Can Creativity Be Taught?

NOTE: I have a workshop coming up on creativity and a friend sent me an email asking if I really think that creativity can be taught. Here are my thoughts on that.

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I’ve been teaching creative writing workshops for over a decade. I’ve had students who I thought were wasting their money taking the workshop because they were so gifted I didn’t think they needed any kind of workshop to do some amazing things. Unfortunately, they couldn’t put those gifts together long enough to actually write a novel, or even a short story.

I’ve had students who seemed to be totally without a right brain hemisphere. Anything that wasn’t strictly logical, in proper sequence and in complete conformance with pre-defined expectations was beyond anything they could even begin to comprehend.

But here they were, both groups, taking a workshop on creative writing. They wanted to write a novel. They wanted to make something like they’d never made before. They wanted to peer into that well of unpredictable thought residing in the neglected regions of their right brains, and maybe surprise everyone, including themselves.

Granted, some people will never make any kind of meaningful contact with their right brains. They’re not interested and they have no curiosity about what they could do; they’re satisfied to just keep doing what they’ve always been doing. They love the security of the known and predictable and don’t want to change a thing. Even if there might be a powerhouse of creativity waiting to be released. They don’t want it.

But for most people, there’s always that tantalizing sense of curiosity, those moments when they look away from the leger software or the charts and graphs of the next big proposal and they think for just a few moments about a story or incident they think would make an exciting novel. But they don’t know where to begin or how to begin. And once the sweet mists of the fantasy evaporate, they certainly don’t believe they could ever write such a novel.

These are the ones who make up the majority of students in my workshops. They’re the ones during the introductions in the first class claiming they have no talent or talking mostly about the boring work they do or saying almost nothing at all. But they listen to what one or two others say about what they want to write, and they hear their excitement and they’re getting goose bumps as they shift uncomfortably in their chairs.

On one hand, they feel like they don’t belong there. On the other hand, they are there. They’ve paid money to be there. They’ve taken time off from whatever else they were doing with their lives to be there. And I point that out to them in the first class: “You’re all here because you want to be here…because something inside you brought you here. And it wasn’t my awesome hair style.”

That something is the urge to create. We all have it. In some of us, it boils over when we’re still babies, using Lego to construct massive buildings at the age of .5 years. In some of us, it’s squashed under guarded pressure to keep it at bay like a lump of coal that forever falls short of becoming a diamond. For some, it’s always just under the surface of their lives, flirting with their minds and inspiring the occasional daydream of writing a novel or a play, painting a mural, learning to play the guitar and writing a song…just under the surface. Like an itch.

Those ones that need to scratch are the ones who sign up for my workshops. They come in shy and unsure but, if they survive the first class, they’ll be back.

It’s that first class with a stupid simple exercise that gives them a glimpse into their creative potential. In that first class, we do the mindless writing exercise. Everyone writes for 10 minutes without stopping to revise, judge or think. They just write, even if they go off topic, even if they just write, “I hate Biff. I hate Biff. I hate Biff.” for 10 minutes. When the writing is done, everyone reads. And after each person has read, the entire class applauds.

I’ve seen the most creativity-resistant people gaze in awe at what they’ve written when they’re not judging or evaluating something they’ve done, when they’ve just let themselves do it without any expectations or guidelines. The total anarchistic bohemian rhapsody of it.

We do a lot of mindless writing throughout the duration of the workshop, and everybody reads, and everybody applauds. And we do other things, like mental and physical awareness. You’d be surprised at how much of life you miss when you’ve spent a lifetime learning to focus on one thing at a time and disregard everything that doesn’t apply to the moment. We lose sight of just how much there is in a single moment. We see the glorious tips of mountains in the distance, but we miss the shard of sunlight turning a patch of snow into a glittering bed of light. Or we see one glint of the sunlight and miss everything else.

One of the exercises we do is called Knowing the Moment. We go outside to the street or a park. We look around and make notes of things we see. We close our eyes and listen. You’d be surprised at what you’ll hear when you’re actually making yourself aware of what you hear. Noises in the background or in the distance that are always there, but un-noticed. With our eyes closed, we smell the air. On a city street, where you might usually smell food cooking in restaurants, you might smell the after shave and perfume of passersby. On one of my favorite streets for this exercise, you can actually smell the aging of older buildings. We ask ourselves, what can I feel? Generally, it’s cold or hot. On closer inspection, it could be a barely detectable current of air. To tie it up, we identify the single most overwhelming thing that affects our senses. It might be something you’ve experienced on your way to work and it’s always been there but you’ve long since stopped noticing it. But when you’re truly in the moment, you’ll be aware of it.

We do mindless drawing. It’s like mindless writing. You put pen to paper and let the ink flow where it will flow. Initially, the drawings will be clumsy but, after doing this for a few weeks, the drawings will start to take on a more defined and repetitious form as the exercise increasingly stimulates the right side of your brain. I find this is a great exercise to do at work. Every hour or so, I draw for a few minutes. It keeps my creativity stoked during the day…and it’s relaxing.

Want to really surprise yourself? Try asking yourself questions. If you take a certain route to work, ask yourself why you take that route. If you eat the red ones first, ask yourself why. Few of us question our lives. We just accept them as they are and to some extent ignore them rather than explore them. Questions about the mundane things in your will force you to use both the left and right side of your brain. Careful with this one, though…you might end up changing your life.

As an instructional designer, I’ve learned over the years to design adult learning according to the 20/80 principle which states, usually correctly, that out of a body of information, an employee only needs 20 percent of the information to accomplish their tasks. We do this with our lives, the difference being that we focus on a lot less than 20 percent. I’ve noticed this in young people. As they grow older, they ask fewer questions. They’re less and less interested in the things outside their immediate realm of action and interest.

Add to this the fact that creativity is rarely rewarded or sought after in our schooling systems, which are geared to manufacture productive members of society, working and spending machines. Carved and sharpened to work and consume, we tend to ignore all those things that don’t systematically contribute to a material end. If it doesn’t get us a grade or a job, it may as well not exist.

Yes, some people are highly creative and use that creativity to excel at everything they do, but these folks are in the minority. The rest of us follow the rule book and stay safely snuggled up inside the box where we shield ourselves from any thoughts, ideas or originality because it might bring attention to ourselves and we might actually have to do stuff we’re not used to doing.

This is pretty much the condition of most of the students who attend my workshops. They’ve cut themselves off from being the 100 percent of themselves to being at most one percent of themselves. They know the 20 percent to get the job done, but they’d be lucky to know whatever infinitesimal percent to get their lives done.

But I have yet to see a single person who stuck around for the second class who didn’t get back in touch with their creative selves and start thinking with the right side of their brains like they’d never lost touch.

So, can creativity be taught? Probably not. That would assume teaching a person who’s never been creative, which would eliminate about 100 percent of the human race. At one point, no matter how early in life, we were all creative; we were all open to our right hemispheres, we all asked questions and wondered about things. But somewhere along the line of life, we lost it.

But, we can be reminded of what we’ve lost and then do the things we need to do to get it back.

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If you’d like to hear more about the workshop, send me a message at biff@biffmitchell.com. Next workshop is June 16 – 17.

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