched a young actor perform. He was academically bright and took an analytical approach to his work, which was often sadly a bit wooden. This time he was just helping out a friend by playing against her for her assessment, and so not trying too hard. The result was one of the most moving pieces of theatre I've ever seen in the classroom. Freed of over-intellectualising, he produced something with real truth.

So what are the right conditions to produce that kind of magic? If only I knew, then I'd be able to bottle it. Armstrong quotes a number of different suggestions, some conflicting, some illegal. I'm with him totally on one: there's nothing like going for a walk to get the wheels in my head turning.

One thing I'm sorry the article doesn't address is what happens after the moment of inspiration. Novels take a long time to write. If you're constantly waiting for something from outside (actually inside) yourself to provide the impetus, progress is going to be slow. The gift needs to be nurtured.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Reading Delights (and how to sell them)

Last week I was playing shop amidst a feast of reading delights. Or, to put it more clearly, I did a few shifts on a bookstall at the Bath Literature Festival (sadly finished now for this year).

And not just any bookstall. I was working - oh, all right, volunteering - for the lovely Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights. (Seriously, check out the link to see just how therapeutic a bookstore can be.)

I hoped I was going to enjoy myself, but I never realised how much. People who like books are easy to be around. And I was surprised how swiftly I became interested in what was often not what I would expect to be my kind of book, when I saw it through the eyes of someone who could appreciate it. But mostly it was amazing to be surrounded by so many of them.

I don't think I've ever really thought before what nice things books are. They're more than visually attractive, they're tactile, designed to be picked up, opened and explored. And they have a life. I was quite upset recently to visit a craft fair where one of the products was books mutilated into becoming CD racks and suchlike. But I digress. Whole and healthy, they're nice things to sell.

This might sound a bit odd coming from someone whose last post announced her conversion to e-books - but don't get me wrong:  I never meant to give up the hard stuff. Why does there always have to be a choice? Dogs or cats. The Beatles or the Stones. Shakespeare or Beckett. Why can't I have them both? I think our lives are enhanced by enjoying things in as many ways as we can.