By Charlie Jensen
Before I moved to Los Angeles County, I couldn't differentiate between its 88 unique cities. I didn't know Long Beach from Burbank. I used to describe Disneyland as being "in L.A." I had a foggy notion of the place: a large inkblot of streets and apartment buildings ending in ocean.
There was the Los Angeles of television with its polished-brass sunsets, luxury cars, surfer slang. And, more abstractly, the dream of something better, the dream of material wealth and fame and success and happiness and living on the edge of the nation.
From a distance, Los Angeles appears this way: borderless, unbridled. More then a geographic description, these impressions are fundamentally cultural: the perception of Los Angeles, rather than the place itself.
In other words, I had no idea what I was talking about.
In 2009, Kellogg University professor Adam Galinsky and INSEAD assistant professor William Maddux published a research study called "Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity" in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology," Vol. 96, No. 5. Living abroad, they wrote, boosted the subject's ability to respond to prompts and tasks requiring them to be creative.
In the study, several MBA students were asked to solve a task whose outcome required them to use materials in a creative way, to negotiate an impossible real estate sale, and to engage in creative tasks after thinking about a time they had adapted to a foreign culture.
Some subjects were tasked with completing the Duncker candle test, in which a person was given a cardboard wall, a box of thumbtacks, a candle, and a book of matches. Their challenge is to use these items to affix the candle to the cardboard wall so that, when lit properly, it will not drop wax on the table or floor. The solution to the problem will be presented at the end of this essay to reinforce its conclusion.
In each instance, students who studied or lived abroad were judged to be more creative than their peers, suggesting some kind of link between life in a foreign country and the ability to look differently at tasks and problems.
"Any remote place may be the site of poetry -- imagined, remembered, or lived in -- but for almost every poet it is necessary to live in exile before returning home --an exile rich in conflict and confirmation," wrote the poet Donald Hall in an article "Poetry and Ambition," published in the "Kenyon Review" in 1983.
Hall was railing against the institutionalization of poetry that began in the 1960s when many American poets began accepting teaching positions at colleges and universities. The schools established MFA programs in creative writing, drawing more and more students into concentrated and focused study of craft and literature. Hall saw no value in this, in many of the practices of the publishing and writing worlds at the time.
"The American problem of geographical isolation is real," says Hall.
Encountering Los Angeles as a resident is unlike touring it. As a visitor, I'd bravely take to the freeways to zip through town on my way from the hotel to somewhere else -- a theme park, a museum, Hollywood. From the freeways, you don't see much: the tops of the trees, houses terraced into the sides of hills and mountains, the concrete archways and trenches pushing outward in every direction, disappearing into parts unknown.
As a resident, I avoid the spaghetti bowl interchanges and obese roads, content to make my way, neighborhood by neighborhood, to the places I will go. And because of this, I experience L.A. "on the ground," in all its mosaic realness.
It's akin to the difference between driving through a neighborhood and walking it: from the car, things move too quickly. You don't land on everything; you become selective about what you see. You miss things not knowing you've missed them. On foot, you become forced to accept each storefront, each pay phone, each sidewalk sandwich board promising delicious treats, each trash barrel.
In the first week of driving L.A., I could only see the tangle of power lines crisscrossing over the streets, the jumbled neon and incandescent signs crowding each other out of the horizon, the potholes.
Then one day, I saw the beauty behind them: the familiarity of the neighborhood, the ridge of palm trees silhouetted against the setting sun. That I knew where I was going.
Miranda July is a Los Angeles resident who started traveling around town interviewing people who placed advertisements in the Pennysaver, a publication distributed for free at grocery stores. In the era of Internet connectedness, July finds the persistence of the Pennysaver precious in some way, or perhaps it is the persistence of those who advertise in it she finds precious, or hopeful, or reassuring.
Of her interview project, July tells the L.A. Review of Books, "The second you step out of the usual ways that you connect, you become self-aware of connecting."
Galinsky seems to agree with this idea. "There is some sort of psychological transformation that needs to occur when people are living in a foreign country in order to enhance creativity. This may happen when people work to adapt themselves to a new culture."
Like being lost in Los Angeles, then making an intuitive right turn and discovering, two blocks down, you've been here before and know how to get home. This is how you learn to live in Los Angeles: you pursue the oblivion of your own memory and then, by virtue of putting each broken piece back into the frame, recreate it for yourself.
After that, it belongs to you.
"Central New Hampshire or the Olympic Peninsula or Cincinnati or the soybean plains of western Minnesota or the Lower East Side may shine at the center of our work and lives; but if we never leave these places we are not likely to group up enough to do our work," Hall writes in his work, "Poetry and Ambition." He suggested dislocation prompts maturity, that a resistance to leaving the site of our childhood prevents us from reaching our full potential.
Hall seems to mean, like the authors of the Kellogg study, that this radical departure from the known world changes us. However, "exile," whether in the literal sense of living abroad -- separated from familiar people and places -- or the more figurative sense of being displaced -- and by extension experiencing the radical dissimilarity between one's self and one's surroundings -- both foster creativity.
You don't have to leave home; but you can't stay there.
"The feeling of dislocation is liberating because you're not in your usual place," July tells the L.A. Review of Books about her interview project. "You don't have your usual anxieties. You're not procrastinating on your usual things. And that's the relief. That's what's liberating to me. [In Los Angeles], it's so easy to get the feeling that you went somewhere far away, just by exploring. I do associate that so much with L.A."
When I lived in the Washington D.C. metro area, my apartment building was located on an imaginary boundary between Maryland and the District itself. If I parked on one side of the street, I would be ticketed by Montgomery County, Maryland, police. If I parked on the other side, I would be ticketed by Metropolitan police. If I simply used the crosswalk to go from one state to another, I experienced no sense of dislocation or change.
In Los Angeles, neighborhood identities are especially -- and perhaps uniquely -- strong. Proudly strong. You do not have an awareness of passing out of County Supervisorial District 1 into District 2. But you know when you step into Koreatown, into Westwood, into Echo Park. Those places have cultures, lives, and histories as complicated as the most meandering of soap opera genealogies.
"The idea of class, and different L.A.s inside L.A., was sort of unavoidable, and I wasn't trying to avoid it. I was going straight towards it," July said.
"Different L.A.'s inside L.A." resonates with me. Los Angeles County, to make a quick approximation, places the population of the state of Michigan within a land area the size of Connecticut.
It feels so small when you say it like that.
The contemporary dialog about the need for creativity is far too abbreviated. We're trapped in the problem of having identified the panacea, but not the treatment. We've also not taken the trouble to understand what creativity means beyond an abstract sense of "something magical."
That is, we know creativity when we've arrived there, but struggle to explain the route to others.
And the demand for creativity seems most fervently raised by, paradoxically, those who don't have it.
Maddux and Galinsky's study remedially suggests creativity is the response to a challenge, a change. The change must occur outside the body in order to affect the mind. But surely not everyone who is "creative" has spent time on soil beyond the imaginary lines that help us identify America on a map. If it were so, we'd have no folk art, no indigenous art traditions. Children could not be creative without walking through the fence to Mexico. And it also begs the question: does living in Canada make Americans better artists?
Hall's democratic notion of "leaving home" to spark "maturing" seems more logical and more common. Yet not all those who leave home go on to become great artists, or even good ones, or even artists at all. Some of them, I'd hazard to guess, wouldn't even describe themselves as "creative."
I'm drawn again and again to July's emphasis on the self-awareness of her dislocation as the prompt for what actually develops creativity -- and she hasn't even left town.
It is true that in a foreign county, especially if you don't speak the language, you become exceptionally self-aware -- of your place in the surroundings, of the way people look at you, of your simple "otherness" and inability to grasp even the most rote of social norms. But this is also true of visiting Boston, or simply crossing into a new part of Los Angeles.
You become aware of yourself as a kind of failure. You cannot fit in though you are (likely) desperately trying to fit in. And this uncanny feeling lingers for days, weeks.
I know Los Angeles this way, the way it challenges you to understand yourself and the people around you because everyone is always so wonderfully, beautifully, tragically different from you. We are always outsiders here when we can venture beyond our small known universe.
It takes self-awareness to change the things about ourselves that allow us to fit in again. We must become aware of the way we do things, stop ourselves from doing them the old way, and learn to do them the new way.
In the Duncker candle test, the "correct" solution to the problem is to empty the box of tacks, then use the tacks to attach the empty box to the cardboard wall, placing the candle inside of it. "The solution is considered a measure of creative insight because it involves the ability to see objects as performing different functions from what is typical (i.e., the box is not just for the tacks but can also be used as a stand)."
Of course, if you believe a problem has only one creative solution. And in Los Angeles, this city of myriad "different L.A.'s," creativity grows and evolves with every trek across town.
Eggert-Crowe, Lauren. "Lauren Eggert-Crowe Interviews Miranda July." Los Angeles Review of Books. Los Anglees Review of Books, 14 Aug 2012. Web. 17 Aug 2012.
Hall, Donald. "Poetry and Ambition." Poetry and Ambition: Essays 1982-88. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
Hamilton, Audrey. "Living Outisde the Box." News & Events. Northwestern University. 23 Apr 2009. Web. 17 Aug 2012.
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