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On Becoming a Leading “Word Artist” on Stage and Page: How to ASPIRE-2 – Part I

As a speaker, writer and leader I’m always looking to follow in the mind-prints of, or at least understand and hopefully emulate, Nobel-prize winning scientist, Albert Szent Gyorgyi’s “elegantly simple” words: “Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought!” With originality as frame, form and function, what are the key skills and strategies for exploring new performance possibilities, generating potent ideas, inspiring others and strengthening my creative output as a word artist – whether on the stage or the page? Actually, I’ve come up with another concept- and performance-based acronym for outlining temperament and tools, techniques and tactics for enhancing imagination along with a capacity for innovation and connection. (You know I’m a charter member of an original, self-proclaimed AA group – “Acronyms Anonymous!”) All you have to do is ASPIRE-2…

A = Aggressive and Accessible

Aggressive. For me, performance aggression is “characterized by or exhibiting determination, energy, and initiative.” (Definitions throughout are from the Encarta Dictionary.) You want to challenge the status quo comfortable and the tried and tired conventional. Harnessing performance aggression:

Ø Focuses energy and attention

Ø Ignites mind-body chemistry

Ø Fires passion and defuses pain

Ø Sharpens purposeful thinking

Ø Heightens drive and discipline

Ø Breaks chains of habit

Ø Strengthens commitment, courage and creativity

To play at their best, professional athletes often emphasize two words: to be “aggressive” and “focused.” Performance aggression doesn’t just get you out of the box; it helps you risk confronting b.s. (“be safe”) messages while motivating the building of new frameworks and methods. As the artistic genius, Pablo Picasso, observed, “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” And destruction first and foremost means breaking down the self-righteous and rigid, fearful and frigid boxes and closets which limit the mind’s ability to ignore, explore and soar. (Of course, a big challenge is learning to turn down the all-consuming fire when no longer on or into your platform.)

Accessible. Being “accessible” means: 1) “easy to enter or reach physically; 2) able to be appreciated or understood without specialist knowledge; and 3) able to be obtained, used, or experienced without difficulty.” And synonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus include approachable, welcoming, and open.

As a word artist, especially when presenting to a live audience, a key performance challenge involves distilling complex material into concrete and discrete ideas and images with substance and style, so people can: 1) sustain their sense of attention and anticipation (e.g., I like being “edgy,” having people on the edge of their seats wondering what this “psychohumorist” ™ is going to do or say next), 2) enter your conceptual and “hands on” world, and 3) quickly grasp and begin to apply the core informational-skill elements. Discarding the interesting but not essential is especially vital in a hyperactive, “do more with less,” TNT – “Time, Numbers & Task”-driven – world.

Conversely, as someone attempting to generate new perspectives and approaches I need to welcome surprising and contrary ideas, tools and critical feedback (not that the old ego doesn’t occasionally resist or take a hit). In fact, research on problem solving shows that diverse groups tend to engage in creative idea generation more often than homogeneous ones. The former team has to work harder, that is, it must transform misunderstanding and conflict into positive energy-more authentic exchange thereby removing the abc’s of boxed in thinking – assumptions, blinders, and conventions. As John Dewy, pragmatic philosopher and “Father of American Public Education,” observed: Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sleep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

By understanding, working with and blending divergent perspectives you often fuel a novel solution. And akin to engaging with diversity, there’s another aspect of accessibility especially vital for uncommon performance: acknowledging one’s own errors, emotionally soaking in the pain, analyzing mistakes, and then getting back in the saddle to explore and consolidate new learning. As Adam Gopnick noted in Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Times: Repetition is the law of nature but variation (as in biological mutation or error-inducing adaptation) is the rule of life.

S = Symbol and Synthesis

Symbol. One powerful wordsmith tool is thinking symbolically. A “symbol” is: 1) something that stands for or represents something else, especially an object representing an abstraction”; and 2) in “psychoanalysis an object or act that represents an impulse or wish in the unconscious mind that has been repressed.” For example, in my lyric “The Reorg Rag” ™ (email [email protected] for a copy), I likened a reorganizing or Reduction in Force (RIF) environment to another uncertain, high stakes ambiance: Work’s now a casino, a high tech RIF RAFFle. Casino and high tech RIF RAFFle are symbols that capture the abstract, waiting on the edge, often “out of control,” “wing and a prayer” quality of today’s workplace, one that can feel like a winners vs. losers (RIF RAFF) gambling environment.

And whether representing an intangible abstract idea or an intuitive unconscious impulse (e.g. my “Reorg Rag” symbol for transforming from a “Raggedy Ann” victim into a vital individual no longer repressing smoldering anger – “bring out your Inner Rambo or Rambette”), analogy is a dynamic cognitive-emotive tool for “comparing two things that are similar in some way, often used to help explain something or make it easier to understand.” Analogy facilitates accessibility!

Synthesis. Another potent cognitive tool is “synthesis – the process of combining different ideas, influences, or objects into a new and unified whole.” Synonyms include mixture, fusion, amalgamation, combination, and blend. Synthesis is often generated by the tension between contradictory points of view – thesis and antithesis. If you can stay with and cogitate upon this tension and confusion, the reward may be worth the risk. The angst just may fire the right hemisphere of your brain with the potential for sparking metaphorical images and analogies along with surprising and paradoxical visual puns, and even yield a dynamic concept that pulls it all together.

Here’s a personal illustration of how the tension between seemingly opposing propositions generated a creative and integrative “Aha!” Back in the early ’90s, I wound up writing some rap-like lyrics for a black beauty contest theme song. (Don’t ask. I had periodically tried my hand at poetry, including a bluesy number called “The Burnout Boogie.” One morning, shortly after my noble, beauty contest effort, I awoke chastising myself: I was a university professor, a psychotherapist (thesis)…What was I doing trying to write rap lyrics (antithesis)? A blazing flash scattered my sleepy haze. As the mist lifted, there…a mystical (if not hysterical) conceptual vision; a catalyst for my pioneering efforts in the realm of psychologically humorous rap music. I was no longer just playing in a field of dreams: “If you write and “Shrink Rap” ™ it…they will come” (creative synthesis). And over the next twelve months I began to pen a series of rap lyrics. Email [email protected] for any and all.) Clearly, my goal in life has a paradoxical bent: to be a wise man and a wise guy. Again, a pretty good recipe for a cutting edge thinker, leader and budding “psychohumorist” ™!

P = Poignant and Playful

Poignant. The word “poignant” has two distinct yet interconnected meanings: “1) causing a sharp sense of sadness, pity, or regret, or even physical pain; and 2) sharply perceptive – particularly penetrating and effective or relevant.” A moving link between these two definitions has been found and forged by Kay Redfield Jamison, Johns Hopkins Psychologist and noted author of Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. In her psycho-historical study, Jamison noted that creative writers and painters often cycle emotionally. Surely, intense labile moods can be disruptive, as her title indicates. However, profound sadness, melancholy and grief may also compel these individuals to observe the deep and dark complexities, the highs and lows of human nature, and to reflect upon the subtle gray shades of life with greater sensitivity and vision. Consider my poetic passages on the rejuvenating powers of grief as semantic bridges for the above “poignant” variations: Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

And how does the spiritual both come down to earth and soar anew? How about this haiku-like text?

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes

One must know the pain

To transform the fire to burning desire!

As a writer and performance artist, I try to compel people’s attention by painting “poignant” pictures and rhythmic narratives infused with human pain. Simultaneously, I hope to penetrate and illustrate critical forces shaping the human psyche, interpersonal relating and social culture. The synonyms of “poignant” – moving, emotional, touching, distressing, sad, tender and affecting – are a wordsmith’s means and ends. And when an idea or image is both painful (or evokes piercing memories) and compels us to see and feel more deeply or broadly, including a horizon of unimagined possibilities or pathways, this poignant presentation is “provocative,” as in its French derivation, provocare: to arouse one’s curiosity, to stimulate or challenge, to move to action.

And the final “p”-word at the emotional and semantic, word and performance artistic interface of “pain and poignancy,” “perceptivity and provocation” is passion. Upon hearing the word “passion,” the immediate association is typically “intense or overpowering emotion such as love, joy, hatred, or anger.” However, one provocative “s”-word for passion is frequently overlooked. For example, when I ask audiences to free associate to the word “passion,” not surprisingly the “s”-word comes up…”soap opera.” No, it’s “sex,” of course. Though in Washington, DC the favorite “s”-word for passion is “Senator.” Or it used to be…but then Bill Clinton ruined my joke. 😉 Actually, the surprising “s”-word for passion is neither sex, nor soaps, nor Senator…it’s “suffering” as in the Passion Play, the sufferings of Jesus Christ from the Last Supper until his crucifixion, or more generically the sufferings of a martyr. (Imagine, all this time I never knew my Jewish mother was such a passionate woman.)

Hopefully, my brief discourse on pain, poignancy and literal biblical “passion,” reveals Charlie Chaplin’s paradoxical truth about the relationship between comedy and tragedy: The paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our hopelessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy.

In fact, for me it is the tension between such performance artist concepts of “comic and tragic,” “poignant and playful” that ultimately fires vital – head-, heart- and soul-driven – (as opposed to rigid, obsessive, or megalomaniacal) passion. And when trying to capture or inspire, poignancy and passion are powerful soul mates. As Francois La Rouchefoucald, the 17th century French classical writer, observed (quoted in Kay Redfield Jamison’s Exuberance: The Passion For Life, Random House, 2004), “Passions are the only orators which always persuade. They are like an act of nature, the rules of which are infallible; and the simplest man who has some passion persuades better than the most eloquent who has none.” Jamison, meanwhile, underscores a dynamic commander’s ability to use passion to connect to a people’s suffering, to unite a divided or dispirited group, organization or nation: “In times of adversity, inspired leadership offers energy and hope where little or none exist, gives a belief in the future to those who have lost it, and provides a unifying spirit to a splintered populace.”

Or to quote a salesman’s more pedestrian motto: “Logic tells and passion sells.” And I believe lower case “poignant-passion-play” compels. Remember, people are more open to a serious message when it’s gift-wrapped with humor.

Playful. A dictionary definition of “playful” likely conforms to popular understanding: “fond of having fun and playing games with others; said or done in a teasing way or in fun”; as would synonyms such as “good-humored, light-hearted, good-natured, mischievous and lively.” However, I hadn’t realized how many common expressions begin with or involve the word “play” once you take the term out of its dictionary box. Nor could I imagine how the varieties of expressions with their different connotations speak to the skills and strategies of the versatile leader and performer. Consider these examples: “play upon” (words or another’s emotions), “plays a role” or “role-play,” and “play it by ear” (that is, having a capacity for improvisation or, for example, by truly listening to collective needs and interests as your project or program unfolds). While a dynamic leader, artist or educator wants to give “full play” to his or her mind and emotions, a savvy leader, often knowingly and for strategic advantage, will “play the fool.” I especially like this usage – “play a trick on.” Based on my experience, being “mischievous” or a tad “devilish” – two of Roget’s synonyms for “playful” – can be very engaging qualities. Many people embrace or long to act out their impish, slightly naughty or roguish inner child (e.g., think adult Halloween costumes). Or admire or envy, if only secretly, those who do. And finally, a personal favorite, the “play of light and shadow” definitely reflects my double-edged nature and on the edge, ever-changing world fraught with both highs and lows along with uncertain shadings and shadows.

More than just being a light-hearted pursuit, play has been one of the greatest enterprises for exploring, socializing, bonding and unifying throughout the evolutionary history of the animal kingdom. Play has many functions:

a) gives individuals an opportunity to learn group norms and boundaries,

b) allows for innovatively expanding and challenging roles, rules and procedures,

c) encourages skill development and the exercise of the imagination,

d) may be a learning laboratory for maturation and creativity in the realms of work, friendship and love,

e) frequently builds a sense of individual and group identity and short- and long-term camaraderie as well as fostering trust and teamwork, and

f) play infused with laughter is an especially effective stress reliever and social harmonizer.

Of course, play can also turn into an aggressive “winner takes all” or “win at any cost” pursuit or obsession (think steroid use in a variety of athletic arenas). Now the “playground” starts morphing into a “battleground.”

A “Poignant-Passion-Play” leader has a sense of play that doesn’t lose sight of her and other’s humanity. She has a compassionate understanding of perplexing and incongruous human nature and of our being all too imperfect and inconsistent creatures. And a sense of absurdity that comes out to play and laugh even in the face of pain, stress or danger can help people accept flaws and foibles while affirming both their vulnerable and vital natures. Playful surprise may even gently cajole others to move beyond an abc – “assumptions, blinders and conventions” – comfort zone, and bridge differences while exploring common emotional-cultural connections. As psychiatrist Ernst Kris noted, “What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at.” And as the Stress Doc inverted, “What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master!”

And Part II defines and explores the final three letters of ASPIRE2 – “I = Imagery and Irony, R = Rhythm and Rhyme, and E = Expressive and Excellence.” Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as “Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing “Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building” programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA and Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also had a rotation as Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite”www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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