“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Productivity as Practice: An Expert Performance Approach to Creative Writing Pedagogy Part 2

Begin with part one.
            Of course, productivity alone cannot account for impactful ideas and works; at some point the most promising ideas must be culled from among the multitude. Since foresight seems to play little if any role in the process, Simonton, following D.T. Campbell, describes it as one of “blind variation and selective retention” (310). Simonton thus theorizes that creativity is Darwinian. Innovative and valuable ideas are often borne of non-linear or “divergent” thinking, which means their future use may not be at all apparent when they are originally conceived. So, Csikszentmihalyi follows his advice to produce multiple ideas with the suggestion, “Try to produce unlikely ideas” (369). Ignoring future utility, then, seems to be important for the creative process, at least until the stage is reached when one should “Shift from openness to closure.” Csikszentmihalyi explains

"Good scientists, like good artists, must let their minds roam playfully or they will not discover new facts, new patterns, new relationships. At the same time, they must also be able to evaluate critically every novelty they encounter, forget immediately the spurious ones, and then concentrate their minds on developing and realizing the few that are promising." (361)

So, two sets of skills appear to lie at the heart of creative endeavors, and they suggest themselves as focal areas for those hoping to build on their talents. In the domain of creative writing, it would seem the most important things to practice are producing multiple and unlikely ideas, and evaluating those ideas to see which are the most viable.

            The workshop method prevalent in graduate writing programs probably involves at least some degree of practice in both of these skills. Novelist and teacher Ardashir Vakil, in his thoughtful and candid essay, “Teaching Creative Writing,” outlines what happens in his classrooms.

"In the first part of the workshop students are given writing exercises. These vary from the most basic—write about a painful experience from your childhood—to more elaborate games in which you get pairs to tell stories to each other and then write the other person’s story with some bits invented. Then we look at texts by established writers and try to analyse what makes them work—what has the writer done?—in terms of character, language, voice and structure to capture our attention and how have they brought forth a visceral emotional response from the reader." (158)

            These exercises amount to efforts to generate ideas by taking inspiration from life, the writer’s or someone else’s, or from the work of successful writers. The analysis of noteworthy texts also shades into the practice of evaluating ideas and methods. Already, though, it seems the focus leans more toward evaluation, the ability to recognize useful ideas, than productivity. And this emphasis becomes even more pronounced as the course progresses.

"Along the way, we read essays, interviews and extracts by established writers, reflecting on their practice. Sometimes I use an essay by Freud, Bakhtin or Benjamin on theories of storytelling. Finally, there is a group workshop in which we read and discuss each others’ writing. Each week, someone offers up a story or a few poems or an extract to the group, who go away and read, annotate and comment on it." (158)

Though the writer’s reflections on their practices may describe methods for generating ideas, those methods don’t seem to comprise an integral part of the class. Vakil reports that “with minor variations” this approach is common to creative writing programs all over England and America.

            Before dismissing any of these practices, though, it is important to note that creative writing must rely on skills beyond the production and assessment of random ideas. One could have a wonderful idea for a story but not have the language or storytelling skills necessary to convey it clearly and movingly. Or one may have a great idea for how to string words together into a beautiful sentence but lack any sense of how to fit it into a larger plot or poem. In a critique of the blind-variation and selective-retention model, Ericsson points out that productivity in terms of published works, which is what Simonton used to arrive at his equal odds rule, takes a certain level of expertise for granted. Whether students learn to develop multiple new ideas by writing down each other’s stories or not, it is likely important that they get practice with the basic skills of stringing words together into narratives. As Ericsson explains, “Unless the individual has the technical mastery to develop his or her ideas or products fully, it is unlikely that judges will be able to recognize their value and potential” (330). Though mere productivity may be what separates the professional from the game-changer, to get to the level of expertise required to reliably produce professional-grade work of any quality takes more than a bunch of blindly conceived ideas. As if defending Vakil’s assigned reading of “established writers,” Ericsson argues that “anyone interested in being able to anticipate better what is valued by experts in a domain should study the teachings and recognized masterpieces of master teachers in that domain” (330).

            Part of the disagreement between Simonton and Ericsson stems from their focusing on different levels of the creative process. In the domain of creative writing, even the skills underlying “technical mastery” are open to revision. Writers can—and certainly have—experimented with every aspect of storytelling from word choice and syntax at the fundamental level to perspective and voice at higher-order levels. The same is true for poetry. Assuming the equal odds principle can be extrapolated into each of these levels, teachers of creative writing might view their role as centering on the assessment of their students’ strengths and weaknesses and thenceforth offering encouragement to them to practice in those areas they show poorer skills in. “Develop what you lack” (360) is another of Csikszentmihalyi’s prescriptions. The teacher also has at her disposal the evaluations of each student’s classmates, which she might collate into a more unified assessment. Rather than focusing solely on a student’s text, then, the teacher could ask for the class’s impressions of the writer’s skills as evidenced by the text in relation to others offered by that student in the past. Once a few weaknesses have been agreed upon, the student can then devote practice sessions to generating multiple ideas in that area and subsequently evaluating them with reference to the works of successful authors.

            The general outline for creative writing workshops based on the expert performance framework might entail the following: Get the workshop students to provide assessments, based on each of the texts submitted for the workshop, of their colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses to supplement those provided by the instructor. If a student learns from such assessments that, say, his plots are engaging but his characters are eminently forgettable, he can then devote practice sessions to characterization. These sessions should consist of 1) studying the work of authors particularly strong in this area, 2) brainstorming exercises in which the student generates a large number of ideas in the area, and 3) an exercise at a later time involving a comparative assessment of the ideas produced in the prior stage. This general formula can be applied to developing skills in any aspect of creative writing, from word choice and syntax to plot and perspective. As the workshop progresses and the student receives more feedback from the evaluations, he will get better at anticipating the responses of the instructor and his classmates, thus honing the evaluative skills necessary for the third practice phase.

            The precedence of quantity of ideas over quality may be something of a dirty little secret for those with romantic conceptions of creative writing. Probably owing to these romantic or mystical notions about creativity, workshops focus on assessment and evaluation to the exclusion of productivity. One objection to applying the productivity approach within the expert performance framework likely to be leveled by those with romantic leanings is that they ignore the emotional aspects of creative writing. Where in the process of developing a slew of random words and images and characters does the heart come in? Many writers report that they are routinely struck with ideas and characters—some of whom are inspired by real people—that they simply have to write about. And these ideas that come equipped with preformed emotional resonance are the same ones that end up striking a chord with readers. Applying a formula to the process of conceiving ideas, even assuming it doesn’t necessarily lead to formulaic works, might simply crowd out or somehow dissipate the emotional pull of these moments of true inspiration.

            This account may, however, go further toward supporting the expert performance methods than casting doubt on them. For one, it leaves unanswered the question of how many ideas the writer was developing when the big inspiration struck. How many other real people had the author considered as possible characters before lighting on the one deemed perfect? Like the dreamer who becomes convinced of her dreams’ prophetic powers by dint of forgetting the much greater proportion of dreams that don’t come true, these writers are likely discounting a large number of ideas they generated before settling on the one with the greatest potential. Far from being completely left out of the training methods, emotional resonance can just as easily take ascendant priority as an evaluative criterion. It can even play a central role in the other two phases of practice.

            If the student reads a passage from another author’s work that evokes a strong emotion, she can then analyze the writing to see what made it so powerful. Also, since the emotion the passage evoked will likely prime the reader’s mind to recall experiences that aroused similar feelings—memories which resonate with the passage—it offers an opportunity for brainstorming ideas linked with those feelings, which will in turn have greater potential for evoking them in other readers. And of course the student need not limit herself to memories of actual events; she can elaborate on those events or extemporize to come up with completely new scenes. The fear that a cognitive exercise must preclude any emotional component is based on a false dichotomy between feeling and thought and the assumption that emotions are locked off from thinking and thus not amenable to deliberate training. Any good actor can attest that this assumption is wrong.

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