Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

My friend Sean Craven recently wrote an essay about practice.  (Has anyone not heard of Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of practice makes an expert theory?)  The entire essay is interesting, but what particularly struck me was this section:

But I have noticed not just in myself, but in most of the serious beginning writers I know, a sense of stern duty, of feeling that we must steel ourselves for the rigors to come. Writing these days feels like a polar expedition, where we expect to lose a finger or nose to frostbite in the process of starving to death while surrounded by bears.

I laughed out loud in recognition, of both myself and many of my writer friends.  In the last few months, I’ve lost contact with that touchstone of living an artistic life: remembering that I love what I do, and making sure I continue to love it.

It’s so easy to become concentrated on the duty aspects of learning a craft.  I must practice this many hours per week, or I must meet this minimum daily word count.  I must write x number of short stories, or add x number of songs to my repertoire.  I must work diligently on mastering a, b, and c issues that I know are holding me back from being the artist I want to be.  I need to submit or audition more, write better and faster, keep up with Writer K who seems to be achieving SO MUCH MORE than me in the same period of time.  And maybe I should consider attending another workshop or masterclass.

It’s not that these goals are inherently wrong or bad (except possibly for keeping up with Writer K, which is a slippery slope filled with disappointment).  But when your brain is filled with the ear-splitting chorus of duty, sometimes it becomes hard to remember why you started in the first place.  In other words, once a beloved hobby transitions into being “work”, how do we keep the fire going?

I faced a similar transition when I moved from office work to teaching music.  I worried that by making my living with music, I might lose my love for it.  This fear proved to be  unfounded because:

1. Teaching music was infinitely better than the office work I had previously been doing.

2. I really like teaching and working with kids and teens.

3. I really do love music and singing and particularly musical theater that much.

4. Finally, and I think this point is crucial, my job was to spread a passion for music, so I was constantly reminding myself of how cool and amazing music was and pointing out these elements to others.

I had to make some small adjustments to keep myself going: I transitioned away from teaching how to sing pop music, for example, because it began boring me to tears.  And my job was certainly not free of duty, not by a long shot.  But when I closed my studio this summer, I still loved music, singing, and musical theater just as much as when I started.  Thinking about this now, I realize I achieved no small feat in keeping my passion alive.

It is my belief that I love writing, fiction, and narrative just as much as I love singing and musical theater.  I’m just so weighed down by duty that I forget to think about the positive, and unlike at my studio, one of my principle duties isn’t to show how amazing writing can be.  On the contrary, I sometimes feel a certain amount of grumbling is required just so people understand that I’m actually working at all.

So I’m going to be trying out a little experiment for the next few weeks.  When I sit down to list my five happy things, I’m going to add something to the end: reminding myself of concrete reasons why I love to write.  My hope is that this exercise will allow me to enjoy writing more thoroughly, not because it’s an item on my to-do list but for the sheer joy of it.  When I stop and think, it doesn’t take me long to realize what a privilege it is for me to have artistic and challenging work.  I’m officially giving myself the time to remember.

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She works for a video game company, writing in a universe she’s loved since childhood.  In return for doing this job she loves, she gets a salary, vacation days, health benefits.  This is a dream.

She discovered the story of a brave boy in New Orleans, who during Hurricane Katrina drove a busload of people to safety.  Lack of publisher interest didn’t make her lose faith in her story and the courage of this boy, and she decided to self publish to make sure his story was told.  This is a dream.

She worked on her novel for several years, joined a critique group, participated in the writers’ community, and kept trying.  Her debut novel is coming out in the spring of 2012 from a major publisher.  This is a dream.

He made his own publishing deal with a small press and has his second novel in a series (third book total) coming out in 2011.  He was nominated for a Hugo, and was invited to be Guest of Honor to a regional convention.  This is a dream.

She started her own business, which would allow her to support herself comfortably only working halftime.  She spent the rest of her time engaged in whatever creative projects struck her fancy.  This is a dream.

Her dad wants her to attend an Ivy League college she couldn’t afford.  She wants to study voice, composition, and writing and live abroad for awhile.  She’s like an echo of myself, but she’s not.  This is a dream, and it’s hersHere’s hoping she gets to live it.

Allow people to live their own dreams.  Every dream is as different as the dreamer, and each one is valid and special in its own way.  When we look down on someone else’s dream, it’s because it threatens something inside of us.

We can do better than that.

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A fringe benefit of being a writer (or other artist, since this certainly applied to my songwriting and singing) is that everything that happens in your life can be recycled into your work later on.  And by everything, I mean the bad stuff.  I recycle the good stuff too, of course, but while that good stuff was happening, I probably wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is character building and I can use it in a novel someday, which will make it worthwhile in end.”  I was probably just enjoying my happy moment.

No, it’s the repurposing of the bad stuff that is the real benefit.  I find it oddly comforting that when life throws something unpleasant my way, it might come in handy later for some character or plotline.  Of course, we’ve all heard the phrase “stranger than fiction”; one has to be careful not to stay too true to the actual facts for fear it will sound unbelievable (or be offensive to the involved parties) — I’ve personally had a story slip into the implausible from mirroring reality too closely, from which I learned that writing in too autobiographical a fashion can be a mistake.  But the feelings, those are a rich mine to draw upon, as are the general categories of experience.

Write what you know is the kind of writing advice that is misleadingly simple.  If writers literally only wrote what they knew, there would be precious few fantasy novels and no science fiction novels whatsoever.  Instead there would be a lot of boring novels in which nothing much happens and a lot of time is spent sleeping and doing chores and working in tiny increments towards the exciting goal.  I’ve never known anybody who was murdered, for example – does that mean I can’t write a murder mystery?  Plus, even when I do write what I know, sometimes I can’t remember all the details, at which point I’m still back to relying on Google to fill in the gaps.

But I think write what you know hides a deeper truth.   Maybe we should say instead: write what you feel.  Write what you believe in.  Write what matters to you.  Look deep inside and see what all that life stuff, good and bad, has left you with, and write about that.  Don’t shy away from the stuff that’s dark or scary or sad, because some of that will give your work the lasting resonance you’re looking for.  But don’t feel you have to look away from your streak of idealism or optimism, either.  It’s all material.

So I write a lot about death and mortality and family relationships.  At some point I’ll add in a dash of chronic pain and difficulty walking.  I also write about romantic relationships – usually in which something goes crashingly wrong (the story’s got to have a secondary conflict, after all), but once in awhile in which it goes wonderfully right … at least for awhile.  If I didn’t feel these things myself at some point in my life, I wouldn’t be half as convincing when writing about them.

And the stories that it kills me the most to write are the ones without happy endings.  Because fundamentally, I believe in the happy ending the most.  Or at least the silver lining ending.  Just as in life, in my narratives, I’m always searching for that silver lining that will make even the bad stuff worthwhile.

Ask yourself: what material has your life given to you?

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Another reason I really like the Newsweek article on creativity is that it explodes the myth of creativity has some kind of magical, inherent talent that someone either has or doesn’t have.  No, creativity can be learned, creativity can be taught, and creativity can be practiced.

When decoupled from its traditional fused relationship with artistic pursuits, this assertion makes perfect sense.  Thinking creatively is just another way of processing information, and if the human mind can be trained to memorize (and believe me, my brain was resistant to this one), it follows that it could also be trained to work creatively, that is, to combine divergent and convergent thinking into a coherent and well-practiced process.

Artists know this about creativity already, at least subconsciously.  It is why we obsessively practice.  Not only are we practicing our craft and our discipline, but we are also practicing creativity.  I’ll give myself up as an example.  I wanted to write a musical for several years before I sat down to do so.  Why did I wait so long?  Partly because I had no idea what to write about.  I couldn’t think of a single idea that I felt had enough merit to pursue.  I eventually had an idea, sat down, and wrote my musical in 2006-2007.  After a short-ish break, I wrote my first novel in 2008.  It was still hard for me to think of ideas, and I’m not just talking about that one break-out idea that is the best thing I ever thought of.  I had trouble coming up with any ideas, but at least it wasn’t as difficult as thinking up the idea for the musical.  During this time period, if I had a truly good idea, I felt like I had to hoard it, save it away until my writing skills improved enough to do it justice.  I certainly didn’t want to waste a good idea, after all.

It’s been two years since I started writing that first novel, and now I have lists of ideas.  There are so many of them that I’m sloppy and sometimes don’t write them down.  It feels as if there is a never-ending FLOOD of IDEAS pouring from my brain that I will never have time to explore.  I can sit in the bath and come up with two or three ideas that I believe have merit in twenty minutes.  No kidding, I did that last week.  Granted, coming up with novel ideas is still more fraught than thinking up ideas for short stories, because writing a novel is a much bigger investment of time and effort, so I want to be sure I’ve picked an idea that will still appeal to me in three months, or six months, or however long.  But it doesn’t seem to be the insurmountable task that it did only two or three years ago.

Why the radical change?  I think it’s because I’ve been practicing coming up with ideas to the point where it’s not a huge deal anymore.  Ideas don’t seem like rare precious things to hide away; the more I play with them, the more of them are born.  This may also be why there’s this huge disconnect between readers, who always ask where ideas come from, and writers, who get so sick of what seems like an obvious question that they sometimes lapse into snide remarks.  Writers have trained themselves to come up with endless ideas.  Readers who don’t also write have not, so to them it remains a mysterious process.

I don’t want to get into a big brouhaha about the current educational system in the United States, and how it’s not training creativity much at all.  Feel free to rant in the comments if it makes you feel better, but I’m just going to take lack of creativity nurturing in the public schools as a given at present.  Until this can be changed, the onus of teaching children how to think creatively lands squarely on the shoulders of parents.  I don’t have kids so perhaps I’m not the best suited to speak on this topic, but I have spent many years teaching kids, so I’ll have a go anyway.

Creativity Training for Kids:

  1. Avoid over scheduling. I’m serious.  Even if it’s all artistic classes, having constant structure even when at play is not going to foster kids’ opportunities to role-play, play make-believe, make up elaborate fictional worlds, or even develop the ability to entertain themselves.
  2. If a child shows a passion for a certain artistic or creative pursuit, encourage it. If he shows an interest in music, see if you can get him music lessons.  If she shows an interest in building complex buildings with Legos, see if you can provide the materials necessary for really innovative construction ideas.
  3. But don’t force a passion that doesn’t exist. As a long-suffering piano teacher, I can attest that forcing a child to play an instrument they hate is probably not going to encourage them to think creatively, unless they get elaborate in coming up with reasons why they can’t practice.  Instead, the child will develop negative associations with an activity typically associated with creativity, and therefore might ultimately devalue creativity itself.
  4. Allow a child to reason out the answer to her own question. Help her out if she needs it, but let her be an active participant in the process.  Also let the child hear you going through creative problem solving processes out loud, and if he wants to , even let him join in.
  5. Limit time with more passive, less creativity-motivating media. Yes, like TV.  I’m not saying no TV, but spending less time watching TV will give a child more time to do other activities that will engage their creativity.
  6. Read read read. Yeah, I know this one is obvious, but I couldn’t resist.  Read to your child, encourage your child to read to herself, ask your child questions about what he has read and what he thinks happened after the story ended.

Let me know if you have other ideas for how to help kids think creatively.  Also feel free to throw out your ideas of how you stimulate your own creativity.  (If you have no ideas about the latter, check out the blog post I linked to yesterday for a starting point.)

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Lo and behold, I announce a themed week about creativity, and one of my favorite bloggers, Justine Musk, comes out with a post all about thinking creatively today.  Ask and ye shall receive?  Go check it out!

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Last week, Newsweek ran an article all about creativity.  It’s about how creativity is declining in America, and it also includes a lot of recent research and theories about creativity and learning creativity.  Interesting stuff.  Especially interesting for me, because reading this article really brought my personal misconceptions about creativity into the spotlight.

I was a creative child: I excelled at creative writing in school, I engaged in the sorts of play described in this article as being associated with high creativity on a daily basis, I daydreamed and devoured books whole, I loved composing as well as playing music, etc.  My greatest desire from age seven on was to be a writer – a desire I relinquished once it was made clear to me how impractical a career course this was.

What interests me is that until quite recently, I never valued my own creativity particularly highly.  I valued my intelligence, yes, my organizational skills, my memory, my problem-solving skills, and my analytical and synthesis skills.  But I would have never stated that one of my core strengths was creativity.

Why is this?  Two reasons, I think.  First, I was never taught that creativity was useful for anything except artistic pursuits, ie the arts.  And second, I was taught that the arts as a whole are impractical and therefore the skills associated with them aren’t as valuable as other skills.

That’s a loaded paragraph, isn’t it?  Imagine believing the two assertions made above, and then reading the following from Newsweek’s article:

The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.

The mind boggles as reason number one (creativity is only useful in the arts) is shredded into tiny pieces.  Let’s throw away my faulty understanding and look at my two reasons in this new light, shall we?

  1. Creativity is an extremely useful and adaptive skill that when applied, can lead to innovative and *practical* solutions to an entire host of problems.  Ah ha!  Maybe this is why I excelled at starting and running my own business, or how I found ways to travel around the world on an extremely limited budget, or why coming up with multiple solutions to a small problem seems trivial to me while to others it appears to be a struggle.
  2. Even if one accepts as true that the arts are inherently impractical(1), they are, at the very least, the perfect training ground to foster and train the valuable “leadership competency” of creativity.  Not that there aren’t other ways to train this skill, but the arts are certainly a very obvious path.

I don’t think I’m the only one who used to believe creativity’s practicality was limited.  I remember in college speaking to a creative friend of mine who told me that everyone had told him to enter an advertising firm, because “that’s where creative people go to work if they want to make money.”  At the time, I believed this assertion completely.  The choice as laid out for me was to either enter the arts and eschew a stable future, or sell out and work in advertising.

Think what creative people could accomplish if, instead of being presented with this false dichotomy, they were educated in where their real strengths lie: solving problems, thinking outside of the box, coming up with multiple solutions and combining them for maximum positive effect, analyzing systems to figure out what change would have the most impact.  Starting nonprofits, increasing communication between disparate groups, disseminating powerful ideas that  grow to influence communities, decision makers, and potentially entire societies.  Inventing innovative machines, systems, gadgets, more efficient ways of accomplishing a task.

It’s fine to choose the arts in the face of this knowledge.  I have no regrets about my choice.  But when I’m told that the United States prizes creativity, I have to call foul.  If that’s true, why wasn’t I told what my creativity meant?  Why wasn’t I told what I could accomplish?  Why did no one mention the possibility that I could make the world a better place with my creativity even if I didn’t have an artistic bone in my body?

If there is a creativity “crisis” in this country right now, it’s because creativity as a skill hasn’t been valued nearly enough.


(1.) This idea is founded on one basis only: the reality that a career in the arts can be unstable from a financial perspective.  We see here the shadows of my upbringing telling me the most important criteria for determining an activity’s value is in its money-producing capability (and as a corollary, its relative stability).  Never mind for the moment that I know many working artists who do quite well, or that I myself was able to found a successful business completely based on, you guessed it, the arts.  This also overlooks the possibility, a reality for many, of the day job as a support for serious pursuit of the arts.  Or the choice to pursue the arts due to other intrinsic values, and financial stability be damned.

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