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(an open letter to all who blend creativity w/illness)  

 


Having been though a serious bout of productivity in 2004, as well as independently researching something you could possibly term the “roots/spiritual” thing (or whatever the hell else you wanna call it), I thought I'd pass on a shortlist of what readings I've found most useful, and then detail some very practical tips that’ve emerged from the combination of the two.

As is usual w/me, the results are handpicked from the shitloads of books I’ve read in & around the general area - as that’s what I do, in a whole bunch of disciplines, when I’m medium-depressed, which (unfortunately) has been about 90% of the time for donkey’s years...

Anyway...first up - the readings:


Margaret Donaldson - Human Minds

A badly neglected left-field classic (although rather difficult - persevere, though, as I think it's truly essential) by a great developmental psychologist, that's really two short books...and both are unique. First is an outline of child development in terms of attention-structuring modes - and, once you get into it, it makes a hell of a lot of sense in a very special way - very handy for asking yourself how you’re thinking about things, and suggesting other (often more “primitive”) approaches...

Second is even more original, and much less dry (but definitely builds upon the first), and is an investigation of “spiritual” (value-sensing) modes of "thought" - note that her approach easily subsumes “aesthetics” as a special case... Unfortunately, no one talks about this book & it's just damn well brilliant - it may be by a scientist (a turn-off for a lot of people, especially in this area), but it's about understanding, not debunking such experiences, and that's unique as far as I can tell... Hell,  just get it, and you'll see what I mean. For years now, I've thought that if people read only one book by a card-carrying psychologist - instead of some flake - then this one should definitely be IT...


Merlin Donald - Origins of the Modern Mind

Another left-field classic, this time much better known & (thankfully) very influential in innovative cognitive evolutionary circles. Published the year before the Donaldson, it offers a genuinely broad & extremely innovative evolutionary approach that complements her developmental model perfectly. Donald wants to know how protohumans (erectus, in particular) thought & felt, and he’s got some brilliant arguments that’re very well-matched by the evidence - including plenty that’ve turned up since the book was written.

The key concept here is mimetic culture - basically, a level/form of behaviour that isn’t found in our closest relatives, and that underlies & supports everything, including language, that’s evolved since... I’ve also seen nonsensical dismissals of this idea by a few snooty linguists/evolutionary biologists, who “argue” that it’s unsupported speculation... Fine, that is, if you ignore the best current developmental, educational & psychiatric theories, the guts of comparative anthropological work on hunter-gatherer ritual, and brilliant cross-disciplinary stuff such as Frank R. Wilson’s The Hand, as well as Donald’s own carefully amassed evidence & the experience of any functioning artist - particularly dancers, musicians & actors (apologies, but I do hate narrow “disciplinary” turds)...


Transition between cultural forms - each builds on the last, but there are also definitely some downsides - goes from episodic (chimpanzees/bonobos/ australopithecines & such) to mimetic (erects & so on) to mythic (full language) to symbolic (external storage, such as writing), and he’s tentative pretty much just where he should be, so I’ll be very surprised if the theory needs much revision. What he tends to leave out are just the areas in which Donaldson is strongest, so read ’em both in parallel & you’ll have a much deeper understanding of exactly what we are & how we - as species and individuals - got that way through time...


David Lewis-Williams - The Mind in the Cave
Walter Burkert - Creation of the Sacred

Less essential perhaps - what would be essential is the best book on shamanism, but I'm still searching the lit for that beast (although Lewis-Williams is v.useful on a lot of aspects) - but also more history than theory and, therefore, much less dense. Pity they haven't read Donaldson, though... Lewis-Williams' book is (so far - but by a long shot) the one to read on cave art, its place in social/psychological terms, and what its first appearance means for human psychological and social evolution...v.good, as far as it goes, and definitely a big step forward for scholarly thinking in that area...

Burkert's focus is on early religion - particularly Greek - although he does do a v.nicely job in the comparative line - and its relation to current thinking in biology/behaviour etc...A little old-fashioned, in that the much broader post-sociobiol lit definitely doesn't get enough of a play (and he definitely hasn’t read Donald), but then, he is an old man, and is one of the best historians of religion around, so the evidence is clear & you can draw your own connections - and, as well, this could be his swansong, as Donaldson's book evidently was hers...

Always go to the old for these matters - whether scientists, historians or practitioners.  The scholarship is better and, as well, and much more importantly, they've had more time to dwell on things...after all, that's why the term "wisdom" was invented.

And, out of nowhere - one odd choice...


Ronald Siegel - Intoxication

Chatty, and enormous fun, but also the best general book on the subject - more chemical than otherwise, but still relevant none the less. His research on animal stuff - particularly what they get up to in the wild - ie: “rogue” elephants are actually pissed - is pretty amazing, and the implications dovetail v.nicely w/all the rest above...


But, I’ve just gotta ask myself - does anyone out there actually read developmental psychology?


the silence is deafening

Well, can't say it's a long list, because really interesting general work in these areas is very scant, but they're all prime picks, and at least that makes it manageable for non-bookworms.


And...now,  on to more personal matters... I've had a history (twice, way back in the early/mid eighties) of getting on a genuinely productive roll, and losing the plot to some extent - second time, I got mugged/concussed in the street wandering around at night (I liked the solitary intensity of it), thrown into the drunk tank the same night (instead of taken to hospital) by the goddamn cops (because they couldn’t understand what I was saying - funny how concussion’ll do that to you, irrespective), and ended up in psych hospital v.soon after...


Looking back, just after a similar but much better personally managed episode, several things immediately strike me (and no - none of that traumatic shit got repeated - I’m no fool).

Using the (stupid) “breakdown”  metaphor - I prefer “fuckup” myself - I might’ve had wobbly wheels on occasions, but I’ve always otherwise got back on track via productivity. Therefore, I definitely think that psychiatrists tend to badly underestimate the simple physical-state stuff, as well as the crucial nexus between creativity & coping w/altered states - after all, they’re professionals, and it’s natural to focus on what your training stressed...

So, if things go bad (and they often do for people in “creative” lines), and you decide you want a psychiatrist, get a good one...and old ladies are (by far) the best, on the whole - as, when they trained it was damned difficult for a woman to become a doctor at all, let alone a specialist, so the vocation is real  (all this is on top of  female/male differences...of course) - as far too many of the younger one’s just want to be specialists without getting their hands dirty.


Anyhow, on to the in-depth stuff... What I've come to realise, particularly over the last few months (hey, I’m slow - remember...I’ve probably got brain damage), is that all our internal - psychological - techniques for “creative” production are - just - much narrower versions of shamanistic approaches. And, with that narrowing comes our danger... Their real danger is spirit possession (however defined), as you'd know if you'd read Sass's Madness & Modernism, and you should (best phenomenology of the whole spectrum of psychosis by far, amongst other things, and sans jargon to boot - add it to the list, to be sure - it’ll be a big help if things go weird on you). 


And, remember...shamans are focused on social healing, and not the production of objects, etc... The way around this, I figure, and particularly if you’re the solitary type -  unless you wanna just drop the art and turn yourself into a shaman -  is to make sure you switch focus repeatedly... 


So, when things are going very well (or very badly - but excessively creatively,  nonetheless...)  the key thing to do is to try & engage several very different focuses every day  -  and to make that focus total,  but...then drop things once you've nailed it, and markedly switch gears  -  then (but slowly...mind you),  relax into something else... Because the momentum will carry,  don't worry  -  it's internal,  and not (just) the result of the specific thing or process being produced/utilised at that particular time.



And, if you do this,  then you'll feel (repeatedly - and this is important) like a human being,  instead of being (just) a vehicle driven - wherever - by the intensity of the experience...


You could dismiss this a mere "trick",  but a less contemptuous (and far more accurate) term would definitely be "tactic"... My (current) thinking on these matters is still in flux (experiences pretty good, but knowledge of genuine shamanisms still very damn partial, as researches’re still in progress & books’re scarce). Still, it works - see below - and, remember, the really total immersion ("vehicle") experience is literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing for shamans, lasts only a few days, and is under the guidance of an experienced elder... We'd do very well to remember those facts, which appear to be cross-cultural universals.

And I'm not just talking out of my hat, here....  Because (as I noted above) exactly those techniques worked extremely well for me a few months ago,  when I started accelerating far too heavily...and, in addition, I also got (as an unexpected bonus) yr genuine "soft landing" too, for the first time ever...and so, I've still got a definite glow on when the production really starts delivering again - without really having to push things.



In the space of a few short weeks, I recorded 140 minutes of solo music (and all finished, except for some post-production),  put together a short book of my 80s depression poetry, with all new pictures (about 25) to accompany them, did a bunch of miniatures on file cards, sorted through my old music writings to reconfigure The Voice of a Porkchop (the unreleased “fanzine” which led to me finishing the dead set - my history/theory of rock’n’roll that the great John Fahey was so good as to admire), re-edited the old (1990) collections of music I made in Melbourne in 1983-1986 (that I’d “safely” forgotten for years as merely “crazy shit”)...and got what will be a v. nice 2cd set out of it  (which pretty much just needs eq-ing),  trawled though old band tapes, mostly from the turn of the century, to assemble roughs of several new cds,  including a new dead set (end point this time is mid 70s,  and it complements the first one very well, according to my closest collaborator), did my first ever bouts of serious photography (assemblages + inner city decay as beauty), and even tackled filming, including a solo Jeffrey Wegener percussion performance that should find a label w/out too much work, as well as various abstract/experimental “landscape” stuff  (results v.good according to all reports, and the lost domain’ve already used two at gigs in art spaces, modified several musical instruments, invented a (genuine) experimental “art” card game -  don't laugh, it's the most original and fun thing I came up with - but I then put anything beyond planning for that onto the backburner 'til I finally get some damn recognition-factor happening, since I could make real money out of this (for once in my 42 years), if it was actually marketed, made detailed plans for a whole bunch of special band performances,  mostly to be done in remote locations (we need money for these,  but we can wait - we've learned to be good at that), and made copious notes on a whole bunch of areas, mostly either on the process I was going through, or towards the book I'd been trying to write on a mostly bung computer...


pause for breath


[oh, and I had one afternoon/evening that pretty hairy...but I just got a friend around to talk]


And...all of this w/out a computer, or even a stereo  (borrowed a ghetto blaster - it was just like 1983, except this time I didn’t blow it up). The record since isn't so strong, although (partly) that's because I’ve had so many ongoing projects to continue with...(once the intensity dies off, the number of half-ready works in progress can be daunting - not half-finished, in this case, since I try not to do that - just either merely planned, or only needing finishing touches...but I’m a finicky swine when I've got something good to play with - still, that appears to be the only drawback w/this approach that I can see at the moment). So, aside from more filming/editing/drawing/group music-making & such (but much less of it, I hasten to add!), I’ve also:

Recorded my first ambient noise piece (and ended up by blowing up my "new" secondhand stereo re-recording it as well - just like an unnatural act), shortlisted a collection of SF drawn from the 40s to the 60s (and made detailed notes for the introduction), got seriously into decayed paper collages (shades of Curt Schwitters, there) and, finally, invented a genuinely businesslike performance space/internet radio concept that could - v.easily - be cheaply franchised to the right people to link together (on a worldwide basis) all the sorts of stuff we love in their live incarnations, and (I'd say) has the potential to become instantly popular/influential (given the way the net works) - now, remember, I'm not talking Madonna popular, but definitely popular enough to be permanently viable, just so we can all have somewhere great to play regularly for a change...


I didn't compile this list to boast (apologies),  just to fully demonstrate what was meant about shifting focus (it only got out of hand when I decided the list should be complete - and it’s amazing what a body can do when eating & sleeping don’t happen a lot)... I particularly found the file card pictures a grate boon in this - as I'm naturally a miniaturist when it comes to paintings & drawings, so the scale came naturally, and every so often, when the impulse took me, I'd just lie down on my bed & start scribbling on the smallest scale.


kept things in perspective

Ditto, in a different way, with regard to the note-taking. Some days, mostly what I did was alternate between writing & drawing on file cards (but not together...far too ambitious) - especially when my concepts got rather too expansive, so’s I felt getting out of bed could be rather unwise...

As to why all this happened, well, the lost domain were in the process of being "discovered", after a mere fifteen years of work....I was in the midst of the huge interview that’s coming /came out in Dream Magazine 5, and, with a broken computer,  I had to carry out my end via internet cafes,  but...when I got home,  I found out, as the process wore on, that I just didn't wanna watch really old romantic comedies (my latest vice when just plain depressed) - or even research stuff... I wanted to do things! 

and so I did


hopefully, this'll all be useful, in some strange way or another...



all the best

John Henry Calvinist