Thursday, 26 January 2017

Creativity as a Process

I've been going through some of my old writing journals, lately, and I came upon this entry, written in 2008 while teaching a class on Autobiography to first year Creative Writing students. 
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What is creativity and where does it come from?  How do we recognise it?  How do we nurture it and how does it grow?  Ghiselin describes the creative process as a process of evolution, of taking something that already exists and turning it into something new or something better.  It is a cause and effect relationship, where the effect may not necessarily be recognised or valued at first instance: 'Because every creative act overpasses the established order in some way and in some degree, it is likely at first to appear eccentric to most men' (1997:3).  We are reminded that in his lifetime, Van Gogh never sold a painting (a claim which is disputed by the experts), yet today we know he was a visionary, experimenting with colour and form, taking what he had learned from the artists who went before him and moulding it into something new.  Van Gogh transcended the old older; he grew beyond it. But he did not do so by chance or through 'talent' alone.  Any form of artistic endeavour takes a lot of hard graft.  That is the message I have been attempting (and failing, I fear) to get across to my students - the need to study.  And study takes effort and time in order to dissect and decipher other writers' work.

Writers write, but writers also read.  They must read in order to learn how good writing works, to internalise those lessons, and to push their own efforts forward.  There is an unappealing arrogance in the argument I hear too often from budding writers who say they don't like to read because they want to be 'original' and don't want to be influenced by others.  Worse yet is the claim that they don't have time.  And worst of all is the bold admission that they are simply 'not interested' in reading what other people have to say - and yes, I've had a Creative Writing student tell me this in a completely matter-of-fact way and without any hint of embarrassment. In my mind, all of these statements smack of laziness and a denial that a writer must learn their craft.  Creativity is nurtured by discipline - not a discipline which contains or limits thought, but a seriousness of purpose, a focussed mindset, a dedication to the craft and a willingness to work something over and over (to craft it) until it is right.  Too much confidence, I fear, is a hindrance to a writer's development.  

Recently, I have been marking first year students' Autobiography portfolios and every single one has neglected the crafting/redrafting process - the importance of which I have stressed throughout the term.  A number of these students are desperate to be taken seriously as 'writers' and believe they have something important to say.  They are very earnest in their aspirations but they have the mistaken belief that the artistic merit of 'self expression' is unquestionable.  Once or twice I have been challenged by students who want to know how I can possibly critique their writing, believing that any analysis of creativity can only be subjective.  In my feedback, I try to take them back to the idea that creativity is a process and that very few serious writers would ever be so bold as to reject a first draft's need for further development.  And I try to show them that the best way of knowing that a piece of writing has artistic merit is by reading widely.  Sadly, only one student cited one writer in his discussions, and that was Terry Prachett - not entirely relevant in a class on autobiographical writing.