from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 9 April 2012

reason & imagination

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift. ~ Albert Einstein

Those kind people among you who have been reading my blog fairly consistently for a while now will know that in one guise or another this dyad of reason and imagination crops up quite a lot in my concerns. There's a great deal to say about this in socio-political /philosophical terms, but that's a book-length essay to do with the pluses and minuses of big cultural shifts in European thinking between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and how the emphasis has been weighted in our educational system.

It's a Bank Holiday Monday, and like many self-employed people I need to work today – I'm off to the Hebrides at the end of the week and I feel a little over-faced by my work-to-do list, and practical stuff like sorting my car out (whoever thought that computer-run cars would solve our transport problems? – at least on my old cars I knew where the points, plugs and mixture screws were and roughly what to do with them should things not tick over nicely. And yes, I know – am trying hard how to work out how to continue to live out in the sticks and not own a car...). Anyway, the upshot of that is that, luckily perhaps for you, this will be a briefish blog (relative to what it might have been, anyway!).

One of the things I have been finding consistently in the 20+ years I've been leading courses in creativity is that the more highly-educated a person is, often the more difficult s/he finds it to allow a kind of freewheeling process of consciousness to happen. This latter is a necessity for original creative thinking, I believe. So often the 'trained' mind throws up blocks to the sometimes-chaotic-seeming processes of the imagination, usually in the form of the 'internal critic'. (One of the habits we need to learn as writers is, I believe, to trick and bribe the internal critic to leave us alone when we need it, and to invite it in when appropriate, later in the process. I've written a lot on this in two books, Writing the Bright Moment, and Creative Novel Writing, as well as in various previous blogs, so I won't follow that through here.)

In the 1990s someone asked me to teach a 20-term novel writing course in Plymouth for Adult Education (The Guardian did a write-up). It was an interesting challenge for me: not least because the course was to be both unselected and intensive (since then, although the courses have been intensive, I have differentiated between experienced writers and complete novices in terms of many of the courses I run, on the whole, for people to feel that they can get the best out of the course). 

Of the 27 people who initially signed up (some dropped out), two stood out as being exemplars of very different approaches. One was a woman with a highly-trained mind and a doctorate. The other was a dockyard worker who'd left school in his early teens. Cliché though it is, the docker had a phenomenal imagination but lacked the means to articulate his ideas; the doctor had an exemplary academic writing style but froze when asked to do any exercise not founded in rational thinking styles.

While I believe it's absurdly reductionist and materialistic to suppose that mind and consciousness are merely the products of neural firings in the brain, it's useful as shorthand to speak in terms of 'left brain hemisphere' and 'right brain hemisphere'. The left brain is the mode favoured in our culture: it is responsible for, among other things, the literal, logic, deduction, analysis and reason, and the formation of speech and language (it is seen esoterically as the 'masculine' mode). The right brain, on the other hand, seems altogether more chaotic: its field is associative thinking, connectivity, imagery and, loosely, feeling-based responses (and yes of course it's no coincidence that it's been associated with the feminine principle, itself deeply underrated in current mainstream/Establishment values). 

It seems to me imperative that, to be whole beings, we find ways to combine these modes, just as it seems imperative to bring together, internally as individuals, but also externally in our cultures, both thinking and feeling responses to the world. (I have lots to say about this, too, but again I've addressed some of these concerns in relation to the archetypal significance of the Grail legends from early in the last millennium – and earlier than that – in Riding the Dragon.)

Simplistic though this sounds (and probably is), when as a non-teacher I'm working in a school and am told of the 'special needs' pupils, I tend to assume that these students will respond more readily to eg sensory stimulus: images, music, concrete experience and felt experience. So often that it would be laughable if it weren't that our education system is ignorant, on the whole, of this and its importance, these are the pupils who can make lightning intuitive connections between situations and objects that seem initially to be disparate.

This has been a hobby-horse of mine for as long as I can remember. So I was delighted to read in The Guardian magazine on Saturday an article on creativity (focused on a breakthrough in the songwriting of Bob Dylan): 'A rush of blood to the head', by Jonah Lehrer.

He speaks of the necessity of those moments of blinding insight to the creative process, and quotes those well-known examples of Newton under his apple tree and Archimedes in his bath (other examples are Crick and Watson's work on DNA, and Kekulé's cracking of the molecular structure of benzene). It is as if the 'left brain' can only go so far, and then, in our frustration at an impasse, we occupy ourselves with something else, and the freewheeling state of unfocused consciousness allows the 'right brain' to draw together not only the strands that are the products of conscious rational thought, but also what we already know but don't know we know – which may in itself be a drawing-together of the personal and/or collective subconscious, in Jungian terminology, with the superconscious 'higher' modes of intuitive perception.

Lehrer also mentions the work done in the 1990s by Mark Beeman at the National Institute of Health in America with patients who'd suffered right hemisphere damage. The initial thinking was that the right hemisphere was, in effect, not just clumsy but more or less redundant, and the patients were 'lucky' that the damage was limited 'only' to the right hemisphere.  'But Beeman noticed', says Lehrer, 'that many patients with right hemisphere damage nonetheless had serious cognition problems even though the left hemisphere had been spared. "Some of these patients couldn't understand jokes or sarcasm or metaphors," Beeman said. "Others had a tough time using a map, or making sense of paintings."' Eventually 'Beeman realised that all of the problems experienced by his patients involved making sense of the whole,' [my emphasis] 'seeing not just the parts but how they hang together.' In other words, it connects fragments. I say this because I'm so aware, as many of us must be, at how fragmented our world seems. Perhaps there is a relationship here between the emphasis on the rational mode of differentiation emphasised in our culture since the enlightenment, and the downgrading of associative thinking modes?

Lehrer continues: 'Take the language deficits caused by right hemisphere damage. Beeman speculated that, while the left hemisphere handles denotation – it stores the literal meanings of words – the right hemisphere deals with connotation, or all the meanings that can't be looked up in the dictionary. Metaphors are a perfect example of this. From the perspective of the brain, a metaphor is a bridge between two ideas that, at least on the surface, are not equivalent or related.'

One of the tasks I set my poetry course students very early on is to learn to look, as a habit, for new metaphors – in other words, to develop or progress associative thinking. The importance of this can't be overstated.

Lehrer says, and it's been my experience too – and no doubt you'll recognise this if you too rely on your creativity in your work and/or your life – that every creative journey begins with a problem. 'It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer.' This in itself takes us to the edge of quitting – which of course, ironically, is also the threshold of breakthrough insights (this is the thrust of Lehrer's reportage on Dylan's song 'Like a Rolling Stone', which he describes as ushering in not only a new and enduring phase in Bob Dylan's own writing, but a revolution in rock'n'roll generally).

If we're in the habit of being creative, we'll all know the rituals we can develop around facilitating the creative process – it's rather like leaving out raisins and honey in the hopes of catching sight of an elusive badger – in order to experience those precious epiphanies that take our work into a different sphere.

Lehrer speaks too, interestingly, of how important the use of structured forms are for poets to facilitate this process of enabling new insight: 'Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.'

Just so. I'd say that while you occupy the left brain with a 'join the dots' kind of problem that taxes the rational mind, the right brain is free to do what it does best, akin to pollen-collecting from a meadowful of flowers to make a teaspoon or two of honey.

So, dear correspondence course students, when you complain at having to create forms which so many of us love to hate, be reassured that I don't just include them to give you a hard time!


Jonah Lehrer's book Imagine: How Creativity Works is published by Canongate Books on 19 April.

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