(Yes, I know I’m posting this early on Wednesday, but as I worked late and haven’t been to bed yet, it’s still Tuesday to me.  Get over it.)

Last weekend, I made my sojourn to Frankfort, Kentucky, for the annual meeting of the Statewide Selection Committee for the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program.  As usual, I had a great time seeing old friends and making new ones, despite my car biting the dust when I got to the hotel.

The committee is made up of volunteers—mostly people who, unlike me, work in education in some capacity–from all over who have insanely agreed to put off every other event in their lives for a couple of weeks in order to score nearly 2000 applications from students hoping to attend the program.  Some of us attend every year, mostly for the excellent lunch provided by the staff, and some do not attend at all for various reasons.  I try to make it every year, and not only for the lunch, but for the conversation.  It’s nice to learn what is new with the program, what changes are being made, and how the many hours I spend scoring applications benefit students from across the state of Kentucky.

During this year’s meeting, two of the members were discussing how little imagination children seem to have compared to what we had growing up and, as a fellow committee member and a parent and a writer, I have a few thoughts on this topic.

I used to score a part of the GSP application we called “The Unique”.  We asked the students to write a short description of something that set them apart from their peers, something that would make us take notice and say, “Now, there’s a kid who should be a Governor’s Scholar.”  I have talked about the shortcomings from this part of the application before, so I won’t rehash them here.  For the five or so years I scored Uniques, they collectively got worse and worse until, last year, the program decided to scrap them in favor of a Leadership Project that the students would describe, in bullet point format, from conception to execution.  The project could be something they actually plan to do or purely theoretical, but the entire idea was to get the students to think about what they could do to help their communities and, from our perspective, to see how organized and pragmatic their thinking processes are.  So far, the feedback has been generally positive about the change within the program, but the people scoring them have complained about the same general idea that I and others did with the Uniques—lack of creativity and imagination.

Sadly, I see the same problem in my own children.  It seems that my children can’t be outside for more than a few minutes before they are whining about wanted to come inside because there’s nothing to do.  They don’t want to jump on the trampoline or play with all the toys we’ve bought for them or watch the movies lying tossed like frisbees around their bedrooms or read any of the books bulging from the shelves.  You simply cannot walk into either of their bedrooms without stepping on something that is now too boring for them to play with.

As a child, I was certainly not deprived, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with material goods the way other children I knew were.  I loved to be outside playing baseball, even if “playing baseball” meant throwing imaginary no-hitters against a brick wall at the church next door or slaying invisible dragons with the straightest stick I could find in the brush pile.  Everything I needed to entertain myself for hours was lying around my yard and inside own head.

Nowadays, every stimulus children have comes from outside.  They have video games and movies and internet and all the other assorted things that the generations before first imagined, then brought into being.  Studies have shown that young people read less than their older counterparts, and while a number of legitimate ideas have been offered as to why this is, I think one of the most important, yet least discussed, is that with stimulus thrust upon them, children have perhaps lost the ability to produce these things inside their own minds, to see the invisible dragons or the fierce batters ready to spoil that historic moment in sports history.  Why imagine a thing when you can put a disk into a little machine and experience it without all the effort?  Are we driving our kids to the point where they cannot appreciate the simple act of creation that can occur inside the imagination and will we miss out on what those imaginings can provide for us in the future?

I have other fears regarding the loss of imagination as it affects my writing.  Children who cannot focus enough on a story to see what is happening without having it on Blu-Ray will not, as a rule, be potential readers.  On a larger scale, what will happen to literature as more and more children lose the ability to imagine stories themselves, to create the future of what we will read?  Even as the publishing industry shifts to a modern, digitized format, I wonder if there will be much worth reading when my children’s generation are the movers and shakers in society.

There is hope, however.  J.K. Rowling, for example, has done as much as any single person to reverse this awful trend.  The Harry Potter series gave children (and adults, for that matter) such a rich world, with vibrant characters and brilliant settings, that an entire generation learned to imagine again, creating a ripple effect in the Young Adult market and making it probably the only bright spot in the book world right now.  Not only is the Harry Potter generation reading more, they are writing.  I see young people all the time who are writing novels or short stories with the ultimate goal of being published.  Now, if they could only spell and use proper grammar . . . but that’s a rant for another day.

Imagination is not an intangible thing.  Without it, there is no industry, no innovation, no progress.  It’s hard to look around and not see the advances in technology that started, in their embryonic stage, as an idea.  An imagining.  How will society progress as more and more of our ideas, our very thoughts, come from the television or the internet?  Who will rise up and have the original thought that changes the world?

Why not me?  Why not you?  Go out, find a child, and slay the invisible dragons.

From The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children:  What Do We Know? (Pages 167-168):

Concentrating primarily on writers and visual artists, an additional body of research has focused specifically on the emotional health of artistically gifted adults.  These studies consistently conclude that there is a significantly higher incidence of mood disorders and suicide among gifted writers and visual artists.  Many of these studies provide compelling evidence that high creative achievement in writing or visual arts shares three characteristics with mood disorders:  alteration of mood, certain types of thinking processes, and a tolerance for irrationality . . .

Jamison (1993) suggested that elevated mood precedes periods of creative productivity, with mood changes opening or inhibiting thought, thus stimulating greater creativity.  Depression may have an important role in slowing the pace of thought, putting feelings and ideas into perspective, and eliminating irrelevant notions . . . Cognitive traits common to both creativity and hypomania are fluency, rapidity, and flexibility of thought coupled with the ability to combine ideas to form new, original thinking relationships (Jamison).  Rothenberg concluded that the cognitive ability to combine paradoxes or superimpose discrete objects characterizes both psychotics and persons predisposed to high levels of creativity.  However, his research also describes a narrow but distinct boundary between psychotic processes and creative thought. 

My wife picked up this book for a class as part of her continuing teacherification.  Even though, as it turns out, she didn’t need the book, she read this section to me and I found it particularly interesting in what it says about writing and the creative process in general.

Throughout my life, I have been recognized as one of many people that fit this description of creatively gifted people.   I possess all the classic signs offered here—good and bad—and, more importantly, my wife says so.  My moods tend to run darker than average, often during my greatest times of creative productivity.  Some of the best writing I’ve ever done came a few years ago when I was at a point of such despair that I didn’t know if I would ever see happiness again.

Now, I certainly don’t want to say that to be a good writer your life must give you lemonade and tell you to make lemons.  Far from it.  There are many good and great authors out there who damn near dance around all day singing songs from Disney movies while awash in the gloriousness that is their lives.  I had to convince myself, upon pulling out of my earlier despair, that I could write with the same ability while happy as I could while miserable.

And that is where the revelation lies.  It is true that writers and psychopaths share a common bond.  I have said before on here that writing, at its best, is more of an inspired play inside the writer’s head, a found thing as King would say, as opposed to something the writer creates through sheer will.  It is far easier to see a thing and record what you see than it is to create all the detail—the sights, the sounds, the smells, etc.—that come with writing effective fiction.

Good writers, like psychopaths, must learn to detach themselves from reality.  Only for a short while, mind you, only while composing, but long enough to be regularly productive.  How can I hope to record all the various stimuli that make up a scene in my fiction—a seedy restaurant, a desert plain, a wind-blown mountaintop—unless I can free myself of the stimuli in the real world?  It’s very hard to write convincingly about a character trekking through waste deep snow when I’m sitting at my desk in my warm bed surrounded by my warm Snuggie drinking a cup of hot tea.  To do so, I have to leave all of that behind and go—actually go—into that snow.  I have to be able to feel its cold bite upon my skin and the pain as it radiates into my bones.  I have had times when I have done just that and found myself chilled despite having every article of warmth at my disposal.

I know the “narrow but distinct boundary” Jamison describes between creativity and psychotic behavior.  Mostly it is a boundary of will, of keeping yourself tethered to the world outside your story.  It’s the little things—the mundane and the repetitious—that help us find our way back from our creations rather than allowing ourselves to be swept away by them.  Psychopaths become so enamored with the act of creating that they try to impose that desire upon the world already created for them.  This is what separates us.  This is what keeps the rest of us sane—the willingness to let go of the reins for a time.  People lacking this gift see only what is really there.  Psychopaths see only what isn’t there.  But someone gifted can see both—what is there and what isn’t—with the ability to blend the two in the right proportions to create while, at the same time, live.

There is a danger to being possessing this gift.  Sure, we all know the names—Hemingway, for example—who sank too far to pull themselves back up.  There are plenty of writers and other artists, known and unknown, who have followed along that same path.  The way of avoiding such a fate is finding things—family, friends, work, damn near anything else—with a strong enough connection that it allows you to pull yourself back to reality.

Still, it’s hard to truly create something unreal if you are trapped in what is real all the time.  I can’t imagine attempting to write without being able to step out of myself for a while, without being able to cross over into another existence where the rules are not the same.  Those with the ambition of being artists of any kind should examine themselves to see if they possess this ability to step out of time and space and, more importantly, to come back again when the work is done.

If not, maybe try something else.  Tennis is fun.  Or stamp collecting.  Anything that keeps you firmly planted in the world you know, rather than the world you could know.