The Centipedal Question


Earlier today I was listening to a CD of Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and reading the liner notes. I had thought Prokofiev had composed this symphony in the 1950’s, but no, it was the summer of 1944. Apparently, Prokofiev had wanted his listeners to understand the symphony was not “about” the war because at the time, Russians needed to look to a future of victory and peace. His comment on the symphony: “The Fifth Symphony was intended as a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.” He then continued with: “I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme. It was born in me and clamored for expression.” (Quote from liner notes written by Richard Freed)

If Prokofiev’s comment sounds a bit tortured, it was probably 1) translated from Russian, and 2) one of those “centipedal question” situations when someone asks an artist to explain how he/she did something.

How do writers get ideas? How do writers find the right words? Or the right images that reveal character? How does a writer, who’s talented at writing dialog, know what works and what doesn’t when writing dialog? What does it all mean? All very common questions and all could be categorized as centipedal questions. A little poem:

The Centipede was happy, quite
Until the Toad in fun
Said, “Pray which leg goes after which?”
And worked her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in the ditch
Considering how to run.

Sometimes it’s best not to ask how because it could disrupt the actual process. But it’s natural that people would be curious about how writers work. Writers are often curious about how other writers work. But for non-writers, I think what they may be really asking is: how does the imagination work and what is creativity really?

My first impulse is to say, “None of your business!” That impulse arises from the fear of interfering in the process. My imagination operates just fine as is, and thinking about it, trying to dissect the process, could land me with the centipede in a ditch. Or perhaps not.

Everyone possesses imagination. People use imagination to visualize situations or people in their minds, to solve problems, to plan for an event, to daydream. It is a driving force in our cognitive abilities. The imagination also enhances our emotional lives through sympathy and empathy. We exercise and strengthen the imagination by taking it to the playgrounds of stories, music, movies, art, design, dance, theater and writing.

A “creative” imagination is one adept at creating, whether solutions to problems, a long-term plan for retirement or corporate restructuring, or composing a symphony, choreographing a ballet or writing a novel. Or healing our ailing economy. Creativity permeates our lives. We call writers, actors, musicians, etc. “creative artists,” but the truth is that each person, whether in the arts or not, is a creative artist. It’s up to the individual how he/she uses that creativity and imagination.

Children live in the imagination and are naturally overflowing with creativity. They don’t wonder how they do what they do. They just do it and have fun. No one ever asks them how they create. (smile) They are expected to “play.” Sometimes playing with an idea, a problem, a plan, can stimulate the adult imagination. So, playing can be an essential part of work!

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2 responses to “The Centipedal Question

  1. a long-term plan for corporate restructuring = nuke ’em till they glow, then shoot ’em in the dark. wish I could remember where I’d heard that …

    I am constantly (or is that chronically) in awe of my children’s imagination. At least, my older son’s (as Jr. #2 can’t really communicate his imagination to me yet).

    Jr. #1 is still coming back to “Mr. Giraffe is allergic to …” fill in the blank. Or last night Mr. Giraffe was “looking for” Freddie (the girl giraffe), who was hiding behind the bedroom door. Mr. Giraffe looked under the bed, behind the dresser ,in the closet, etc. Mind you, my son is the one who hid the toy – it’s not as though he didn’t know where it was. But he was helping Mr. Giraffe look for his friend (that would be Mr. Giraffe’s friend).

    He & the neighbor girl were tying up her toy pony in the foyer yesterday afternoon, in order to break out of jail.

    it’s a delight, even if it’s much less coherent than reading a novel.

  2. Ha! I love the concept of the centipedal question as applied to creative arts 🙂

    I tend to explain to people that my brain is constantly short-circuiting, and creating ridiculous scenarios in my head without a single request from me. Which at least shuts up the person asking the questions. *lol*

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