He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.
--Stevie Smith, "Thoughts about the Person from Porlock"
For this, my inaugural post in a series I'm calling "Creativity Rules," it seems appropriate to reference one of the most famous examples of poetic creativity's challenges. As the story goes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was in the middle of an opium-enhanced dream when, inspired by the description in a book he'd read before nodding off, Kubla Khan's palace appeared and "the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort." Upon waking the poet transcribed as many of the lines as he could before he was rudely interrupted by a visitor and forced to speak with him of business for an hour.
After this intrusion, Coleridge claimed, he could only scrape together a few lines from the dream vision and the rest of the poem came after very hard labor. Stevie Smith calls poppycock, insisting that the Porlockian is a scapegoat for STC's own compositional glitch. And scholars have noted that the version of "Kubla Khan: Or, A Vision in a Dream" that was published nearly two decades later was very different from the initial transcription. As developed as it was, Coleridge felt compelled to tag it as "A fragment," testimony to the exquisite frustration all poets know when their final product is a mere shadow--however well-wrought--of the brilliant vision they had at the outset.
Writers are notorious for their quirky creative habits, their fetishes and rituals--Stephen Spender tells us that Friedrich Schiller (roughly Coleridge's contemporary) needed a whiff of rotting apples to compose--for me doing this post today, it was Indian food and half a box of Mallomars. But whatever smells and spells we use to get ourselves in the mood, there comes a point when we are facing the blank page--or screen--and that is when the real terror sets in. No wonder there are so many books, articles, blogs, videos, and podcasts about the creative process and its so-called secrets.
I started to find out just how much material is out there on this subject, and how much continues to be produced at a staggering rate, when I developed an honors course at the Fashion Institute of Technology called "Creative Imagination: Theory and Process." My initial bibliography for the proposal was 11 pages, and each time I teach the class I discover some new sources to incorporate into my syllabus and lectures.
In recent years the advances in neuroscience have made it possible to pinpoint which areas of the brain are engaged during various cognitive functions, including those linked to creativity. Your Creative Brain by Dr. Shelley Carson is now required reading for my class, a user-friendly guide to the brain activation states Carson calls "brainsets", tied together with the nifty acronym CREATES. Carson distinguishes between the deliberate and spontaneous pathways to creativity, the former governed by the executive center and the latter emerging when, "purposely or due to to fatigue," reason lets go the reins. Carson calls the Kubla Khan caper "[o]ne of the most controversial cases of reason improving on spontaneous insight" and notes that, while "[a] creative idea can arrive spontaneously and appear to be quite complete; that doesn't mean it can't be improved with a little reason."
Earlier this week I was inspired to present this classic example to my class by a random social media post. Aimee Nezhukumatathil, whose "Upon Hearing the News" appears in The Best American Poetry 2015, posted on Facebook that the theme song from the 1980 pop-musical Xanadu was played as a "warm-up" before a recent poetry reading. I immediately found the song on YouTube and cranked it up via headset on my way to FIT's Manhattan campus, smiling as I made my way to my office in that place "Where creativity gets down to business."
Many thanks to Stacey for setting me up here. Stay tuned for future dispatches from my wanderings throughout the creative mind!