Thursday, June 19, 2008

Becoming Creative

To glance back briefly at my last week’s post, I stumbled upon a sentence in Garrison Keillor’s column today that sums up the topic perfectly: “People who aren’t real to each other are dangerous to each other.” Wow!

On to a new topic: The June-July issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND contains a panel discussion article on creativity. The members of the panel agree that creativity isn't the sole possession of certain gifted people. Rather, everyone has the capacity to be creative in some way; moreover, creativity can be taught. I find those ideas quite cheering. The concept that all people have creative gifts reminds me of Dorothy Sayers' MIND OF THE MAKER, an exploration of the doctrine of the Trinity through an analysis of how human artists' works come into existence and influence others. Sayers' basic premise maintains that when our species is said to be made in the image of God, the most important component of that "image" is our ability to create.

One of the magazine's panelists, Robert Epstein, explains four "competencies" that "are essential for creative expression": "Capturing," being open to new ideas and preserving them without prematurely judging them; "challenging" or "giving ourselves tough problems to solve"; "broadening," learning a variety of new things all the time so that we can make innovative connections; "surrounding," making sure our environment contains lots of "interesting and diverse" people and things, which lead to the generation of interesting ideas within our own minds.

Another member of the panel talks about her "morning pages," a technique she uses when she feels blocked. It consists of writing three pages in longhand about anything at all, a kind of written stream of consciousness. I've noticed that many writers recommend exercises similar to this one. I haven't tried it and think maybe I should.

The article emphasizes the high productivity of highly creative people—in the sense that such people have "lots of ideas." Many of those ideas might not work, but the abundance of them makes it likely that some will. Failure doesn't throw these people into despair. Instead, they treat it as an opportunity to figure out what went wrong and what approach might work more effectively next time.

The panelists discuss why our society doesn't stimulate as much creativity in children as we should and how that situation could be remedied. For one thing, our culture harbors some negative stereotypes of creative people, such as the starving artist who's half-mad or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Parents often respond to a child's aspiration to become a writer or artist with the caution that they'd better have a more practical skill to fall back on. So young people need "permission" to be creative, as well as positive role models of creative people. Also, teachers should offer children open-ended problems and encourage the production of multiple solutions, instead of cutting off discussion with one "right" answer. (I trust the article is referring to truly multivalent problems in this case, not advocating a laissez-faire approach to math and spelling!) The exhilarating message of this article is that everyone has the potential to create, and all we need to do is find ways to unleash that potential.

Coincidentally, the latest issue of LOCUS contains an interview with fantasy author Jeffrey Ford, in which he makes a comment bearing directly on this topic. So I’ll close with that: “Writing has widened my world, made my whole life more eclectic. When people avoid the creative, they seem to have a tendency to only think in one particular way, but art allows you to get impressions of the ways other people think and feel.”

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