Thursday, April 30, 2015

Creating or Mimicking

I recently met the late Srinivasa Ramanujan in a magnificent biography by Robert Kanigel which I reviewed on my blog site. I bring him back up in this blog because Ramanujan taught me something of value. Even though his area of creativity was mathematics, I saw its application to those of us who are writers, for in a sense, art is art. And when a person delves into the mysteries of pure mathematics, they indeed are involved in a creative process not unlike someone who faces the blank page or empty dance floor or musical score without notes. How these thoughts came together was when I was reading an article in Writers Ask a quarterly publication by GlimmerTrain. The article was a compilation of interviews from a large sampling of writers, seeking their thoughts on research they do to write their novels. The line that caught my attention was this:

“…Then when I’m sure about the structure of my story, I almost always go back and review a few of [Raymond] Carver’s endings to make sure I haven’t overdone it.”

I love Raymond Carver as a poet, essayist and short story writer. He was a most talented man. Interestingly, like Ramanujan, Carver had little education were he to be compared to the writers in the interview. I remember reading somewhere about the moment he saw his first magazine and realized there were such things, so humble were his beginnings. His greatness came from a combination of a life lived hard yet honestly and his fierce determination to get his view of the world onto paper. He had influence along the way in the form of his editor, so much influence that he eventually had to break off the relationship. His integrity required of him that he find his own way. So it was with Ramanujan when he wrote in his reference letter while seeking a position that would compensate him for doing his work:

“I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a university course, but I am striking out a new path for myself.”

There is a reason for this parallel thinking and that is because true
creativity is wholly the creator’s work. Yes, we have mentors, but we must seek them not for how they do things but how we respond to what they are doing. Then it is ours to discover how we can get a similar response from our readers. There is a fine line between mimicry and creativity. The mockingbird can’t be faulted for his amazing reproduction of the sounds around him, but he will never trump the warbler for sheer ethereal songs. As artists, we must be ever so encouraged to find out what it is within us that we are driven to share and be equally driven to have it be our unique contribution, one that spills out of our own life through our own exclusive means of expression.

I can’t ever imagine ending one of my short stories like Carver did for I don’t see or feel the world as he did. His way often amazes me and makes me shiver with the power of its effect, but it is not how the world appears to me. I must find an equally powerful and effective way, but it must be mine. For in writing we need not only tell the truth but also be the truth, for that is what gives fiction its sense of reality.

Author Kanigel gives us one further bit of realism where creation is concerned. When he observed the life of Ramanujan, the greatest mathematician since Newton, Kanigel confirmed this:

“His success did not come entirely through flashes of inspiration. It was hard work. It was full of false starts. It took time.”

But what is possible through creativity is genius, and the beauty and awe that result from that cannot be compared to  work that mimics the art of another.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

An Extraordinary Man

I don’t get much time to read when our business hits its busy season, but I continue to snatch a few moments here and there to read what I am realizing is an amazing story about someone I would never have known existed had it not been for Robert Kanigel and his compelling biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan. 

The book is entitled The Man Who Knew Infinity and relates the life of an Indian mathematician who is deemed the greatest mathematician since Newton. With next to no formal education, let alone in pure mathematics, he explored the nature of numbers and their relation to each other and the world with a depth that keeps mathematicians 95 years after his death still working to understand all that he bequeathed them. And yet, Kanigel has presented this story with the intimate grip and wonder of a riveting historical novel.

Ramanujan’s early years were marked by poverty often to the point of his going hungry and suffering a surfeit of failure as he repeatedly flunked out of school, unwilling to finish any courses not related to math. His was the loneliness and misunderstanding that many a prodigy endures, and the depth of understanding shown toward this period of his life by author Kanigel is masterful. As he remarked about Ramanujan’s movement toward recognized genius:

“His success did not come entirely through flashes of inspiration. It was hard work. It was full of false starts. It took time.”

I have not gotten far into what is a substantial book, but I am finding the character of Ramanujan portrayed with discerning sensitivity toward the man, his culture and the unfamiliar domain of genius. As well, for the first time in my life, after struggling through calculus and differential equations years back, I am beginning to understand what math is actually about. Kanigel is an outstanding science writer as well as biographer.

The inspired part of Ramanujan’s story begins when he realizes he must find a situation that takes care of his basic needs but allows him to focus entirely on his work. He begins the search to find employment with only his notebooks tucked under his arm, filled with his equations as a reference. Acquaintance by acquaintance, step by step, after much rejection, a letter sent to Professor G. H. Hardy of Trinity College Cambridge introduced him to someone brilliant enough in his own stead to recognize who Ramanujan was. Ramanujan wrote in his letter to Hardy:

          “I have had no university education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a university course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as 'startling'.”

Quoting K. Srinivasa Rao, "As for his [Ramanujan's] place in the world of Mathematics, we quote ... Hardy's personal ratings of mathematicians ... on the basis of pure talent on a scale from 0 to 100, Hardy gave himself a score of 25, J.E. Littlewood 30, David Hilbert 80 and Ramanujan 100."

It was fortunate for Ramanujan, mathematics and the world at large that G.H. Hardy took the Indian genius in and gave him a chance at productive years of work, for the young wonder lived only 32 years. 

Modern applications of his work are affecting areas of science and medicine that did not even exist when Ramanujan was alive. He died in 1920 leaving a legacy of math so advanced that some of it is still not comprehensible to modern mathematicians, though it is still avidly studied.

For a captivating read by an insightful and talented writer, charge
your kindle up (or buy the book) and be ready for many days of insights into the aspirations and struggles of this brilliant man, genius being no assurance of an easy life.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

My Religion is Kindness

So said the Dalai Lama when asked what his religion was. To be honest, I have to admit that when I first heard his answer to that question, I didn't get it. I really had no idea about the nature of kindness. To me, it was someone being nice or considerate or civil and that seemed hardly the basis for spiritual accomplishment in my book. But the other day something happened to change all that.

I was putting individual packages of photographs together for our next sale, looking at these dear children we’d photographed and thinking about what I see at childcare facilities these days when Bert and I sit there for long hours selling photos. These are young children, babies to five-year-olds. In the photos, our very talented photographer has captured them in a safe moment of connection with her, so we see them bright-eyed, innocent, and often smiling or laughing. But increasingly, she has had to bring them out of seeming endless moments of acting out in ways that past generations rarely saw among those so very young. 

There is growing defiance in young children today. They exhibit anger, dis-trustfulness, resistant and defensiveness, attitudes that are not at all endearing. A reasonable question is, what is happening within families and our society that children appear so reactive and disrespectful? It hit me, as I sat there looking at them - kindness is disappearing from our personal interactions, replaced by a growing sense of self-absorption that is now filtering down to our children.

All of a sudden while looking at them, I felt my frustration and sadness of seeing them afraid, not listened to, their innate curiosity and innocence locked away and increasingly difficult for them to find, lift away as something in me stopped judging and instead felt only kindness toward them. It is difficult to put into words how extraordinary the sensation was, but I felt how their compensatory reactions would melt away in the face of true kindness. I think more than anything, children need to feel safe and accepted. Such safety soothes their fears, the ones now initiating their harsh reactions. I could feel how cooperative children would be from the get-go, if kindness was what redirected their misguided behavior, if kindness eased their embarrassment, if kindness was their teacher, if it received them in its arms to set them free later calm, renewed and appropriately redirected.  

That was a big step for me as I had never known kindness growing up, and I don’t think I’m alone in that respect. I knew discipline, orders and rules taught through manipulation and shame, but I never felt kindness. There was no real safe harbor there, no unconditional status. There was market place mentality – you do this and you’ll get that. As I grew older, I actually didn't believe in kindness, it seemed too soft to effect appropriate change. But in that moment of inspiration, I realized only kindness has the power to provide a true learning environment, only kindness turns our hearts, only kindness breeds trust. If instead, we order our children around, demand certain behaviors and force their responses, all that can ultimately result is fear and frustration that then spawns endless emotional reactions such as anger, hurt, resistance and retaliation. Kindness, on the other hand, is love in action. It engenders an environment where we can let down our resistance and defenses and truly learn. I believe our trust issues stem from lack of kindness in our lives and without trust, every request calls for reconsideration before we can offer ourselves to that moment. Living without trust is life in isolation. The degree to which today’s children are shut down is the degree to which they find so little terrain they sense as trustworthy.

Kindness creates a different sort of interface than any other human behavior. It expects nothing. It is a state of being where there is no need to rant, boss, diminish or judge to get children to turn away from their hurt-based actions and acknowledge new choices. There is no greater joy than living among kind people, and, concomitantly, there is no greater sorrow than people so completely untouched by kindness that it can no longer tempt them to drop their defensive choices and join in its peace and safety.

I now understand why His Holiness referred to his religion as kindness for it is by its very nature infinite in source and endless in its capacity to heal.