October is Black Speculative Fiction Month and like legions of others, I am celebrating it something fierce.
Why does Black Speculative Fiction Month matter?
Black Speculative Fiction Month matters because now more than ever our stories must be told and our voices must be heard. Black Speculative Fiction Month matters because too often at cons and writing events, I’m the only nonwhite guest in attendance.
We know them — the kids who read before they are potty trained, play classical piano before entering elementary school, or compute high school math in first grade. While the world shudders, in reality, most child prodigies rarely become influential change agents.
Why not? According to Adam Grant, in his New York Times article, How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off, what holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But in their perfection, they don’t get the chance to innovate. In adulthood, these prodigies may become experts in their fields — but only a fraction of these gifted children become revolutionary adult creators.
Grant explains how the gifted may learn to play Mozart, but rarely compose their own original scores. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own. Ironically, research shows that those who are bound for creativity are less likely to be embraced by their teacher — they have their own ideas.
In comparison, the most creative artists didn’t have elite teachers — their first lessons came from nearby instructors who made learning fun. Mozart showed interest in music before he took lessons, not the other way around.
The writer Edith Wharton, a self-professed “slow worker,” dismissed the idea of easy creative triumph. “Many people assume that the artist receives, at the outset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as ‘Inspiration,’ and has only to let that sovereign impulse carry him where it will,” she wrote in her 1925 bookThe Writing of Fiction. The artistic impulse, she continued, was instead achieved through “systematic daily effort.”
But while she championed diligence, Wharton was also driven by something she found more difficult to describe. Writing in The Atlantic in 1933, she sought to explain that “central mystery” of spontaneous creative expression—the “teeming visions which, ever since my small childhood, and even at the busiest and most agitated periods of my outward life, have incessantly peopled my inner world.”
“It is as impossible to fix in words,” she wrote, “as that other mystery of what happens in the brain at the precise moment when one falls over the edge of consciousness into sleep.”
There are many types of creativity, but in recent years, researchers have begun to understand more about the kind of creative flow Wharton described—the state that today is colloquially referred to as “being in the zone.”
In a 2008 study published in the journal PLOS, Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at the University of California, San Francisco and accomplished jazz saxophonist,and Allen Braun, a speech researcher at the National Institutes of Health, designed a clever way to observe creative expression in the brain: an fMRI machine with a specially made musical keyboard. The two men recruited six professional jazz musicians for the study; while in the fMRI, the participants performed musical exercises ranging from a memorized scale to a fully improvised piece of music.
Observing the musicians’ brain activity as they performed each task, Limb and Braun found that when their subjects improvised, a region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) became less active. Like a neural mother hen, the DLPFC is connected to planning, inhibition, and self-censorship; its deactivation has been suggested to play a role in altered states of consciousness such as daydreaming, meditation, and REM sleep. (A separate imaging study published in the journal Nature in 2012 found a similar lulling of the DLPFC during freestyle rap.) This pattern of brain activity, Limb and Braun wrote, may be “intrinsic to the creative process,” which “can apparently occur outside of conscious awareness and beyond volitional control.”
Their findings support a fundamental model of creativity developed by Arne Dietrich, the author of and a professor of psychology at the American University of Beirut. Dietrich argues that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is central to creativity, and depending on the particular creative activity, the region will either significantly slow—as it did in the jazz study—or ramp up.
In other words, creativity is necessarily a variable phenomenon. At times, it’s the composer’s strict pen: intentional, revisionary, critical. And at times, it’s the spontaneous new melody: unconscious, experiential, flexible. So what determines which creative path a person takes in a given moment?
Earlier this year, Limb co-authored a new study led by Malinda McPherson, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard-MIT Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology, to address that missing element. The study also asked jazz pianists to improvise in an fMRI scanner; this time, though, the musicians were instructed to first review photographs of a woman wearing a positive, negative, or neutral expression, and then to try to match the photo’s mood with their improvised melodies.
The results were somewhat surprising. McPherson’s team predicted the creativity-related DLPFC deactivation from the previous study would be found equally in the negative and positive improvisations, but it was much more pronounced during the happy trial. The researchers also found that the negative-photo improvisations showed greater activity in certain brain regions connected to cognitive control and reward; specifically, there was increased connectivity between the insula, an area that controls visceral awareness, and the substantia nigra, an area responsible for reward and pleasure.
Broadly, McPherson’s findings support Dietrich’s argument that creativity doesn’t stem from one easily definable process or brain pattern. The results also indicate that “emotion has a huge effect on the way our brains can be creative,” McPherson says. Positive emotion, for instance, seems to be related to a deeper state of creative flow. Her findings also seem to indicate that unhappy artistic expression requires more conscious restraint than happy music—but may also be, on some level, more rewarding.
“Sadness in art is perplexing,” McPherson says. “People love performing and listening to sad music, but generally try to avoid sadness in other areas of their lives.” It may be that the arts give us the chance to safely practice and experience a range of emotions, she says—or, as Wharton writes, to experience feelings “quite unrelated to the joy or sorrow caused by real happenings, but as intense.” Sad music, then, could be especially pleasurable because the musician “knows that the sadness is coming from the art, and not from any other loss,” McPherson speculates. Happy art, on the other hand, may allow a deeper creative flow because it carries less emotional risk, even if it also means less of a reward or release.
But Dietrich advises caution in extrapolating too much from McPherson’s study or any neuroimaging research on creativity. “Even for the wilderness of human thinking, creative ideas seem to be deliberately designed to defy empirical enquiry,” he says, adding that some ideas pitched as neural explanations for creativity have “completely failed” to produce coherent results. Dietrich remains skeptical that fMRI-bound improvisations are an accurate representation of truly freewheeling creative flow. Even so, he says, the McPherson study is a “genuine addition to the literature.”
Of course, the more questions that are answered, the more questions arise: Do the findings about jazz improvisation apply equally to other forms of art and music? If there are distinct paths to creativity, how can we steer our brains to enter a state of creative flow? What happens to the brain during those more deliberate creative efforts, such as revising an artistic work?
As they move forward, Limb and his colleagues are working to both deepen their understanding of musical improvisation and extend the research to other areas of creativity. “There are so many deep and critical questions when it comes to the neuroscience of art,” he says. “It may take a while before we are able to unify the knowledge across disciplines.”
David Banner was in town for his foundation last week. He came to speak to the kid at the Juvenile Detention Center and open up new studios at the YMCA in Jackson MS. Jessica Simien got a chance to sit down with him to discuss his intention for putting the studio in the YMCA and how the kids can benefit from it. He also spoke about how Mississippi artist need to create our own sound. I agree we do need to identify a unique style to stand out from the crowd, so we can carve out a legacy for generation to come out of Mississippi. He said artist need to speak life with the words they use to write rhymes. Check out the full article at JessicaSimien.com. Links are under the video.
2014 was quite a year for blues artist Dexter Allen and there are no signs that he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. After playing lead guitar on and off for the legendary Bobby Rush for 14 years- four of which he spent traveling the world as his band leader, Allen had a proposition for Rush; his fourth project entitled “Bluez of My Soul.” Allen wanted it released on Rush’s Deep Rush Records label.
Rush liked the idea and the CD was released in April of 2014 making Allen the first, and so far the only, artist to join Rush on the label. 2014 was also the year Allen made his big screen debut portraying Sam Thomas in the James Brown bio-pic “Get on Up“. Explaining his character he says “[Thomas] was the bassist for James Brown in 1964 [and] played for [Brown] on the T.A.M.I. Show.”
Allen is currently marketing and promoting his second release on Deep Rush Records called “Trilogy of My Bluez” available since June 2015. On the title Allen says, “you’ve got some traditional, you’ve got some R&B, you’ve got some soul…three different types of blues all rolled up into one.”
Local fans grooved to some of Allen’s new tunes at the Third Annual Jackson Rhythm & Blues Festival this past August. This year marked Allen’s second time performing the event. Before the festival Allen said “I’m excited about meeting the fans, old ones and new ones. And I think this event is so good for the city of Jackson. We haven’t had anything like it since Jubilee Jam.” He added “I’m also looking forward to reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen in a long time.” Allen’s hour-long set included “the new single “Put Your Bluez on Me” and some of the old stuff too.”
Allen’s passion for the blues isn’t relegated to just playing and singing, he loves to educate as well. His philanthropic interests were first peaked in 2010 when Peggy Brown- currently the board chairman of the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, introduced him to Blues in the Schools. Brown says, “He did a great job. He interacted with [the kids] and they loved him.” From there Allen did a workshop with autistic children. He was nervous in the beginning. “I didn’t know if my program was going to suffice, not knowing it was just what was needed. It was a humbling experience,” he says. Now, “every time I have an opportunity to work with autistic children or even autistic young adults, I take (it).”
Allen recently took on yet another philanthropic endeavor when he was elected to the Board of Directors of The Blues Foundation in Memphis Tennessee, Allen. A personal goal during his term is keeping the blues alive through education. He plans to create platforms that allow artist worldwide to collaborate, thus increasing visibility and ensuring longevity of the genre.
Allen’s work has been impressive to say the lease, but something tells me this self-described “little country boy with a little talent,” is just getting started.
Get show schedule and more at dexterallen.com.
Dexter Allen Trivia
He’s been married for 20 years
He has 3 sons all of whom are musically inclined. Allen says “I told them to get degrees first and then we can discuss music careers if they want to.”
Proud Poppa bragging rights:
25 year old Dexter J. Allen plays football at JSU and plays drums at church
19 year old Devin T. Allen is a band scholarship recipient at JSU. He plays keyboards and drums at church in addition to singing
16 year old Deon M. Allen is an 11th grader at Terry High School. He’s in band and plays football
Allen spent 3 days on the set filming his scenes for Get On Up.
Allen has 5 albums but only the last two are on Deep Rush
Allen will serve a 3-year term on the Board of Directors of the Blues Foundation in Memphis Tennessee
Recently signed on with a new booking agent: Muzik 4 You Entertainment, LLC
In February of last year Allen received a resolution from his hometown of Crystal Springs. Less than a month later, in a resolution adopted by the Mississippi House of Representatives and Senate, Allen was described as a “Blues artists extraordinaire.” The resolutions commend the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist for his talents, accomplishments, and contributions to the music industry.
Writers are always on the lookout for story ideas to develop into films and TV series. Where do these ideas come from? How do you brainstorm? How does a film or TV idea sprout from an original concept? How do you know which ideas are worth keeping and which to discard? So many things to think about.
Ideas are germinated and nurtured within the three layers of our creative thought processes. There can only be one dominant layer at a time, although the non-dominant ones are still in play.
As its name suggests, this step is when our minds are in full awareness mode. Our curiosity is stoked. We merge new and interesting knowledge with what we already know. We are open to new ideas and welcome the creative unknown.
We are actively brainstorming new story concepts. We usually start with what movies typically do well, what our personal interests are and…