by Debra Kang Dean, Spalding MFA Faculty, Poetry.
I don’t think of myself as particularly creative or intelligent, so it often strikes me as ironic that I write poetry. In high school, I was an athlete and a decent student in math, and the image that may be most representative of the kind of student I was then is of a teenager conjugating verbs in Latin class, the teacher leading a recitation sometimes accompanied by the sound of chalk striking the board like Morse code. There we were, Miss Owen and I both on auto-pilot—she drifting occasionally back to memories of porch swings and gentlemen callers, and I gazing out the window at the track below, where a few of my class-cutting teammates were lazing on the pole-vault pit. I knew how to go through the motions of being a good student, but my heart was elsewhere.
Despite my inhabiting a body not particularly well suited to the long jump, high jump, and hurdles, over forty years ago, I felt the gravitational pull of these events, and I can see in retrospect that they were signposts of the kind of writer I would become once I’d committed to writing poetry in earnest. Had I been able to articulate it then, I would probably have said that my interest in track came out of watching Bob Beamon’s record-shattering leap during the 1968 Olympics and later reading about and seeing footage of Wilma Rudolph running, but I think now it was the sheer power and grace their beautiful bodies made visible that attracted me. Participation in these activities provided lessons in persistence—hours of practice, often doing other things: wind sprints, snaking the bleachers, three-thirties—and an experience requiring belief that one engaged in an activity not only for oneself, but also for the sake of others.
Over twenty years ago in North Carolina, I participated in an artist-in-the-schools program, first a week at a middle school and then a week at an elementary school—second through eighth grade students. Encouraged to visit and meet with teachers beforehand, I drove the seventy plus miles about a month before I was to start at the middle school. I remember one asking what kind of experience I’d had teaching children. “I have a teenager at home,” I answered. Among the collective sighs rose an “Oh, Lord”—not without reason.
Something about those rather isolated rural schools reminded me of my island home. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that when I worked with those students, I found myself telling them that poets were athletes of the mind. The phrase “athletes of the mind” seemed to me a metaphor that could communicate many things without explanation, among them something about practice and skill building. Oddly enough, near the end of one class period, a second grader had discovered anaphora and worked his way down the page, changing the noun at the end of each line. “Whoa!” a student next to him exclaimed, which brought a few more students over to see what the excitement was about. He kept writing until the teacher signaled that we absolutely had to break for lunch.
The goal I had set for the week with the elementary-school students was a pretty simple one: to try to help them see themselves and hear the voice inside the heightened language on the page. It seemed to me the necessary prelude to writing, perhaps the other side of a statement one of my teachers had made: “Every reader is looking for him- or herself.” A few of the students had written about basketball, so I brought in Edward Hirsch’s marvelous “Fast Break” and asked for volunteers to dramatize the poem as I read it out loud. When I read the chapter on clouds in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, giggles and gasps could be heard before a fifth grader who could no longer contain himself burst out, “Oh, man, she’s dissing her mom!”
Simplifying something I had tried out with the eighth graders and combining it with a riddle poem one shy student had written, I asked elementary-school students to list five facts about themselves and order them so that it wasn’t until I read the last one that the class might guess their identity. There didn’t appear to be a recess as I had known it, so one day I had them do origami in small groups, and another day I started a class with qigong. A few times I brought in classical music and played it when they were writing because of something I’d read about the positive effect of such music on the brain; whether or not the claims were true, the teachers and I noticed that the students worked intently on their poems, even revising, until I turned the music off. I half-wondered whether that enveloping sound might be a kind of white noise that eased them into the work in a way that the enforced silence of the classroom often didn’t.
I’d had neither training nor guidance in working with groups of students in these age ranges and so didn’t know better, and perhaps because I was only going to be there for a week—something the teachers reminded me about during that very first meeting—I brought my whole self to the work and a willingness to make mistakes, trusting my instincts and what I did know, and then stringing things together as I went along. (I did, of course, make a number of mistakes early on, most of which were connected with community standards.) It also turned out, however, that an unintended effect of my ignorance was that almost every child succeeded with at least one thing and struggled with something else. Only afterwards, and by accident, would I read about the theory of seven styles of learning and realize that I had touched on most, if not all, of the styles. From this distance, I gaze back at the experience like one fourth grader who, after writing a surreal image, looked up at me in wonder and repeated several times, “I don’t know where that came from.” Perhaps more than any experience I have had teaching, this one seemed most to mirror what it is often like writing a first draft of a poem.
In “This Is Your Brain on Writing,” Carl Zimmer, citing research done by Martin Lotze and his team, writes that “[t]he inner workings of the professionally trained writers in the bunch . . . showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions like music and sports.” The caudate nucleus, which “plays an essential role in the skill that comes with practice,” Zimmer reports, was active in the brains of the experts but not in the novices—which makes me think of the deep connection between writing and the practice of rewriting. In addition, when engaged in the creative process, in novice writers vision-processing regions of the brain became active, whereas in expert writers regions of the brain involved in speech were more active. I take this to reinforce what teachers, including me, so often repeat: reading and writing go hand in hand. For reading books is part of the practice of loading the figurative rifts in our brains with the ore of an expanded vocabulary and each word with a cluster of associations and meanings, as well as absorbing a fuller range of the possibilities syntax affords so that we can build beautiful sonic and rhythmic patterns that thoughts and feelings are made on.
Another treatment of this subject for a general reader is provided in “Secrets of the Creative Brain.” Using MRIs to observe “how the brain behaves when engaged in thought,” Nancy Andreasen, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist with a Ph.D. in Literature, found that symphony-orchestra musicians possess “an unusually large Broca’s area—a part of the brain in the left hemisphere that is associated with language.” It’s worth noting that Andreasen is on the faculty of the Iowa College of Medicine at The University of Iowa, and among the subjects for her research on creativity and mental illness are the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Smiley, George Lucas, and mathematician William Thurston. One “definition of creativity that many people accept,” she writes, is “the ability to produce something that is novel or original and useful or adaptive.” I like how the word “creativity,” considered beyond the work of making art, embodies, like its cousin “innovation,” the idea of both “[making] something new” and “[making] changes in anything established,” and also comes to define a way of being. Andreasen notes that IQ isn’t an indicator of creativity and says that a score of 120 seems sufficient. In addition, her research indicates that a higher than average number of her subjects have dealt with a “mood disorder” and had family members who were afflicted with mental illness; and in a parenthetical, she observes that “creative people work much harder than the average person—and usually that’s because they love their work.”
This brings me to what I have begun calling my “Happy Hour,” the word “hour” being used figuratively rather than literally. A couple of weeks after returning from the spring residency, I began trying to articulate the connections among my scattered interests and practice them in a more deliberate way. Perhaps in the back of my mind were two sayings from taiji, the first of which is, “Invest in loss.” I often have to push back against so much of what studying and teaching craft can make the work of the hands only and remind myself of my beginnings, when sitting down to write was more like meditation—which is to say, an activity in which I cleared away thought and its attendant judgments to be open to perception; in the moment to put down the burden of knowledge and expectation and to engage in a process that might make me a fitter instrument for a poem. This is the work of preparation, of making a space where a poem can happen.
The other idea from taiji is, “Lead by walking away,” which is a way of circling back. So I am bringing these activities under the umbrella of my “hour” devoted to creative work: to get myself to think more like a fiction writer or when I am short on time, one of the “Daily Warm-ups,” a set of exercises for prose writers from Naming the World; to work toward seeing better, an exercise from a book on sketching; to learn or give a name to a figure of speech, an exercise based on the handout from a lecture delivered by my colleague Maureen Morehead; or to try to get closer to a poet I can only read in English, a translation of one of Bashō’s hokku.
Quieting that voice in my head that says, If you are not writing a poem, you are not writing, and expanding my sense of what constitutes creative activity feels liberating. Entering a creative space on these terms can be intoxicating; whether an effort can be or is a “product” is an assessment to make after the first draft is written. And if an exercise leads to an idea for a poem—or perhaps a prose piece—I already know that the happy hour will be the silver lining of my day or however long it takes because, lifted by a thought/feeling I want to live with, I will have entered the space I love to inhabit: the place writing becomes revision.
One of Andreasen’s subjects, who is a neuroscientist and inventor, when asked whether creative people simply have more ideas or whether the quality of the ideas they had was different, replied:
‘In the R&D business, we kind of lump people into two categories: inventors and engineers. The inventor is the kite kind of person. They have a zillion ideas and they come up with great first prototypes. But generally an inventor . . . is not a tidy person. He sees the big picture and . . . [is] constantly lashing something together that doesn’t really work. And then the engineers are the strings, the craftsmen [who pick out a good idea] and make it really practical.’
I began by saying that I don’t see myself as creative, but in this light it might be more proper to say that I have a proclivity toward strings. Sensing this, I’ve recognized the need to try making more kinds of kites, as it were, to restore some sort of balance. After all, to fly a kite, one needs both kite and string. In these distinctions I see not only the self that revises, but also the self that first puts pencil to paper. A poem, too, is a kite. The string we give readers to hold on to makes it possible for them to feel as well as to see the currents of air. Of course, getting and keeping the kite aloft is an art both makers and flyers of kites learn by practice, too.