Brief Thoughts on Creativity

Will Essays 5 Comments

Lately, I’ve been thinking about creativity. I’ve been thinking about what it means to bring new ideas, thoughts and stories into being. And, in particular, I’ve been thinking about fairy dust.

Part of the reason for all this is that I’ve been hard at work over the last few weeks writing a paper which is due to be published later this month in National Taiwan University Studies in Language and Literature. The paper is called “Participation, Pattern and Change” and is about what I am calling participative creativity. The main idea behind the paper is that whilst creativity is still frequently seen as the intervention of something unworldly into the world—either a god, or a god-like infusion of genius into the mundane, or some kind of fairy dust—when it comes down to this, this is a pretty bad model for how we go about writing stories, composing music, painting pictures, coming up with new thoughts and hypotheses, finding new solutions to problems. So the paper explores a ‘participative’ model of creativity, drawing on my current favourite text, Liu Xie’s sixth century Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (“The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons”) and on Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). My aim is to set out a model that can account for literary creativity whether in China or in the West, one that does not have recourse to fairy-dust notions of creation ex nihilo.

What is at stake here, is the question of what the conditions are that are  necessary for creativity. As a teacher of creative writing, sometimes I come across students who claim, curiously, that they are not ‘creative’; and when this happens, I wonder what it is that they think that they are missing. It is my suspicion that they are in the grip of unhelpful notions of what it means to create. There is a widespread and popular idea of creativity as something akin to fairy dust: intangible, a bit sparkly, not entirely of this world, and rather hard to procure. And this fairy-dust notion of creativity is, I think, what lies behind the brainless notion (a notion that is adhered to in the face of all evidence to the contrary) that creative writing cannot be taught. This is an idea that is so boringly widespread, and so clearly evidentially false, that it is hard to know why people still maintain it in newspaper column after newspaper column. What this particularly numbskull notion seems to boil down to is this: either you have fairy dust or you do not. And it’s not down to you, or down to whoever is teaching you, whether you have fairy dust: it is, ultimately, down to the fairies (and who knows what they are up to?).

I’ll post a link to the paper when it is published. But here I want to just mention a wonderful book by James Austin (who some visitors to this blog may know as the author of [amazon_link id=”0262511096″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Zen and the Brain[/amazon_link]), called [amazon_link id=”0262511355″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Chase, Chance and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty[/amazon_link], which explores the role of chance in creativity, and which I think makes some interesting inroads into the question of what it is to teach creativity. Our relationship with chance, Austin points out, is not just a kind of victimhood in the face of blind chance. In fact, Austin divides chance into four different categories. I’ll set them out below.

  1. Chance I: Blind luck, things just happen.
  2. Chance II: Chance that favours those in motion (or, as Austin writes, “the posture of creativity is forward-leaning”)
  3. Chance III: Chance that favours the prepared mind.
  4. Chance IV: Chance born out of a distinctive personal “flavour”, out of the fact that it is an idiosyncratic individual who is engaging with the world.

What’s interesting about this is that, from the point of view of teaching creative writing (or creativity in general), although Chance I is out of our hands, chance II, II and IV are not. Chance II is a matter of keeping moving, of going out and rambling over the hills, of seeing what you turn up in libraries (I tell my students, sometimes, that they should hand around in library shelves waiting to be mugged by passing books; Walter Benjamin talks about walking down the street and being mugged by passing ideas).  Chance III is a matter of accumulating a wide store of reading and of experience on which to draw (something that Liu Xie, in particular, insists upon). Finally, Chance IV is a matter of cultivating idiosyncratic interests and obsessions, because out of these strange juxtapositions, interesting things can arise. And all of this can boil down into really quite practical advice. Keep moving and keep exploring the world. Keep accumulating experience and reading. Follow those things that matter to you, and cherish your idiosyncratic interests. It is this, ultimately, that makes creativity participative, because it is about getting involved in the stuff of the world, rather than pulling down something unworldly from a mythical location outside the world.

What it comes down to is this. I don’t believe (or I don’t think I believe) that there is such a thing as an inherently uncreative person; but I do believe that there are more or less creative practices or even forms of life. And these can be taught.

Comments 5

  1. I think the argument lies in what ‘creativity’ actually is. To my mind, it’s just your ability to take a thought, reflect on it, and come up with a new thought. Maybe in this respect, when people say they aren’t ‘creative’, they just don’t have enough thoughts to begin with. Who knows what the solution to that is – read more?

    Putting aside my extreme bias, creative writing is still a very worthwhile subject. When I am trying to explain the benefits of my creative writing degree I don’t tend to frame it as a vocational course (because it isn’t), but as a course in critical thinking. It sharpened my thinking.

    To say that it can’t be taught is contradictory. You can have an innate talent for it, sure. But this is true for many things – maths, art, football – all of which have teachers anyway. And to say the degree itself is useless: I can tell you now, that in my postgrad medicine cohort, I come up trumps with my degree skills a lot more often than a biochemistry graduate. It’s a darn good degree!

  2. Perhaps why some people think they are not creative is that it was knocked out of them in childhood, or they were told ‘you can’t do this’, ‘you can’t do that,’ and they have kept this negative mindset. I tend to agree with you that we are all creative, and creative in different ways. I think the great gift of a teacher is to kindle a spark in someone’s mind, be it child or adult, that sets them off on the great adventure of creativity.

  3. Have you read Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer? He looks at how you can put mechanisms in place to encourage creativity, but also about how these mechanisms are personal and everyone will had a different process or method of accessing their subconscious. It’s about creative thinking across the board too, including stories about Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs, etc. He also looks at the science, trying to dispel the myth of fairy dust. Highly recommended.

  4. Post

    I haven’t read it, Sally, but I’ll take a look. Thanks for the recommendation. Daphne, I think that the belief that you might be “uncreative” is one that is really unhelpful, and that may have its origins in the kinds of things that people are told earlier on in life. And, Jack, it’s great to hear how useful it has all been for you. Sometimes at open days and things when people as about possible career pathways from creative writing, I mention you…

    1. It gets a lot of positive comments! The General Medical Council states they want doctors to be ‘reflective practitioners’, which trickles down to the medical schools in the form of learning portfolios and a good chunk of sociological assignments. This year I’ve done almost as much writing as I did in my first year of the creative writing degree.

      That’s great to hear. I remember when I came to a DMU open day they commented on a student who had gone into the police force, I think. Such a varied set of alumni!

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