Creative process: Are you in a period of ‘woodshedding’?

It's normal if you're not productive in your creativity all the time. Even the greats took breaks.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: When teaching I would often send especially writing students to look at a retrospective of an artist's work, to look at work across an entire lifetime and to really pay attention to dates when they are going through that exhibit. Because I think the thing that you learn is that there are fallow periods and there are incredibly generative periods. There are periods where you're trying to work an idea out so you're kind of stuck in a groove and there are periods when you have breakthroughs. If you look on the walls there will be years where there's nothing at all. And I think it's also really interesting when you learn about the lives of the artists and I think about this with women artists in particular. Where they, you know, had children in those years? What were the usually family forces or forces within the self. Were they in a depression? Were they struggling with their health? Or were they just, to use the fantastic expression that jazz musicians use, were they just woodshedding. Were they in the woodshed just working on their craft, biding their time, trying to work it out in private so that then they could come out shazam with something different and public?

That I think is a useful way of thinking. Once I got old enough to start realizing that for every day of my life I would not rise with the dawn and write into the light and do that every day and thus there would be a book every other year. It just doesn't work like that. Things happen in life. There are stages. There are eras in life.
What I've been thinking a lot about too is the chi of creativity can take different forms. Interestingly when I had children I thought with my first son that the chi of my creativity would all go into my mothering. But interestingly much to my surprise when I was nursing that first child in the middle of the night to use the French expression and Carolyn Forche has turned it into beautiful poems, the blue hour, right. In that blue hour when it's the middle of the night and you're nursing a child I would scribble down lines in that fugue state. And it felt to me as though my child was saying I've made you a mother but you're just a different kind of artist now. But you're still an artist. You haven't left that behind.

So creativity can go in a lot of different directions, so what I think about more now than I used to is what does it mean to be physically healthy. What does it mean to be spiritually healthy. What does it mean to be calm. What does it mean to be able to make decisions sharply and quickly so that time is liberated for both the creative and the writing but also the creative in the day job if you will. As well as being available to people to whom I am responsible. And that just accrues as you get older. So the children go away to school but they're still your responsibility. Parents, you know, create new responsibilities as they age. There are more human beings in one's lives. My students kind of come with me. Writers who I've mentored come with me. So I find more than ever I'm just thinking about how to be peaceful so that I can be like a laser and that I can make good use of the creativity I have because I know that it is not a limitless resource if you don't take care of your spirit and your body.

  • Creative types can feel an overwhelming sense of pressure to be prolific, especially in times like these when, in theory, free time is abundant. Creativity is a resource that takes different forms and like other resources, it has its limits.
  • According to Elizabeth Alexander, poet and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it's common for artists to have gaps in the chronology of their work. Familial commitments, depression, and health troubles are among the very valid reasons to not be producing creative works.
  • Borrowing a term from jazz musicians, Alexander explains that creatives can also go through a period of 'woodshedding,' a term that refers to the practice of working on one's craft and experimenting in a private place (like a wood shed) until it is ready to be shared with the world.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

'We're doomed': a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change.

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