When I started thinking about writing this post, the first thing I thought of was my work in creativity studies because that is where my head lives right now. I’ve spent most of my summer thinking about creativity. I’ve been throwing around terms like primary processes, divergent thinking, commodification, and sensory languages. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around all the research folks have done, and are doing, to try to figure out what creativity is, where it comes from, and how to harness it. But what I really want to know is, how can we take all these fancy terms and time-consuming research and turn it into something useful? I taught a class in creativity this summer, I’m reading for an exam on creativity studies right now, and it’s a field I really dig. But when I sat down to write this, a swirling cacophony of all the experiences I’ve had in various classrooms is what came to mind. So, I’m going to begin with a few brief stories.
When I was an undergraduate at Binghamton University, I spent a semester as an intern for the Binghamton Poetry Project, and as such, was required to teach a 30-minute lesson to a group of adult community workshop participants. I chose to teach my lesson on prose poetry and used my favorite poem, “Loading a Boar” by David Lee, as one of my examples. The entire group hated the poem. It fell so far outside of what they were used to seeing as ‘poetic’ that they were unwilling to consider it poetry. They hated Lee’s use of dialect, they didn’t like the subject matter, they found the absence of line breaks prosaic and thus, problematic.
Fast forward a couple years to when, while working on my master’s degree, I was one of three grad students who volunteered to fill in teaching sections of our fiction professor’s undergraduate Contemporary Short Fiction class which he was going to have to miss for conflicting obligations. He only asked that we choose a short story to cover during our respective lessons and provide him with a scanned copy ahead of time so he could assign the reading to the class, the rest of the lesson was up to us. I prepared questions about the story, but I also prepared a group writing exercise. It was pretty obvious that this group hadn’t been asked to engage in one-to-one conversations with each other before; they sat fairly far apart from one another and when I asked them to get together in groups of three, their interactions were awkward and strained. But I persevered because 1- that was what I had prepared, and 2- I believe that the best learning happens when people talk to each other, that we have to hear perspectives which vary from our own in order to expand our knowledge and grow, and that sometimes the instructor needs to let voices other than his or hers be heard.
Fast forward another couple years to just last night. I’ve been teaching free poetry workshops to kids ages six to twelve this summer, and last night was our fourth week. There is one participant who has attended all of the sessions and last night he was not having any part of it. The lesson I’d prepared was on sound. I had queued up a bunch of different sounds on YouTube ahead of time: birds, a train, “Carnival of the Animals”, a waterfall, Vivaldi’s “Spring.” I asked the kids to close their eyes while I played the sounds and then had them tell me what the sounds made them see and feel. This young participant just kept telling me he saw nothing and that he has no feelings. He would tell me exactly what the sound was and no more. The preceding three weeks he had written poems full of vivid imagery, imaginative similes and metaphors, and sensory details. This week he refused to write anything. He just kept saying “I only like to write free verse,” when that was exactly what I was asking him to do. The preceding three weeks I’d been asking them to write formulaic poems, and allowed him to write free verse instead. It was almost as though he needed to be doing the opposite of what was being asked of him, but didn’t know how to do it since I’d turned the tables on him.
All of these stories probably have a lot of stuff in common, but what I’m thinking about is the idea that the best learning–the most inventive creativity–happens when you push folks outside of their comfort zone. I’ve done it to myself many times. Like in all of these examples above. I was a 41-year-old undergraduate the year I became an intern, I’d never taught a single college class prior to volunteering to teach that lesson on short fiction, and I am so bad at teaching children it’s like putting chum in a pool full of sharks. But I did it, am doing it, and I am learning wonderful lessons from all of it. Remember that group of adults who hated “Loading a Boar?” By the end of that workshop all but one participant quite successfully wrote a poem in the same style, and during those five weeks, that was without a doubt the best conversation that group engaged in. The group project in the fiction class yielded some interesting story starters for all of the groups, and sparked some really fascinating conversations which continued past the end of class. And as for my young friend who has no emotions? That story is to be continued. I’m going to cook up something special for him to keep pushing him further next week.
In the field of creativity studies there are those who believe creativity is teachable and those who think it is a character trait we are either born with or born lacking. I believe it is something that can be inspired through strategic motivation, guided challenges, and continual exposure. I have a room full of children to teach poetry to, can all this thinking and research help me with that? Can it take this kid who is telling me he has no feelings and make him write a poem?