We'll Always Have Parrots

By Polly Shulman|Tuesday, October 01, 1996
Andrew Wiles broke my heart. From the time I was a little girl, I had always meant to prove Fermat’s last theorem, just as soon as I got a spare minute. But first I had a lot of French homework to get through, and then there was my cousin’s wedding, and I had to stay in the office late writing memos, and August is so enervating, and then Wiles went and proved the thing.

Of course, there are still a few great unsolved problems left: a Hilbert problem or two, the Goldbach conjecture, and just how many light- years-per-second is warp 9, anyway? I figured I’d better get moving before someone beat me to the punch again. But when I cleared some space on my desk and sat down with a pair of number two pencils, a legal pad, a protractor, and a Cray supercomputer, nothing happened. I sharpened the pencils. Nothing happened. I exchanged the legal pad for graph paper. I sharpened the pencils again. Nothing happened.

I was experiencing a creative block.

I called my old friend Michael Larsen, a number theorist at the University of Pennsylvania, for advice. I’m trying to prove the Goldbach conjecture, but I’m getting nowhere, I said. What should I do?

Have you tried studying math? he suggested.

On the surface, it sounded like a sensible notion. However, the time factor bothered me. Figure a year to apply to graduate school, two years of graduate courses, another four to write my dissertation--that’s seven years out of my life. A lot can happen in seven years. What if Wiles and his ilk prove everything left while I’m dithering around in school? There must be a quicker way.

Perhaps, I thought, a creativity specialist can help me find it. I called David Perkins, a cognitive psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a Ph.D in mathematics. What causes creative blocks? I asked him.

They can have two different sorts of causes, Perkins told me. There are causes in the person--things like anxiety, when you’re afraid you might not be able to solve the problem, for instance, or displacements of motives from other areas. Sometimes people don’t produce well because they’re trying to escape from a situation or wreak revenge on somebody, and they do so by hurting their own performance. Anxiety can generate a self- fulfilling prophesy: people get concerned about whether they can solve the problem, and start believing they can’t, and then of course they can’t, and that confirms the belief. Clinicians call this a self-sealing system.

The second kind, Perkins continued, are causes in the problem. Creative situations may cause people difficulty not because they’re in any kind of a slump but because the problem is genuinely hard. He described four possible creative difficulties: The wilderness problem, in which there are so many possibilities it’s hard to navigate among them and find the good ones; the plateau problem, in which you’re in a certain spot and you don’t know which way to go; the canyon problem, when you’re going in circles within constraints you don’t even recognize and you need to get out of the canyon because the real solution lies in another canyon nearby; and the oasis problem, when you’re clinging to a partial solution but to reach a real solution you have to abandon it.

Perkins, I thought, must have well-worn hiking boots. I saw myself lost in his landscape, somewhere beneath Dante’s seventh circle of hell. Is there any way out? I asked. Brainstorming, he told me, works wonders for canyon problems and oasis traps. For wilderness difficulties, addressing a smaller version of the problem might help. The best thing for plateau problems is studying the question you’re trying to answer, thoroughly exploring all its aspects.

That sounded suspiciously like school again. I thanked Perkins quickly, before he could suggest a Ph.D program, and headed for my local spiritualist-self-help bookstore. Surely they wouldn’t make me study. Can you recommend anything to help me get over a creative block? I asked the clerk, who was dressed entirely in purple.

The best thing is to get in touch with your inner artist, maybe contact your spirit guide, she told me earnestly.

I meant more like a book or an audiotape.

She found several, took my money, and handed me my receipt. Change: $4.17, it read. Attend to reality diligently. Receive all people w/kindness. Say little, do much. Good advice, I thought, but how? And shouldn’t the thing practice what it preached?

Hoping the tapes would have more complete instructions, I emulated Hillary Clinton and turned to psychologist Jean Houston, or Dr. Jean Houston, as she calls herself on her book jackets. Houston gave Mrs. Clinton a bad week in June, when it was reported that she’d been encouraging the first lady to engage in imaginary dialogues with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi; critics considered these figures too wishy- washy to provide proper guidance.

Houston’s sense of time is somewhat elastic. As she explains in her audiotape Awakening Creativity, In a few minutes of clock time, you’ll find yourself having--oh--many minutes, hours, some of you even weeks, even months, it seems, of inner experience to explore the vast . . . untapped treasures of the human psyche. . . . A Beethoven sonata that might ordinarily require hours of practice can be practiced in accelerated mental process in five minutes, and you would emerge from the state feeling as if you’d been practicing for hours and show considerable improvement in play. (If only someone had told my brother and spared the family all those hours of Für Elise!) So let us begin.

We began by lying down with eyes closed. Slowly, Dr. Jean’s mesmerizing voice drew me further and further into the realms of accelerated mental process. Breathe deeply. . . . Hold an image of the air rising into your brain and energizing it, she murmured. A minute went by, then an hour. Three days passed. I wished I’d thought to pack a lunch. I began to wonder whether I’d completely turned off all the burners on my stove. Following Houston’s advice, I pressed my palms gently against my eyelids. I saw lights, then shapes that eventually resolved themselves into a large red-and-green parrot. This, I thought, must be my spirit guide.

Hello, it said.

Hello, I replied.

Hello, it said.

Hello, I replied.

Hello, it said.

Who are you? I asked.

Who are you? it asked.

I’m Polly, I said.

I’m Polly, it answered. It put its head to one side, looked at me with a single yellow eye, and contracted its pupil, as if it was winking.

Are you my spirit guide? I asked.

Polly stared at me for a long time, perhaps weeks, alternately contracting and dilating its pupil. At last it spoke again: Do you smell gas?

I stopped the tape and hurried to check the stove. All four burners were off. I sat down at my desk and sharpened my pencils again. Still nothing, so I went back to the stereo and put on Developing Your Creativity, by Bob Griswold. Guaranteed 100% audible, claimed the box. Like Dr. Jean Houston, Griswold wanted me to breathe rhythmically. (He says that relaxed breathing is deeper and slower than stressed breathing and that by changing your breathing you can change your mood from anxious to calm.) It is not advisable to listen to this tape while driving a car, because it says to close your eyes and relax deeply, he warned. Soporific piano plunkings accompanied his slow voice as he explained how. At first Polly hummed along, adding little flourishes that sounded suspiciously like Für Elise, but gradually the bird fell silent. I glanced over and saw it was standing on one leg with its head tucked under its wing. A deep feeling of peace settled over me; I felt the tension drain away; soon I, like Polly, was in a perfect state to profit from How to Write While You Sleep, and Other Surprising Ways to Increase Your Creativity, by Elizabeth Irvin Ross.

In her book, Ross cites poet upon poet--Voltaire, Swinburne, Dante, Goethe, Milton, Blake--who literally dreamed up deathless verse. And it’s not just writers who have had profound insights with their eyes closed, their mouths open slightly, and a thin line of drool tracing patterns on the pillow. Ross mentions such scientists as chemist Friedrich Kekulé of benzene fame and physicist Niels Bohr.

She suggests harnessing your own dream power with meditation exercises like this one: First, aerate your brain à la Dr. Jean. Next, See yourself making coffee. You fill the pot with water, measure the amount of coffee you need, put it in the filter, and put the pot on the stove. . . . Silently repeat ten times: ‘My article/story/book is like the coffee. All the necessary ingredients are simmering in my subconscious mind....’ If you do the exercise at bedtime, drop off to sleep.

Soon I began to dream.

I’m hurrying along a road under the full moon. Every step I take on it puts me in grave danger, but I can’t leave it or I’ll never reach my destination. I’m chanting a rhyme, a spell to protect me from the waiting horror. The rhyme is the only thing keeping me safe. Somehow I know that it’s not only a powerful charm, but also the seed of a masterpiece--a great poem or an invention, something that will make my name and fortune and bring hope to people everywhere. I’m chanting it over and over, to stave off the road’s threat and to bring it safely through the gates of sleep into the waking world.

With a feeling of triumph, I opened my eyes and spoke my chant aloud: Socks and shoes! Socks and shoes!

So much for writing in your sleep. I poured what was left of the coffee into a mug and sent my spirit guide for doughnuts. Then I switched on Griswold at fast playback. In the right hemisphere you have access to a great wealth of talents and abilities, and this part of your brain is almost totally untapped, he gibbered at top speed.

Could that be my problem? Was half my brain just sitting there like a lump? Riffling through my bookstore purchases, I came upon the concept of untapped brain power again and again. How much brain power goes down the drain because of our archaic, insular notions of brain and education! The numbers are undoubtedly horrendous, mourns Dr. Jean. Sighs Louise L. Hay in The Totality of Possibilities: Set Yourself Free to Create the Lifestyle You Really Want!, You know, they tell us we only use 10 percent of our brain. And my question is, What is the other 90 percent for?

That was something I’d always wondered, too. Actually, I’ve heard that the 10 percent figure only applies during an election year, replied cognitive psychologist Jonathan King of the University of California at San Diego when I referred the question to him. And it’s an overestimate if you’re listening to talk radio. You’re not taping this, are you? But everybody always asks me the 10 Percent Question. Nobody seems to know where the figure originally came from, he explained, and it’s not clear that it would be meaningful to any neuroscientist. It’s certainly not 10 percent of your cortex, since maybe 50 percent of that is pretty much dedicated to vision alone. But that’s a bit misleading, too. I mean, are you impressed that I might be using more of my brain watching The Simpsons than you do listening to Beethoven? The brain’s auditory processing areas make up a measly 4 to 5 percent of everybody’s favorite organ. Of course, King continued, if you could make this into some kind of race, maybe you could try to pull even with me by adding some other activities--climbing stairs, tapping your fingers, and chewing gum at the same time. That would give your motor cortex a workout, too. But I’d be dead meat if you turned your head and started reading a billboard outside your window, using the vision and language areas.

So could the 10 percent be referring to something else? Like the total number of brain cells firing at one time?

That might be closer to the truth, since less than 50 percent of your brain cells are neurons sending messages to one another. The rest are various kinds of glial cells, which do all sorts of important but boring stuff. In particular, they provide the myelin sheaths that wrap around axons, the long arms of nerve cells, and help keep the electric signals from degrading.

Myelin, King says, is mostly fat. Aerating your brain won’t make it any leaner, which is a good thing: The last thing anybody wants is skinny Schwann cells. Anyway, increasing the total number of neurons firing at one time wouldn’t make you think any better, even if it weren’t a recipe for epilepsy. It’s certainly no more useful to have one neuron firing all the time than none of the time. You want them firing at the right times.

And is your right hemisphere going begging?

Oh, no. Not the right hemisphere question, King groaned. Well, there’s some truth to the idea that the right hemisphere is good at getting the big picture. Really crudely, the left hemisphere sees more details; the right puts them together into something that makes global sense. So when you just look out your window, you’re using that right hemisphere, even if you don’t think you’re feeling especially ‘creative’ or ‘spiritual’ or whatever.

I looked out the window, where my left hemisphere could distinguish the 200-odd bricks that my right hemisphere recognized as the wall of the building next door. Polly landed on the sill, bearing a box of Wheat Thins.

What happened to the doughnuts? I asked.

Polly want a cracker, the bird answered, handing me the change and the receipt, which read, Total: $3.21. Buy low, sell high. Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

I sat down at my desk again.

My spirit guide made a noise like someone sharpening pencils.

There’s no need to be sarcastic, I said, reaching for another tape. My hand fell on The 110% $olution [sic], by Mark H. McCormack. Giving even 100% is just not enough, read the box. You must learn how to give that extra 10%. Proving the Goldbach conjecture should be a breeze for anyone who could make sense of that math, I thought. Reading the fine print, however, I learned the tape was an abridgment. How much was left? Only 100 percent? (Pieces of eight, put in Polly.) I chucked the tape without opening it.

According to C. Diane Ealy, author-narrator of the next tape I tried, The Woman’s Book of Creativity, blocks like mine might arise from the way society forces the feminine creative process, which she describes as a holistic spiral, into a male, linear mold. The solution? Go to a mirror and, looking yourself in the eyes, declare out loud, ‘I am a creative person. I enjoy being creative in many ways.’ Say it several times.

I am a creative person. I enjoy being creative in many ways, I said. I am a creative person. I enjoy being creative in many ways. I am a creative person. I enjoy being creative in many ways.

Creative though I might be, I found myself no closer than ever to proving Shulman’s first theorem. Besides, I thought, why should I eschew logic simply because I’m female? Marie Curie didn’t; neither did the great mathematician Emmy Noether. Psychologist Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School was similarly skeptical. I’ve done extensive research on creativity over the past 20 years, she told me when I called, and I haven’t found any consistent sex differences at all, either in creative process or in quality of creative output.

And even if men and women do approach problems with distinctive styles, we still face the same categories of difficulties within the problems themselves. What if you can’t stay seated at your desk long enough to decide whether you’re facing a canyon problem or a plateau? What if you keep getting up to listen to a tape or call an expert? That’s a sure sign of a problem in the person, David Perkins told me. Maybe there’s some anxiety or displacements. Maybe you’re not sufficiently committed. Many researchers think commitment is even more important than talent.

Commitment? Where was I going to get that? The solution turned out to be the last tape I tried, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. No easy answers for Cameron: no writing in your sleep, no learning to play the piano without touching the keys. Creative expression is real work, she says, and it takes a long time.

Cameron attacks the myths about artists that keep people from including themselves in the club. You don’t have to wear black to be an artist, she insists. You don’t have to live in Paris, or drink, or starve alone in a garret. We have a belief system that says that artists are lone wolves. There is nothing to support this. The impressionists, for example, had lunch--that’s what they painted.

One thing that plagues creative people is an internal critic Cameron calls the Censor. Think of it as the worst bully you knew in grammar school, but much smarter, she says.

I took the parrot on my arm and sat down at my desk again. Listen, Polly, I need to have a serious talk with you, I said. Are you my spirit guide? Or are you the Censor? What are you, Bird?

I am a creative person, said Polly. I enjoy being creative in many ways.

All right, I’m taking you at your word. I’m going to sit here with my pad of paper. I’m not going to sharpen any more pencils or play any more tapes. I’m just going to concentrate, maybe write a few equations or something. They might be bad equations, but I’m going to keep at it until you tell me something better to do. So get going. Inspire me.

As I sketched a Möbius strip and worked out the formula for its surface area, Polly began to sing:

After all these years! After all these years!

I never would have guessed a bridal veil would be my vale of tears.

Shh, you’re distracting me, I said. I was trying to work out the length of the Möbius strip’s perimeter. The bird hopped closer to my ear and sang a little louder. The tune was somewhat reminiscent of Für Elise.

I guess you carried her across the threshold.

You must have given her your mama’s ring.

I guess I wasn’t there when you swore what you had to swear.

I guess you never promised me a thing.

Polly repeated the chorus, then fell silent.

That’s it? I said. That’s all? A country-and-western song? No theorem? Not even a cure for the hiccups?

Are you the Censor? asked my muse.

But Polly, I protested, a country-and-western song? It’s so embarrassing!

The parrot turned its bright yellow eye to me and said with stern compassion, Socks and shoes.

All right, spirit guide. You win. There’s no fighting inspiration. You just have to take what comes and go on walking along that dangerous road, keeping yourself safe with your song. Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Anyone know a good agent in Nashville?
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