“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?.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Productivity as Practice:An Expert Performance Approach to Creative Writing Pedagogy Part 3

Start reading at part one.
            But the question of what standards of success the instructor is to apply to students’ work, as well as the ones instructors will encourage the students to apply to each others’ work, has yet to be addressed. The skills students develop through practicing evaluating their own work will both be based on their evaluations of the works of others and be applied to them. The first step toward becoming a creative writer is recognizing how much one likes the writing of another. The work the student is initially exposed to will almost certainly have gone through a complex series of assessments beginning with the author’s of his own work, onto commenters and editors working on behalf of the author, then onto editors working on behalf of publishers, and finally to the publishers themselves. Even upon publication, any given work is unlikely to be read by a majority of readers who appreciate the type of writing it represents until a critical threshold is reached beyond which its likelihood of becoming recommended reading is increased. At some point in the process it may even reach the attention of critics and reviewers, who will themselves evaluate the work either positively or negatively. (This is leaving out the roles of branding and author reputation because they probably aren’t practicable skills.) Since feedback cannot be grounded in any absolute or easily measurable criteria, Ericsson advocates a “socially based definition of creativity” (330). And, since students develop their evaluative skills through internalizing and anticipating the evaluations of others, the choice of which workshop to attend is paramount. The student should seek out those most versed in and most appreciative of the type of writing he aspires to master.

            Simply reading theoretical essays on poetry or storytelling, as Vikil has his students do, is probably far less effective than sampling a theorist’s or critic’s work and then trying to anticipate that evaluator’s response to a work he or she has written about. Some critics’ work lends itself to this type of exercise more readily than others; those who focus on literary as opposed to political elements, and those who put more effort into using sound methods to ensure the validity of their psychological or sociological theories—if they must theorize—will be much more helpful than those who see each new work as an opportunity to reiterate their favorite ideas in a fresh context. It may be advisable, in other words, to concentrate on reviewers rather than critics and theorists. After having learned to anticipate the responses of a few reviewers whose work is influential, the student will be better equipped to evaluate his or her own work in terms of how it will be received in the social context that will be the final arbiter of success or failure.

            Anticipation, as it allows for feedback, could form the basis for several types of practice exercises. Ericsson cites his own and others’ research demonstrating that chess players improve not as a function of how much time they spend playing chess but through studying past games between chess masters. “By trying to select the best move for each position of the game,” Ericsson writes, “and comparing their selected move to the actual move of the game, the players identify discrepancies where they must study the chess position more deeply to uncover the reason for the master’s move” (37). In a similar way, pausing in the process of reading to anticipate a successful author’s next move in a story or novel should offer an opportunity for creative writing students to compare their ideas with the author’s. Of course, areas of divergence between the reader’s ideas for a next move and the one the author actually made need not be interpreted as a mistake on the part of the reader—the reader’s idea may even be better. However, in anticipating what will happen next in a story, the student is generating ideas and therefore getting practice in the area of productivity. And, whether or not the author’s ideas are better, the student will develop greater familiarity with her methods through such active engagement with them. Finally, the students will be getting practice evaluating ideas as they compare their own to those of the author.

            A possible objection to implementing this anticipatory reading method in a creative writing curriculum is that a student learning to anticipate an author’s moves would simply be learning to make moves like the ones that author makes—which amounts to reproduction, not creativity. Indeed, one of the theories Ericsson has explored to explain how expertise develops posits a sort of rote memorization of strategies and their proper application to a limited set of situations. “For a long time it was believed that experts acquired a large repertoire of patterns,” he explains, “and their superior performance could be attributed to simple pattern matching and recall of previously stored actions from memory in an effortless and automatic manner” (331). If expertise relies on memory and pattern recognition, though, then experts would fare no better in novel situations than non-experts. Ericsson has found just the opposite to be the case.

"Superior expert performers in domains such as music, chess, and medicine can generate better actions than their less skilled peers even in situations they have never directly experienced. Expert performers have acquired refined mental representations that maintain access to relevant information about the situation and support more extensive, flexible reasoning to determine the appropriate actions demanded by the encountered situation." (331)

What the creative writer would be developing through techniques for practice such as anticipation-based reading likely goes beyond a simple accumulation of fixed strategies—a bigger bag of tricks appropriated from other authors. They would instead be developing a complex working model of storytelling as well as a greater capacity for representing and manipulating the various aspects of their own stories in working memory.

            Skepticism about whether literary writing of any sort can be taught—or learned in any mundane or systematic way—derives from a real and important insight: authors are judged not by how well they reproduce the formulas of poetry and storytelling but by how successful they are in reformulating the conventional techniques of the previous generation of writers. No one taught Cervantes his epic-absurd form of parody. No one taught Shakespeare how to explore the inner workings of his characters’ minds through monologues. No one taught Virginia Woolf how to shun external trappings and delve so exquisitely into the consciousness of her characters. Yet observations of where authors came to reside in relation to prevailing literary cultures don’t always offer clues to the mode of transportation. Woolf, for instance, wrote a great deal about the fashion for representing characters through references to their physical appearances and lists of their possessions in her reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. She didn’t develop her own approach oblivious of what she called “materialism”; fully understanding the method, she found it insufficient for what she hoped to accomplish with her own work. And she’d spent a lot time in her youth reading Shakespeare, with those long eminently revealing monologues (Wood 110). Supposing creative genius is born of mastery of conventions and techniques and not ignorance of or antipathy toward them, the emphasis on the works of established authors in creative writing pedagogy ceases to savor of hidebound conservatism.

            The general pedagogical outline focusing on practice devoted to productivity, as well as the general approach to reading based on anticipation can be refined to accommodate any student’s proclivities or concerns. A student who wants to develop skill in describing characters’ physical appearances in a way that captures something of the essence of their personalities may begin by studying the work of authors from Charles Dickens to Saul Bellow. Though it’s difficult to imagine how such descriptions might be anticipated, the characters’ later development over the course of the plot does offer opportunities to test predictions. Coming away from studies of past works, the student need not be limited to exercises on blank screens or sheets of paper; practice might entail generating multiple ideas for describing some interesting individual he knows in real life, or describing multiple individuals he knows. He may set himself the task of coming up with a good description for everyone interviewed during the course of a television news program. He can practice describing random people who pass on a campus sidewalk, imagining details of their lives and personalities, or characters in shows and movies. By the time the aspiring author is sitting down to write about her own character in a story or novel, she will all but automatically produce a number of possible strategies for making that character come alive through words, increasing the likelihood that she’ll light on one that resonates strongly, first with her own memories and emotions and then with those of her readers. And, if Simonton’s theory has any validity, the works produced according to this strategy need not resemble each other any more than one species resembles another.

            All of the conventional elements of craft—character, plot, theme, dialogue, point of view, and even higher-order dimensions like voice—readily lend themselves to this qualitative approach to practice. A creative writing instructor may coach a student who wants to be better able to devise compelling plots to read stories recognized as excelling in that dimension, encouraging her to pause along the way to write a list of possible complications, twists, and resolutions to compare with the ones she’ll eventually discover in the actual text. If the student fails to anticipate the author’s moves, she can then compare her ideas with the author’s, giving her a deeper sense of why one works better than the others. She may even practice anticipating the plots of television shows and movies, or trying to conceive of how stories in the news might be rendered as fictional plots. To practice describing settings, students could be encouraged to come up with multiple metaphors and similes based on one set and then another of the physical features they observe in real places. How many ways, a student may be prompted, can you have characters exchange the same basic information in a dialogue? Which ones reveal more of the characters’ personalities? Which ones most effectively reprise and develop the themes you’re working with? Any single idea generated in these practice sessions is unlikely to represent a significant breakthrough. But the more ideas one has the more likely she’ll discover one which seems likely to her to garner wider recognition of superior quality. The productivity approach can also be applied to revision and would consist of the writer identifying weak passages or scenes in an early draft and generating several new versions of each one so that a single, best version can be chosen for later drafts.

            What I’ve attempted here is a sketch of one possible approach to teaching. It seems that since many worry about the future of literature, fearing that the growing influence of workshops will lead to insularity and standardization, too few teachers are coming forward with ideas on how to help their students improve, as if whatever methods they admit to using would inevitably lend credence to the image of workshops as assembly lines for the production of mediocre and tragically uninspired poems and short stories. But, if creative writing is in danger of being standardized into obsolescence, the publishing industry is the more likely culprit, as every starry-eyed would-be author knows full well publication is the one irreducible factor underlying professional legitimacy. And research has pretty thoroughly ruled out the notion that familiarity with the techniques of the masters in any domain inevitably precludes original, truly creative thinking. The general outline for practice based on productivity and evaluation can be personalized and refined in countless ways, and students can be counted on to bring an endless variety of experiences and perspectives to workshops, variety that would be difficult, to say the least, to completely eradicate in the span of the two or three years allotted to MFA programs.

            The productivity and evaluation model for creative writing pedagogy also holds a great deal of potential for further development. For instance, a survey of successful poets and fiction writers asking them how they practice—after providing them a précis of Ericsson’s and Simonton’s findings on what constitutes practice—may lead to the development of an enormously useful and surprising repertoire of training techniques. How many authors engage in activities they think of as simple games or distractions but in fact contribute to their ability to write engaging and moving stories or poems? Ultimately, though, the discovery of increasingly effective methods will rely on rigorously designed research comparing approaches to each other. The popular rankings for MFA programs based on the professional success of students who graduate from them are a step in the direction of this type of research, but they have the rather serious flaw of sampling bias owing to higher ranking schools having the advantage of larger applicant pools. At this stage, though, even the subjective ratings of individuals experimenting with several practice techniques would be a useful guide for adjusting and refining teaching methods.

            Applying the expert performance framework developed by Ericsson, Simonton, Csikszentmihaly, and their colleagues to creative writing pedagogy would probably not drastically revolutionize teaching and writing practices. It would rather represent a shift in focus from the evaluation-heavy workshop model onto methods for generating ideas. And of course activities like brainstorming and free writing are as old as the hills. What may be new is the conception of these invention strategies as a form of practice to be engaged in for the purpose of developing skills, and the idea that this practice can and should be engaged in independent of any given writing project. Even if a writing student isn’t working on a story or novel, even if he doesn’t have an idea for one yet, he should still be practicing to be a better storyteller or novelist. It’s probably the case, too, that many or most professional writers already habitually engage in activities fitting the parameters of practice laid out by the expert performance model. Such activities probably already play at least some role in classrooms. Since the basic framework can be tailored to any individual’s interests, passions, weaknesses, and strengths, and since it stresses the importance and quantity of new ideas, it’s not inconceivable that more of this type of practice will lead to greater as opposed to less originality.

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.

Productivity as Practice: An Expert Performance Approach to Creative Writing Pedagogy Part 1

            Much of the pedagogy in creative writing workshops derives solely from tradition and rests on the assumption that the mind of the talented writer will adopt its own learned practices in the process of writing. The difficult question of whether mastery, or even expertise, can be inculcated through any process of instruction, and the long-standing tradition of assuming the answer is an only somewhat qualified “no”, comprise just one of several impediments to developing an empirically supported set of teaching methods for aspiring writers. Even the phrase, “empirically supported,” conjures for many the specter of formula, which they fear students will be encouraged to apply to their writing, robbing the products of some mysterious and ineffable quality of freshness and spontaneity. Since the criterion of originality is only one of several that are much easier to recognize than they are to define, the biggest hindrance to moving traditional workshop pedagogy onto firmer empirical ground may be the intractability of the question of what evaluative standards should be applied to student writing. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s central finding in his research on expert achievement is that what separates those who attain a merely sufficient level of proficiency in a performance domain from those who reach higher levels of excellence is the amount of time devoted over the course of training to deliberate practice. But, in a domain with criteria for success that can only be abstractly defined, like creative writing, what would constitute deliberate practice is as difficult to describe in any detail as the standards by which work in that domain are evaluated.

            Paul Kezle, in a review article whose title, “What Creative Writing Pedagogy Might Be,” promises more than the conclusions deliver, writes, “The Iowa Workshop model originally laid out by Paul Engle stands as the pillar of origination for all debate about creative writing pedagogy” (127). This model, which Kezle describes as one of “top-down apprenticeship,” involves a published author who’s achieved some level of acclaim—usually commensurate to the prestige of the school housing the program—whose teaching method consists of little more than moderating evaluative class discussions on each student’s work in turn. The appeal of this method is two-fold. As Shirley Geok-lin Lim explains, it “reliev[es] the teacher of the necessity to offer teacher feedback to students’ writing, through editing, commentary, and other one-to-one, labor intensive, authority-based evaluation” (81), leaving the teacher more time to write his or her own work as the students essentially teach each other and, hopefully, themselves. This aspect of self-teaching is the second main appeal of the workshop method—it bypasses the pesky issue of whether creative writing can be taught, letting the gates of the sacred citadel of creative talent remain closed. Furthermore, as is made inescapably clear in Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era, which tracks the burgeoning of creative writing programs as their numbers go from less than eighty in 1975 to nearly nine hundred today, the method works, at least in terms of its own proliferation.

            But what, beyond enrolling in a workshop, can a writer do to get better at writing? The answer to this question, assuming it can be reliably applied to other writers, holds the key to answering the question of what creative writing teachers can do to help their students improve. Lim, along with many other scholars and teachers with backgrounds in composition, suggests that pedagogy needs to get beyond “lore,” by which she means “the ad hoc strategies composing what today is widely accepted as standard workshop technique” (79). Unfortunately, the direction these theorists take is forbiddingly abstruse, focusing on issues of gender and ethnic identity in the classroom, or the negotiation of power roles (see Russel 109 for a review.) Their prescription for creative writing pedagogy boils down to an injunction to introduce students to poststructuralist ways of thinking and writing. An example sentence from Lim will suffice to show why implementing this approach would be impractical:

"As Kalamaras has argued, however, collective identities, socially constructed, historically circumscribed, uniquely experienced, call for a “socially responsible” engagement, not only on the level of theme and content but particularly on that of language awareness, whether of oral or dialectic-orthographic “voice,” lexical choice, particular idiolect features, linguistic registers, and what Mikhail Bakhtin called heteroglossic characteristics." (86)

Assuming the goal is not to help marginalized individuals find a voice and communicate effectively and expressively in society but rather to help a group of students demonstrating some degree of both talent and passion in the realm of creative writing to reach the highest levels of success possible—or even simply to succeed in finding a way to get paid for doing what they love—arcane linguistic theories are unlikely to be of much use. (Whether they’re of any real use even for the prior goal is debatable.)

            Conceiving of creative writing as the product of a type of performance demanding several discrete skills, at least some of which are improvable through training, brings it into a realm that has been explored with increasing comprehensiveness and with ever more refined methods by psychologists. While University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about the large group of highly successful people in creative fields interviewed for his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention as if they were a breed apart, even going so far as to devote an entire chapter to “The Creative Personality,” and in so doing reinforcing the idea that creative talent is something one is simply born with, he does manage to provide several potentially useful strategies for “Enhancing Personal Creativity” in a chapter by that name. “Just as a physician may look at the physical habits of the most healthy individuals” Csikszentmihalyi writes, “to find in them a prescription that will help everyone else to be more healthy, so we may extract some useful ideas from the lives of a few creative persons about how to enrich the lives of everyone else” (343). The aspirant creative writer must understand, though, that “to move from personal to cultural creativity one needs talent, training, and an enormous dose of good luck” (344). This equation, as it suggests only one variable amenable to deliberate effort, offers a refinement to the question of what an effective creative writing pedagogy might entail. How does one train to be a better a writer? Training as a determining factor underlying exceptional accomplishments is underscored by Ericsson’s finding that “amount of experience in a domain is often a weak predictor of performance” (20). Simply writing poems and stories may not be enough to ensure success in the realm of creative writing, especially considering the intense competition evidenced by those nearly nine hundred MFA programs.

            Because writing stories and poems seldom entails a performance in real time, but instead involves multiple opportunities for inspiration and revision, the distinction Ericsson found between simply engaging in an activity and training for it may not be as stark for creative writing. Writing and training may overlap if the tasks involved in writing meet the requirements for effective training. Having identified deliberate practice as the most important predictor of expert performance, Ericsson breaks the concept down into three elements: “a well-defined task with an appropriate level of difficulty for the particular individual, informative feedback, and opportunities for repetition and corrections of errors” (21). Deliberate practice requires immediate feedback on performance. In a sense, success can be said to multiply in direct proportion to the accumulation of past failures. But how is a poet to know if the line she’s just written constitutes a success or failure? How does a novelist know if a scene or a chapter bears comparison to the greats of literature?

            One possible way to get around the problem of indefinable evaluative standards is to focus on quantity instead of quality. Ericsson’s colleague, Dean Simonton, studies people in various fields in which innovation is highly valued in an attempt to discover what separates those who exhibit “received expertise,” mastering and carrying on dominant traditions in arts or sciences, from those who show “creative expertise” (228) by transforming or advancing those traditions. Contrary to the conventional view that some individuals possess a finely attuned sense of how to go about producing a successful creative work, Simonton finds that what he calls “the equal odds rule” holds in every creative field he’s studied. What the rule suggests is “that quality correlates positively with quantity, so that creativity becomes a linear statistical function of productivity” (235). Individuals working in creative fields can never be sure which of their works will have an impact, so the creators who have the greatest impact tend to be those who produce the greatest number of works. Simonton has discovered that this rule holds at every stage in the individual’s lifespan, leading him to conclude that success derives more from productivity and playing the odds than from sure-footed and far-seeing genius. “The odds of hitting a bull’s eye,” he writes, “is a probabilistic function of the number of shots” (234). Csikszentmihalyi discovered a similar quantitative principle among the creative people he surveyed; part of creativity, he suggests, is having multiple ideas where only one seems necessary, leading him to the prescription for enhancing personal creativity, “Produce as many ideas as possible” (368).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Objectification isn't a Valid Complaint

Just as some attractive women become conditioned to rely on their looks to achieve status and other social ends, many educated women deem it degrading to go out of their way to turn on a man--at least they claim to in polite conversation. This is probably owing to the their exposure to feminism, which has women shoring up their reservations and inhibitions in the name of dignity, lest they be objectified—even though objectification is a nonsensical concept. Men are not typically aroused by any inanimate objects; they're turned on by flesh-and-blood women (unless they're homosexual of course). Even for fetishists, the object of their desire arouses them by dint of its association to living, human persons. One hears much more often of fetishes for high-heeled shoes than for, say, tables or clocks.

Objectification owes its name to the idea that men, left to their own patriarchal devises, won’t pay proper heed to a woman’s subjectivity, to what’s going on in her head. But if you look at the epitome of the supposed crime you’ll see this idea is pretty easily ruled out. If men were given to ignoring what women were subjectively experiencing then pornography would feature just as many women lying inert while doing the deed, or having the deed done to them, as there are who, shall we say, overact. That some men may appear eager to discount women's subjectivity underscores that they really couldn’t ignore the women's experience if they tried—they’re preoccupied with it. You can still argue that men one-dimensionalize women, but then there are plenty of one-dimensional people of both genders out there.

Really celebrating one another's sexual dimension in no way precludes deep appreciation for your partner's other qualities; if anything, that appreciation becomes exaggerated as the sex gets better. But what ends up happening is that nonsense about objectification gives women an excuse not to make any attempts in a realm where failure is resoundingly and lastingly mortifying—welcome to men’s world.

Is it a problem that men can be sexually aroused by features of women that have nothing to do with their characters? If so, it must be borne in mind that men aren't the only ones at fault. But the real problem is that some people are so zealous in their efforts to politicize any and every aspect of relations between men and women they've long since ceased to care about whether their ideas have any validity or whether they lead to any greater happiness or fulfillment in the lives of those influenced by them. Sex has political implications, but it's a physical act. And if a man got turned by his partner's lofty orations about her master's thesis, that would probably be offensive in its own right.