Why is it difficult to “teach creativity”?

If you wish, you may also read this article on Medium.

Why is it difficult to impart the creative flow to another? Why does it defy all attempts to systematize it? Why is it so difficult to explain what happens during the process? While I do not believe to have found all of the answers, perhaps this brief article will point in the right direction.

In physics, there is a principle known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In simple terms, it states that it is impossible to know all properties about a given particle at the same time, since the act of measuring a property will change it. Imagine that you are in a dark room, and that you have a bouncing ball in your hand. You can see nothing, but you must locate another bouncing ball that is floating somewhere in the room. The only way to do this is to bounce your ball off of the other, using the sound of the bounce to tell where the other ball is. The problem? As soon as your ball hits the other ball, they will both change positions and trajectories. This makes your measurement an approximation at best, and useless at worst. Thus, it is impossible to know the exact position of the other ball.

Creativity seems to behave in this way. Any attempt to define it, or to impose a system onto it, destroys the act of creating. Why is this so?

The brain naturally seeks patterns. If it does not find one, it will create one. It will innately impose structure onto the unstructured, and this is one of its great strengths.

When it is simply receiving information, it is receiving preexisting patterns and storing them for future use. This does not require it to create anything. When it generates information (through creativity), it is creating new patterns. Attempting to impose an existing pattern onto a pattern that the brain is attempting to create will interfere with the act of creation. In fact, it will turn the act of creation (a generative act) into a receptive act.

Consider the archaeologist (I am fond of this analogy): the act of digging in the dirt is like the creative process. When a priceless artifact is simply handed to the archaeologist, he will no longer need to dig. When a teacher attempts to impose a system onto a student’s creative process, he ruins the creativity and turns the unique act of it into merely another exercise in recall.

How, then, does a teacher “teach creativity”? Paradoxically, by not teaching it. A child will play with blocks, paints, or other objects without being told. He will make a fine mess in a sandbox without being taught how. We are born knowing how to “dig in the dirt.” Therefore, a teacher does not need to teach this skill. He need only show the student where to dig. As stated in a previous article, creativity and curiosity are not skills to be taught, but instincts to be recovered.

Instead of providing a detailed process through which a student will always arrive at a polished result, the teacher need only provide a prompt, such as “make up some sad music.” The student will explore sad-sounding motifs, harmonies, melodies, and colors on his own.

Notice the use of the word explore. One of the most unique, essential, beneficial, and enjoyable aspects of the creative process is its randomness. Uncertainty provides the environment that lights the spark of curiosity. Curiosity, in turn, fuels the exploration that is the very lifeblood of creativity. Certainty of outcome makes this exploration unnecessary, which, in turn, makes curiosity unnecessary. The student must feel free to, as Ms. Frizzle says, “Take chances, and get messy.” (Magic School Bus, anyone?) They must be free to be curious.

To summarize, creativity cannot be “taught”; it can only be “pointed at.” It cannot be systematized; it creates its own systems. It cannot be defined; it writes its own definitions. The key to imparting it to another is not to open the door for them, but to show them that they already possess the key. One need not control the creative fire; he need only ensure that it ignites.

Creativity: Do you hate everything you write?

You may also read this article on Medium if you wish.

When I ask a student to compose a short tune, I frequently hear, “I don’t think it’ll be any good.” Conventional wisdom is to encourage such a student: “Of course it will be good! You will come up with something great. Have confidence!” This, of course, is well-intentioned. After all, what teacher would not wish for his students to feel empowered?

However, this may actually cause more harm. Consider what happens immediately afterward: the student, feeling encouraged, makes another attempt at creativity…only for it to fail yet again. He is, again, unhappy with what he has composed. This has reinforced the idea that “it will not be any good,” and, even worse, it has damaged the trust he has placed in his teacher. If enough of these failed attempts occurs, they, like weeds in a garden, will begin to grow and choke out any remaining spark. They will form a psychology within the student that says, “You are not creative,” and this may continue for the rest of his life. Yet worse, the student may come to believe himself beyond the help of a teacher, which may lead him to give up creativity in the arts altogether.

How does one defeat this monster? How does one aid students who fear that they will not create anything good? How does one help students to create art that they are proud of?

Consider an archaeologist mentoring an apprentice. The apprentice says, “I’m excited for the dig, but I’m afraid I won’t dig up anything good.” The more experienced archaeologist says, “Oh, relax! You’ll dig up a valuable artifact on your first try, I’m sure. We will write an award-winning paper about it, and become world-famous.”

Such a scene, of course, is ridiculous. The more experienced archaeologist would more likely say, “You might not find anything valuable today. In fact, you probably won’t. We are digging in the dirt, so most of what you get will likely be just dirt.” In fact, such a conversation is unlikely to even take place. Any archaeologist, whether a beginner or a master, will know that the very first thing he touches will be dirt. He will likely touch a large amount of dirt, possibly for quite a long time, before finding even a fragment of something valuable. This is implied. No one even needs to ask.

And yet, with creativity in the arts, we are often quick to treat this differently. Students who fail to create a masterpiece on their first try believe they do not possess “the gift,” and they abandon their creative pursuits.

So, what do I tell students who fear that they will create something “bad”?

I tell them, “You probably will…and there is nothing wrong with that.” I tell them about the archaeologist, and how most of what he digs up is mere dirt. I tell them that they will forget about the dirt once they find an idea they do like. I tell them that their first few compositions are unlikely to be very good, but that they should persist nonetheless. I tell them to compose or improvise every day, whether they are proud of the result or not. I tell them that even the “great masters” did not compose great works one hundred percent of the time. Every composer has written a piece of which he is not proud. Every artist has painted a picture he dislikes. Every actor, dancer, or musician has given a lackluster performance. (In fact, a simple Internet search is likely to reveal many such performances. Viewing these can encourage a young student, as they see that experienced performers are still quite human.)

Some allow these failed attempts to define them. After experiencing such failures, they fear that they will never find anything valuable again. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if one stops digging in the dirt, of course he will never dig up anything valuable again!

But others do not. They feel discouraged, they may take a short break to clear their minds, they may refocus on certain aspects of their technique to fix problems – but, ultimately, they do persist. They wake up the next morning and write anyway. They show up at a dance rehearsal even though they are embarrassed. They audition for the next role even though they feel that they do not deserve it. They say, “That last performance was absolute dirt. I suppose I will just keep digging until I find something.”

And, eventually, they do find something. They recover their stride. They regain their confidence. They keep creating. And through this, they find a new freedom. They find that dirt is not merely an annoyance: it is an essential part of the process. After all, where is the creativity if the answers are simply given to us? Where is the fun in such a process?

Do you fear that your initial compositions will not be good? You are probably correct. Create them anyway. Do you think your first story will be confusing nonsense? It probably will be. Write it anyway. Do you believe that your first painting will have crooked lines, poor color choices, or unrealistic textures? It will likely exhibit all of those problems, and more. Paint it anyway. Create every day. Explore every day. Be always on the lookout for new ideas. Dig in the dirt. Enjoy the process in the same way that a child enjoys playing in a sandbox. Through this, you will discover the ideas that you do like. You will, in time, create something that you are proud of. Your technique will improve. Your imagination will awaken. You will grow in your understanding of your inner world, and in your ability to share it with others. You will be able to encourage others struggling with self-doubt from your own experience. And, in the life of an artist, there are few better teachers than experience.

New short story: “Arsabal”

I have recently published a short story to Amazon, which you may view here. Those with Kindle Unlimited can read for free, or anyone can purchase a copy for $2.99. If you enjoy it, please feel free to leave a review. Thank you!

Short Description

On a distant world where tradition rules all, a young military recruit must undergo a mysterious trial. Success will induct him into a cadre of legendary warriors; failure will cost him everything. What deep secrets does this trial protect? Why are all who observe the trial forbidden to speak of it? Will he prove himself worthy, or perish in the attempt?

Creativity: Should You Plan Your Project or Not?

Many times, I have heard (and given) the advice, “If inspiration isn’t forthcoming, then just start writing anyway.” I still believe this, and would echo the words of Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”1 However, I believe the process may be more nuanced than this.

Consider the following, highly imperfect metaphor (I do love metaphors): two people attempt to build a house. We’ll call them “Mr. Muscles” and “Mr. Books.” Mr. Muscles is quite a muscular man who works out every day, rain or shine, sick or healthy. With great confidence, he begins laying the foundation. After a few hours of work, he realizes that he has not dug deeply enough into the ground. So, he uproots what he has built, digs more deeply, and begins again. Later, he begins to pour cement for his driveway. He finishes this, only to discover that the mixture is too weak and will be too brittle. So, he alters the mixture and pours the cement yet again, but this is made more difficult by the fact that his first mixture has begun to harden. This process continues for the entire time he builds the house: he constructs it, constantly making changes and corrections as he goes. The process takes him significant time and strength, but he completes the project.

Mr. Books is not as strong, nor is he as confident. He does not spend his time working out, but rather, spends his time reading and learning. When he decides to build the house, he imagines the way he wants it to look and feel. He uses his extensive knowledge to plan every detail ahead of time: how much of each material he will require, the optimal mixture for the cement, the depth to dig into the ground before the foundation may be laid, and so on. This takes significant time and mental effort. Once he has completed all of this planning, he begins building. It requires little to no backtracking or editing: he simply executes what he has already planned.

For our purposes, let us assume that each house is perfectly livable and safe. Both men have accomplished their tasks in a similar amount of time. Both have exerted a similar amount of effort, though in different ways.

Judging by most of the advice given to writers and composers, one might be led to believe that all creative types should be a “Mr. Muscles.” He is the one who writes every day, even if he is dissatisfied with the result. He creates first, edits later. He does not work with plans, nor does he accomplish much of the work in his own mind. He thinks and plans by engaging in the outward act of creation itself.

I know very few writers who resemble Mr. Books. He constantly creates, but only in his mind. He constantly ponders what he learns, though does not always express his discoveries. He only creates outwardly when he feels he has something to say. He cannot simply sit down, throw words or notes onto a page, and be happy with the result. For him to say something, he must mean it.

Which one am I? It took me years to come to the realization, and for a long time, I wondered if it meant that I was “deficient” as a writer. However, I have since come to realize that it has actually afforded me great creative freedom, and has set me free from judging myself in this way.

I am a “Mr. Books.”

In simple terms, I find that I cannot compose, and write it down, at the same time. I am not sure why. I have had this “problem” (if one may so call it?) for years. Here is what I mean: If I sit down and simply start writing, I will usually end up with a chaotic mess in short order. It is akin to digging for archaeological finds while blindfolded, without even knowing if I am at a dig site. There is a small chance, of course, that I may acquire something useful at random, but it is far more likely that I will retrieve nothing from the ground but dirt.

My process differs from this in one key respect. I do not begin the writing process by writing. I begin it by simply deciding upon a concept, however unformed or “big-picture” it may be. Within this framework, I begin imagining freely (again, not writing anything down, save for the most salient aspects of what I imagine). I simply “play the orchestra” in my mind. For writing a story, I imagine myself as one of the characters and do a mental walkthrough of the scene, as though I am an actor or a movie director. Much of the actual work is done this way, and may take quite some time (days, weeks, months, or even years for some pieces).

Once I am satisfied with the composition in my mind, the writing process itself simply becomes a matter of copying it onto the page. The composition has already been (mostly) finished. All that remain are to transcribe and tweak. Ironically, that process can take as long as the initial composition, but with far less pain involved. I wonder why this is so?

Here is my theory: the act of writing itself is a thought process. The human brain can usually handle but a single thought process at a time. When one attempts to create and write it down at the same time, one forces the brain to divide its attention, and in the most taxing way possible: pitting the “logical mind” and the “creative mind” against one another. Ask any daydreaming student sitting in a math class: this never ends well. Either (a) the creative mind will win, causing the result to be a mess, or (b) the logical mind will win, causing the result to possibly have structure and sound pleasant, but be emotionally “dry.”

Waiting to write separates the two processes, allowing them both to function at their best. The creative mind is able to imagine freely, soaring where it wishes and exploring every possibility. Once the project has been completed this way, the logical mind uses its knowledge of grammar to make the imagined into reality. My composition teacher would have called this “the architect and the engineer”: the architect (the creative mind) says, “I want to build this.” The engineer (the logical mind) says, “Alright, here’s how you build it.” The two sides of an artist’s brain need not be enemies, as is sometimes taught. Without grammar, all language would simply be gibberish, and no communication could take place. An artist adept with both sides of his mind will ensure that he has something to say, and the means to say it. (You can read more about this topic here.)

How do I know when the process is finished in my mind? It is difficult to answer this, but I can tell if it is not complete. If I am writing, and notice that I am having to fight for every note or push for every word, it probably means that I have go back to the drawing board. I need to spend more time thinking or planning. I need to flesh out my characters, describe a scene more vividly, plot out of the story in a more detailed fashion, get more deeply into character for the music, or improvise more with the orchestra in my mind.

Sometimes, I notice that the concept itself is “broken,” and that I simply have to scrap the entire project and begin anew. This is quite painful at first, as it involves an admission that I have just wasted much time. At times, I have thrown away months of work for this reason. However, this often results in a far better project, and a more enjoyable process, the second time. In fact, nearly every time I have thrown away a project with which I have struggled, I have composed a new and better project within mere days or weeks.

For the other “Mr. Books” reading this article: you may be asking, “How can I maintain my skills and confidence by writing every day, even if I am scared that I won’t really mean it?” For me, I have found that having multiple projects at varying levels of completion helps. One will be in the planning phase, one will be in the transcription phase, and perhaps another will be in the editing phase. While this is going on, I might sketch random ideas that visit me throughout the day, to save for later. I may also write down concepts, or even plans, for future projects. This ensures that I always have something to work on, and makes it easier to maintain creative momentum. Interestingly, it allows me to adopt some of Mr. Muscles’s confidence and strength, while also using Mr. Books’s planning to minimize the pain of the process. I suspect many creatives have a little of both individuals within themselves.

Strangely, this brief article was written in a single sitting, with but a small seed of an idea with which to begin. (I did, however, return to it for a light edit afterwards.) I did not have a plan for it, nor did I spend any time sketching for it. Amazingly, it did not end up turning into a chaotic mess (though perhaps I should leave this for the reader to judge). I found that, as I wrote, new ideas occurred to me which I had previously not considered – the act of writing did, indeed, help the creative process. Perhaps my mind works differently with writing English than with writing music. Perhaps I will attempt to figure out why that is the case next? This appears to contradict some of what I have just written, which, ironically, further reinforces my belief that creativity is like a cat: it is unpredictable, does not come when called, and often does appear when least expected.

For Discussion

  1. Are you a “Mr. Muscles” or a “Mr. Books”? How did you discover this?
  2. Have you ever created a project using a process that was unfamiliar to you?
  3. Have you ever had to throw away a project? How did you know this was necessary?

Works Cited

  1. “The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors”. Writers Write. https://writerswrite.co.za/the-daily-word-counts-of-39-famous-authors-1/

“Forcing” Creativity

Many years ago, I had a discussion with a fellow composer regarding the creative process. We were both students in an electro-acoustic composition class, and there were two other students who were not composition majors. As far as we knew, they had never composed music before. The professor asked us if we had any advice for them.

I started by saying that composing music was a planned process, and that the structure of a piece should be mapped out before composing. This seemed to make sense to them.

My friend completely disagreed. He said that his process was random, chaotic, and that his initial ideas would determine or clarify the structure as he went along. He did not want to “force’ his ideas into a given structure. Over the years, I’ve reflected on this and concluded that we were both “right.” Here’s how:

My composition teacher (not the same professor for this class) said that the most terrifying thing for a composer was a blank page. This is not because we can’t think of anything, but the opposite: we think of everything, all at once. We see numerous possibilities. We could write a joyful piece. We could write a lament. We could compose something silly. We could compose something serious. We could tell the story of a reluctant young hero who rises to the occasion and defeats a terrible evil. We could write a piece with no particular story behind it at all. We could create something with elements of all, or none, of these things. The “decision paralysis” can be overwhelming. How does one break through it? How does one turn this waterfall of potential ideas into a coherent creation?

Building Sandcastles

My friend simply stands beneath the waterfall with a bucket and catches a small amount of what falls. He looks inside and notices bits of dirt, pebbles, and even small living creatures, within the water. He begins with these things and shapes them to his liking, until he has a structured creation that he is happy with. He builds sandcastles out of the sediment. He builds mini-statues out of the pebbles. He populates his “city” with the living creatures.

I stand beneath the same waterfall with a set of specially-shaped pipes, buckets, and cups. The water flows into them in a predetermined pattern, almost like a Rube Goldberg machine. As I observe the result, I notice bits of sediment in places where I did not plan them. I notice pebbles stuck in corners and crevices. I notice some of the pipes leaking, or maybe even the entire structure struggling to maintain its shape. With each “leak,” I have several options:

  1. Keep everything as it is, though the structure is clearly flawed. (“Muscle” the ideas into the structure, even if they do not entirely work. The project will be complete, but the result may appear insincere or “manufactured,” thereby not affecting the audience. This can be a disadvantage of constantly working under tight deadlines: the creative process tends to leave behind these sorts of problems, and tight deadlines leave little or no time for fixing them.)
  2. Preserve the structure by fixing the leak. (Delete musical ideas or elements that have nothing to do with the larger narrative, or do not serve a clear purpose. The result will probably be “lean” and easy for an audience to follow, but may also lack spontaneity or be too predictable.)
  3. Preserve the leak by creating another pipe around it, allowing it to continue to flow. (Change the structure of the piece so that the new idea makes sense. However, this may necessitate adding more structure, or more ideas, elsewhere. One may have to foreshadow the idea in another place, or even rewrite the entire composition, for the ideas to work. This begs the question, “Is this idea worthy of such effort?” Incidentally, this is why many artists speak of needing to get rid of their favorite elements of a project. Other times, leaving a “nonconforming” idea in can cause a piece to be too complicated and impossible for an audience to follow so that they don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t moved by it and can’t remember it and it doesn’t communicate at all, kind of like this run-on sentence.)

What’s the Plan?

How does an artist determine whether or not to begin with a structure in mind? It seems to come down to personal preference. I have tried both approaches, and had more success when using a predetermined structure (even if I change it later). If I begin without an understanding of the structure, I end up sketching randomly and getting no ideas that I am happy with. If I somehow finish a project this way, it often takes a long time, causes massive frustration, and ends up as a rambling mess. I stood below the waterfall without my pipes, and all I got was wet.

Others find that beginning with a structure is too restrictive. They stand below the waterfall with buckets and pipes, and find that no water flows at all. The pipes are too narrow to catch anything the artist likes.

Yet others find that a hybrid approach is effective. They start with a structure (or only a partial one) and allow their initial ideas to flow. The structure simply focuses their creativity enough to break the decision paralysis. Once they have their initial ideas, they use a less structured approach to develop them. I find that this resembles my current process.

My Creative Process

Let’s say I’m composing a theme for a heroic character. I might write down words or phrases that describe his mental state. What is he hoping to accomplish? What does he fear? What sort of movie scene would quintessentially depict him? Taken together, these thoughts help me to “get in character” as an actor might. I am, in a sense, exploring the character’s world. As I do this, themes, rhythms, colors, fragments, and other musical ideas will appear, as though my mind is improvising a soundtrack to the scene. The structure of the scene usually determines the structure of the piece. In this way, the structure is more “discovered” than planned. From there, the composition process involves transcribing the most salient ideas, and then editing and organizing them so that they make sense by themselves. One could even see this as a process of translating the scene from one language to another: from sight to music. (I find the act of writing a story scene to be similar, except that I am translating the images and emotions into words instead of music.)

Ironically, this blog post was written without any real plan. I simply remembered the discussion (more or less) and began to puzzle it out. After getting some initial ideas, I wrote them down using much the same structure you see now. Once it was finished, I did some quick editing. Perhaps this illustrates one of my composition teacher’s most important points: rigid adherence to a procedure for its own sake is not a good idea. Structures, procedures, and techniques are meant to serve the artist, not to be served by him. As the great composer Claude Debussy said, “Great art makes rules. Rules do not make great art.”

For Discussion

  1. How would you describe your creative process? Has it changed, or has it remained the same?
  2. What inspires your best work? How did you discover this?
  3. Have you ever had a discussion like this with another artist? Did you differ on any points?

27 Ways to Break A Creative Block

  1. Make a list. There’s something about making lists that just flows.
  2. Just write something. Anything. Even if it’s garbage. If all you’re getting is dirt, keep digging.
  3. Come back to an old idea you’ve written and see it in a new light.
  4. Get in character, like an actor. Find the “emotional core” of whatever you are creating.
  5. Make up a title. For some reason, having the title of something really helps music come to me.
  6. For music: write words that describe the emotional core of the music.
  7. For prose: imagine what the soundtrack for a particular scene would sound like if it were a movie.
  8. Start conducting.
  9. Start humming or singing randomly.
  10. “Write out loud”: your book is a movie, and you are the narrator.
  11. Improvise on your instrument.
  12. Look at visual art. Paintings, sculptures, photos.
  13. Look at visual art and write descriptions of it, or depict the art musically. Ask, “If this sculpture were a character in my story, what would he be like?”, or, “If this painting had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?”
  14. Come back to an old idea. See it in a new light.
  15. Read.
  16. Read, and then “riff” on something you have read. A character, a scene, a concept. How would you end this story?
  17. Listen to music.
  18. Listen to music, and then “riff” on one melody or fragment you have heard. How would you have written it differently?
  19. Imagine you are one of your own students. How would you tell yourself how to solve this problem?
  20. Change tasks. If composing isn’t going well, orchestrate something you’ve already written. If writing isn’t going well, flesh out an existing character or concept.
  21. Take a walk outside. Look around. Imagine being able to change anything at will. The tree in front of you is no longer a tree: it’s a space elevator. The birds aren’t birds. They’re dragons. Let your imagination explore.
  22. If nothing is going well, take a break. Do something fun. When you come back to creativity, you’ll feel refreshed.
  23. Remind yourself of what one of your teachers has told you. I recorded some of my trumpet lessons (with my teacher’s permission, of course); when I had a practice session that wasn’t going well, I listened to one of the recordings to remind myself of what was truly important. (In many cases, I was simply overthinking the whole process.)
  24. Return to an old idea. See it in a new light.
  25. Give yourself a deadline and be absolutely inflexible. To get my creativity back after a long period of disuse, I wrote a short piece every day, beginning to end, having at most only a couple of hours each day. This helped me to stop being perfectionistic and simply focus on completing projects. This also provided great material for future projects, since I now had plenty of ideas to develop later.
  26. Start with a small, simple idea.
  27. Listen to music you’ve already written, or read a story you’ve already written and are proud of. If your creative block lasts a long enough period of time, it’s good to remind yourself that you can still do this!

Music: “Hummingbird”

I saw a glowing hummingbird hovering around a flower, taking nectar from it. The bird finished, and then darted about before joining a number of other hummingbirds of all sorts of colors. They were too numerous to count; seen from a distance, they would have appeared as a resplendent and rapidly shifting cloud.

They flew together into a large vortex that spiraled up into the sky, which appeared to lead into another realm. I wonder where they went?

Music: Twirling Dance

“Twirling Dance” depicts the following scene:

I saw a young woman dancing outside near a lake, clad in an iridescent blue dress. The environment around me had a distinctive cerulean glow all around, as though I were looking into a celestial realm of sorts. She continued to dance until suddenly transforming into a small bird.

When she transformed, the environment also transformed into a tunnel through space itself. The bird swooped throughout the tunnel, flying in all directions, before transforming back into a young woman. This time, she danced upon the lake itself. When finished, she froze in place and became a statue.

The original art depicting this scene was created by my dear wife.