The Aesthetics of Childhood

Being close to the ground has its advantages. You can fit much more convincingly into small hiding places. When you fall, you can get up that much quicker and keep running. And, being small, you notice more small things. Not just because you are small, but because you are young and you haven’t yet become too busy or too jaded or too bored. You notice the way your toy car drives over the dirt mounds you have created. You notice the way an ant crawls over your arm. You notice how it feels to squeeze mud between your toes. And you don’t just notice these things. You find them magical, beautiful.

James Digging

This is not to say that adults never do these things. Of course we do. But I don’t think we do them as often or as purely as children do. This is not a novel concept. The “mud between the toes” example is pretty cliche, in fact. But what was novel about the idea, at least to me, was that in doing these things, children are being artists. They are creating their own aesthetic experiences and finding beauty in them. And not because they are told to, or because they are trying to be “creative”, but merely because they are children.

I had considered this before, in thinking about my own childhood and trying to trace a line from what I found beautiful as a child to what kind of person I am today. But my thoughts on the subject became clearer when I read the following quote from The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present by Eric Kandel:

“We think that art is universal because each human was designed by evolution to be an artist, driving her own mental development according to evolved aesthetic principles. From infancy, self-orchestrated experiences are the original artistic medium, and the self is the original and primary audience. Although others cannot experience the great majority of our self-generated aesthetic experiences, from running and jumping to imagined scenarios, there are some avenues of expression that can be experienced by the creator and others.”

This passage is actually a quote that Kandel took from an article entitled “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Aesthetics, Fiction, and the Arts” by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides in the journal SubStance. As a side note, I recommend The Age of Insight to anyone interested in art, psychology, neuroscience, history of thought, or any combination of these. It gets a little technical at times and has some hard-to-trudge-through parts, but all in all it is quite insightful and thought-provoking.

What I found worthy of reflection in the above passage was that 1) in play, children are creating art; 2) they themselves are the main, and most times only, audience of this art; and 3) this view broadens and loosens the answer to the age-old question, What is art? The idea that even running and jumping can be considered art was really intriguing to me. The three year old runs really fast and then she stops really fast, and she’s proud of herself that she was able to stop so fast, and she notices what her body feels like when she does that, and she experiences in a special way the relationship she has to her surroundings. That feeling, whatever it is, that’s the art. It’s quite a lovely idea, don’t you think?

Considering this view of childhood experience has also helped me in my role as a mother. My son is now two years old, so he is out there exploring the world and figuring out his place in it, tantrums and all. I have always been conscious of letting him explore, when, say, we’re out on a walk around the neighborhood, and not rushing him when he stops to pick up a rock or run around in circles, et cetera. But even though I knew it was important to let him do this, I would still find myself getting impatient at times if we were not moving along as quickly as I wanted to. But since reading this passage, whenever I start to feel impatient I just remind myself, “He’s creating art.” This helps me see the experience from his perspective and even participate in it with him, which in turn probably gives him more confidence in his own thoughts and observations.

So for all you adults reading this, adults who don’t already consider yourself artists, take heart. Let this idea of experience as art, art as experience, broaden your own outlook on everyday life. Maybe it’s what people mean when they talk about “mindfulness.” I’m not sure. But it’s the idea that there is art to be had everywhere; your being especially conscious and aware is the art, seeing things with the fresh eyes of a child.

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Just a Short Thought

In David Brooks’s recent op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Creative Climate”, he says that creative people “cultivate…the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.” But I think this isn’t quite right. I don’t think creativity is a result of holding two opposing ideas, but rather of seeing the similarity between two seemingly opposed ideas. This might be a minor distinction, but I think it’s an important one.

If two ideas are actually opposed, with no way to reconcile them, then holding both is not creative, it is foolish. What is creative is taking two ideas that most other people see as opposed and showing how they can be integrated. Maybe Mr. Brooks and Roger Martin, whom he cites in that same sentence, would agree with me, and they were just using sloppy language. But I thought it was worth pointing out nonetheless.

Do You Agree With Stephen King?

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says that stories aren’t things to be plotted out beforehand, they are things to be found — dug up, like fossils. He says — and he seems to mean it quite literally — that all stories exist already, like in their own special dimension or something, and it is the writer’s job to find them and extract them while keeping them as intact as possible.

I’m not sure how many writers would agree with this — I feel like if a lot of people felt this way, I would have heard it before. But I have to admit that I rather like it. Of all the things I’ve wanted to “be” throughout my life, a fiction writer was never one of them. It was one thing I felt I could safely cross off my list (even ahead of nurse, and I hate needles). In junior high and high school, the assignments I dreaded the most were the “creative writing” and poetry assignments. I felt like I didn’t have a creative bone in my body, at least when it came to making up characters and plots and climaxes and resolutions out of thin air. I was much better at arranging and analyzing elements that were already there. But now I’m being told that I don’t have to make them up out of thin air! How liberating! At one point I did want to be an archaeologist, so if writing is just archaeology, then I may actually try my hand at fiction after all!

Okay, I’m getting a bit carried away. But I do like the magic and poetry of the idea. It seems like a good basis for a story itself, even. But I’m curious to hear from any writers out there — what do you think of Stephen King’s theory? Is it hogwash, or is there some truth to it?

Ditch The Niche

“And if you gaze into the niche abyss, the niche abyss gazes also into you.” — Not Friedrich Nietzsche Tweet:

When I was young, I idolized Leonardo da Vinci — yep, I’ve always been a nerd. While at various times in my life I wanted to be an astronaut or a detective or an astrophysicist or a linguist, the desire that was always there, probably underlying all the rest, was to be a Renaissance (wo)man. I saw that as the highest accomplishment. Later in my studies when I came across Goethe, Pascal, Descartes, and Leibniz, I held them up, with Mr. da Vinci, as my models. This is a big part of why, when it came time for me to choose a college, I settled on a tiny liberal arts school that boasts a Great Books curriculum and encourages an interdisciplinary approach to its subjects. I knew it wasn’t the most “practical” choice, but my father and the school’s marketing convinced me that it would teach me “how to think.” I didn’t really know what I wanted to “do” when I entered college, and I had even less of an idea when I left. Sometimes in the years since graduation, I’ve wondered how my life would have been different if I had gone to my other top choice and studied neuroscience and linguistics as I had planned. But this post isn’t about my college experience and the struggles I’ve had since graduation — I’m not ready to tell that story yet. This post is about the tension that exists out there in the world between the idea of having a niche or specialization and of being well-rounded and integrated, and about the shift that I see taking place from the one back to the other.

It used to be the case (back in the days of, you know, Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz) that the well-educated man was knowledgeable in math, science, history, philosophy, and a few languages (among other things). I’m not sure when the shift happened (I can think of a couple possible causes), but now the goal and focus in our educational system seems to be to become highly specialized in a particular field so you can go out into the workplace and do that one job. This is understandable given how competitive the work world is, but it’s also rather sad that people have to give up this broader, integrated knowledge in order to succeed. Some people might not agree with me here. There are definitely people out there who enjoy and appreciate being able to focus on just one thing because maybe they think that’s all they’re good at. I’m not sure. I don’t want to judge anybody or put anyone down, and I recognize that different people’s brains work in very different ways. I just know that for me it’s really difficult to pick just one thing to devote my life to, because I fear that by doing so I’ll be giving up on all the other subjects that interest me.

Another area in which this niche idea rears its head is in the online marketing and blogging world. In its most reasonable form, the idea is that to have a successful blog or service-based business you need to have a very specific niche to focus on so you can more easily prove to people you are the expert they should hire and so you don’t confuse people with a message that is too broad. I do see the logic in this way of thinking, and as a result I have tried beating my inner Renaissance woman into submission and picking a niche for a blog, for a podcast, as a freelance writer, etc. I gave up on that goal with this blog and decided just to write about whatever happens to be occupying my thoughts. I could do that because I wasn’t planning on monetizing this blog — I just wanted it as a place I could share my thoughts. When it came to business plans, though, I continued in the niche mindset. I am still unsuccessful. I started to think, “Maybe this online business thing isn’t for me, after all.” But I’ve come across a few things in the last few days that reminded me of my initial and natural way of thinking and gave me hope that my Renaissance-woman tendencies are not wholly incompatible with actually making money.

The first thing I came across was in a webinar hosted by Sean Malarkey and Kris Gilbertson. They were talking about how podcasting is the next big thing in marketing and giving an introduction on how to start your own podcast. Kris said something that was really quite simple, but it helped get me out of this niche abyss I’ve been staring into. She said that people will often ask her if they have to choose a niche, because they’re really interested in three or five or seven different topics — can’t they talk about all of them? I thought her answer was going to be a straight “No. You need to pick one niche so people understand who you are, blah blah blah…” like you hear most people on the internet say. But her response was, “That’s fine if you have a lot of interests, but you still have to come up with a theme to tie them all together.” (I’m paraphrasing both the question and the response.) Duh! She made a simple distinction between a niche and a theme, and the scales fell from my eyes. A theme — that’s something I can get behind. You do need to have a cohesive message, because otherwise people really will be confused and never know what to expect from you. But that does not mean you have to focus in on the tiniest little sliver of the market in order to stake your claim and dominate that one tiny thing. There’s a balance. And I think the world is shifting to a place where success will belong to those who can creatively integrate a few (even several?) different disciplines into a cohesive and marketable theme.

The second thing I came across that bolstered this new (but actually old) way of thinking was on brainpickings.org. Where else? Probably my favorite website and the work of a Renaissance woman more worthy than I. In a post entitled “Uncommon Genius: Stephen Jay Gould On Why Connections Are The Key to Creativity,” Maria Popova discusses a book by Denise Shekerjian (Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born) and shares this quote: “Gould’s special talent, that rare gift for seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated things, zinged to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to, he had zeroed in on the most popular of the manifold definitions of creativity: the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way.” Shekerjian also quotes Gould as saying, “It took me years to realize that was a skill. I could never understand why everybody just didn’t do that. People kept telling me these essays were good and I thought, All right, I can write, but surely what I’m doing is not special. And then I found out that it’s not true. Most people don’t do it. They just don’t see the connections.” Now, I’m not comparing myself to Gould or any other geniuses out there. However, I do recognize that I see some connections that other people don’t see, and reading this quote from Gould gave me some hope that maybe the way I think about things is special too. This gave me another boost of confidence to ditch the niche and go back to thinking about business ideas in a broader and hopefully more creative way (I’m still working that part out).

The third thing I saw that gave me one final push (and led me to believe the universe was sending me signs) was a New York Times article entitled “Learning to Think Outside the Box” by Laura Pappano. The focus of this article was on the fact that more colleges and universities are offering creative studies programs in their curricula. The reasoning is that “creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill” that is becoming more and more sought after in the workplace. The line from the article that really resonated with what I had been thinking about for the previous couple of days was a quote from Bonnie Cramond, director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia: “The new people who will be creative will sit at the juxtaposition of two or more fields.” The author of the article goes on to say, “When ideas from different fields collide, Dr. Cramond says, fresh ones are generated.” Now, I already knew this (case in point: my four years spent pursuing a liberal arts degree). But I had let myself be pushed around by the “experts” out there telling me how to be practical.

So I have come to the conclusion that I can and should get out of the niche mindset. Not only will this be healthier and more in line with how my brain works (which really should have been enough of a reason all along), but it looks like the world is starting (again) to recognize the great worth of having an integrated understanding of things. My prediction: soon enough, “niche” will be a thing of the past.

Commas

Both Haweis and Mina were among the very earliest to be interested in the work of Gertrude Stein. Haweis had been fascinated with what he had read in manuscript of The Making of Americans. He did however plead for commas. Gertrude Stein said commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath. However, as she liked Haweis very much and he had given her a delightful painting for a fan, she gave him two commas. It must however be added that on rereading the manuscript she took the commas out.

I am currently reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. It is a fascinating little window into the lives of the painters and writers who were hanging out in Paris in the early 20th Century. It is written in a very conversational style, like you have just sat down with Miss Toklas and she is telling you the story of her life (or maybe more accurately the story of Gertrude Stein’s life through her eyes (or maybe even more accurately, through her eyes as Gertrude Stein thinks Toklas sees it, as it is, after all, written by Miss Stein)) in a somewhat disjointed and haphazard sort of way (much like that last parenthetical remark).

I think it’s probably pretty clear from my few posts on this blog that, like Haweis, I am one who pleads for commas. I’ve never met an Oxford comma that I didn’t like, and there is no end to my delight when I come across a well-crafted relative clause. I have definitely been a member of the camp that holds that commas are a sign that one should pause and take breath. It has been my philosophy that writing is modeled on speech, and therefore we need signs representing the pauses as much as we need the words between the pauses. Even though I disagree (or so far in my life have disagreed) with Stein in this matter, I still prefer a person who has strong opinions about commas to one who has none at all. I was very much pleased to come across this little comma treatise, and I have given it a fair amount of thought over the last several days, assessing and reassessing my own opinions and the nature and purpose of writing in its different forms.

I think Gertrude Stein’s careful use of commas points to a belief that books should be read aloud rather than in one’s head. I say this because I find that her statement above holds true more when one reads aloud than when one reads in one’s head. When you read her sentences out loud, you hear the conversational tone and flow, and you naturally pause where you are meant to pause. You put the “commas” in because otherwise you’d be reading rather monotonously and it would neither make much sense nor be very pleasant to listen to. I think we need punctuation more when we are reading silently because it is harder for us to hear all the sounds and flow the words are meant to have. Maybe it’s a question of laziness. When we read silently, we are taking more of a backseat, being more of a passive observer, and so we need all those little marks to tell us exactly what is going on and what we are supposed to think. When we read out loud, we are in a way joining with the book, becoming its voice, having to make decisions about how something is supposed to sound.

So maybe that is what Miss Stein is doing. She is forcing us to once more become active participants in our books. But also, I think she and her contemporaries were focusing on bringing poetry and lyricism into their prose. And poetry is meant to be read out loud. In The Autobiography, there are a handful of references to Gertrude Stein’s love of well-crafted sentences. I get the impression that she spent a lot of time creating direct and simple and at the same time clever and poetic sentences. One passage that really interested me says, “She also liked then to set a sentence for herself as a sort of tuning fork and metronome and then write to that time and tune.” This comparison of the sentence to music says a lot about what she was trying to accomplish with her writing, or at least the attitude she had when approaching her writing.

I mentioned her contemporaries. On the one hand, I had in mind Fitzgerald. When I read Tender is the Night a couple years ago, I remember not being particularly interested or moved by the story itself, but being quite impressed by the writing, the images, the words, the lyricism. Some of the descriptions really were striking and beautifully done. On the other hand, I do not have much experience with Joyce, but I read this interesting little article the other day about how he influenced Cormac McCarthy to be a punctuation minimalist as well. So, this playing around with punctuation was part of the movement at the time (also thinking about e.e. cummings), but maybe each writer had his or her own reasons for doing the experiments they did. I don’t know. I think I have said enough for now on Gertrude Stein’s commas.

One more little anecdote that came to mind while I was mulling over these things comes from The Confessions of St. Augustine:

When he [Ambrose] was not with them, and this was but a little while, he either refreshed his body with needed food or his mind with reading. When he read, his eyes moved down the pages and his heart sought out their meaning, while his voice and tongue remained silent. Often when we were present — for no one was forbidden to entry, and it was not his custom to have whoever came announced to him — we saw him reading to himself, and never otherwise. After sitting for a long time in silence — who would dare to annoy a man so occupied? — we would go away. We thought that in that short time which he obtained for refreshing his mind, free from the din of other men’s problems, he did not want to be summoned to some other matter. We thought too that perhaps he was afraid, if the author he was reading had expressed things in an obscure manner, then it would be necessary to explain it for some perplexed but eager listener, or to discuss some more difficult questions, and if his time were used up in such tasks, he would be able to read fewer books than he wished to. However, need to save his voice, which easily grew hoarse, was perhaps the more correct reason why he read to himself. But with whatever intention he did it, that man did it for a good purpose.

Tact

It’s not one of my strong points, not something I have in great abundance. I have enough of it to know that I don’t have very much and to wish I had more. I am a sophomore in tact.

This problem seems to me to be three-fold: I am quiet and reserved, I am self-conscious and over-analytical, and I am on the sociopathic side of the Sociopath-Empath spectrum. Maybe fourfold: I am also shy and not very confident when I speak, but that might just be a sub-category or result of the first two. But I want to be graceful and charming and always say the right thing. So when the time comes, I either don’t say anything because I don’t want to say the wrong thing (and then I look either inconsiderate or stupid for not saying anything) or I manage to blurt out something that is the “right” thing to say but without the right emotion attached to it (because I often lack empathy). Like if someone were to tell me their cat died, I know that the socially acceptable thing to say is “Ohhh, I’m sooorry,” with a slightly furrowed brow and compassionate-looking eyes. (I’ve seen my mother do it a million times and I think that she actually means it exactly how she says it, which never ceases to amaze me. The way she feels and the way the other person feels and the way she expresses herself and the way she is supposed to feel and express herself all come together in a beautiful harmony of political correctness and social grace.) However, in my real life I either get the words out without the proper facial expressions, or I manage to get the furrowed brow right but can only squeak out an “Oh…” that kind of trails off because I can’t find it within me to tell them I’m sorry because it either sounds so trite or I’m not actually sorry and can’t bring myself to go through those silly motions.

Take another example, the one that actually inspired this post. The other day, my husband and I went over to his mom’s house for dinner. When we got there, dinner wasn’t quite ready yet, so she asked us if we would like some vegetables and dip. Whenever she asks questions like this, I hope and pray that my husband will answer so I don’t have to…but this time, no luck. Here’s my problem with answering such a simple question: Yes, of course I want vegetables and dip; I love to eat, I love to snack, I love to dip. So, if it were my own mother asking me the question, the answer would be a simple yes – no fuss, no worries about how she would interpret my answer. But it’s my mother-in-law – we’re still getting to know each other (two introverts) and I measure my words and actions in front of her. Sometimes she offers food that I don’t like so much, but I still accept because it seems like the polite thing to do. So in this case, when I actually want the thing she’s offering, I want to make sure she knows that I both appreciate her offer and am genuinely happy to eat the food she is giving me. However, here’s the rub. How do I show happiness? Because I am reserved and not very excitable, I am not used to showing emotion. I have seen other people (naturally emotive people) show excitement and happiness at similarly mundane things, but I am not very practiced in it myself. So I try to do what they do, but it feels fake and over-the-top. So after all these thoughts ran through my head in the split second after being offered the vegetables, what came out of my mouth was a high-pitched “Sure!” or maybe “Yeah!” (or so it sounded to me) with an accompanying nervously excited nod of the head and raised eyebrows (or so it felt to me).

Why can’t I just be a normal human being?

The answer, the problem, is my self-consciousness. I have known this for years. I overcome one part of it only to be attacked by another part. I cannot be tactful or charming or gracious because I’m too busy thinking about – obsessing about – what the other person is thinking about me. I can’t just listen to what they have to say because I’m worrying about whether I’m making the right facial expressions. I think that if I work on thinking more about other people and less about myself, the tactfulness and gracefulness will come naturally. New goal. Thanks for listening.

-L

* Note: This was originally published last May, but then I took it down because I was applying for jobs and didn’t want them to think of me as a graceless Neanderthal. I am putting it back up now in its original form.

You Have Got to Feel It So Desperately

“If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.”  – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I came across this on brainpickings.org. I read it and it struck me, so I wanted to share it.

I think writers, artists, and really anyone wanting to do something great and impactful sometimes get caught up in thinking that “there’s nothing new under the sun” or “there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done,” et cetera. (The Bible and The Beatles – it’s not the first time they’ve been quoted together.) And these thoughts lead to self-doubt and a questioning of whether what they are doing is really worthwhile or as revolutionary as they may at first have thought.  But Fitzgerald reminds us – them, I mean 😉 – that it is possible to surprise people, to experience and communicate things in a unique way.

*I am tempted to go on a metaphysical tangent here, but I’ll rein myself in and maybe do it some other time. *

I just wanted to share this quote with you so as to provide some encouragement to all you writers, artists, and world-changers out there.

-L