River Bed, Exposed

I’ve been in my studio all week, doing very little in the way of art making. In my vigil of just sitting, I have pondered this question: How is it that a juicy, lush stream of creative expression can dry up and disappear overnight? What is the fragile chemistry of the brain or the body (or both) that is unkiltered by grief and suffering?

Sometimes sorrow can bring on an outpouring of expression. The number of exquisite poems birthed from the fractured shards of a broken heart is not insignificant. At the same time, I know of artists and writers who have gone lights out for years because of a deep loss.

The question feels more rhetorical than answerable. But thinking about it so much has led to research, and the exploration of its rational/scientific manifestation is a kind of palliative distraction.

Here’s an interesting extract I found in the Harvard Gazette. The work of Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Harvard and the author of The Midnight Disease, is featured in this piece:

The notion of muse as a “divine voice” or an inspiration from some ethereal source intrigues Flaherty. But for her, writing, and not being able to write when you want to, come from interactions between and changes in specific areas of the brain. The muse, in other words, is merely a matter of making the right brain connections.

The limbic system, a ring-shaped cluster of cells deep in the brain, provides the emotion push. Many nerve fibers connect it to the temporal lobes, areas behind the ears that understand words and give rise to ideas. Finally, the frontal lobe, behind your forehead, serves as a critical organizer and editor, penciling out bad phrases and ideas.

“It’s likely that writing and other creative work involve a push-pull interaction between the frontal and temporal lobes,” Flaherty speculates. If the temporal lobe activity holds sway, an aspiring scribe may turn out 600 logorrheic pages. If the temporal lobes are restrained by frontal lobe changes, the result might be pinched and timid.

Most academics regard the study of creativity as what Flaherty calls “intellectually unhygienic…”

In planning are more cerebral tests that would rely on brain scans to show actual differences in brain activity when the muse is rampant and when it hits a wall. If Flaherty’s theory is correct, brain cells in the temporal and frontal lobes should crackle with different patterns of activity.

Another technique that may influence as well as map the paths of creative activity involves passing a magnetic wand over the heads of people. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it has increased creativity when applied to the frontal lobes in preliminary studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

“Such testing should give us information, never available before, about what goes on in the brain during creativity, and what doesn’t go on when it’s blocked.” Flaherty notes…

What about people who believe they have something to say but can’t get it out? Traditional remedies like alcohol, or sticking to the task even when nothing is flowing are not going to break the block. “Repeatedly failing at the same attempt is probably a frontal lobe malfunction that makes it hard for someone to give up a faulty strategy,” Flaherty says. “This condition is best treated by taking a break.” John Keats, the English poet, treated his writer’s block by stopping and getting dressed in his best clothes.

I quite like that phrase, “intellectually unhygienic”. But I’ll take my chances.

And as for Keats’ solution, maybe I’ll give the haberdashery cure a try…

10 Replies to “River Bed, Exposed”

  1. Elatia Harris says:

    My late writing teacher, Art Edelstein, used to quote Willa Cather about the state of preparedness a writer must commit to, even when she doubts anything will pan out on a given day. Being a writer, Cather said, is like being a lightning rod — it may be that lightning won’t strike, but if it does, you will be in place to conduct it.

  2. E, Thanks for that image. It reminds me of an image Anne Truitt uses in Day Book–of riding a wild horse through a rainstorm even though you have no idea of where you are galloping. But you do it, time and time again. It’s the willingness to be open, to surrender to the process.

  3. Getting dressed in your best clothes might work for a writer, but a painter? Best clothes would quickly deteriorate to worst, I imagine. I wrote a few posts on Alice Flaherty as her work fascinates me as well.

  4. G, I think it was you who turned me on to the Midnight Disease in the first place. Thank you for that. As for the clothes, I’m all about trying anything that might shift my energy.

  5. Apropos of nothing:

    Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead. –Gene Fowler

    Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working. –Stephen DeStaebler

    As quoted in Art & fear by Bayles & Orland

  6. Elatia Harris says:

    Gloria, in my most productive years as a painter, I got very dressed up to go into the studio. Leonardo in the Penguin Edition of the _Notebooks_ wrote amusingly about painting compared to sculpture, how the painter could show up to work in his finest raiment, the sculptor in lowliest hop-sacking. I think doing whatever enhances your sense of occasion is best. David Hockney said he started off the day stripping the flesh from cold roast quail, standing in the studio doorway, chewing.

    Deborah, I know! Take all the lime green glass away from the big clerestory in the studio. Everyone’s eye is always attracted to that window — yours too? Perhaps changing the quality of the light coming through it?

  7. E, I gulped when I read your suggestion. I have so much faith in you and your intuitive read on me that I have to pay attention. OK. I’ll consider it! But you know how transformed I am by golden green light…!

  8. And MadSilence, thank you for reminding me of those quotes from Art and Fear. I think I’m feeling more of the blood on the forehead these days.

  9. Elatia Harris says:

    Oh, you could put it back the way it was in a few weeks. It just feels so deeply symbolic — if you want the energy to shift, then it seems worth trying to alter something in the vast continuous spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that is Light. There’s a ritual component here that could answer your purpose, as well.
    Know what? If they can take the famous Black Virgin in the South of France off the alter, remove her from her garments and ritually bathe her each year, then it’s probably okay to do what I’m proposing, too. You could arrange all the vases on the gallery floor in a labyrinth pattern — I’m not suggesting you do anything unceremonious with them. However! If something tells you not to do this, then please don’t!

  10. You make it easy to consider, E!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: