Sunday, April 29, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works

The shivery feeling I get when I realize I am reading something truly special must qualify as a crush.  I'll open the book, read a few pages, and experience the vicarious thrill that accompanies the presence of true greatness.  All of the sudden, I'm hanging onto every word.  I laugh more, I talk about it nonstop with my friends.  The cover of the book even begins to look more attractive.  That's how I feel about Johan Lehrer's "Imagine: How Creativity Works".  It's smart, funny and playful.  It's about to become successful but doesn't really know it yet.  In short, it's everything a girl could ask for.

The book outlines different ways in which creativity can occur.  It carefully uncovers how solitude is important to creativity, and how collaboration is equally important.  There is a particularly fascinating chapter about why big cities tend to cultivate creativity.  Lehrer concludes with a clever chapter about why certain time and places (Elizabethan England, Ancient Greece) tend to produce more creative people than others.

Reading this book encouraged me to think creatively.  I read this book in tandem with a couple others.  As I turned over in my mind the premises and ideas of each of the books I had read, I came up with an idea.

I've created a website that explores the concepts of kindness, play and creativity.  I've outlined the basic concepts of it in the article on the website titled Playful Kindness: An Idea.  Already, I have received an exciting outpouring of ideas and creative plans!  I want to create a collaborative environment in which people can devise ways to make their bit of space a little bit more beautiful and then share it with the rest of us.  I want to encourage a way of thinking that notices the kindness and beauty that people bestow upon us and finds ways to encourage kindness in return.

Stop by, take a look around, and mull it over for a little bit.  Then come out and play!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bloom by Kelle Hampton

I wasn't going to read Bloom- Kelle Hampton's chronicle of discovering her daughter has Down Syndrome.  The book records Kelle's feelings and experience throughout baby Nella's first year of life.  I came across a glowing review of it a couple weeks ago and decided to pass.  I was happy that it was published, happy that it's getting good reviews, thrilled that it is receiving main stream exposure.  I am strongly in favor of any kind of experience that illustrates the similarities between people with developmental disabilities and people who develop typically.  But I just wasn't sure that this particular book was for me.  I'm embarrassed to admit that, for whatever reason, the tone seemed a little saccharine, a little too "Hallmark channel".  I think it's important to honor the grit, courage, and perseverance that parents who have a child with a disability often display.  I didn't want to waste my time reading a polished Pollyanna version of what is inevitably a difficult process.

However, I changed my mind when a mother of a son with Down Syndrome strongly encouraged me to read the book.  She said that Kelle's depiction of her experiences rang true to many families who have children with Down Syndrome.  She advised me to read it, particularly as I am currently doing research about families' experiences understanding their child's disability. 

So the next day, I picked up a copy (more specifically, I coaxed my mom to come with me to pick up a copy so as not to break my 100 day rule).

I immediately liked Kelle.  She is honest.  She didn't know that Nella had Down Syndrome until after Nella was born.  She courageously tells of the evolution of her feelings, letting us be privy to the ugly thoughts, the lonely moments, the times of bottomless fear.

But she also expresses unspeakable love.  She is never a victim, a saint, or a martyr.  She shows her gratitude toward a truly remarkable support system.  As she experiences Nella, she learns how to become an advocate for her daughter.

It's true that Kelle's generally optimistic attitude has attained its share of detractors.  But I loved it.  It reminded me of a truth that is so obvious that we often forget it: that reality is subjective.  Our experiences are what we determine.  And since that's true, why not look at everything and see the opportunities and potential?  Why not look around and search for beauty?

Through her experiences as a mother with a child with Down Syndrome, Kelle has accomplished some amazing things.  Through her blog and book, she helps people understand that there are more similarities between people with developmental disabilities and people who develop typically than there are differences.  She has helped raise over $100,000 for the National Down Syndrome Society.  And she reminded me, at least, to relax and look for moments of beauty.

Friday, April 13, 2012


I was recently asked, if I could be any superhero, who I would be.  Here's what I decided:

My sister and I grew up playing imagination games together.  We played everything: we constructed elaborate forts in the backyard and we were the Boxcar Children; we traipsed around the house dressed in old bed sheets and we were princesses; we carved out space in our bedroom closet, flipped the laundry basket bottom up and we were restaurateurs.
We also played superheroes.  My sister favored the classics (Batman, Superman), while I preferred those currently en vogue (She-Ra, Moon Dreamers).   One of my child development professors recently wrote a paper about the developmental importance of superhero play: a topic about which she loves to speak.  To a certain extent, my sister and I didn’t grow out of our superhero phase for a while.
My sister is a graphic designer and I have always loved to write.  When we were in high school, we created our own superhero Grammatica: a strong, spunky girl with a sidekick bee named Spelling and a keen eye for grammar.   We decided that the inaugural issue would find Grammatica and Spelling saving a town plagued by internet acronyms. 

I graduated with my B.A. in Communications.  I strongly feel that one of the best tools we can give someone is the power to communicate effectively.  I believe this is true for people of every age.  I have taken child development courses devoted to language and I have taken marriage and family counseling classes.  Language is immeasurably powerful.  
So if I could be any superhero, I would be Grammatica.   I would choose her not just for the loyal sidekick or the trusty red ink permanent marker.  I love the idea of a superhero as someone who does more than save people, someone who educates and empowers people as well.  Our concept of Grammatica is so much more than that of a grammar snob slashing through a jungle of errant commas and misplaced apostrophes: she would teach people the skills necessary to be communicatively successful.
Of course, the trust red ink permanent marker would be pretty cool, too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Flourish & Understanding, or: Why Brains Work & How to Make Them Better

I love brains.  In that regard, at least, I have always thought I would make a rather excellent zombie.  Both of my parents went back to school when I was younger.  My dad got a minor in Psychology and my mom loves to tell of how I would read his neuroanatomy textbook for fun.  I was ten.

Now, I'm pursuing my M.A. in Psychology and I still love reading books about the brain: the functions, the wiring, mental illness, developmental disorders, neurological disorders, memory, fear, love, trust- bring it all on.

I have been on a brain binge lately.  Two of the books I have read recently take a look at the brain in two very different ways.  The first is called Flourish: A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman.  The second is Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastain Seung.

A couple years ago, I took a developmental psychology class called Play: The Importance of Happiness Throughout the Lifespan.  In it, I became familiar with some of the giants in the fields of both play and happiness research.  That's when I learned of Martin Seligman, who is widely considered the father of positive psychology.  As Seligman tells it, psychology has historically been concerned with getting rid of neuroses.  Psychology focuses on the negative: depression, anxiety and the like.  Seligman envisioned a psychology that, rather than solely focusing on the eradication of negative affect, pursues the enhancement of positive affect.  His first theory was outlined in the book Authentic Happiness which has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for the last two years.  Flourish more fully develops the theory articulated in Authentic Happiness.

Seligman's theory is as follows: Instead of being concerned with a concept like "happiness", which is so closely related to mood that one's perception of happiness can be rather capricious, it makes more sense to focus on well-being.  He believes that there are five elements of well-being theory, which are: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, accomplishment, and positive relationships.  He thinks our goal should be to work toward maximizing each of these five elements in our life, thus improving our overall well-being.

Seligman then gives a few positive psychology exercises.  One that I thought was particularly interesting is called the What-Went-Well Exercise, or the 3 Blessings.  Each night, you write down three things that went well that day.  I've kept a gratitude journal before and I think it's a lovely idea.  However, Seligman takes it a step further and encourages you to then take a look at each thing you've written down and ask yourself, "why did this happen?"  and then write that down as well.  I think this is a great idea because it helps us look for patterns, see ways in which people have been particularly wonderful, and encourages us to see ways in which we can have repeat "what went well" experiences.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book goes into the development of many of the Applied Positive Psychology programs without giving us more depth to the well-being theory and the practices we can do to enhance it.  There is a Master's of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.  However, one must be hand-selected to go and the cost is $40,000 a year for tuition alone.  Seligman doesn't delve into his theory too deeply for the rest of us.  While the beginning of the book felt full of promise and the excitement of exploring a new, potentially helpful psychological lens, the rest of the book is only moderately interesting.  We learn that Seligman has used his theories in the military, in education, with leaders of multiple domains, and to create a framework for understanding politics and economics.  However, I finished the book feeling that I was treated to only the sketchiest outline of what those theories actually were.

Connectome, on the other hand, covers its theories rather exhaustively.  Seung's theory is that our synaptic connections comprise much of who we are.  He believes that how our brains wire themselves determines a lot about us: our memories, our personalities, possibly even whether or not we develop autism or schizophrenia.  He proposes mapping the brain's synaptic connections, much as the Human Genome Project has mapped genes.  He believes this will answer a lot of questions about the brain that cannot currently be answered.

And he is the first to admit that much of what he explains is purely theoretical.  Technological capabilities must advance before his connectome theory can be tested.  Seung explains how neurons connect to one another; his idea of how memories are made; and the current understanding of the way genetics, synaptic connections, and environment work together to shape our personality.  He then painstakingly articulates the history of biotechnology and the evolution of neuroscientific theory.

This book snaked back and forth between entertaining and tedious several times.  One of my favorite parts is when Seung compares neurons to an army of paparazzi.  In a truly sublime moment, the professor of Neuroscience and Physics at MIT somehow managed to combine my love of neuroscientific research with my much more embarrassing love of trashy magazines.  Heaven. 

However, I was disappointed that more time wasn't spent covering the connectome theory's potential implications for autism and schizophrenia research.  I understand that this is so new and untested that there's probably relatively little to say.  Still, it was a let down.  Also, the last two chapters were, to use a strictly scientific term, bananas.  Chapter 14: To Freeze or to Pickle? examined the merits and potential downfalls of cryonics (freezing dead bodies to attempt future immortality) and plastination (preserving brains by chemical means, also in a bid for immortality).  Chapter 15: Save As... discussed a future in which connectome mapping could be used to create a digital replica of a person's connectome, thus ensuring that person's ability to live indefinitely in cyber space.  The whole concept gets a little Summer of Love-ish as Seung mentions the idea of people's collective consciousnesses intermingling in cyber space.  It's unfortunate that such a well-researched book was reduced to absurd ponderings in the last two chapters- a neuroscientific version of jumping the shark.

While both of the books had their merits, I would suggest reading synopses and passing on the actual books.  Seligman has a great website that offers many of his psychological surveys for free.  Seung's subsequent book will most likely be fascinating, once technology has caught up with his ambitious theory.

Day: 65
Currently Reading:
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
Love Always: Harriet Evans

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Liebster Blog Award

A couple months ago, I won a sword at a banquet dinner.  That's right, a sword.  And this week, the lovely Krista has bestowed upon me the Liebster Blog Award! 2012 has been ridiculously exciting so far.

Liebster is a German word for beloved. The award is given to beloved blogs with under 200 followers. These blogs are meant to be "the best kept secrets" out there.

I think that this award is super cool :) many thanks to Krista for nominating me! Her blog is wonderful and you should check it out.

Here are the other blogs I would love to give the Liebster Blog Award to:

I Read a Book Once...
Pocketful of Books
A Novel Place
A Book A Week
My Life in Books

These are creative, fascinating websites.  I strongly encourage everyone to check each of them out.


Winners can nominate up to five other blogs.
Let them know you have nominated them by leaving a comment on their blog.
Post the award on your blog.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Prose and King: Writers on Writing

Blank pages can be intimidating.

Often, I have an idea formed about what I want to write. Everything flows in my mind: I strike the right balance between humor and profundity. I create entertaining stories that evoke surprising yet insightful conclusions. Until I actually sit down to write. And then my compelling intuition devolves into a mental stutter that makes Homer Simpson sound like William Shakespeare. And I just hope that something articulate lands on the page when I am finished.

I have learned, however, that pages with words on them can be as intimidating as those without. I learned this with Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want To Write Them. I know. What? This isn't Dostoevsky or Sartre. This book is about doing what we already do: this is a book about reading. So how come I put it down so many times the first four years I owned it? Prose's book, for whatever reason, terrified me.

This is my favorite part of the 2012 reading challenge: that I must finish each book I start. As a result, I am proud of the quality of books I have read lately. I kept this in mind as I picked Prose's book off the shelf. This time, I had to finish it. Or else.

And I did. I read it over the course of a week. Doggedly at times, when I was tired. And I loved it.

First of all, I find the way that Prose creates her chapters makes a lot of sense: She begins by reminding us the value of close reading. Chapter two focuses on words, chapter three on sentences. After that, she focuses on: paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, etc. Also, Prose provides examples from novels and short stories that are helpful and fascinating to read. Prose deftly guides our attention to the elements of the story that are well-executed. I found myself fascinated by stories to which I may not have paid much attention to without the benefit of Prose's expertise.

Prose has provided me with an altered reading style that has depth and even greater curiosity. I have read several books since I've read Reading Like A Writer and the impact has lasted. Also, as an avid highlighter and margin-writer of books, I have established sections that are helpful to me as I edit my own writing. The book has helpful advice and is written in a simple yet beautiful way.

I took a circuitous route from Prose to King, reading several books in between Reading Like A Writer and On Writing: King's memoir and guidebook to writers. The style of the two are quite different; whereas Prose breaks the chapters into elements of writing, King begins with the narrative of how he grew up in love with reading and writing. His series of humble jobs prior to getting his first novel published should be comforting to any beginning writer whose paycheck mocks the concept of a living wage. He then delves into his "writer's toolbox", which looks more like Prose's structure: the do's and don'ts of sentences, paragraphs, and dialogue. Afterward, he describes in great detail the van wreck that nearly killed him.

Here's what I discovered: Stephen King is funny. Self-effacing and hilarious. I read many sections of this book aloud to whomever would listen. I may have texted some of it to friends. As lovely as I found Prose's book, that's how entertaining I found King's. Both are invaluable tools that should have a home on every writer's shelf.

They disagree on certain things: Prose finds the one word (or even one sentence) paragraph to be melodramatic and believes it should be used sparingly if at all. King thinks it can help build suspense. Prose quotes Tolstoy. King quotes himself. However, the books are often similar: each quote Flannery O'Connor. Both authors have an aversion to adverbs bordering on disgust. Each writer feels word choice deserves the utmost attention. And most importantly: they each advise us to read as much as we possibly can.

Days Since Last Book Purchase: 57

Currently Reading:
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block