Friday, June 27, 2014

Creativity Link Roundup: The Brains! The Brains!

Apparently I am thoroughly sick of writing about academic topics this summer, so let's talk, or link to articles about, brains--sweet, nourishing brains.

"So far, this study—which has examined 13 creative geniuses and 13 controls—has borne out a link between mental illness and creativity similar to the one I found in my Writers’ Workshop study. The creative subjects and their relatives have a higher rate of mental illness than the controls and their relatives do (though not as high a rate as I found in the first study), with the frequency being fairly even across the artists and the scientists."  I would only say that, from talking to people who have worked in psychiatric wards, the reverse is not necessarily true: madness does not necessarily mean creativity.
  • "Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime" from Scientific American (and can't we all say a big "amen" to that?). Not only does the brain like to laze around from time to time, but it's a hearty eater: 
By the mid 1990s, however, Marcus Raichle of Washington University in Saint Louis and his colleagues had demonstrated that the human brain is in fact a glutton, constantly demanding 20 percent of all the energy the body produces and requiring only 5 to 10 percent more energy than usual when someone solves calculus problems or reads a book.  . . . Related research suggests that the default mode network is more active than is typical in especially creative people, and some studies have demonstrated that the mind obliquely solves tough problems while daydreaming—an experience many people have had while taking a shower. Epiphanies may seem to come out of nowhere, but they are often the product of unconscious mental activity during downtime. 



  •  "This is Your Brain on Writing" at The New York Times. This one gives a big implicit push to the idea that if you write every day, like a professional writer, you'll actually access different parts of your brain than a novice. 

  • As the scientists report in a new study in the journal NeuroImage, the brains of expert writers appeared to work differently, even before they set pen to paper. During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech. 
    “I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice. 
    When the two groups started to write, another set of differences emerged. Deep inside the brains of expert writers, a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet. 

    The caudate nucleus is a familiar part of the brain for scientists like Dr. Lotze who study expertise. It plays an essential role in the skill that comes with practice, including activities like board games.
    • Scientific American's blog informs us that there is no such thing as right brain/left brain activity: 
    • In a recent large review, Rex Jung and colleagues provide a “first approximation” regarding how creative cognition might map on to the human brain. Their review suggests that when you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of the Executive Attention Network (a bit, but not completely) and increase activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks. Indeed, recent research on jazz musicians and rappers engaging in creative improvisation suggests that’s precisely what is happening in the brain while in a flow state.


  •  And because I can never let this alone as a topic, a reprise of "What's Lost as Handwriting Fades" at the New York Times: 

  • But psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting a relic of the past. New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.
    Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how. 
    “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Coll├Ęge de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. 
    “And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.

    Monday, June 23, 2014

    Do you remember (and share) your dreams? A sort-of poll.

    Still not ready to write a real post, but after Spouse patiently listened to another of my dreams, he offered this: "You know, in talking to various men, they all say that their wives tell them their dreams but that they rarely dream or rarely remember it if they do." Obviously dreaming itself can't be a gender-linked thing, but what about remembering dreams and wanting to tell someone about them?

    So, commenters: Do you remember your dreams? Do you tell them to someone or maybe write them down?

    Wednesday, June 18, 2014

    Is it done yet?

    It's the phrase you love to hear, because it means that someone is paying attention to the infernal manuscript, and the phrase that, next to "are we there yet?", you probably hate the most, if you have to answer "no."

    I am in the same boat as Dr. Crazy: not writing on the blog, despite that long post on Joyce Maynard/J.D. Salinger, because I'm trying to get writing done. And like her, I've figured out some things I can ignore.

    • CHE, which I usually take a break from anyway in the summer, and ChronicleVitae. My admittedly writing-obsessed and  very possibly writing-cranky self now looks at the headlines at CV and goes down the list: "Knew that. Knew that 20 years ago. You didn't know that? Nope, you didn't invent that. Yup, that's true. Nope, you're wrong." Finally, I realized that CV is for new academics, not mid-career ones, and now CV is going on the banned-for-summer list too. 
    • TV, at least normal non-Netflix TV and most of Netflix, too. 
    • Premature election coverage, A.K.A. all election coverage at this point. 

    Things I can't ignore:

    • July deadlines.
    • Getting out of the house and getting some exercise, unless I want to resemble you-know-who from Back to the Future. 


    Saturday, June 14, 2014

    Off-topic: Mid-century Male Writers, Salinger edition

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    Apparently my reading for pleasure these days involves revisiting some of the twentieth-century writers, the Mid-Century Males, that I read back as an undergraduate. J. D. Salinger is one; isn't he for everyone at that age? Catcher in the Rye was okay, but in a short story class we read (and I reread many times) Nine Stories, later discovering on my own, like just about every late adolescent everywhere, Franny and Zooey, my favorite of his works. 
    Recently, I saw the Salinger documentary and checked out of the digital library Kenneth Slawenski's Salinger: A Life, Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year, and, because the other sources mentioned it, Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World. Apparently I was the last person on earth to have read Joyce Maynard years ago without knowing about The Salinger Connection, so I wasn't influenced by that when I read her.
    Slawenski's book made much of Salinger's horrific WWII experiences, which started on D-Day and ended 299 days later after he helped to liberate concentration camps, something that the documentary emphasizes with a whole lot of (deservedly, I suppose) portentous music. Rakoff's My Salinger Year is delightful. It's a memoir of her year in the mid-1990s working at The Agency (Harold Ober and Associates) and handling both Salinger's fan mail and her employers' charmingly eccentric terror about encroaching technology. It's 1996, but the IBM Selectric is still king of the office.
     Maynard's book is similar to the first two of hers that I read years ago (Baby Love, Looking Back).  She's a keen observer of her own life, but only of her own life, and only of herself as the primary person within it. As she says many times in At Home in the World, she's not a reader, and she doesn't seem to be able to make those connections except through pop culture, although she's very good at the specifics of that. When she reports incidents like threatening to cut off her long braided hair and her husband Steve saying, "It's your hair," the implication is that he's too stolid and isn't paying sufficient attention to her misery. Less sympathetic readers might think that she's being too dramatic. That doesn't prevent her from making some good observations, though.
    The whole Salinger thing that she was pilloried for is only a part of the book, and apparently, in another interwebs development I totally missed, everyone is in a pro- or anti-Maynard camp: either "How dare you malign The Great Man?" or "How dare The Great Man have acted so cruelly toward women?"  Maynard's take on the relationship, in the new preface, is not so much "what was I thinking to quit Yale and move to New Hampshire with Jerry Salinger?" as "how could he violate my innocence by overpowering me with his adoration? Shouldn't we think of 18-year-olds as girls instead of women?" It's a fair question, but really, who could have stopped her or any of us at 18? That's not a hornet's nest I'm willing to wade into in this space.  
    Salinger's writing advice--which is why I read the book--is actually sound. Salinger on writing: he writes every day, and by about 6.30 a.m. he's in his writing room, later apparently the famous writing bunker where he would stay for weeks at a time. He shows Maynard at least two manuscripts but says that writing for publication is all just ego and being of the world, which he condemns.  Given that Salinger seems to have had the biggest ego in the Western Hemisphere, this is a little disingenuous, but all right. The documentary says that there are books lined up to be published in 2015 and beyond.
    Here's the thing that struck me, wanting as I did the details of the writing life: Maynard and Salinger eat their breakfast of thawed frozen peas and then both of them go off to their writing tasks.  Maynard never mentions that in the memoir; it only comes up in an interview in the past couple of years.  Two writers, living in a house together: that's the portrait that the interview gives and that she's trying to avoid. Yet elsewhere she describes her writing routine, and she's a remarkably disciplined and productive writer.
    Instead, the memoir section about her life with Salinger is all about making herself small, about buying a sewing machine and cooking badly and leaving her stuff strewn around the house and feeling wounded and above all not writing the memoir she's been contracted to write. It's clear that she did feel diminished by his treatment, as who wouldn't? Yet by the end of the year, the memoir has magically been written, with an epilogue heavily influenced and partly written by Salinger himself because she wasn't being specific and honest enough about what she was writing.
    That's the frustrating part of this memoir: it has the wrong focus, or maybe the right focus for Maynard but the wrong focus for someone who wants to read about writing. Even though the focus of any Maynard book is always going to be Maynard, front and center, she zeroes in on her father's alcoholism and her mother's weird obsession with her as defining, formative moments.  No doubt they were, but this makes the whole thing come off as another of innumerable recovery/abuse memoirs. She has had the experiences, though, and the talent to make more of the memoir than this. 
    What I wanted to see more of was the narrative that's trying to emerge here and can't, of Salinger trying to teach her something about writing and the approach that writers have to take to make it mean something. It has to be honest and something you care about, he tells her; there's no glory in taking pot shots and writing snark about beauty contests and Pillsbury Bake-Offs, although she does.  Salinger warns her about this and about adopting her mother's voice as she has adopted her mother's methods of applying to contests, pitching stories, etc.

    When she shows up at Salinger's door in 1997--which I think took a lot of courage, by the way--he tells her that she had the capacity to become something but has become nothing, or something like that. She's obviously made something of herself, having had a successful career,  and she is a survivor, but is there anything in what Salinger says? Or is this just another case of a powerful man falling in love with an image that he creates and trying to destroy the image when she turns out to have a voice of her own?

    Friday, June 13, 2014

    Friday randomness


    • All the writing energy is going into the endless project, except that I'm now excited about it. 
    • I sent two pieces of it this week so now someone besides me will read it. 
    • Then it was time to do all the errands: call Kabletown about lowering the cable bill, which will happen, and pick up dry cleaning, and get car serviced, and get groceries so that there is more than kale and cheese in the house.  Pro tip: No one can live solely on Cheesy Kale Delight or Kaley Cheese Delight or any permutation thereof.  It's been tried. 
    • I am getting increasingly annoyed with news sites reporting celebrity gossip as though it is as important as the tragic mass shootings we have seen lately. Double that for calling the perpetrators "shooters." "Shooters" is for video games. These people are murderers. 

    Tuesday, June 10, 2014

    Random writing points for a Tuesday


    • If you wake up naturally at 4:30 a.m., consider that the summer's early light is telling you something. You can get a lot done of writing done then. 
    • Writing makes me hungry, and not the faux "let's avoid this paragraph by seeing what is in the refrigerator" kind of hungry. I'm talking light-headed and stomach-growling hungry every few hours. Is it because of the brain using up glucose? I've taken to eating smaller meals more often. In case you were wondering: none of this results in any weight loss.
    • I wish there were a Hallmark card that you could send to say, "I'm sorry I'm not getting it done as fast as you'd like it to be done, but I'm working really hard on it--honest."
    • You can trim down a long chapter by a lot if you read it paragraph by paragraph and ask yourself two things: 
      • What's the subject of this paragraph? 
      • And what's the point of this paragraph? 
      • I figure I should be able to write a 1-word tag for the subject, but if I can't identify how the second contributes to the argument, it gets condensed, moved, or chopped.
    • I have been gleefully ransacking my files for my old manuscripts, things I've reviewed, and so on.  Why? For the paper, not the great thoughts contained therein. Everything that's not already printed double-sided goes into the maw of the printer for printing drafts on the clean side.  And my files get cleaned out, too.  Win-win!

    Friday, June 06, 2014

    Still here

    A conference, some deadlines, more travel, a hectic week, and then some more deadlines.  News I thought about writing about but didn't:
    • At The New Yorker, the case for banning laptops in the classroom (wait--I already did that). More on this from WaPo and Margaret Soltan. [Edited to add links.]
    • Cursive handwriting improves learning.
    • The MLA recognizes a jobs problem but touchingly believes that (1) 60% of graduates get jobs and (2) that jobs are going begging in museums, libraries, and nonprofits, all of which will snap up vast numbers of English Ph.D. graduates immediately if we can (3) lower the time to degree and provide different sorts of training without (4) diminishing the number of graduates.  
    • Quick quiz: which of these items is probably true?  Answer: 3. Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker does a quick check of the MLA's math.
    • Mad Men, although that may be yesterday's news. 
    A real post soon.