Sunday, October 20, 2013

Creativity vs. mere whimsy

I was just rummaging through some of my college son’s castoffs and came across what looks to have been his only writing textbook from his high school years. Full of offbeat prompts and whimsical constraints (write a short story using the following words as frequently as possible; write a poem whose lines fit into the curvy shape below), it purports to be all about inspiring creativity.

If what’s not in this book is indicative, learning to write creatively doesn’t require practice with constructing and rearranging sentences and paragraphs. Instead, it’s all about generating ideas.

And, indeed, this is consistent with today’s most popular notion of creativity--the version that is measured on the most popular creativity measure, the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

Recent studies would also appear to support Torrance’s take. As Alison Gopnik reports several months ago in the Wall Street Journal, for example, one experiment shows subjects being able to think of more ideas when their prefrontal cortices, specifically their left prefrontal cortices, were disrupted. And as creativity researcher John Kounios has found, feelings of sudden insight coincide with bursts of electrical activity in the right hemisphere, and creative types, compared to others, appear to be less narrowly focused and more easily distracted. All this is consistent with the notion that creativity means suppressing the logical, analytical left brain, and, thereby, unleashing those novel, right-brain-driven associations between prompts and ideas.

What people forget, however, is that this is only one step in the creative process. Nor is it even the first step. That flash of insight, as it turns out, has preconditions. Kounios' studies of the split seconds leading up to creative insight show a momentary reduction in the brain's flow of visual information, which allows the brain to turn inwards and notice those (initially weak) associations, which, in turn, allows certain ones of these associations to pop into consciousness as sudden bursts of insight.

"Chance favors the prepared mind," Kounios quotes Louis Pasteur as saying. A stimulating prompt from the outside is not enough: a preliminary focus inwards precedes whatever creative insight the prompt inspires.

Then there’s what comes after the creative insight. As Gopnick points out:

It isn't quite right to say that losing control makes you more creative. Centuries before neuroscience, the philosopher John Locke distinguished two human faculties, wit and judgment. Wit allows you to think up wild new ideas, but judgment tells you which ideas are actually worth keeping. Other neuroscience studies have found that the prefrontal system re-engages when you have to decide whether an unlikely answer is actually the right one.
“Wit” vs. judgment; in today’s parlance, a better word for “wit” might be “whimsy.” What’s wrong with the predominant approach to writing in particular, and to the creative arts in general, is that, as one of my most accomplished creative writer friends has said, it mistakes whimsy for creativity.

This particular wrong-headed approach in education goes back several generations. “Creative writing” has long meant fiction (as if nonfiction can’t be creative), and much of such writing has centered on the spontaneous response to “inspirational” prompts. Even those (increasingly rare) teachers who mark up and require revisions of their students’ nonfiction rarely do so with fiction.

As for discussing other people’s creative writing—i.e., that of the literary greats—the long-dominant approach is the “well-wrought-urn” of New Criticism. Though in-depth literary analysis has been fading from middle schools and high schools, to the extent that it still lingers there, New Criticism (as opposed to more prohibitive paradigms like Postmodern Deconstruction) still holds sway. New Criticism views works of literature (especially, of course, nonfiction) as perfect wholes to be appreciated… holistically (how do the various literary devices function within this perfectly unified whole?), rather than as feats of engineering to be… reverse-engineered (how was the work put together; what would it be like if the writer had combined things differently?). It’s as if the best works of art spring sui generis, out of whole cloth, from the loins of the art world’s born geniuses.

So steeped was I in this New Critical thinking that I was much more surprised than I should have been when I first observed how much analytical assembly and reassembly my most accomplished fiction writing friends would engage in. But a recent study reported in the Wall Street Journal suggests that precisely this process is what characterizes the best artistic creations:
Temple University psychology professor Robert W. Weisberg's research suggests … that there is no such thing as a born genius. Most creative giants work ferociously hard and, through a series of incremental steps, achieve things that appear (to the outside world) like epiphanies and breakthroughs.
Prof. Weisberg analyzed Picasso's 1937 masterpiece Guernica, for instance, which was painted after the Spanish city was bombed by the Germans. The painting is considered a fresh and original concept, but Prof. Weisberg found instead that it was closely related to several of Picasso's earlier works and drew upon his study of paintings by Goya and then-prevalent Communist Party imagery. The bottom line, Prof. Weisberg told me, is that creativity goes back in many ways to the basics. "You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline. It is built on a foundation of learning the discipline, which is what your music teacher was requiring of you."
What this means for the creative process is that, every time we connect ADHD and manic depression to creative geniuses, we're forgetting most of the story--along with a third disorder. While some combination of ADHD-induced distraction and Bipolar-induced mania may help you get started, it's the much less romanticized OCD that leads you towards perfection.

What this means for writing instruction—however “creative” the writing is supposed to be—is that teachers should be focusing less on whimsy and more on revision. They should focus less on the artifacts of “inspiring prompts,” and more on the art (art) of sentence and paragraph construction, sentence and paragraph rearrangement, and revision, revision, revision.


Anonymous said...

Your son's assignments drive many kids crazy. Not everyone likes writing stories and one can be a well-educated adult without doing so. The ability to write clear, correct, factually accurate non-fiction is a big assent in any field and is often a perquisite for advancement. Please, no stories; let us write non-fiction and do correct for content, grammar and style. That's the old-fashioned way, before the creative writing mania hit. Keep creative writing as elective-only.

Auntie Ann said...

The crazy-making assignments are a staple across education these days.

Teachers seem to think that art projects or creative assignments are a way to make learning fun, but they do not take into account those kids who don't find them the slightest bit fun. What about them? Teachers don't seem to recognize that some of these so-called fun assignments are torturing a non-negligible part of their class. Our kid is highly fastidious, the slightest mistake in his artwork and he gets incredibly frustrated. Give him a dopey prompt, and he can't get started. Give him a research assignment and paper to write, and he's happy as a clam--but make him do a poster about it and he hits the wall.

We get very tired of taking trips to the art store every week.

The cynic in me says that it's much easier to grade 20 posters than it is to grade 20 papers, and that's why they get assigned instead. It's much easier to stress the creativity and content of a fiction story than it is to actually go through and mark the grammar and spelling errors (especially when many of the teachers aren't terribly strong at grammar either.) It's also easier to flatten the grading on a creative project than it is a research paper or essay. Check the right boxes on the rubric, and you can have an A. Doesn't matter if you actually learned something: is your lettering straight and tidy? Is your poster visually appealing? Do you have a good use of color? (Our kid was graded down because he really, really wanted a project to be in black and white and the teacher insisted he had to color it.) Very little of the grade ends up being actually learning or content based.

momod4 said...

Exactly. Schools talk a lot about learning styles but refuse to acknowledge that some kids don't find artsy projects fun and would rather write a proper report. I've come to think that ES teachers (especially but now including many MS teachers) love them, personally, and aren't even aware that many kids hate them. It's playing school, not real academics.