Philosophy  •  June 15, 2009

How We Develop Creativity

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of creativity. It’s an elusive concept, like the concept of God. (I wrote a few blog posts about this: “Can Creativity Be Taught?” and “The Chinese Lacking in Creativity?”) A friend of mine told me about a recent article in New Yorker dealing with the same topic: “Should creative writing be taught?” My view is in line with the “official position” of The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop:

The fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us...

We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.

I do believe that “workshops” can be very helpful in creative processes. What is confusing in this debate are the terms. You cannot “teach” creativity, but you can “learn” it (from experience). So, it should not be called a “class” because it implies that it can be taught. Creative writing classes, or fine arts classes are, more like 12-step programs where you help each other out. Teachers are actually more like moderators or hosts, because they are not actually teaching anything.

The toughest part of creative process is gaining objectivity. It’s like trying to cut your own hair; what is glaringly obvious to others isn’t so to you. Just yesterday, what one of my “friends” on Facebook said in her status update, reminded me of one of the essays I wrote 7 years ago. So, I looked it up and re-read it. I couldn’t believe how badly it was written. 15 years ago, I asked one of my friends to edit my essay, and he told me that he couldn’t because he didn’t know where to begin. At the time, I was completely baffled by his response. I knew my writing wasn’t good, but I could not understand why anyone would feel that it was hopeless. Now I understand why he felt it that way. It’s like trying to teach photography to someone who does not even have a basic understanding of how cameras work. In such a situation, “editing” or “critiquing” isn’t what the student needs. He needs a class on how to operate a camera.

The other day, I was watching a show called, “So You Think You Can Dance”, which has the same format as “American Idol”. In it, there was this girl who jumped up and down to the music of Star Wars (complete with a pair of toy light sabers). The judges were baffled by how she thought she had any chance of getting in the competition. They were trying to figure out whether she was serious or she was just making fun of herself (or the show). She looked completely sincere, which baffled the judges even further. On top of it, she wasn’t even trying to defend herself, and she did not look dumb (at least not to me). It appeared that she honestly had no idea how bad her dancing was.

I often feel this way when it comes to my own writing. Since I’m not a native speaker of English, I don’t think I could ever have the same kind of confidence that native speakers have. I’m not sure at what point I would feel confident that I am no longer delusional like this girl. Creative writing workshops where the participants mutually agree to be painfully honest to one another, could probably help me gain this confidence.

But for me, there is another level of difficulty. Because my English is not my first language, people see me as handicapped. On the same dancing show, there was another woman who has a strange physical handicap where the number of vertebrae in her spine was significantly less than normal. So, she looks like her body was compressed vertically. The judges had trouble critiquing her because of her handicap. They had to admire her for trying, so they couldn’t criticize her dance as they would have liked to. I’m plagued by the same problem. Because most people admire me for trying, it is nearly impossible to get the honest truth out of them. They feel that I’m playing by a different standard.

A different kind of opinion provokes a different kind of reaction in people. Whether you agree with what I’m saying or not, is a relatively easy opinion to share. Almost everyone I communicate with is honest about this part. I think this is because an idea can have a life of its own, and when it does, we are no longer criticizing the author/artist, but the idea itself. It has an objective buffer/distance.

The type of opinions that most people do not willingly share is one that implies something fundamental about the nature of the author or the artist. This is the type that can hurt a person a lot. Within a workshop setting, we all agree to punch each other like boxers on a ring. It becomes a fair game because we make our intentions clear when we sign up.

This concerns not only art, but even business. I’ve seen many businesses fail where the problem was glaringly obvious to everyone but to the business owners. Their inability to take criticism, or their friends’ unwillingness to be honest, dooms their business. This, I think, is one of the best things we learn from art schools.

I enjoyed studying fine arts at School of Visual Arts, but I generally ignored teachers. I had no expectation of getting anything out of them. My point of going there wasn’t the teachers, but the other students who could help me learn something about myself and my work. In everyday life, nobody around us would be willing to offer their honest opinions about what deeply matter to us. In this sense, a creative workshop is a utopia. Once we get out of it, we have to cut through the fog of deception on our own and piece together the few available clues to arrive at any truth.

Some students in creative workshops would thrive, while others would get nothing out of it, because it’s entirely up to the individual students whether they want to learn anything from the experience (not from the teachers). Creative workshops are not a structured program with predictable outcomes. For this reason, they should not award any degrees or certificates because the completion is not a proof of anything.