Thursday, December 2, 2010

Train Your Brain to Create instead of Think (part 1)

I for one am getting sick and tired of being told that you can’t teach creative writing, that there is no reliable pedagogy for it, that the most you can do is provide people with a space and a time to workshop their material and allow them to get better over time.

I say codswallop.

True, you can’t teach talent and you can’t teach inspiration. And yes, the workshop—providing time and place for closed circuit feedback—is an essential component to teaching emerging writers to hone their craft. And true, the only real way to get better as a writer is to write. And to read. And to write some more. But that does not mean there is no pedagogy for the field, or, rather, that the only way to teach writing is to get people to write stories or what-have-you, pass them around, and receive comments back on what worked and what didn’t. I will defend workshopping to the nines, but frankly workshopping is only half of teaching creative writing. The golden rule to learn to write is to write but that says nothing about what to write or how to write it.

You can’t teach someone to be a good writer per se, but you can teach people, or rather train people, to regularly access the creative side of their brain. You’d think this would come eventually as you write more and more stories (however failed those stories may be), but this is not always the case.

My creative thesis (and the vast majority of my short fiction prior to it) has been kicking my ass! And after weeks of beating my head against the thesis, I finally understand why. I think too much! There is a difference between thinking and creating—a fundamental one in fact. I thought any time you engage in mental activity you are thinking. This is not true anymore than any time you are moving you are necessarily swimming. I just thought writing (the act of composing language) was simply always the same kind of writing which inevitably used thinking, mostly because years of school has taught, has trained, me to write critically, to think, or rather to make logical or symbolic connections between ideas in varying ranges of complexity, judging merits and assessing application value—how good is this and what does it do for us as a society. No wonder my fiction kept stalling out, if it ever got started in the first place. Every time I put something down I would never see it as good enough. I’d crush it before it had a chance to grow.

Thoughts like that’s lame or that’s stupid or who would want to read that would be common for me. After two or three of those babies your line of thinking … no your line of creating is shot and then the blank page will stare you down. In a staring contest, the blank page always wins. You have to build momentum, which doesn’t really happen, in my experience, when you think. Thinking is like building—a piece at a time until you have a structure that works for an essay or argument because you are not aiming, in the back of your mind, for someone to like it or identify with it. You are aiming for it to stand up against the elements of counter-argument. But when you are making something creative, you want to touch people, or anger them, or insert emotional response here. A creative piece is organic, and thus does not form one piece after the other but rather grows. If you stop the growth every five seconds and pick a leaf off, dude, your plant is going to go heels up.

What I see now is that I was editing as I went either consciously—that’s too melodramatic, Matt—or unconsciously—that’s stupid. Editing as you go is thinking. Creating should feel like the ideas aren’t even yours, like they are arriving for you from somewhere else and you are just writing them down as they come. The moment you start up with what happens next or, even worse, where do I want to go with this you aren’t creating, you are plotting, and that way there be monsters—clunky, artificial-sounding ones. Of course, this is all semantics—even while in the creation zone you have a direction you want to go with your, art, obviously but the point is that question-of-direction should never really form as actual words in your mind. It sounds very The Matrix or The Empire Strikes Backdon’t think you are, know you are—but that pseudo-leap-of-faith is the essence of creativity—don’t plan where your art will go, go where your art will go. And if you are like me, used to thinking critically rather than creating, creating something will be exhausting. I am talking major exam headache after only an hour of writing. So, we’ve got to train your brain up! Which, after a long ramble, brings us to pedagogy.

I stress again that work-shopping is essential, but that does not mean instruction is without merit. In fact, assignments (rather than just write me a story) and instructions are the other half of teaching creative writing. What is any education but a series of broken down drills to teach someone individual skills so that at some time in their life they have a cache of abilities to call upon to achieve a goal. Creativity is the same. You cannot be taught to be a good writer, but you can be taught to compose language and you can train yourself to use creativity rather than critical faculties.

Matt Mott
Editorial Assistant