Engaged Motion: One Key (of many) to Creativity and even Genius

treadmillFor Christmas I gave myself a manual treadmill. I try to use it daily for a strenuous, indoor workout I much need during northern Wisconsin’s long icy winters. But it’s noisy. I knew it would be, so I ordered a stand for my laptop and a headset to go with it. Now while treading I listen to archived radio programs that I probably wouldn’t have listened to otherwise.

A few days ago, for example, I listened to “Seeking Sites of Global Genius” on NPR’s On Point (1/22/16), which featured Eric Weiner talking about his recent book The Geography of Genius (book’s animated trailer here). Weiner argues that much more than natural talent and hard work go into the making of a genius like Plato, Michelangelo, or Steve Jobs. Geniuses, he says, are grown and appear in “genius clusters,” like in ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, and today’s Silicon Valley. But why? geography-of-genius-eric-weiner-263x409

During his NPR talk, Weiner discusses a number of factors that nurture genius, especially mentors, social mingling, and diversity, as well as hardship, immigration, or even a traumatic event early in life (for Plato, think the execution of his mentor Socrates and Athens’ agora). So it seems that having a perspective different from one’s peers, along with sharing ideas with others, contributes to the flourishing of creativity. Consider Apple’s slogan: “Think different.”

About halfway through the program, Weiner briefly mentioned that walking is also associated with creative genius (research backs this up). By then treading had exhausted me, and I took a break at my desktop. Scrolling through the NPR homepage, I found and read a heartwarming article, “Young Artists Find Home and Healing at Pittsburgh Art House” (1/24/15). It then occurred to me that not just walking but many kinds of engaged physical activities are likely to prompt creative thinking. 

Vanessa-German

Arriving at the notion of engaged motion pleased me, as did connecting the NPR article to the Weiner talk. But more than that, I became intrigued by the Art House founder, Vanessa German, an amazing visual and performance artist who, in my view, is a genius of engaged motion. (See an example of her performance poetry here).

Art House began on German’s front porch, which is next to a bus stop in Pittsburgh’s impoverished, frequently violent Homewood, a neighborhood where kids play “gang” in the alleys. When her sculptures grew too large for the basement studio, she worked on her porch. People would stop to watch. Adults commented on how weird or even scary the fetish-like objects seemed to them (examples of her sculptures here). But kids, she tells us in this 2015 TEDxPittsburghStatePrison talk, “weren’t looking at what I was making; they were watching me do the making.”

SEAsia carved birds
A gift to me from friends

Kids were engaged in the process, the doing, and wanted to help. German told them, “You cannot help me, but you can do your own thing.” She gathered old brushes, paint, cardboard, and materials from a demolished house up the street and set the kids to doing their own art. Soon her porch and front yard were filled with kids. And eventually the young artists got their own place (photos of Art House in the NPR article).           

At the Art House housewarming, German said, “I experience such joy and a sense of deep rightness and completeness when I’m making things…. Like when I’m deciding how I’m going to engineer some sculpture to stand so it looks like it’s defying gravity, and I’m using my brain, and I’m moving around, and I feel like giving myself a high-five – why wouldn’t kids feel that too!?” (NPR).

CandleCurl sculpture Jan15
My candle curl “sculpture”

In my view, German is a genius of engaged motion. But clearly Homewood is not, in Weiner’s terms, a “genius cluster.” Nevertheless, German has found just the right place to grow and nurture her own genius – and to help others grow theirs. On her Love Front Porch website, she says, “I know that art makes a difference, that it can heal, inspire, change anger into love. Art is love. Love is power.”

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“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”                                                                                                      ~Musical genius Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart

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Image Credits

The Geography of Genius cover comes from Eric Weiner’s homepage and Vanessa German’s publicity photo from a TEDxCambridge site. I took the other three photos with my iPhone: the treadmill setup in my loft; the wood-carved birds, a gift from close friends who traveled to Bali and parts of Southeast Asia; and my candle curl “sculpture,” which continues to grow atop one of my book cases.   

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Three Fun Reads by and about Gamers

Most nights I read in bed until my eyes get so heavy that a good night’s sleep is all but assured. More often than not I read plot-driven books, like mysteries, or something on the not-so-serious side. It’s a time to thoroughly relax and let the cares of the day and concerns for tomorrow slip away.

Looking in the books section of my Kindle Fire, I see that five of my 2015 reads were narratives by and about video game players, which is not surprising since I’m an avid World of Warcraft (WoW) player. None were fan fiction, but all involved, in various degrees, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). Below are my three favorites.

#3 Max Wirestone’s The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss (2015)515iEPS2paL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Wirestone’s unusual whodunit is an engaging, at times hilarious romp with an accidental amateur detective, Dahlia. She’s an unhappy millennial, unemployed, broke, and recently betrayed by her now ex-boyfriend. The one bright spot is her kinky yet often annoying friend Charisse, who has taken her in. Then out of the blue a rich young man attending one of Charisse’s themed parties offers her a well-paid, really strange job – to recover his stolen virtual weapon, the Bejeweled Spear of Infinite Piercing, in a game called Zoth, a fictional MMORPG similar to WoW.

Like most detective stories, there’s a murder, and the murder weapon is a real-life replica of the Bejeweled Spear. At this point, along with finding the stolen virtual weapon, Dahlia’s job becomes planning an in-game funeral for the victim’s guildmates to attend. These tasks aren’t all that easy since she’s not really a Zoth gamer, having only dabbled in it with her ex-boyfriend.

The story weaves Dahlia’s experiences in Zoth and the real world seamlessly. In the process we meet a bevy of characters in-game and out, many of whom are guild members. A new love interest emerges, there’s a flirtation with a police detective, her apartment mate Charisse is unpredictably weird, and of course she, in her bumbling way, eventually exposes the murderer.   

It’s a fun, fast read that includes send-ups of WoW (you needn’t be a player to enjoy the humor). For example, her low-level fairy character, armed with only a harp, has to cross the Field of Ghosts to meet a suspect. Along the way she dies numerous times – “skewered, drowned…poisoned and killed by an evil doppelganger of myself with my own damned harp.” Dahlia tells us, “I know its unbecoming for a gamer girl to do this, but I /sat down on the ground and decided to /cry…. It sounded a little like the noise you get when you poke the Pillsbury Doughboy” (77). (Slashed words are commands for a character to act in such a way.)

In Amazon’s review blurbs, Library Journal characterizes this book as “geek chic.” That seems about right to me.

#2 Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011)

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Cline’s dystopian sci-fi novel was the Metagame Book Club’s summer 2015 selection, which is why I read (and enjoyed) it. Set in the year 2044, Earth is an over-populated environmental disaster. Abject poverty is the norm, at least for our protagonist, teen Wade Watts who lives with 14 other people in one of the many skyscraper-high stacks of trailers “on the shores of I-40 just west of Oklahoma City” (21).

Fortunately, he (and most everyone) has a temporary escape – free access to OASIS, a computer-generated virtual reality that far outshines today’s Internet and 3-D video games. And he has an unusual passion for 1980s pop culture, downloading anything, from TV shows like Family Ties to arcade games like Donkey Kong. This passion serves him well as he, along with his avatar “Parzival,” dives into the quest for the holy grail of virtual objects, keys to a vast fortune left by the deceased creator of OASIS.

The novel’s major villain is the head of the world’s largest Internet service provider; if his people find the keys first, then, as Wade says, “the OASIS would cease to be the open-source utopia” and “become a corporate-run dystopia, an overpriced theme park for the wealthy elite” (32). Thus much is at stake; Wade or someone like him needs to find the keys first.

Millions of questers are competing for the keys, including the corporate goons. Several of the questers become Wade’s friends (two in China), and an interesting, even heart-warming tension emerges among these allies who are also competitors – only one of them can succeed. This New York Times bestseller is a compelling, wonderfully-told adventure, for gamers and non-gamers alike.

#1 Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir (2015)

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Here Felicia Day, actor and celebrated geek, tells her life story with disarming honesty and a quirky sense of humor. Confession: I hadn’t heard of Day until a World of Warcraft guildmate recommended her memoir (oops! there go my geek credentials, once again). Soon I downloaded it expecting to read about a gamer’s life. Sure, there’s a lot of that and so much more.

Day, along with her brother Ryon, grew up homeschooled in a “partial-hippie family” with one school rule, “to read. Constantly. All day, every day. Whatever we wanted” unless it had “nudity or Stephen King on the cover…” (1.loc 343). She was socially isolated from peers (mostly), which allowed her, as she says, “to be okay with liking things no one else liked,” such as dragon lore, film noir, and cosine equation graphs (1.loc 424). Her mom played video games. Soon she and her brother were avid gamers too.

On discovering the MMORPG Ultima and its companion bulletin board, she quickly bonded online with other kids who loved the same geeky movies and books. It became the “first environment where I could express my enthusiasms freely to my peers” (2.loc 579). And so began her life-long (so far) passion for the Internet and all its wonders. Somewhat later, after college and rounds of auditions and acting in commercials, she became addicted to World of Warcraft.

Day tells us about her excitement on being immersed in WoW, a new world, a virtual world populated with lots of other players and chat rooms – and especially on having the opportunity to play with her brother in his guild. Her character, a rogue gnome, became, she tells us, “an emotional projection of myself. A creature/person who was more powerful, more organized and living in a world where there were exact parameters to becoming successful” (5.loc 1405).

After about six months of casual play, Day began spending more and more time in the game, where she “was very popular,” a hard working and seemingly indispensable guildmate. She felt needed and accomplished. Addictive feelings, indeed. So things got out of control: “I ate, slept, and lived World of Warcraft” (5.loc 1503).

Day doesn’t blame “that beautiful, repetitive world” for her addiction. Instead, she says, “My life was unhappy, and I covered the hurt with a subscription-based Band-Aid. I just couldn’t find a good reason NOT to play so much.” But she did break the addiction – by redirecting her creative energy toward other things she loved: writing, acting, and the Internet. She took the things she “learned during those dragon-hunting months…to create a web show called The Guild” (5.loc 1516), which is available on the web and on Netflix.

Her stories about the making of The Guild (2007-2012) and its actors, fandom, and enormous popularity begin about halfway through this charming book. I think you’ll enjoy it, whether you’re a gamer or not.

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