Category Archives: Creativity

Stalking Leonardo in America

On the hunt for Leonardo da Vinci ever since starting on the novelization of my time travel novel, but it seems, instead, he’s been stalking me.

The genius is very much alive. A few of the most notable Leo sightings, up-close-and-personal. The Da Vinci Machines exhibit, currently on display in Bradenton, Florida. Artisans from Florence, Italy, have constructed life-sized models of a series of Leonardo’s inventions found in his writings and jottings and sketches found in more than 13,000-known pages of Leonardo’s codices (definition: notebooks; singular, codex. From the Latin. Think Renaissance blog). There are an additional 20,000 or so pages from codices that scholars suspect lay hidden and molding in unsuspecting people’s attics and musty shoe boxes throughout Europe.

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Da Vinci Museums Exhibit

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Da Vinci’s glider

Here is material evidence of Leonardo’s genius in plain sight for the throngs of kids, teachers and adults visiting the exhibition. A creative thinker who could design a modern tank from observing turtles, whose glider emerged from hundreds of hours watching and sketching hawks in flight, the first working robot, and myriad seemingly modern inventions–all from the mind of a 15th-century man.

Of course, there is another, perhaps more famous side to Leonardo: his art. Which took me to Williamsburg, Virginia, recently, to see an exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci and the Idea of Beauty,” at the Muscarelle Museum of Art on the campus of William and Mary. While, still today, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper get most of the press, observing the master’s drawing skills at close hand is a thrill.

Leonardo and Beauty

Leonardo and the Idea of Beauty

I felt the hand of the artist on my shoulder as I stepped up to each new piece on display. On display: attributes of left-handedness — shadowing and drawing lines diagonally from up left to down right to avoid smudging and see the trajectory of each line — that make him unique among Renaissance masters. To breathe in the antiquity emanating from these 500-year-old papers and parchments. To feel the aura of the artist in the room, looking out from the shadows and into my eyes even as my eyes took him in.

In the introduction to the exhibition, in a book of the same title, Dr. Aaron H. De Groft, the museum’s director and CEO, writes, “Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with quick short notes on what he saw, how he felt, things to remember to do and many other pronouncements, statements, and fully worked out thoughts…and so much of it was illustrated. We see him living his life literally day by day and week by week documented on the page in many ways like the modern day equivalents of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. […]…he wrote in one of his last recorded lines, ‘I must go now…because the soup is getting cold.'”

How  fitting to see this inveterate doodler through the eyes of twenty-first century technology. And how like Charley, the protagonist of Out of Time, to want to record what she sees, things to remember and the many other pronouncements of her own curious, creative and inventive mind in a blog and on social media.

Auratic tweet

Charley’s Notebooks: Tweet Storytelling Out of Time

Next stop on my quest to discover Leonardo in America? The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Salvador Dali draws on the inspiration of Freud’s meanderings on the great Renaissance master to celebrate “Where Minds, Machines and Masterpieces Meet.”

Dali Museum Leo

Where Minds, Machines and Masterpieces Meet.

Seeing yet another side of Leonardo’s genius up-close-and-personal? Can’t wait!

robin and mona

Mona and me

What do we really know after all?

Charley has just begun to plot her next adventure, a journey forward from Leonardo’s time to a period where the world was unevenly wakening to what it means to be fully alive, fully human. In the early to mid-17s, most of humanity (at least in the Western world) was still firmly in the grips of the Inquisition, superstition. This was pre-Revolutionary America or France, where the Rights of Man (but not Woman) had yet to be enunciated.

But hope and change were in the air.  The thrill of examining another moment in time where brilliance and genius could bubble up, where scientific thought,  and debate were leading us to new innovations that would help define our own post-modern world, is about to draw our girl Charley back into adventure like a moth drawn into flame.

As we start to look at the time of Voltaire, Diderot and the kings of Divine Right in France, there is another pioneer and “brainiac” of the period whose flame has been dimmed by history because–gasp–she is a woman. If Charley has any say about it, la Marquise Emilie du Chatelet is about to get her due.

Meanwhile, a look at the satirical brilliance of Voltaire, Emilie’s consort and intellectual partner, from a modern musical theater performance adapted from his novel, Candide, ou l’Optimist, from a 2011 blog post on my Pass the Talking Stick blog.

What do we really know, after all?

I went to see Candide last night – a musical opera based on Voltaire’s famous satirical novel (“All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”) set to Leonard Bernstein’s music. It was a fabulous production by The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Bernstein decided to undertake the adaptation in 1953 upon the advice of his friend, playwright Lillian Hellman. At the time, Hellman was one of many artists, scientists and intellectuals under investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, the noted McCarthy hearings against alleged Communists. Hellman was one of many artist victims of this modern day witch hunt. Voltaire’s 1758 satire of the institutions that held enormous sway over public opinion in his time – from the Catholic Church to the emperors, from physicians to philosophers – were intent on trying to impose their dogma, and control on the public. Even when the facts didn’t line up with teachings – the inconvenience of the Inquisition being a notable breach of Christian spirit, for example – it was all for the best!In a contemporary parallel, some politicians of our day insist that our country’s Founders had God and right on their side in the original framing of the U.S. Constitution — and that they are the special people who can read he Founders intentions correctly and prune our laws of anything that the framers and their successors didn’t really intend, except those parts that don’t suit their current ideology. No hypocrisy there!

As the French themselves are fond of saying, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
What struck me about the “philosophy” behind Voltaire’s mocking words was how the best knowledge of his day had much of the science wrong. The best medicine then promoted bleeding (leeches) to cure disease, the auto-da-fe to “purify” religion, and Optimism as a philosophical explanation for every Job-like tragedy that befell the world and poor Candide, including earthquake, war, plague. What do we “know” today that will lead the scientists and philosophers 300 years from now to conclude that our best practices are equally misinformed?

It would seem that skepticism – questioning what is generally accepted as fact – is actually a healthy approach to counter the conventional wisdom. Candide’s teacher, Professor Pangloss, tenaciously holds to his optimistic philosophy (“All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”) despite suffering these personal trials and tribulations: war, poverty, beatings, earthquakes, Auto-da-fe (the Inquisition’s infamous public heretics “trials” which inevitably ended up in conviction and public execution), hanging and, finally, destitution. Equally, today, we might be skeptical of the absolutists who claim to “know” what is best for our country, for our children and for our future.

Fortunately, technology, communication, transportation and a healthy public debate in our democracy promote ever greater tools to engage in public skepticism. Through the Internet, television, social media, ever-more transparent government and the free press, Americans now have more power than ever to question, debate, learn and challenge the status quo.

Still, it is tempting to stay out of the debate and “cultivate one’s garden”, as Candide concludes at the bitter end of his story. By this time, Candide’s one true love, the Lady Cunegonde, has lost her station, her beauty, her youth and her wealth. To engage in the conversation – to challenge conventional wisdom publicly – may leave one subject to ridicule or worse. But, as in Voltaire’s time, satire can be a biting tool that, on the face of it, seems to endorse the authorities whose knowledge is “beyond question” while mocking their hypocrisy.

A musical highlight of Candide is the lovely Cunegonde’s famous comic soliloquy, “Glitter and Be Gay”, lamenting that a lady of high nobility stripped of her title, wealth and family should become the sexual object for everyone from Catholic Cardinals, to the City of Lisbon’s wealthiest and most influential men in exchange for baubles and expensive clothes. True to the teachings of Professor Pangloss even in the most horrific circumstances, Cunegonde searches for the best in the situation.

 The aria is here performed by the incomparably gifted actress Kristen Chenoweth. Her high E-flat is a Wicked feat!

Quiet…Teens Writing

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Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands) in the Santa Cruz province in Argentina

Telling stories is timeless, though the ways we do it have changed. I imagine the original storytellers speaking to tribe, family, friends under a million stars twinkling in the night sky. These ancient stories were as evanescent as the flames of the fire that warmed the gathered listeners, except for the tradition of oral transmission: parent to child to grandchild across generations.

The oral tradition survives today, but heiroglyphics, the alphabet, and writing gave those who had the power to create words and pictures a way to have their stories preserved forever–or at least until the next technological advance removed the storyteller’s advantage. Coal and chalk giving way to chisel, quill and ink giving way Gutenberg’s press, reel-to-reel tape recorders, television and, finally, our digital age giving way to an ever-evolving array of apps, platforms and tools.

Teens Write

But the constant, despite ever-evolving recording technologies, is the storytellers voice. So it was nice, in our soundbite and social media-dominated era, to engage with a group of teens learning and practicing the writer’s craft.

YA author Carolee Noury facilitated the group, offering a creative way to invite the group to think about perspective, setting and scene as key elements in constructing narratives. Setting out a diorama of seemingly random objects on a table that everyone could examine at length, the writers then picked out “mood rings” – small scraps of paper with the names of an emotion or mood on them cut out and formed into a link on which she had pre-prepared. The moods ranged from joyous to cranky. The challenge: to create a story that integrated this setting according to your mood.

After seven minutes of time in which everyone got down to the business of writing, teens were invited to read their stories. Some read aloud. Others, maybe too shy to share, passed. But all seemed intent on recording their stories.

As these teen writers grow in craft and confidence, I will be curious to see where their writing leads them. In another teen writing group, led by writer Mark Willen, one young writer has already published her first book, surely an amazing accomplishment.

Can We Hear You Now?

I came away inspired: we need to hear these voices.

I am now thinking about leading a writing group myself. Wondering if there are any young and aspiring writers out there who might offer their advice: What are the best ways to encourage, engage teens to share their stories with us?

What’s Worth More — the Story or the Merchandise?

Pen and inkAs I toil away on the second draft of my novel, Out of Time, thinking of the time, care, creative energy and effort I have put forth on this epic adventure, beginning with the seed of a story in 1997 through the prodigious output resulting in today’s (2014) screenplay-novel-tweet storytelling, Web-based learning platform, I wonder what it’s all worth. Not in the sense of the value in my life to serve this purpose of Creator-in-Chief of Charley’s adventures in Leonardo’s World, but in the marketplace.

As I learn more about the publishing industry today, and how much of the take on book sales flows back to authors–and compare that to the perceived benefits of self-publishing where, once the initial investment in the print process is recouped, 100 percent of the returns go to the author, the results even for bestselling authors look discouraging. For a $14.95 paperback, the author receives–wait for it–95 cents a book. Not much of an ROI, is it? How does anyone with less of a runaway success than Harry Potter ever hope to earn a respectable living.

Then there’s this: today’s Washington Post runs a story on this season’s Christmas must-haves for all little girls: the Princesses Elsa and Anna dolls from the Disney movie “Frozen.” These mass-produced molded dolls retail for $75.99 and $49.99, respectively, outfits sold separately.

By my reckoning, that’s $125.00 for dolls that will be left in the dust as soon as the NEXT BIG THING hits the shelves. Granted, the doll merch grows out of storytelling–and there’s nothing to say that a Charley superhero action figure couldn’t hit the shelves in a big way. But the marketplace again rewards the stuff and not the value that a book, a movie, a story can confer to nurture a child’s lifelong growth.

Barbie dollsBecause, honestly, I remember getting my first Barbie doll at my fifth birthday party at The Pee Wee Valley amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio. After riding the rides, and having cake and milk at the picnic tables, it was that Barbie, with her frozen expression and her stiffly moving limbs and neck, that captured my attention for the rest of the party. This doll, and the Ken doll I later got (along with a Barbie wedding dress–in those days, my mom wanted to ensure Barbie would be married before she could play with Ken!) were the phenom du jour.  A certain amount of role-playing and rehearsal for growing up went along with these teenaged dolls of ridiculous proportions. But in the end, Barbie lost her hair in a swimming accident in the bathroom sink, her wardrobe in a garage sale, and her Dream House to the little girl down the street.

The Secret Garden, Fances Hodgson Burnett's classic

The Secret Garden, Fances Hodgson Burnett’s classic

But it is within the pages of kid and teen lit that I remember finding myself. A Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie…and later, Gone with the Wind, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, To Kill a Mockingbird–these were stories where I could identify aspects of myself, engage in pretend, and take on the problems of the world within a safe context as rehearsal for who I wanted to become.

But maybe I wasn’t the ordinary kid. I was more interested in creating worlds than living through someone else’s version.

I think every child has the creative capacity to become who they are meant to be, if only we know how to nurture, provoke, engage and further that superpower. Which is the genesis for all things Out of Time.

As an author, this is my 95 cents worth. Though I am hoping it is actually worth more to the children with the power to become. Impossible dream?

I like to think not. Let me know what you think.