Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Uncharted Territory of Creativity

I heard an interview with the alternative rock musician Beck yesterday on NPR which got me thinking about the creative process in general. In the interview he was talking about how he liked to put himself into situations for which he was not fully prepared and force himself to come up with something that would work. The interview made the assumption that he was talking about performance, but he was not that explicit. I took it to mean his general approach to writing songs, in which performance played a part in the formation of a finished piece.
At first I was a little aggrieved, because despite his laid back California accent, I found his rock artist persona a little bit pompous and special. Upon further reflection, I realize that what Beck represents is the artist as a true creative creature, open to improvisation at every moment of the day in order to feed his creative vocation.
I consider myself a pretty creative guy, no genius, but nevertheless there's a spark that I try to nourish in my writing and in my daily life. But in order to survive and raise a family, I work. And in most work places, no matter what you do, there's a certain concern with a finished product, be it a manufactured widget or a sales target or a specific service provided to hard-to-please human clients, that precludes the type of approach Beck was talking about.
For me, as a teacher, the craft involves management of the students in the class by a combination of engaging presentation, efficient use of time, and the illusion of the total control of a circus ringmaster. This involves a certain amount of preparation and planning. You can't be thinking of winging it and seeing what happens and accepting that some days, maybe many days, you'll fall flat. Learning would suffer and you'd quickly get a reputation as a dud. But, and here's my point, there's still a big role to play for the creative process Beck described in his interview. I know that my best classes invariably come when I ditch a lesson plan on the spur of the moment, based on some intuition of a better way, and opt for doing something completely different, say a game made up on the spot, evolved as it is presented, and the students usually eat it up.
I would wager that the same holds true in other work places, that there are breakthrough moments that occur that are unplanned, against the grain of quality control processes and procedures. However, we find it harder and harder to replicate those moments because our nature as a society is to rely entirely on automated process and not trust human instinct and creativity in the least.
In education circles there's a concern that measurable levels of creativity, as reflected in standardized tests, seem to be falling back in students in recent years. Let's accept the fact that you can even measure something as elusive as creativity. It seems ironic that the minute we try to measure it, the evidence for it seems to vanish. But certainly the overly planned and structured childhoods we provide our children, the emphasis on safety and stigmatization of risk-taking, would seem to be factors in the decline of creative thinking in our population.
Bring on the Becks of this world, the non-conformists who welcome improvisation and do not fear failure in the interests of exploration and discovery. You can't discover something you've already found. In order to create we need to be like Beck, leading out to the darkness of what we don't know or understand.

Anthony Caplan is a writer, blogger, teacher and homesteader in New Hampshire. He is the author of the novels Birdman, French Pond Road, and the forthcoming Latitudes - A Story of Coming Home, due out at the end of June from Hope Mountain Press. Find out more about him and his work at 
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