Monday, March 12, 2018

When You Don't Know What to Say

What do you say to kids when there is so much trouble in the world, and at home? What books do you hand them to read that might speak to this? I think of the traditional hero stories where one individual can change the world by fighting the darkness. The character Will in Susan Cooper's The Darkness Rising. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.. But most of all right now, I think of Ged, in The Wizard of Earthsea.

Through an act of great hubris, Ged released a shadow into the world. To catch and put the shadow back Ged worked to discover the shadow's name.Naming a thing gives one power over it. But Ged couldn't find the name.  Only when he realized the shadow was his own, could he name it: Ged. And integrate it back into himself.

We all tend to project our own shadows--the dark, repressed, unacceptable parts of ourselves, thoughts or emotions--onto others. And are blind to it in ourselves. Countries and cultures and religions have shadows, too. They project these onto cultures or people who are different. They become "the evil," or the cause of all the bad things happening.

In my opinion, in our recent presidential election in the United States, we have chosen to be led by the collective shadow of our country.

So what do we say to kids when there is so much trouble in the world and at home? Let's start by looking closely at our own shadows so we can own them and name them. Then we'll be less likely to project them onto other people or groups. This examination is a heroic act. One individual can change the world if she begins by fighting the darkness in herself.

And be sure to hand the kids, The Wizard of Earthsea.

Wishing you joy,

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Doctor of Imagination?

Wouldn’t you love to be a Doctor of Imagination? Sorry, a quick search reveals there are no PhD programs in Imagination. Why not? Imaginative ability is the most precious human resource we have. It should be studied, cultivated, and taught as an end in itself.

At least the University of St Andrews school of divinity, St Mary’s College hosts an Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. Not quite what I’m thinking. Too connected with Theology.

Closer perhaps is Arizona State University’s new Imaginary College. It’s under the umbrella of the Center for Science and Imagination. (In case you didn’t notice, science still comes first.) Their college members are divided into two categories.

1. Imaginary College Philosophers: “Sages and provocateurs who epitomize imaginative thinking and practice and provide inspiration for our work.” One of these is Margaret Atwood.

2. Imaginary College Fellows: “Rebels, hackers, wizards, inventors, and alchemists driving path breaking research, teaching, and outreach projects.”

As far as I can tell, this is still not a PhD in Imagination. You can get a PhD in mythology, in transformative studies, and there are various programs that connect design with imagination. Many psychology programs have an imagination connection, such as the one at University of Oregon. Their Imagination Research Lab in the Psychology Department focuses on “the development of imagination in children and its relation to social understanding, creativity, inhibitory control, and narrative skills. In particular, we are interested in children’s creation of imaginary companions and the role they play in social and cognitive development.”

Anyone else seeing a gaping hole here? And just what does that say about how much we truly value imagination?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Sleuthing the Snow Queen: Classroom Project

I recently read Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. Karen Foxlee's middle grade fantasy novel centers on the myth of the Snow Queen. This mythologem can be traced far back in our history, sometimes as an ice queen or ice princess.

A fascinating project for kids would be to take this image and trace it back. We find it in recent literature, like the White Witch in Narnia, and of course Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen. And of course Disney...with its liberal reinterpreting with all things marketing in mind.

Those stories have their antecedents in older mythologies. Like the Norse Goddesses Skadi or Hel. Robert Graves' The White Goddess also explores the myth.

I'm no scholar, but I've read enough of Carl Jung's work to recognize a powerful archetype in the Snow Queen. And powerful archetypes ignite imagination. So turn your students loose into an exploration of the Snow Queen archetype. Then have them write their own version.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Bottomless Bubbling Cauldron of Imagination

Every writer/artist knows the pleasure of the Creative Rush. I love the exuberance that comes in the “ah-ha” moment when your imagination sparks an insight or revelation that enhances the work. These moments always feel “just right.” And intoxicating (and addictive).

I’d never heard a psychological explanation of this Creative Rush that truly resonated with me. Then I read a chapter in Jungian psychologist, Erich Neumann’s book The Origin and History of Consciousness.

Neumann discusses “libido” (think general psychic energy here rather than the limited Freudian notion of libido as primarily sexual) in relation to the creative process. The italics below are mine.

“Whereas in an illness the activation of the unconscious content by an afflux of libido manifests itself in the form of disturbances, symptoms, and so forth, and in the creative individual this content spontaneously combines with consciousness and expresses itself in creativity, the act of conscious realization consists in the ego deliberately leading the mind and the free libido at its disposal towards the focus of fascination. The libido activating the unconscious system as its emotional component, and the libido of the recognizing and realizing ego system, flow together in the act of recognition into a single stream. This confluence is perceived by the ego as pleasurable, and this is so in any genuine realization, in any new recognition or discovery, and again whenever a complex is broken down or an unconscious content assimilated. It is immaterial whether the fascinating content is consciously realized as an image, a dream, fantasy, and idea, a “hunch,” or a projection. The assimilation of unconscious contents, in whatever form, leads not only to an enrichment of the conscious material but also to an enrichment of libido, which makes itself felt subjectively, as excitement, the vivacity, and a joy that sometimes borders on intoxication; and, objectively, as a heightening interest, a broadened and intensified capacity for work, mental alertness, etc.

In the process of realizing and assimilating an unconscious content, the ego makes a “descent,” from the conscious standpoint, into the depths, in or order to raise up the “treasure.” 

(p343 The Origin and History of Consciousness)

 Neumann goes on to explain why the “Creative Rush,” brings up ever more ideas, linking, linking, ever linking.

“…Simultaneously with the alteration and enrichment of consciousness, the splitting up of the content leads very frequently, if not always, to an activation of the unconscious as well. We may explain the mechanism as follows: a certain proportion of the liberated libido cannot be absorbed by consciousness and flows off into the unconscious, where it “libidinizes” associated groups of complexes or archetypal contents. These contents are then brought up by association and are produced as random ideas etc. –in so far as they appear at all—or else a new unconscious constellation is effected. The combination of this new constellation with the original activity of realization is what constitutes the continuity of all creative work, essential elements of which are always prepared in advance by the unconscious, and are then elaborated and enriched before being produced. 
“The continuity of these processes is manifest not only in creativity but in all dream series, visions, and fantasies where we always find an inner consistency, web of associations deposited around one or more nuclei, is though around a center.
(p344 The Origin and History of Consciousness)

This brilliantly explains why many writers declare that a large part of their job is just showing up. Half my work happens if I just show up and keep writing day by day. Creative work begets more creative work in the Bottomless Bottomless Cauldron of Imagination. Imagination fuels more imagination.

This is why all the sages advise the artist to simply begin, and say that the most powerful act is simply beginning. Your conscious mind may not know where you are going, but your unconscious mind does. So the next time you are stuck, my creative friends, be comforted, you are in good hands. (And keep showing up to work.) Because your conscious mind is mere steam, arising from the bigger, grander, vaster part of yourself below—the Bottomless Bubbling Cauldron of Imagination.

P.S. For artists, I highly recommend Erich Neumann's Art and the Creative Unconscious. It is more targeted to the creative process than The Origin and History of Consciousness.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Secrets, Nooks, and the Refuge of Books

On a hill above my elementary school playground, stretched a row of large ornamental bushes. On the outside, they had large, waxy green leaves. On the inside, an open space within the supporting branches. It was like a cave inside a bush.

One of these was the SMP--Secret Meeting Place, where I and my best friend, both of us insatiable readers and budding writers, escaped from the inanities and tortures of recess. The hill and the bushes were officially off limits. But we learned how to sneak up there with our books, rain or shine. The leaves kept out a lot of rain.

What joy. What simple joy.

It didn't last. 

One day, we were betrayed by a sharp-eyed classmate. I still remember the playground teacher blowing her whistle, shouting at us to come down. As readers of many books of adventure, we had formulated an escape plan.

Out of the SMP we ran, darting from bush to bush, sliding down behind the cover of the portables. My friend went one way and I another. Our agreed on rendesvous after such a catastrophe--a nook in the library, off course!

And there we met ten minutes later, scared by our discovery and narrow escape, but jubilant, too. We were safe, in the library. With books, where we belonged.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Eleanor Estes' The Hundred Dresses should be "Smack-Dab-in-the-Middle" of Every Classroom Today

Image result for Eleanor Estes 100 dresses

The classic children's book, The Hundred Dresses (1944, Harcourt Brace) by Eleanor Estes, was my favorite book in the third grade. I loved it then because of the surprising end reveal of the astounding creative ability of Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant.

Wanda is bullied by her classmates for being different, especially by Peggy and sometimes by Maddie. But Maddie, who narrates much of the story, feels uncomfortable about Peggy's bullying. Bu like so many of us Maddie is afraid to speak up.

The book's beautiful ending grips the imagination. But it's realistic, too. Even as a child I resonated to Maddie's resolution at the end:

"She was never going to stand by and say nothing again. If she ever heard anybody picking on someone because they were funny looking or had strange names, she'd speak up. Even if it meant losing Peggy's friendship. She had no way of making things right with Wanda, but from now on she would never make anyone else so unhappy again."

Estes had the art, sensitivity, and skill to make the young reader feel the impact of prejudice and bullying. The Hundred Dresses should be "smack dab in the middle" of every classroom today.

Lighting the Bonfire of Your Imagination

We have survived the longest night of the year—again. Many people still light bonfires on Winter Solstice night. Bring greens in the house to encourage the sun to return. Light candles. Put lights on the evergreen trees. They’re waiting upon the darkness.

This is an act of the imagination. Imagination and the symbol generating capacity of the psyche are inextricably related in a way I’m still trying to understand. Someone postulated that it wasn’t an opposable thumb, and therefore tool-making ability, that led to human development, but our capacity to make symbols. I think that capacity emerged from our visual, pre-verbal experiencing of the world.  I see a tree, though I have no word for it. It has fruit. Limbs I can climb to escape a predator. Without words, I see the tree and come to associate it with food and safety. This was the arising of symbolic thinking.

In the spirit of the bonfires burning to wait upon the dark last night, we can also set a fire to light our imaginations. I’ve been a writer since the second grade, but only in the last four years have my imaginative abilities truly taken flight. And I know why. I began to record and watch my dreams.

Dreams arise out of the dark, out of that pre-verbal symbol making place in our psyche. Dreams are pure metaphor. Gob-smackingly original. As I watched my dreams and saw over time how the symbols and metaphors developed, my ability to think metaphorically grew exponentially. It was set on fire. I was exercising the fundamental “muscle” where all writing arises from—all poetry, fairy tales, myth, and story. 

I am perpetually awed at the abundance and richness going on way down deep. How much I had missed before I began paying attention. Dreams and myth are hard to understand—at first. The language of symbol and metaphor is really a foreign language to our conscious, rational minds. Like any foreign language, it has to be learned. If any artist, any person, takes the time to learn this language, to wait upon the long dark night, I promise that your imagination will blaze bonfire bright. 

“If you wait upon the silence, it is not silent. 
And when you wait upon the darkness, it is luminous.” 
--CG Jung. Collected Works Volume 17