Thinking and Creating at Ground Level: learning from a 9 year old

Watch this:

It’s no surprise, this clip has gone viral on YouTube. I don’t think we should be surprised to hear evidence that a 9 year old thinks deeply about the meaning of life and the universe. I’m prepared to take it at face value and, even if he’s repeating verbatim material from overheard adult conversations. That’s not the point I want to bring out in this post.

What is the important difference between this and a TED talk?

At a TED talk, the speaker doesn’t roll around on the floor scratch the ground, swing a baseball bat, shred twigs and stare at the sky. At some point in our development, an adult tells us,

Stop fidgeting!

Stand still!

Sit up straight!

Look at me when I’m talking to you!

Right there I think we start to lose something.

Last Autumn, I spent a total of about thirty man-hours at floor level with primary school kids. No furniture, just crayons and paper and our imaginations. I was co-authoring a storybook with them. Although I used muscles I’d forgotten I had, and I ached every night, I rediscovered the joy of creating at ground level and fidgeting incessantly, and I began to experience an awakening of creativity and a shift in perspective that I suspect had something to do with going back to a 9 year old’s way of working.

I have begun to incorporate ‘floor time’ into my creative practice. The floor is bigger than a desk and offers so much more potential for spatial interaction with ideas.

When I was about 11, I was so impressed with the idea of the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’ that I sellotaped together a long line of A4 sheets and drew the story of the stuff I was into at the time: frisbee battles, water bombs, balloon helicopters, forts with heavily defended ramparts, and various inventions such as my toothpaste-powered boat and the perpetual motion machine I was certain would make me famous. I never finished the ‘tapestry’, I just kept adding to it until it went a few times around the room.

I have never been able to dismiss my curiosity about how life might be without furniture, ever since I heard that living on the floor (eating, sleeping, learning) was the norm at Gandhi’s ashrams. In fact, for most people outside of the West, it is still a way of life.

The positive implications of floor living and fidgeting, for posture, bone and muscle, economics and energetics, are probably fruit for a few more posts. But, for now, how might some floor time benefit your creative practice?

Creativity and the Edge Effect or “Yo-Yo Ma and Monkeys”

Earlier this week (8th April), Yo-Yo Ma delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

He called it “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician”, and it is well worth reading the transcript or watching the talk. As he champions the cultivation of collaboration, flexibility, imagination, and innovation, his vision of the future workforce is neatly echoed by a new study from Wikia and Ipsos MediaCT called “GenZ: The Limitless Generation”, which suggests these are the very strengths that Generation Z will bring to the table.

However, when Yo-Yo Ma articulates how a biological phenomenon, “the edge effect”, applies to the arts, you can hear the rubber biting the tarmac. This is not new, but he puts it well:

“In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of “edge effect.” In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”

In my final year as an undergraduate in Anthropology, an interest in the edge effect drove me to spend five weeks studying Cercopithecus aethiops (the vervet monkey) in the wild.

Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey (Via Wikipedia)

This primate is virtually ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa, having even adapted to urban settings in some cases. They also have one of the most complex documented “languages” or systems of calls and vocalisations of any species. I had an inkling that, in some way, the complexity of their language would be matched by a fluidity in social organisation and driven by their occupation of marginal environments (edges) and, ultimately, the physical distribution of their food.

Without boring you with the details, in grossly simplified terms, a gorilla sits around and grunts a lot because most of his food is the same and in the same place. He also has a rigid social structure that has to do with who gets to sit in the middle, eat the good stuff and who defends the territory. The vervet, on the other hand, exploits a huge variety of foods, distributed almost randomly in a marginal environment with lots of space in between. He has to have a language to talk to his tribe fifty meters away and tell them where the good stuff is (or the bad stuff, like predators or anthropologists). He also doesn’t benefit hugely from eating in the same tree as everyone else, so social structure is more “easy-come-easy-go”.

Why does this matter? I asked myself that a few hundred times as I tried to follow the critters for hours through dense bush on mosquito-bitten legs. But it seems likely that innovations, such as language and walking upright, happened under very similar circumstances in the mysterious pre-prehistory of our own species.

Back to the Kennedy centre …

Ma brings on a series of artistes to illustrate the edge effect. What does it look like, for instance, when Lil’ Buck performs his own street-forged dance moves to “The Swan” by Saint-Saens?

He then points out that the pianist on stage with him, Cristina Pato, is also Cristina Pato the bagpipe player from Galicia, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, who just released her first jazz CD.

“One might say she is an artist who creates her own edge effect!”

That fascinates me!

I don’t think we are particularly comfortable with polymaths these days. Fame, success means being the biggest fish in one pond, not the second biggest in two, or the third biggest in three ponds.

I’m not a Leonardo da Vinci and nor are you (probably), but what can I do to be less of a gorilla: to occupy and exploit the fringes where linguistic innovation flourishes and social interaction is open and uncharted?

Firstly, as someone who primarily wordsmiths, I don’t hang out much with other writers. I love you guys (and gals), hugely, but sometimes I feel mildly threatened because we are grazing the same patch. Hooking me up with a muso, thesp, calligrapher, or chef is more likely to bring out the best in me (with the exception of a mime, perhaps).

Secondly, I hate it when people wibble on about “getting out of your comfort zone”. This is probably because I’m very happy in my comfort zone, thank you, but I’m also very tired of the cliché. Is there a better way to put it?

  • Induce a creative crisis (go analogue for a week).
  • Go on an artist date (indulge in thrill-seeking).
  • Study a parallel discipline (photographers, pick up a paint brush).
  • Throw away the dummy (burn those notebooks, there are plenty of fresh ideas where those ones came from).
  • Move the furniture around (sit next to someone different at the next meeting).
  • Get into your collaboration zone (thanks to one of my favourite collaborators, noahsapprentice, for this suggestion)

Whatever it takes …

How might you create your own edge effect?

I’m just kidding about the mime, by the way.

A Dragon at the Core of Literature: 1,500-year-old writing advice from China

Wanglongsi zaoxiang

Wanglongsi zaoxiang (Via Wikipedia)

Liu Xie (c.470-539 AD) was a literary critic during the Liang Dynasty, a time and place where to become a writer was a matter of a long apprenticeship in courts or monasteries and even bureaucratic documentation was a work of art. His great work “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” captures both the mysticism and asceticism of the writer’s craft in all times and in all places. Although this work is about fifteen thousand years old, I go back to it repeatedly for a fresh vision and, at times, a stern talking to, in the great tradition of far eastern masters.

My translation (by the brilliant Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) is in a rare volume of assorted prose and poetry from the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, published in Beijing by Panda in 1986. I found this book and appropriated it from my parent’s bookshelves a long time ago. It still contains scribbled marginal notes in my 15-year-old’s handwriting – from my Buddhist phase.

The tract as good as opens with these fine words, enough to bring anyone back to the page with fresh expectancy:

“Thoughts shaped in silence can reach a thousand generations to come.”

Liu Xie is a proponent of an immersive, intentional and disciplined approach to writing that involves every level of an author’s being:

“A man should cleanse his heart, purify his spirit, amass knowledge to store up learning, use reason to increase his capabilities, study things carefully to improve his powers of observation, and train himself in the use of the right phrase. Then the mind, pre-eminent, can seek out rhythm to guide the pen and like a skilled craftsman give fitting form to ideas.”

He goes on to give “fancy” its rightful place as “the prime requirement in writing”, assuming that the previous stipulations on spiritual purity and training have been fulfilled, of course:

“When we give rein to our fancy, innumerable paths open up ahead; we plot any course we please, inlay any invisible pattern. Would we climb a mountain? Our spirit soars above it. Survey the ocean? Our ideas reach over the sea. Whatever talents we have seem to race with the wind and the clouds; we take up a pen, inspired beyond all telling, but the work when written may express only half of what was in our hearts. This is because an idea not yet formulated may easily seem striking but it is hard to set down skilfully in so many words. Thoughts pass into ideas, ideas into language, sometimes corresponding so closely that no discrepancy exists, sometimes so loosely that a thousand li stretch between. An argument may be at hand while you seek it at the horizon; an idea may be hard by yet hid from your mind as if by mountains and rivers. So to improve his writing a man should train his mind and not count on simply cudgelling his brains. Once he knows the right way to express himself, no undue exertions are needed.”

Next, he suggests that some thinkers are slow and spend years conceiving, executing and polishing their work, while others are quick and discharge treatises between waking and taking breakfast. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between these extremes, you must embrace it.

I am very thankful to be closer to the fast end: I’m already almost bored with writing this post (in my lunch break). In a few minutes, I’ll hit “publish” without reviewing it, and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ll probably never produce a great work like Zuo Si who spent a dozen years on his essay on the Three Imperial Cities, but I can live with that.

I get the impression that Liu Xie is telling us that, as long as the work of studying the classics, “delving into changes in style, and understanding the forms of literature” has been done “, we can “give birth to new ideas and fashion striking images” according the speed of our thought, but almost unconsciously.

Learning to write well is like learning to drive skilfully, it becomes a matter of muscle memory and reflex, with long practice and deep immersion in the canon of all ages.

Later in the work, he attacks those who “counterfeit feeling” for the sake of art. He points out that the composers of old folk songs genuinely gave voice to their anguish but that many later poets feigned sentiment for the sake of a dazzling turn of phrase. It’s a timely reminder of the need to write what we know, from the heart. This is absolutely one of my values as a wordsmith; when we tell lies, we do it with words, and yet we also propagate truth, clarity and revelation with words.

There is a sense throughout “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” of the office that writers hold and the service that writers provide to society, and of the seriousness with which this must be taken. This was ever the way in less literate times and places, where even the ability to reproduce and comprehend the shapes of alphabets and pictographies was for an elite. In spite of the great syndication of the scribe’s art that has taken place since Caxton, I think there are still those who are entrusted with the continuation of this special role in relation to how humanity thinks aloud about itself … on paper.

“We cannot meet the men of old face to face, but by reading their works we can see into their hearts … A man of deep understanding and keen observation will have the same pleasure in his mind as a crowd of revellers on the terrace in spring or travellers stopping for good music and food. Just as the orchid, king of fragrant flowers, becomes more fragrant when worn; so books, which are sovereign flowers too, reveal their beauty when studied and analysed. Let men of discrimination ponder this!”

Fascinating Tangrams

English: Napoleon Bonaparte, or Napoleon I of ...

Napoleon Bonaparte – alleged Tangram addict (Wikipedia)

I speculate that the only thing I have in common with Napoleon Bonaparte is a fascination for a Chinese puzzle called the “Tangram“. If I persist with this growing obsession, will I also become a charismatic leader and a brilliant tactician, or will I spiral into eccentric neuroses?

This game was imported from the Orient to Europe in the early 1800s and quickly became a craze across the continent – it was the “Angry Birds” of its time, I suppose. I see no reason to debunk the exotic myths around the origins of the Tangram. When I am manipulating the seven geometric shapes to produce a seemingly infinite array of shapes and figures, the feeling that I’m dabbling in an ancient secret like the i-Ching is a big part of the thrill. I am ever expectant that cracking some combination of shapes will unlock another dimension of geometric reality. Perhaps this explains why tipping the black tiles out onto a table or looking at a new problem gives me the same feeling of comfortable anticipation that I used to get from pulling a cigarette out of a packet.

To “play” the Tangram (literally known as the “seven boards of wisdom” in Chinese), you need a set of seven flat puzzle pieces that are cut from a square. They consist of five right-angled isosceles triangles (two large, two small and one medium) a trapezoid and a square. The “problems” to be solved come in the form of silhouetted shapes that the player must form using all the pieces. It is often more difficult than it looks. It becomes slightly easier after about the 100th puzzle has been solved, once the player has a feel for the ways in which the shapes can combine. However, it is still fiendishly challenging at times and there are “advanced” levels of problems that require no further upgrades, subscriptions or downloads – just the same seven pieces.

It is the very simplicity of  these seven basic shapes and the infinite complexity of the shapes they can create by recombination that first appealed to me and drew me in.

Tangram image Created from File:Tangram_base_N...

Asymmetrical Symmetry (Wikipedia)

As the infection of Tangramicitis spread through my neurons, I found it particularly satisfying that the conflict between my two inner aesthetes (the recalcitrant one that loves symmetry and the boisterous one that loves asymmetry) was amicably settled. Even completing a symmetrical outline with the shapes requires that they be placed asymmetrically in relation to each other – and this is where the mind needs to scuttle sideways and look for the less obvious answer.

Outlines of symmetrical shapes, that have asymmetrical solutions are just one of the types of Tangram problem, however. Two other types of problem have their own appeal.

Goose Tangram

I wouldn’t mess with this goose.

Firstly, the pieces can be combined to make the outlines of birds, animals, characters in various poses, faces in profile, household objects, boats, buildings … virtually anything. Sometimes the sense of character or dynamic movement that these outlines seem to have is surprising and particularly delightful.

Secondly, the intermediate player can tackle puzzles known as “paradoxes”. These are pairs or series of outlines that appear to have extra parts or bits missing or otherwise seem to have a larger or smaller surface area, in spite of being made using the same seven shapes.

The  Tangram has, not surprisingly, influenced architecture, furniture design, graphics and mathematics and I feel there is mysterious potential here for the writer in me, too – if only I could get to the nub of it. One of the many stories about the origins of the game tells of a man long ago called Tan who was carrying a beautiful ceramic tile as a gift to his emperor. According to the story, he tripped and dropped the tile, and it smashed into seven pieces. His dismay turned to joy as he picked them up and saw that they could be used to make beautiful shapes of birds in flight. Other creation myths suggest a connection between the Tangram and ancient Egypt. Maybe it was a gift from our ancient alien ancestors? Who knows …

two figure tangram

Two Figure Tangram (Steven W)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a broken tile and have promised myself that I may solve one more problem before lights out.

One Big Story … Part I

This month, I have the joy of working with 300 year five and six pupils from Durham City schools  to turn their ideas into One Big Story: an epic and imaginative tale that will be published in paperback in October.

Scary? No, this is just my storytelling face (Photo: Robyn Trainer 2012)

This one of the most exciting things I have done for a while; it ticks about a hundred boxes for the things I love doing: creative writing, stimulating other people’s imaginations and helping them to realise their creative ideas, being able to say the magical word “story” about 50 times a day and share my passion for the written word.

I’m working as part of a team alongside Christina Maiden (Off The Page Drama) and Robyn Trainer (Floral Footsteps), running whole day workshops in primary schools, getting children to invent and develop ideas for stories and working collaboratively to forge them into a coherent narrative.

Remarkably, it turns out to be quite possible to take the ideas of 30-40 children at a time and guide them into creating a story together as long as you think on your feet and prepare yourself for almost anything to happen. Not to give too much away, but we are half way through the project already and have five out of ten chapters mapped out. The children have taken us beyond our own imaginations into their own world where there are a lot of fights involving food and an awful lot of ghoulish characters in which the malevolent and comedic are theatrically blended.

It has been very encouraging to see that literacy is alive and kicking in every school we have visited so far; I’m the one getting educated.

In less than a month, we will be holding the book in our hands and you, too, will be able to read what happens when children create the sort of story that they would like to read … watch this space …

A Poem: For James

I have a folder with maybe an hundred poems in it; most of them were written between 1994 and 1999 and covered the span of time from GCSEs to my final year at University. In the last thirteen years my poetic productivity has died to a trickle. I have lost my way a bit. I feel embarrassed by the panting romanticism of the early stuff and the technicolour emotions and tangible intimations of immortality that fueled my late teens are not  as keenly felt as I approach my mid-thirties.

When I was at school, I was surrounded by poetry.  There were three of us in my A level English Literature class where poetry was inescapable, there was an annual poetry prize, there was even a Dead Poets Society and there was a library with a well stocked poetry section. With some friends and some support from the English department, I started a small literary magazine called “Apex”. These days I have to fight to make space in my life for reading poetry, let alone writing it, but there has been a modest output. Here’s one I wrote for a friend a few years ago:

For James
 
there’s a person i know i could be
theres a woodsman and a soldier in me
a weather beaten soul that’s rarely seen
i know he’s there because he’s been in my dreams
 
there’s a monk called brother somebody
who leaves his cell to cross the sea
he doesn’t fear and he doesn’t flee
but stands on the weatherdeck scorning the lee
 
i have felt his anger and desire to be free
his feelings and mine always agree
his indian name is strong-man-going-boldly
god’s breath must be in him or he couldn’t breathe
 
a strong man this woodsman must be
to fell the hulk of my family tree
a bold soldier too and armed to the teeth
gallantry and loyalty stirring beneath
 
his bayonet gouges mediocrity
and the monk steps out on a distant beach
salt on his lips that are burning to preach
and he speaks of my soul and who i could be

More poetry postings from this blog can be found here.

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A Doodle a Day: Part VI

Sometimes writing in my journal feels too much like work, so I turn to my storyboard Moleskine and doodle instead – it’s never difficult to fill a simple little rectangle with something that comes to mind. I never try to read too much into what comes out on the page and you shouldn’t either. I have to admit that some of  this latest batch is influenced by Graham McCallum’s book “400 Art Deco Motifs“, which is a recent source of inspiration.

Research tells us that “doodling improves concentration” so we should all do more of it.

The world is not enough.

Boxed Bird

Fife and Drum

Background

Surprised Horse

 

Devon Coast

Want more? Here is a link to my other doodle postings.

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