Sunday, August 26, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #8: The Ant & the Grasshopper

In the final week of the Summer Creativity Challenges, we use Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper to contemplate the dual nature of our own creative habits.  Inside every creative is a Grasshopper, who just wants to play, and an Ant, who plans, worries, and works.  In this interpretive challenge, I invite you to explore the fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper and contemplate what ideas and experiences you will take with you from the summer to the fall to fuel your creative endeavors. 

It is August, but I am already thinking about September.  It comes from small cues: the shortening of the daylight; the dry rustle of leaves in the driveway. 

As I walk home from work, my head filled with future third quarter work deadlines and thoughts of the encroaching fall semester, I find myself thinking about The Ant and the Grasshopper.  In this fable, a live-for-today grasshopper tempts a young ant to put down his work during the summer and play.  The ant is kept in-line by the other members of his colony.  As the seasons change, the grasshopper finds himself exposed to the elements and starving from his lack of preparation, while the ants feast on their harvest beneath the snow. 

There is some inconsistency in my memory.  I can’t remember what became of the grasshopper who liked to play.  Being a fable with its moral lessons, I think, it can’t be good

I have a mind for books, with the ability to retain plot lines and details about characters.  Television and movies are another matter entirely though, especially anything I watched when I was little.  In my head is a jumble of impressions from Donald Duck tormenting Chip and Dale to a man in a full bodysuit illustrated with all his internal organs that I saw one morning after Sesame Street.  These images are random, raw and out-of-context; fragments of things that I think my child-mind was not sure how to process.  My mental images of The Ant and the Grasshopper fall into this category. 

There is something about my incomplete memories of the fable that does not sit well with me.  So I take my images of a starving grasshopper in a tattered coat tightening his belt as he walks through the snow; of leaves blowing away on a cold wind; and ants in little lines rolling fruit into their home in a tree stump to YouTube to do some research.  It is not long before I find a match in A Walt Disney Silly Symphony entitled “The Grasshopper and the Ants” from 1934.  With ants whose facial features foreshadow Mickey Mouse (sans ears), and a grasshopper who sounds like Goofy, I know that this is the odd little version of this fable that has lodged itself in my brain.

Watching the cartoon again brings some resolution.  The ants take the grasshopper in from the cold, and the wise queen ant shows him that his “work” is to play his violin at their feast.  Through the lens of history, I can see the “Disneyfied” (less grim) interpretation of the fable and the influence of The Great Depression in this Silly Symphony.  For me though, it now makes sense as to why this fable comes to mind at this time of year.  My inner grasshopper still wants to play, but my inner ant is getting anxious about deadlines and planning for the busyness of the months to come. 

These two parts feel like they are in conflict these final weeks of summer.  In understanding of the process of creative thinking though, I know they are not.  In creating habits to nurture creativity, such as the exercises in these blog posts, I (and you as a reader) have actually been working very hard this summer. 

In creativity, through play we take risks, incubate ideas, and expose ourselves to new ideas that refill the well.  Like the ant in the fable, we’ve stocked up our thinking supplies, but we did so by letting our inner grasshopper out.  In the coming months, I know that my inner ant will reign supreme (which I am looking forward too) but I hope that just like the Queen Ant in the cartoon, that she will be kind, generous and frequently hand the grasshopper his fiddle and ask him to play.                        

All of this is inspiration for the eighth and final Summer Creativity Challenge: The Ant and the Grasshopper.  This challenge is a great opportunity to check in and take an hour with your sketchbook and note what ideas and experiences you’ve generated this summer.  Make a list of how you can use them in upcoming projects, or identify new projects to take on this fall and winter.  It is also a good challenge in which to meditate about your inner grasshopper and ant.  Do you give them equal “floor time”?  If you become a very serious Ant in the fall and winter now is a good time to set some goals or plan some time to let your Grasshopper out.     

With this as your touchpoint, plan some time to think about The Ant and the Grasshopper and consider what the fable means to you as a creative.  Record impressions, inspirations, ideas, and memories in your sketchbook and share here on The Paper Compass. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #7: Naming the Summer

This week we experiment with naming the summer, a lighthearted creative activity that is both mindful and playful.  And addictive—once you name one summer it can be hard to stop.  This is an exercise that invites observation, awareness, evaluation, and playfulness.  I personally have always enjoyed naming the summer as it creates a doorway in my memory to re-enter that point in time.  It can also be useful in looking for, or developing, themes for which to create a departure point for other creative endeavors such as writing, painting or photography.

Last Thursday, I am in the middle of the second hour of a work meeting, when I receive an email from my good friend AJ, who is a very talented illustrator and artist. We’ve known each other since we were seven* and he has a mystery for me: “How good is your record keeping? I'm trying to figure out what occurred in our universe on July 20, 1997.” 

Intrigued—and an assiduous journaler since third grade—I knew I could take the case.  I spend the rest of the meeting mentally flipping through dates and memories.  I place myself in Florida.  It is the summer after my first year at Boston University.  I have a summer job as a hostess at Chuck & Harold’s on Palm Beach.  It is also the summer that one of my poems appeared in Bostonia.  I write poetry all the time.  I am still listening to Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness.    

At home after the meeting, I climb on a chair to reach the top shelf of my office lined with my collection of journals, and pull down a slim volume bound in lipstick-red velvet (purchased at Urban Outfitters) with lined pages and handwriting that is a younger and more rounded version of my current scrawl. 

There is no entry for July 20, 1997, but there is one for July 13.  This is when I remember that the summer of 1997 was: The Summer of Sin.

Please know that the summer of 1997 is not literally named.  My family has a delightfully twisted sense of humor and the word sin is my brother’s, created to goad my mom.  Or my mother’s, said in irony.  I don’t remember.  The summer was named for its late nights inspired by my post-high school curfew, hanging out at all night diners like IHOP and Clock’s, and the early stages of a summer romance.  There was a lot of freedom and not a lot of sin, but I spent a great deal of time writing in my diary (there are in fact two entries for July 13th, one at 1:35am and another at 3:30pm) so my family had to tease me about something.  Through this, the summer came to be named.

While I was not able to solve AJ’s mystery completely, I was reminded of the origin of the act of naming the summer, which began back in my early days of high school.  At that time, my brother and I had stumbled across author Brian Jacques’ Redwall books filled with a fantasy world of warrior mice, veteran hares, squirrels that have archery talents equal to Robin Hood, and badgers in chain mail.   

While there is always some sort of war going on in this British-based animal kingdom, at the heart of the story is Redwall Abbey, where they feast in front of the fire, eat nuts, cheese, dandelion greens and drink strawberry wine, among other mouse delicacies.  And they name the seasons.  I was fascinated by this idea when I first read the books and experimented with applying it to my own life.  With Florida not having distinct seasons, I found that it really stuck most in the summer, when school was out, the weather pattern distinct, and my schedule different. 

For me, naming the summer is truly never very formal.  It is something that I mark briefly in my thoughts during the week as the summer goes on and I look for themes.  I sometimes note it in my journal where, upon reading later, as in this post, it opens up a door to the memories of the summer landscape, the backdrop to other events or a theme that weaves through the whole season. 

Compared to the summer of 1997, this summer has a tame name.  It is The Summer of Butterflies.  The season has been unusually vibrant with them.  First Swallow Tails, and then Monarchs, and now Red Admirals, appearing all over gardens around town in notable numbers.  It has inspired some photography and as noted in my current journal, provides a visual cue for me to remember that when I think of this summer, it should be with the details of butterflies passing the window, landing on the Butterfly bush in the back yard; their orange or yellow wings lifting them over fences and up towards the bright summer sky. 

All of this is inspiration for the seventh Summer Creativity Challenge: Naming the Summer.  This challenge can be a short and sweet activity where you consider the unique themes of your summer and brainstorm names, or it can be a meditation on naming a summer that was important to you.  You can even create a series of names for the past few summers or seasons to show growth or patterns.  As I wrote this post, the book Summer of My German Solider, by Bette Greene, and author Waverly Fitzgerald’s time-recovery excise “Naming the Moons”, from her book Slow Time, came to mind as alternative ways to interpret it.       

With this as your touchpoint, plan some time to meditate on names or a name for your summer, or make an artist date to write, paint, etc., with the inspiration of looking at unique themes.  Record impressions, inspirations, ideas, and memories in your sketchbook and share here on The Paper Compass. 

Two of AJ's illustrations I found in my
1997 red velvet journal
*In our collective history, we both say this, but AJ is actually older than me, so it can’t be factually true.  It works well enough though, so we’ve stuck with it.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #6: The Night Sky

Detail from Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone

In this week’s creativity challenge we look up to the night sky, a source of inspiration and mystery.  In light of a week filled with the news around the landing on Mars of the appropriately named rover, Curiosity, and the Perseid meteor showers peaking in the morning’s early hours, I thought that this was the perfect week for this challenge.  The night sky gives us the chance to bring our attention to the immense scale of the universe, which then allows us to see the magic in the details of the everyday. The night sky offers us the gift of perspective, an important trait for creativity, as we need to be able to see both the big picture and the fine details when creating our idea, concept or craft.    

My first true taste of the augustness of the night sky took place on a hillside in Vermont during the summer vacations of my childhood.  Usually at some point in the late summer, my parents would pack us all into my dad’s grey Volkswagen Vanagon.  We would head north from Connecticut to The Highland Lodge in Vermont in what felt like an interminable car ride that no amount of car trip BINGO or travel Connect Four could shorten.  Gradually, the landscape changed from highway to narrow roads banked by fields of cows that undulated over rows of steep hills, letting us know that we were finally close to our destination.   

Rising behind the white farm house that was the main building of The Highland Lodge was a ridge dotted with a row of white cabins.  It was on this steep hill, on a plaid wool blankets taken from the ends of the beds that all of the kids at the inn (my newest friends made that week) lay lined up like sticks, the sky our only concern, while the adults peppered the activities with flashlights, snacks and bug spray.  This is how I watched my first meteor shower, the sky rich with dashes of light. 

Years later in Florida, I would read sci-fi books, watch the white-bright-burn of the shuttle launches, and look up to the dark heavens from the driveway.  On some nights, the sky was so populated with stars that I could see beyond the usual constellations all the way to other galaxies such as Andromeda and the Large and Small Magellanic CloudsOther galaxies, I would say to myself, somehow hoping to memorize that fleeting feeling of, for one moment, grasping the scale of the universe. 
Now, as it was then, the night sky is still a source of wonder—and also a source of wishing.  Despite the lights of the city illuminating the immediate horizon, I can often look up and see the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, and find my favorite constellation, Orion, by his bright belt.  When I turn my gaze to the sky, I find myself still wishing on stars.  This is because when I look at the night sky it reminds me that there are still many mysteries out there to be explored and charted, and some things to that will always remain unknown, a sentiment—poetic perhaps—which speaks to me as the navigator of my own tiny life in this immense universe.   

All of this is inspiration for the sixth Summer Creativity Challenge: The Night Sky.  This challenge is open to your imagining and interpretation.  You could take the time this week to stand in your driveway each night and look up, or download an app such as The Night Sky and learn the constellations.  Or this could be the effulgent spark of a creative endeavor such as writing a piece of flash fiction where someone wishes on a star.  If you paint, this could be a chance to work inspired by the night sky or moonlight.  You can also remember your own memories of stargazing, or nights under the stars.

With this as your touchpoint, plan an artist date, step outside, write or paint with the inspiration of exploring and remembering your backyard.  Record impressions, inspirations, ideas, and memories in your sketchbook and share here on The Paper Compass. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #5: The Backyard

The backyard, both figuratively and literally, is an area that we consider part of our “turf,” or neighborhood, which makes it optimal territory for creative exploration.  While a backyard can be a little slice of nature on your own property, it can also be the area on the other side of the block where your favorite pizza shop is.  In this week’s Summer Creativity Challenge, we will explore our figurative and literal backyards for a wealth of creative riches.

A few months ago, in an exercise to introduce a little more play into my world, I made a mind map of all of the things that I loved to do as a child.  As the mind map unfolded, more and more of the activities recalled beckoned me outside to the backyard of my childhood in Connecticut.

Even then, as I know now in retrospect, I sensed that it was a wonderful backyard.  It was long and deep, its depth allowing for a sense of independence and adventure.  From out the backdoor, I would escape the house heading past the picnic table and the lilacs; past the detached garage with its flat roof from which we would stand and pick cherries from the branches of the old cherry tree; past the potting shed on which my mom had stenciled three white sheep with black faces on the grey wood above the square windows.  Here the yard narrowed, sloping down to a rusty wire fence thick with the tangled vines of concord grapes.  There was a tire swing in the cherry tree and when you swung out over the slope, the ground would drop away and you’d feel like you were flying.  A gate in the fence led to a narrow back road lined with bungalows, their backyards a common area that paralleled our property, which was not out of bounds for exploring (the large rock rising out of the ground in the far corner, making it especially attractive.)

The yard widened out again after the potting shed to an area bordered by a stone wall on one side and the trees and fence on the other.  Here my parents had planted a large vegetable garden, and raspberry and blueberry bushes.  There was also a big curved flower garden that in the summer was vivid with the orange blooms of Tiger Lilies.  After this garden was the apple tree, with its low and crooked branches, perfect for climbing, and an old chicken coop that my dad had renovated into a playhouse for me, complete with a large tree stump and two smaller cuts from the same tree to make a table and chairs. 

The far back of the yard ran up to the train tracks and was shadowed with a thick growth of tall trees.  One Memorial Day, after the town parade when our extended family and friends came back to the house for brunch, the kids gathered outside.  The game we were playing took us deep into the area near the tracks.  A train approached and we paused to watch, but rather than the usual commuter trains heading into New York, this train was different.  The cars of the train were painted with bold and curling letters, images of tigers and lions, horses and acrobats, and the smiling faces of clowns.  It was a circus train and, as one, all of us began screaming and waving, running up to the breaks in the trees to see the train better.  By the last few cars, the members of the circus had seen us and they stood at the windows and on the spaces between the cars waving back at us, a group of kids just playing in the backyard.

All of this is inspiration for the fifth Summer Creativity Challenge: The Backyard.  My backyards have changed over the years, from the big backyard in Connecticut, to a patio and pool in Florida, and also to being able to say “Fenway Park is in my backyard” during my time in the Fenway area of Boston.  It is interesting to remember the backyards that you’ve experienced during your life and to also ask, “what’s in my backyard?” now.  This challenge can be interpreted in many ways, from taking a simple hour to explore the microcosms that is the little piece of land behind your house, or walking out the door and around your neighborhood to see what buildings, shops and restaurants make up your figurative backyard.    

With this as your touchpoint, plan an artist date, take a walk, write or paint with the inspiration of exploring and remembering your backyard.  Record impressions, inspirations, ideas, and memories in your sketchbook and share here on The Paper Compass.