Tag Archives: creativity

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00, 279 pages)

Ever wonder if those fabulous songs, novels and paintings that make life so much more enjoyable can only be created by a few brilliant and troubled people?   Maybe you aspire to be more creative, or you wish it for your children.   Jonah Lehrer, the thirty-something scientific writer, has done an in-depth study of the creative process.   He begins his latest work, Imagine, by focusing the first half on the individual and the way the parts of his brain interact.   The second half of the book explores what happens when groups of people work together in the attempt to be creative.

Because Lehrer is an engaging story-teller, the reader gladly accompanies him as he learns about what led to some of the most memorable individual creativity of recent time.   For example, Bob Dylan is the subject of the first chapter.   Later in the second part the reader hears the back story about some of the most amazing corporate breakthroughs that produced winning products like the Swiffer Sweeper.

This is no magazine quick-read or glossy book with simple highlights to quote at the next family gathering.   Rather, Lehrer blends his discussion on neurology with diagrams and clearly written text that is fascinating, rather than academic or – heaven forbid – boring.   He concentrates on what makes us who we are and our unique humanness.   As progress is being made in the exploration of the human brain, new findings and concepts have come to light.   Our brains can be seen in action through the use of equipment such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.   The results of these studies and experiments that were conducted while scientists were peering into active brains are fascinating.   Lehrer uses the “You Are There” technique to draw the reader into appreciating the scientists and researchers he showcases along with their contributions to understanding creativity.

There are some requirements for achieving notable creativity.   It’s not a matter of being zapped by a great idea.   As Lehrer states, “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of working memory.   For one thing, there is a strong correlation between working memory and general intelligence, with variations in the size of working memory accounting for approximately 60 percent of the variation in IQ scores.”   Moreover, the poems, plays and novels we have enjoyed from writers like W. H. Auden or William Shakespeare, were not produced in brilliant flashes of insight.   The authors dedicated time and energy to writing and rewriting their works until the result was perfection.

Lastly, Lehrer makes a great case for nurturing the youth among us by fostering in them what he calls “the outsider view.”   It’s not memorization or rote school work that will foster creativity; rather, it’s taking a step back, detaching from the obvious and fostering an alternative view.

“According to the researchers, the advantage of play is that it’s often deeply serious – kids are most focused when they are having fun.”

Imagine is a well-paced learning experience that keeps the reader’s attention and is never overwhelming.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Jonah Lehrer earlier wrote How We Decide, which is reviewed here along with The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/the-art-of-choosing/ .

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (author of How We Decide).

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Help Me

Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time by Paul Hammerness, M.D., and Margaret Moore, with John Hanc (Harlequin, $16.95, 272 pages)

Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World by Sam Sommers (Riverhead Hardcover, $25.95, 304 pages)

Often the focus of self-help books is the reader’s feelings of discomfort, inadequacy or anger.   That said, the two books reviewed here are pragmatic and filled with specific science-based ideas formulated by well-respected professionals in their respective fields.

The first book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time, was written by the team of Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Paul Hammerness, M.D., Margaret Moore, a certified wellness coach and cofounder of Harvard’s Institute of Coaching with assistance from John Hanc, an associate professor of journalism and communications at the New York Institute of Technology.   The premise of Organize Your Mind is that daily stress is produced by too much to do and this overload, in turn, produces a sense of helplessness.   The book looks at how your conscious actions can bring about a sense of mastery and control to daily life as well as assist in long-range planning.

Each area discussed is introduced by Dr. Hammerness in what he calls “The Rules of Order.”   Each of the rules is about brain functioning and how it relates to ones’ actions and feelings.   The six rules are followed by pragmatic action steps outlined by Coach Margaret.   Accompanying each rule are highlighted sidebars filled with explanations and contextual comments that enhance the reader’s experience.   Dr. Hammerness includes suggestions for readers whose issues extend beyond the scope of the book.   He takes a kindly attitude and suggests that there are situations where professional help beyond that offered in the book is indicated.

The chapters and rules are cumulative which allows the reader to follow along and build skills.   The tone of the authors’ writing is non-judgmental, realistic and yet not a buddy-buddy one.   There are really good puns scattered in the text.   Alas, this reviewer is not able to quote any of them as an advance uncorrected proof was provided by the publisher.

Highly recommended.

The second book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World was written by Sam Sommers, a remarkably young-looking psychology professor at Tufts University.   Sommers is also an expert witness who is called upon to testify as to whether actions and statements are racially motivated or merely meaningful descriptors that may be admitted as evidence in court proceedings.

This book is an excellent complement to Organize Your Mind that can be best appreciated if read as a follow-up in the reader’s self-improvement strategy.   Sommers makes good use of scientific findings to support his conclusions.   However, his assertion is that introspection will not bring someone to discover the means to the life they wish to have.   Rather, his focus is on the ways that environmental influences assert significant power over the decisions people make and the actions they take every day.   Watchfulness and awareness of the context (location, group or ethnic background) in which one finds one’s self can lead to a significantly different outcome, such as summoning police assistance, questioning odd behavior or just realizing that people mindlessly parrot what they think is true.   An excellent parallel can be made with reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, particularly Tipping Point.   Several of the studies he cites are common to both books.

The chapter structure of Situations Matter follows that of a survey book.   Sommers does tie back to his beginning hypothesis that we see the world as a “what you see is what you get” sort of place.   (The computer shorthand is WYSIWYG.)   He also makes good use of examples from his university classroom exercises.   The tone of the book is friendly and it reads like a transcript from the psychology class you wish you’d taken.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Win Help! for Writers

Roy Peter Clark is vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, a highly prestigious school for journalists.   He has taught writing at every level – from schoolchildren to college students and Pulitzer Prize winners.   A writer who teaches and a teacher who writes, he has authored or edited fifteen books about writing, including Writing Tools and The Glamour of Grammar.  

In Help! for Writers: 210 Soutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces (released today), Clark presents an “owner’s manaul” for writers, outlining the seven steps of the writing process, while addressing the 21 most urgent problems that writers face.   In his engaging and entertaining style, Clark offers ten short solutions to each problem.   Out of ideas?   Read posters, billboards, and even grafitti.   Can’t bear to edit yourself?   Watch the deleted scenes of a film DVD, and ask yourself why these scenes were justifiably left on the cutting-room floor.  

Help! for Writers offers writers, new and old, young and experienced, 210 strategies for success!   Would you like to win a copy?   Thanks to the publisher (Little, Brown and Company), we’re giving 5 (five) copies away.   In order to enter this book giveaway contest, just post a comment below with your name and e-mail address, or send an e-mail message with this information to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .  (E-mail addresses will only be used to contact the winners.)   This will count as a first entry.

For a second entry, tell us exactly why you think this guidebook would be useful to you.   Is it because of the type of writing that you do?   Are you stuck in writing a novel or an article, etc.?   Let us know!  

In one way or another, we’re all writers, so this should be a useful addition to almost anyone’s library.

In order to enter this book contest, you must live in the continental U.S. or in Canada, and be able to provide a residential mailing address if you’re selected as a winner.   Books will not be shipped to a P. O. box or to a business-related address.   You have until 12:00 Midnight PST on Saturday, November 15, 2011 to submit your entry or entries, so don’t delay!

We reserve the right to change the contest rules, or submission deadline, at any point, so it’s best to enter early…   We may choose the winners at random, or simply select five early entrants; you never know.   This is it for the “complex” contest rules.   

Good luck and good reading!  

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The Author’s Perspective

Today marks the third year of operation for Joseph’s Reviews!   One of the things that I hope to do this year is to conduct more interviews with published authors, and so today we’re kicking off a new column, The Author’s Perspective.   This interview is with Jenna Blum, the author of The Stormchasers: A Novel, which we rated as highly recommended.

1.   Do you view the novel as a “life’s lesson” transmitter?   In other words, it took me years to learn this, so in my book I’m trying to impart that to others in the form of a story.

Both of my novels are about emotional questions that I began asking long ago, to which there are no easy answers.   Those Who Save Us, my first novel, about a German woman who became an SS officer’s mistress to protect herself and her little daughter, was written in part to answer the question I started asking when I first learned, at age 4, about the Holocaust:  “How can people be so  mean to each other?”   What causes people’s inhumanity to their fellow man — or woman?   We sometimes like to think we know a simple answer — we can lay blame on a person’s nationality, race religion — but what I wanted to do with Those Who Save Us was put the reader in some very unpopular shoes (a German woman during WWII) and show that the answers are not always so black and white.

My second novel, The Stormchasers, which is about twins, one of whom is bipolar, was written in response to my having beloved family members who are bipolar; the question this novel asks is, “What can you do to help someone you love?   How far can you go before you erase yourself and your life completely?”   There is no easy answer to the “problem” of bipolar disorder, and that’s what the book addresses.   My hope is that it will help readers who are bipolar, or who love people who are, feel less alone.   That’s what all good fiction does: it reaches a hand across the void that exists between all human beings and says, “Hey, you’re not the only one who feels this way.”

I don’t think my novels transmit lessons; I think they ask questions without ready answers.

2.   Living one’s life as research for a novel…  Did you just happen to storm-chase and write a book about it, or did you deliberately get engaged in the activity in order to do the proper background work?

One of the great things about being a writer is that you get to do all the crazy things you’ve always wanted to do and call it research, thereby writing it off on your taxes.   I’m kidding, of course.   Well, half.   In fact, both of my novels did require extensive research, and my third novel will too — I seem to be incapable of writing a novel that doesn’t necessitate at least 3 years’ worth of research!

For Those Who Save Us, I went to Germany 4 times with my mom, which was arguably scarier than the 5 years of stormchasing I did to research The Stormchasers.   For Those Who Save Us, I also interviewed Holocaust survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an unbelievable privilege that I did not spin into the novel but that helped inform the emotional spectrum along which the characters live.   I write about the things I’m interested in, fascinated with, consumed by — so the research is part of my life, and my life becomes the research.

I did chase storms for several years as an amateur before I started chasing with professional stormchase company Tempest Tours (I’m hosting my own tours with Tempest this year, so please come along!).   During the past 5 years with Tempest, while chasing tornadoes I took notes, carried a reporter’s recorder, wrote nonfiction about the tour company and stormchasing, took photos and video (all up on my website).   That was all a very deliberate and specific research campaign.

3.   What is the hardest part of publicizing a novel?   Is it answering personal questions, the time spent traveling, trying to write the next book as you travel, missing friends and family, etc.?

I actually love publicizing my novels, so I don’t find anything about it difficult!   I do admit that I’m something of an extremist.   I travel a lot more than many writers do, 300 days of the year…  (To be continued.)

This concludes part one of a two-part interview with Jenna Blum.   For more information on Jenna, visit her website:  

http://www.jennablum.com

For more information on Tempest Tours, go to:

http://www.tempesttours.com 

Joseph Arellano  

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Over and Over

The Boomers in our audience will remember what things used to be like during the late 1950s and the early 60s.   A recording artist, like Chubby Checker, would have a hit with a song like The Twist; which meant that the follow-up 45 single had to sound as close to it as humanly possible (this usually meant a virtually identical tune with different words attached to it).   In Chubby’s case, the next song was Let’s Twist Again.   It is to the credit of the Beatles that they broke this pattern of releasing songs that were virtual clones of each other.

Sometimes as a reader and reviewer I see this same pattern applying itself when it comes to popular fiction.   Let’s say that our debut author Christy Crafty writes a novel called Becky from Bakersfield.   Against seemingly all odds this story of a woman who can see what is going to happen in people’s futures becomes a moderate success.   So what happens next?   You guessed it, Christy does not want to rock the boat so she releases a follow-up (and the titles and book covers will naturally be quite similar) called Florence from Fresno.   This will turn out to be almost the same tale except for the fact that this time around our female protagonist can see what happened in the past of the lives of the strangers she meets.   The third book may be Sally from Stockton, about a woman who knows when people will die as soon as she encounters them.

Now this may not be such a horrible strategy from a sales standpoint, except for the fact that book one is likely going to get great reviews, and each succeeding variation is going to be less charitably commented on.   Eventually, Christy herself is likely to see that she’s put herself into a rut.   And then even her most loyal readers will begin calling for something new and original from her.

Why are reviewers and readers going to be increasingly disappointed in this commercial product?   Because the freshness that accompanied the original novel from author Crafty is slowly leaked out like air from a damaged tire.   The once delightful story that gets reworked over and over again becomes dull and flat.

It is my own view – and it’s much easier for me to say since I do not write novels – that the moderately to highly successful new author should, after the release of the first well-sold and reviewed novel, quickly change styles before the release of the second book.   Why?   To prove to readers, critics and the world that he/she is a writer, one who can write novels of many forms, short stories, poetry (if the muse strikes), and perhaps articles on politics and sports.   Again, why?   Because this is the creative process – this is the essence of writing.   Writing the same story repeatedly is not creative and fails to display one’s talents.

It was the singer Natalie Merchant who noted that you simply cannot give the public what it thinks it wants, which is candy (musical or literary) all of the time.   If you do, the public gets tired of you after it comes down from the sugar high – the false creative rush.   Once they get tired of the same old thing, they not only stop buying it, they also join the critics in their anguished howls.

So what is the moral of the story?   That creativity has its costs.   Being creative, continually and over a career, takes courage.   It takes real courage to write what you need to write even if it is not what you wrote before…

Just look at the careers of this country’s most highly rewarded authors – the Capotes, the Mailers and others of their ilk – and you’ll see that they did not settle for rewriting one story time after time.   (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood could not be less similar.)   They branched out; they changed even if simply for change’s sake.   They stayed alive, as the Beatles did with their music, ever evolving, ever-growing; each and every collection of songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo was the result of new periods and experiences in their lives.

To borrow the words of Bob Dylan, life should be about new mornings.   It’s not dark yet, unless you elect to go living in the past, the shades drawn tight.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman, which was released by William Morrow and Harper Audio on January 18, 2011.   This book (actually a 176 page novella) has absolutely no relationship to the matters discussed in this article – I simply like the intriguing cover image which makes me want to read it.   Look for a review of The Girl in the Green Raincoat to appear on this site in the near future.

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Carry That Weight

Now, Build A Great Business:  7 Ways to Maximize Your Profits in Any Market by Mark Thompson and Brian Tracy (Amacom; $24.95; 256 pages)

I read a lot of business books.   I read business books on how to love your customers, how to hire and fire, how to think big, how to narrow your focus, how to be more creative and yet more disciplined.   Such in-depth attention to select issues is incredibly useful to business practitioners who know just what they should focus their attention on.   But for new or growing business owners, a more holistic treatment to the business of doing business is needed, and that is what Mark Thompson and Brian Tracy’s new book, Now, Build a Great Business provides.

The front flap on Now, Build a Great Business pronounces:  “You’ll find no theory here – just practical steps you can take immediately, with simple explanations of exactly how to measure how well you’re doing at each step along the way.”   For some, this approach may seem rote, but the authors, absolute business gurus, make the material fresh and memorable.

And being memorable is important.   None of us have the time to reference back to books we’ve read in the past, so we need any mnemonic devices to remember some of this key advice in times of need.   Thompson and Tracy make complex and subjective concepts structured and linear.

To be a good leader, they suggest that you remind yourself of three key Ps:  Purpose.   Passion.   Performance.   When hiring, follow their Law of Three:  Always interview at least three people for a position; Interview the candidate you like in three different places; Have the candidate interviewed by at least three different people.

Stocking their book with stories and brief anecdotes about other companies’ successes, failures, decisions and risk-taking, the authors enable you to assess your own company and mindset – all with the goal of devising a plan with measurable goals.   In one of the most simple and useful sections of the book, the authors offer “a very simple sample set of thirty-three measures to inspire or provoke you to create your own dashboard for your business.”

After reading each chapter, you’ll be given a worksheet where you can reflect on your own personal experiences by way of the terminology and wisdom given.   I particularly love the last question on the worksheet, “What one action are you going to take immediately?”   Now, Build a Great Business is oriented toward action and will help you be too.

Recommended.

This review was written by Jack Covert.   To see the original version, go to: 

http://blog.800ceoread.com/2010/12/10/jack-covert-selects-now-build-a-great-business/

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