What does it mean to be creative? Some people might imagine a “bohemian”, someone with no boundaries, who floats on a whim to seek the muse. Someone who dons wild clothing and wilder hair, who is as likely to fall in love as to commit suicide or murder.
To be creative, you don’t have to be erratic, uncontrolled, addicted or unpredictable. In fact, these qualities are far more likely to kill your creativity as to nurture it.
The word “creativity” shares the same root as the word “create”. In other words, you have to actually make something to be creative. Making things requires discipline, technique, excellent organization and problem solving skills. It’s nice if you have a little talent, too. But even if you don’t, creativity is a process and it can be learned.
In simplest terms, creativity experts summarize the lesson thus: first, you have to embrace the broadest thinking possible; then, you have to make an assemblage of critical decisions.
In an article in Newsweek, The Creativity Crisis, the creative process and its measurable degradation in America since the 1990s were detailed and scrutinized. What makes a creative thinker and how can creativity be nurtured? And where is American education going wrong?
I came face-to-face with the creativity crisis myself when my son was writing a report for elementary school. To guide him in his assignment, he had received a shockingly detailed (to me anyway) outline. Every paragraph not only had to be structured with a topic sentence, three detail sentences and a concluding sentence. He also had to give specific information in each sentence. This outline didn’t require any input from my son, only compliance. In fact, if he didn’t follow the outline precisely, he would be marked down.
This orderly approach was certainly easy to follow, and would be even easier for his teacher to grade. But it gave him no space to consider or explore his topic. It did not challenge him to make his own associations, organize his own research or thoughts. He just had to fill in the blanks. Simple call-and-response. No writer I’ve ever heard of works that way. Even those of us who depend heavily on outlining leave a little room for the possibility that an unexpected thought might fit in someplace we hadn’t thought of before.
In fact, the Newsweek article precisely stated the nature of my alarm. In it, an expert was discussing America’s educational focus with Chinese educators who have historically and notoriously emphasized cooperation over creativity. The Chinese response to our standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing was to laugh out loud: “You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.”
How do we teach our children creativity and preserve it in our culture? Talk to any creative person and they’ll tell you. Divergent thought must come first. Given a problem to be solved or a project to be executed, one must first assess – or even better, “play” with the infinite possibilities before settling on solutions.
As writers, this is as natural as breathing. Faced with a blank slate and the entire world for contemplation, we select a kernel of inspiration, a topic we are curious about, a thought we had briefly while walking down the street, and from it we create entire worlds.
In an exercise I use frequently in my creative writing workshops, I give students a pile of photographs of people’s faces. Some could be just “anyone”, but have curious, emotionally charged or meaningful expressions. Others are faces that are distinctly different, often defined so by unusual clothing, make-up, hairdo, setting and more. I ask my students to choose a face that speaks to them. This is the first decision of a creative thinker. It’s often an emotional choice. Why pick one and not another? Does one image remind you of somebody you love or hate, someone you’d like to meet or are afraid of? Does the expression reflect something that’s going on deep inside yourself?
Once the choices have been made, we don’t analyze. An analytical approach would poison the subliminal brew that’s essential to the creative objective. Instead, at this point, I simply ask students to write free-form for ten to fifteen minutes.
“Don’t think. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Let your pen flow. Let your thoughts fall onto the page like rain.”
Here, you may think, comes the crazy “bohemian” and her shapeless approach to creativity. But in fact, as each writer works, they are making more decisions. They are looking at the face and choosing perhaps to describe it. Or maybe they start by giving the face a name. Or maybe they decide to write as if they are the person in the photograph. Or as if they’re holding the photograph. Or as if someone else found it in the glove compartment of an abandoned car…
As each choice is made, a new dimension solidifies in each writer’s creative process. Each choice informs the writer about their character and circumstance. Each choice transforms the fleeting sparks of inspiration into concrete words on the page.
With each choice, the options for that particular piece of writing narrow. The more detailed the decisions, the more specific the story becomes until all the divergent thoughts have drifted away and the story, characters, language, pacing and more are completely clear in the writer’s, and eventually the reader’s, minds.
The one thing that is missing in this process is absolute certainty. There are no quantifiable results. Writing is subjective. Each reader is the unique judge of failure or success. And this, I think, more than anything, is what’s scary to educators and administrators trying to shape the educational process. You can’t box creativity. You must let it breathe. It must be left to its own devices, but nudged and nurtured along the way.
It takes a little more energy, patience, intuition and a lot more courage to teach this way. But for our next generation to regenerate the American hallmark of creativity and innovative thinking before it is completely lost, we must let their minds out of the box and let them play.
I am sitting at my desk right now preparing to venture to my 10-year-old son’s classroom where I will spend about an hour discussing my brief time studying with Madeleine L’Engle, the famed author of the children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. The kids have been reading it at school, and I hear from his teacher that it’s been most challenging. Perhaps that is why it was one of the formative novels of my own childhood.
I’ve always liked a challenge, and writing is one of the greatest, to be sure. As I’m perusing Madeleine’s many wisdoms, recorded in a compilation called Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, I begin to recognize approaches and concepts that have been so deeply embedded in my psyche for so long that I had forgotten where they’d come from.
Here’s Madeleine on concentration:
“The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself into whatever it is that he is doing… His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.”
Somewhere along the way, I decided this was not only true, but an inherent part of the way to teach creativity. Perhaps it was watching my 7-year-old boy who, for as long as I can remember, has been able to keep himself endlessly entertained with only his fingers and perhaps a couple of odd bits of toys. They don’t even have to be “action figures” as he imagines them smashing together and, making loud explosion noises with his lips, lets them tumble to the ground. My little one is a master of sound effects and can go on for hours playing out scenarios that only he fully understands. Amidst the action, the dialogue he mutters to himself and the bits of plastic occasionally flying, I recognize the very soul of creative thinking that is so essential to writing stories.
For the last few years, I’ve tapped into that root to help creativity grow, especially in my youngest students. They are closer to that source, and hopefully I’ve caught them before it’s been drummed out of them by the rigors of school. As Madeleine states in “Herself”:
“I’m not going to define the creative impulse. I don’t think it’s definable. There are educationalists who think it can be taught like the new math and who write learned treatises on methods of teaching it. The creative impulse can be killed, but it cannot be taught.”
So I’ve tossed out the rigid confines of paragraph and sentence construction, grammar and spelling — all those very vital things children must eventually learn, but please, not from me! Instead, I’ve concentrated on helping the children become aware of how they imagine when they play and then harness that intuitive fullness and fluidity to create stories.
In our kids’ writing classes lately, we’ve had super-heroes with transformational powers chasing villains who do cartwheels to escape with their stolen loot. We’ve met a mad scientist mole who has invented a wildly successful shoe-tying device and we’ve wandered with an Argentinean boy-werewolf. We have made our own mythologies. We’ve even had fruit-and-vegetable battles. And we’ve written it all down, for better or worse, whether any of it makes sense or not.
Truly, the words on the page aren’t always stellar, but the experience of creative engagement has resulted in writing that is unique. And the children have learned to trust their imaginations. They’ve discovered that they can create wildly funny and unusual characters, serious conflicts, lots of action, and vibrant emotions that portray their own rich experiences both inside and out of The Writers Circle.
When they’re older, I hope that their understanding of how to harness creative play will help them write better and more.
Meanwhile I turn to Madeleine again to recall the exercises we adults often do in the Circle and out when we pick a word, an image or a thought and just write without thinking or editing for ten or fifteen minutes.
As Madeleine relates:
“When I write, I realized, I do not think. I write. If I think when I am writing, it doesn’t work. I can think before I write; I can think after I write; but when I am actually writing, what I do is write. This is always the instruction I give at writers’ workshops: ‘Don’t think. Write.’ And I put a time limit to assignments. ‘You may not work on this for more than an hour. If you’re not finished at the end of an hour, that’s all right. Stop.'”
I heard her say that very thing in class and I remember thinking that she was crazy. But it works. Trust me. And I’ve passed it on. The thinking and planning happens before you pick up the pen or tap at the keyboard, or after. But not during. Not even now as I’m writing this. There’s a free flow of words coming from my brain to my fingers and I’m not stopping it. In a minute I’ll edit and probably once more before I post. But for now, I’m just writing.
Wise words. Thank you, Madeleine.
Guest blogger and author Michelle Cameron has shared her thoughts on The Writers Circle Blog before. This past weekend, she visited one of The Writers Circle children’s classes at Luna Stage. Michelle and I are working together to introduce The Writers Circle to the Chatham, Madison, and Florham Park, NJ area this spring. More on that in the weeks to come. Meanwhile, here she shares her impressions from her visit.
It was a small, warm cocoon of a space, with a single rug in the center of the floor. The kids walked in, each one clutching a well-thumbed notebook. Coats were slung over chair backs, boots left akimbo on the floor. The children sat, knees drawn to their chests or folded under them, or they kneeled at the edges of the rug. A striped, snowman-and-snowflake box in the center of the rug held pencils; there were large pads of paper and an enormous selection of markers. The kids were noisy and excited, anecdotes about their week and their writing tripping over one another as they settled down. They knew this was a creative space, a place where they could bring forth fantastic ideas with confidence, could tell the stories that were clamoring to emerge from their imaginations to spill onto the page.
Judith played the role of Pied Piper to these third through fifth graders, who started the session by sharing their work. “Louder, slower,” she said when shyness or softness made a child hard to hear. “Time out,” she’d call, bringing her hands up in a T-symbol when the thoughts flowed too fast and furious. “Who has questions?” she’d ask, and then point her way around the waving forest of eager hands.
In every case, some principle of writing emerged from the young work. Point of view. Conflict. Too many characters. Evocative description. Realist vs. fantasy stories. Judith never talked down to these kids. She shared technical concepts many adults struggle to master. The youngsters absorbed what they could and stored the rest to access later.
A fifteen minute writing prompt ― the hero being faced with a challenge ― didn’t intimidate these young minds. Many lay on their stomachs to write. Some left the circle and found chairs to sit on. An initial rustle of movement and the flapping of paper gave way to the focused silence of pencils moving across the page.
As the session ended, parents waited in the lobby while the kids collected themselves and reluctantly left the warmth of this creative cocoon. A few parents lingered, talking to Judith about their son or daughter’s progress. “This class has grown so popular!” said one. “It’s been a godsend for my son,” said another.
Could anyone who loves writing and creativity witness this and not be moved and excited? Any parent of a curious, inventive child knows the difficulty of finding a warm, supportive, and challenging outlet for their son or daughter. I’m thrilled to be invited into The Writers Circle and to have the opportunity to bring such an inspired venture to my own community this spring.
Michelle Cameron’s The Fruit of Her Hands: the Story of Shira of Ashkenaz (Pocket Books, September 2009) is based on the life of the author’s thirteenth-century ancestor, Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, a renowned Jewish scholar of medieval Europe. Michelle lives in New Jersey with her husband and two college-age sons.