Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Polymath for Everyone

Sharon Wildwind

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein—he’s a physiologist and she’s a drama teacher—part of an interdisciplinary group studying creativity at Michigan State University, are shedding some light on children and early creativity.

Who were these people?
1) Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer
2) Dian Fossey
3) Leonardo daVinci

Most people would peg Dr. Oppenheimer as a scientist, or mention his connection with atomic bomb research. But it would be equally correct to say that he was a student of Greek architecture and classic civilization, art, and literature.

Before Dian Fossey studied gorillas, she was an occupational therapist.

Leonardo is hardest to pin down. Scientist? Mathematician? Engineer? Inventor? Anatomist? Painter? Sculptor? Architect? Botanist? Musician? Writer? Let’s call him a polymath, which describes a person knowledgeable in many areas.

What the Root-Bernsteins and their group have discovered is that the degree to which children create the details of imaginary worlds can be an early clue to which of them will become polymaths as adults. Polymaths tend to become very, very good at what they do. For a short summary of the direction their research is taking, here’s a link to a Scientific America article.

All children create imaginary worlds and unseen friends, but not all do it to the degree of J. R. R. Tolkein. He began practicing the creation of Middle Earth as a very young child. He was reading by age four, writing by five, and before he had begun his formal schooling, his mother taught him botany, Latin, and foreign languages. Throughout his childhood he took notes on all the places he visited; drew maps; invented flora, fauna, and languages; and probably spent more time in Middle Earth than he did at home.

Looking back, one thing I value from my childhood is that my mother was a great believer in classes, even if she and I didn’t always agree on what the class should be. I wanted to take tap-dancing; she put me in ballet because it was more lady-like. China painting was a disaster, we won’t even go there. And no matter how much I pleaded, never, ever music because she’d had a horrible experience taking piano lessons as a child.

What these classes had in common is that I was forced to face the empty stage, the blank china plate, or the blank page. I learned at an early age to start anywhere because the first few attempts would go by the wayside as the real work began to emerge.

Those classes also fed the imaginary worlds that constantly spun out of my head. The garden creatures who lived in our back yard, under the fig tree, danced lovely ballets in the moonlight, even if a few of them remained miffed that they weren’t allowed to tap dance. Drawing class turned into maps. Other classes segued—often by very complicated and tortuous journeys— into codes, ciphers, secret messages, puppet-kings, costumes, calligraphed menus for special celebrations, high drama, and low comedy. Never a hand-painted china set, though. People in my imaginary kingdom were forced to content themselves with lop-sided ceramic bowls.

Later in life I learned I could go back and pick up those missed things from childhood. I took my first music lesson at age 30. I was never accomplished at music, but I had a devil of a good time and even wrote one small composition. If you can read music and/or canntaireachd (pronounced canthruck) you’ll know the instrument I took up was the bagpipe. Maybe there is something to be said for getting what you want to do out of your system before you turn 30.

I recommend that every writer sign up for classes, preferably ones where the students start with a blank something. A stage. A piece of paper. A length of cloth. A chunk of wood. An untuned instrument. Something where you can start with the most basic of skills and build from there. It will do wonders for your writing. And if you’d like to come to my place for show-and-tell, the garden creatures and I usually have tea about four in the afternoon. Bring your tap shoes.

Quote for the week:
In creativity, as in running, you have to start where you are.
~Julia Cameron; poet, playwright, and film-maker, from Finding Water


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Sharon, this is a wonderful point. As kids, we're ferried around from one art or music class to another but we don't continue as an adult. Maybe one form of art or creativity will spur us to become more productive writers.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, as a parent, I beg to differ: there is NOTHING to be said about allowing a child to take up the bagpipe while he or she is still living at home. Drums either, unless you get the electronic type (just saw some in the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog) that one hopes come with earphones.

Julia Buckley said...

What a fascinating idea! This makes me feel quite proud of my children's games of imagination (and mine).

Sharon, there are bagpipers who practice in a church parking lot near me on Saturdays, and people love to gather and listen to them play. It's such a stately sound.

Anonymous said...

Here's the life lesson I learned from bagpiping: never tune your bagpipes in a tiled shower. Someone in the class recommended it. He said that you could feel the vibrations when all the drones were exactly in tune. I have no idea if he was right. I was temporaryly deaf after the first minute.

Liz, there are electric bagpipes as well, and they do come with earphones. If I had spare cash kicking around, I'd buy one.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Some young friends just finished Art Camp, two weeks of day camp with week-long classes in watercolor, claymation video, computer graphics, Greek myths, and more. Totally jealous, I got out my nature journal and walked around the woods for an afternoon, and a friend and I took a beading class. Exploring another art form is a great way for writers to spark their creativity a bit, learn to think as characters might do, or just plain have fun!

Art Camp for All!


Sandra Parshall said...

The only thing I want to do these days is take pictures, and writing gets in the way! I'd love to spend more time with my camera and less with my computer.

Anonymous said...

I agree Leslie, we should all go to art camp for a couple of weeks. Maybe there would even be cookies and Kool-aid.

Sandra, go for the photographs. It will all even out.