By MICHAEL AHO
This post was written as an assignment for Professor Brynn Saito's multi-genre MFA-level writing workshop, WRC 7093. In this class, students produce new fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, while reflecting on their lives, influences, and processes as artists and writers.
Can creativity be taught? Absolutely!
We would not expect a surgeon to make the opening incision without extensive training and practice; why should the opening line of a novel be any different?
There’s a whole constellation of related “teaching” verbs—such as nurture, develop, practice, refine, etc.
I blame the “mysterium tremendum” surrounding the entire artistic process on the Greek myth of creativity as a divine gift from the Muses. If it originates outside the self, outside our consciousness, even outside the realm of humanity, how can it possibly be taught?
Like priests reading mass in Latin, creativity and writing are believed to belong to an exclusive and esoteric realm, where common people should remain silent and respectful.
This leads us to think that writing is such a rarified, transcendent or alien experience that no preparation, no environment, no mentors could possibly make a difference. Even on the websites of MFA programs in writing, I find rampant allusions to this preposterous notion that writing cannot be taught.
Having previously completed an internship as a psychotherapist, I know it is possible to teach and cultivate qualities such as vulnerability, compassion, and self-reflection. Bio-feedback training can bring previously autonomic processes under direct control. Brain plasticity research teaches us that new synapses and neural pathways can indeed be constructed.
When I studied Mandarin Chinese, it was certainly slower than learning French—about four times slower—but it didn’t require an intervention from the Muses. Teaching math may be quite different from teaching interpretive dance, but any training in dance will lead to greater flexibility, poise, and control, and so it is with writing. It’s a practice where peers, expectations, and one’s community all make a big difference...
Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, offers the magic formula of 10,000 hours of practice required to develop mastery. It's simply not realistic to expect “mastery” to be produced by any one program; 10,000 hours is more like 10 years of effort. Why then, such unrealistic goals for the cultivation of creativity?
I admire people who sit down and just write, without any drama. However, that’s just alien to me. Writing is something I resist or avoid, like arrest or an STD. Unfortunately for me, procrastination and perfectionism are like two schoolyard bullies, who I was never able to shake, even after all these years. One reason alone that justifies being in a writing class or program is deadlines.
For example, today was a day off from work. My plan was to start by writing the blog you are now reading. That didn’t exactly happen.
After sleeping in and “breakfasting” at noon, I immediately scheduled a haircut, packed my car full of dirty laundry, and headed to the laundromat via car wash. When I eventually got home, there were dishes to do, a presidential debate to watch, a video game to finish and other important non-writing tasks. At 10pm, after my self-scheduled 2-10 pm writing “shift” was over, I turned on the computer. Thankfully, this writing assignment had a deadline of midnight. For people like me, deadlines are the only things that transform inspiration into actual words.
I’ll take a hard-working-community of fellow writers, a structure of built-in deadlines, and critical feedback/support from mentors over the unteachable myth of divine inspiration any day.