The curse of creativity

When you get writer’s block, remember how envious other people are that you can actually write.

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DSCN6251C.jpgIt just isn’t fair. One person gets to be born with an enviable imagination, the ability to come up with new, innovative ideas, or create artistic masterpieces and the next person does not. Many cringe at the idea that creativity could be an innate and inheritable trait …. including those that have this trait.

Creative people often feel driven to be different, to strive for the original idea and take it as far as possible despite the deprivation and pain that results. They fear that inspiration may abandon them and leave them stranded, or the world may decide that the masterpiece into which they have pour blood, sweat and tears is useless and ugly. They may not see their ability as being  a fortunate circumstance. In fact, most of the evidence for innate creativity is based on the negatives associated with this trait.

First on the list of negatives is…

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Nowhere near practically perfect


Early in my career at beginning of the 1980s, my boss gathered everyone in the office to watch a film on generational differences. When the polished speaker concluded the presentation, I noticed an interesting omission. Turning to one of my co-workers I commented, “There was a lot about people in their twenties, and those in their forties and fifties. But, the characteristics of people in their thirties was never really discussed.”

She smiled and quipped, “That’s because we’re practically perfect.”

Then, I realized the film was targeted towards thirty-somethings because they obviously were not practically perfect when it came to accepting differences in others. Descriptions of generational differences largely continue to be entrenched in biases based on the viewpoint of a specific age-group. Managers over fifty complain that younger workers don’t want to put in the long, hard hours necessary to advance. The smaller group in their forties describe how a poor economy has prevented them from advancing economically. Those in their thirties defend the need to job-hop in order to see any kind of upward progress while expounding on an expertise that occurred because they grew up with computers. The group in their twenties assert that are the true “techies,” while pointing out that the need for higher education has strapped them with college loans that earlier generations didn’t have to sweat about. It is hard to step back and look at the differences without taking sides.

In order to get a less biased look, I’ve read research based on two long-term surveys, that have sampling the behaviors, attitudes, and values of young people. The American Freshman Survey has been conducted among new college students since 1966 by the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA. Monitoring the Future or the National High School Senior Survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research initially started as research on drug use. This research project has collected opinions of high school seniors since 1975.

There are some interesting trends that come to light from these studies. When people born from the late forties to 1964 were high school seniors and college freshman around 45% consider wealth a very important attribute. This attitude which has been increasing until it has risen to 75% among those born after 1984. The reason for attending college has also shifted with about the same. Although, the people in their late teens may not consider wealth as important as they do in mid-career or later, Millennials deemed it a driving goal at a younger age than prior generations. The idea of learning in order to develop a meaningful philosophy of life has decreased from 73% to 45%. In the early 1970s about 70% of students went to college to learn about life and improve themselves, by the turn of the century that same percentage were attending college as a way to become well off financially.

So why don’t these trends match so many of the articles on generational differences? The split in opinions about the generations is more of an in-group versus out-group comparison more than anything else. It is impossible to look at a group with differences from our own is as generous and accepting manner as we see the people that resemble us. We all forget that we ourselves are nowhere near “practically perfect.”

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Age and creativity

Are you too old to start writing that novel now?

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aged023The very act of creativity means producing results that don’t resemble those produced by others. There is no easy way to arrive at a number for creativity. Instead a group of people, respected in the particular field, must view and judge the entire body of work from an extensive the sample in order to rank individual works. This kind of assessment is not easy to perform.

For example, in a recent joint study by Harvard and University of Washington (Davis and Weinstein, 2013) the researchers compared samples of visual art and creative writing by teenagers published between 1990 and 2011 to determine if creativity was increasing or decreasing.  Their conclusion was improvement existed in visual work, which showed greater sophistication and complexity, and a decline in the writing, which became simpler and more mundane. Davis concluded that “there are markers of creativity — like complexity and risk-taking and breaking away from…

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Sci-fi delineated

With so many new science-fiction and fantasy titles, what do these labels really mean>

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sci-fi copyI, Robot is a collection of short stories that trace the development of robots until they take over running the world while humans remain blissfully ignorant of this fact.  In Perelandra, an earth man is sent to Venus  on a mission from God to counsel to the ‘Eve’ of that planet so she does not fall prey to the wiles of Satan’s agent. What does a work like Isaac Asimov’s, I, Robot  have in common with Perelandra by C.S. Lewis? Both are considered science fiction. That is the general classification for variety of seemingly disparate literature. What defines science fiction? Also what separates sci-fi from its twin, fantasy? It is a matter of time, travel, technology and transformation. These are the aspects that change the world in the book from the one we know.

Time: If a story takes place in the future, it is almost always considered science…

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Too bad to be true

When the utopia doesn’t work out as expected.

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17 smog 023cSir Thomas More, a scholar, lawyer and statesman published a novel in 1516 describing a perfect civilization. According to the book, this too real to be true society existed on an imaginary island that he dubbed Utopia.  Of course More was not the first to attempt to do this; he was actually heavily influenced by Plato‘s Republic, written over 18 centuries earlier. The utopian novel is an ancient idea.

The word More coined was used a few hundred years later by John Stuart Mill to create another new term, dystopia, a society too bad to be true. Dystopian literature is by no means new either. There are ancient texts that describe a future in which society is deeply flawed, and yet citizens continue to serve the powers that be, unaware of their enslavement. The creator of modern works in this vein is often credited to…

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Highly desirable?

A look at Utopias in fiction

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DSCN0762a wedding copyThere is a flood of dystopian novels compared to those that feature utopias because a society without problems has a tendency to be boring.  However, if you start reading The Republic by Plato, and you may discover that his ideal society has some pretty disturbing aspects.  The discourses that comprise The Republic supposedly record the discussions of the sage Socrates, who would eventually be executed for corrupting the youth. We really do not know how much Plato hid his own opinions behind the words that he claimed Socrates spoke.

The Republic proposes equal education for men and women, both physical and mental, so they could perform the same work. Then, he states what seems to follow logically. If men and woman are to have a status of equality, then marriage and the family must be abolished. The rulers will determine which people can mate and produce children. These children…

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Glare of the limelight

Sports: fiction or fact?

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While watching a recent bone crunching pro-football game on TV, I saw a player dive into a fracas and come up the fumbled football. He took off for his goal, running for the sidelines to avoid being pummel by a pile of opposing players.  With the TV camera in close I could see his grin as his teammates gave him congratulatory fists to the his helmet. It looked like his head was being knocked around inside his helmet.

“Doesn’t that hurt him?” I asked.

“Players frequently do things to their own players that would result in a penalty if they did  it to an opponent,” was the response of a more sage sports aficionado.

If you read many of the current sports books you will find there is a much darker side to sports than the painful  celebratory punching that occurs between team members. The same sports aficionado advised me…

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The distant lands of home

Reading the earlier work of famous authors….

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Biltmore (77)aIn grade school I would skim the readers for something intriguing, passing over stories of everyday American life and fun science facts for narratives about other countries. As  junior high student I soaked up Jules Verne adventures in distant places such as the famed  Around the World in Eighty Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and the lesser known Michael Strogoff: Courier of the Czar.  As an adult I discovered he chafed under the formulaic requirements imposed on him for writing these shallow adventure novels. But they were the right stories to get me hooked on reading at that time. (Maybe, if these same requirements were followed by some of today’s YA novelist their works would actually improve).

Often in secondary education, we foist the best works of classic authors on students when they are not ready for the abstract thinking required to appreciate it. There is…

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Ten top reasons not to read classic literature

My top ten list for the week.

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grimm's grave w10 – There are so many choices of books to read now, why bother with less relevant writing from the past. There is also a lot more to learn in the fields of history, science and math so while we’re at it, why don’t we just pare them down to the important events of the last fifty years, too.

9 – Most of the people who wrote this literature stuff are long dead. This is also another good reason to eliminate the all the history we now have to study now.

8 – The people who wrote classic literature, do not really know what our life is like. Of course, the most influential people alive now–political leaders, business moguls, movie stars–probably don’t know any more about the way we live.

7 – We want to read about what matters to us now. However, if we read only what is current…

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Laughter and learning

When does humor help to get your point across?

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359px-shy_guy_imagicity_5A Photo by Dan McGarry “Shy Guy” CC BY-SA 3.0 

Imagine two different college classes: in one the instructors is always logical and serious; and in the other the instructor throws in frequent jokes only tangentially related the subject. In which class do students learn more? According to research it depends the students. In one study, Melissa Bekelja Wanzer found that humor found offensive or directed at students interfered with learning. In another study, Mark Shatz, and Frank LoSchiavo discovered that when a professor made self-deprecating jokes and included subject-related cartoons in on-line classes, students said that they enjoyed the class more.

But that research doesn’t tell us in which class the students learned more. The problem is that most studies on how humor affects learning end up with mixed results. Wasner found that when professors use a dry sense of humor when instructing, the students perceived them as better communicators…

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