“Make It New”: Creativity and the Workshop Model

The following is a familiar scenario to most writing teachers: Each time a student brings work to the class, the poems are all similar and share the same faults. When the student is confronted with these faults, whether, say, an overuse of generalizations or sentimental language or obscurity, the student clearly balks at the criticism. He may respond, “This is my style of writing” or “This is the type of poem I want to write” or “X read this and said it was wonderful” or “If I revise this I’ll lose the original impulse for the poem, my true feelings” (or any other number of defensive remarks). An argument may ensue where the teacher tries to bring to bear his or her superior knowledge of the craft and tradition and articulate more clearly the failures of the poem.

All the while, in this dialogue, the student either grows more defiant or sinks in a morass of emotions–self-pity, embarrassment, anger and resentment, self-loathing, feelings of failure. Whatever happens, it’s clear the student does not want to revise the poem to any great extent. And the question of whether or not the student knows how to do this is moot. The desire is not there, so what good is any exposition on technique going to do?

What is the primary source of this impasse?   Is it merely a lack of knowledge or learning or experience, all of which the teacher possesses to a greater extent than the student?

I would say No, the primary source of this impasse is psychological. And this impasse, I believe, stems from a faulty understanding of creativity and the writing process. One way to understand this impasse is to imagine what is going on in the head of the student: If this piece of writing is not working, then that means I may be—or am surely—a failure as a writer. I have no potential. I will not succeed.

A different approach: This poem may not work. It’s an experiment. I am one step closer to the answer. I am just starting to discover my potential as a writer. This discovering is a process, whose end neither I, nor my teacher, can predict. What I do have control of is this: I can learn to write differently and in new ways. I can experiment more. I can learn new techniques. I can continue on with the process.

 

The structure of the workshop model tends to encourage an approach to writing that stresses performance and product. The student often feels as if the presentation of her work to the class is a performance. She is producing a product that will be judged by her peers, and she wants that judgment always to be positive. This dynamic is increased in a writing class or MFA program where students feel especially competitive with each other.

Given this dynamic, the student will feel pressured to present only that work which she is comfortable with and which she feels will be regarded as successful. She will be less inclined to experiment, to try something new, to present work she is unsure of. She will be more afraid of failing or appearing foolish. She will stay with the tried and true.

Such a dynamic is not an atmosphere that fosters creative growth. The best businesses—especially tech businesses—understand this. But I wonder how many writing workshops are conducted with such an understanding.

 

While writing workshops can teach students important critical skills, what the workshops often fail to deal with is the nature of the creative process. In my teaching, I start with certain basic premises about creativity:

1) The unconscious is always more creative and complex than the conscious mind.

2) Techniques serve to occupy the conscious mind so that the unconscious mind can be left free to create and bubble up to the surface.   Thus, though techniques call attention to formal elements, their ultimate purpose is to provide access to the unconscious mind. They do this in part by enabling creative “accidents”.

In this way we should not look at techniques as intimidating benchmarks or standards, but as tools to help us in the creative process.

3) Writing is like a chess game between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind makes the first move, and the unconscious mind responds. Beginning writers are often more attached to the first move of the conscious mind. They often don’t see–or refuse to acknowledge–where the unconscious mind is leading. They want to cheat, to have the conscious mind control the whole process. The reasons for this are often psychological. In part, the beginning writer is afraid of what the unconscious mind is revealing.

4) Creative writing is the search for and creation of a language to express what the unconscious knows but does not have the language to express.

 

The student who does the same poem or story over and over believes he has only one voice. That, the student says, is my true voice. That is me. In this way, the student underestimates his own complexity.

Beyond this, partly as a result of the critiques they receive in the workshop model, beginning writers will focus on micro issues in their revising—changing a word or a sentence structure, line by line attention. They often avoid trying to radically rethink or re-conceive their work, to find a totally different approach or voice, to take the whole thing apart and try again.

But in our writing, breakthroughs often come less from small revisions or critical evaluations than from the discovery of a new voice; this voice is one that was previously repressed, often for various psychological reasons. At times this discovery may come through switching to a new form and even a new genre.

I’m a firm believer in Jungian psychology as useful model for the creative writer, the view that our psyches through the lens of polytheism rather than monotheism. Viewing the psyche as a multiplicity is far more useful than viewing it as a unity or even a Freudian division of superego, ego and id. Such a Jungian approach recognizes that we all contain a multiplicity of voices inside our heads, a pantheon of inner gods. Whatever religion we may profess, our creative impulses are polytheistic and poly-vocal (and thus, also multicultural).   Rather doing the same thing over and over, creativity comes, in part, from unleashing these different voices, from diverse approaches.

As I’ve said before here, many gods, many voices.

Viva for the Losers! or What My “Tiger Dad” Couldn’t Teach Me

“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.”–James Joyce

“Do it right the first time is insane advice. Nobody does anything…INTERESTING…right the first…or the twenty-first….or the forty-first…time. Doing the new means screwing around, trying stuff, and messing stuff up….again and again and again. That is…WASTE.” –Tom Peters

Growing up I fit soundly into the stereotype of the model Asian American student.

Not that I had thick glasses and a pencil holder in my white shirt and looked like one of the bit players from “Revenge of the Nerds.” The Asian math-science geek nerd was an image I very consciously tried to avoid.* Indeed, in my high school years, I adopted a look I thought at the time to be incredibly hip, and which could put Austin Powers to shame: striped bell bottom pants, a bright pastel shirt, a paisley scarf worn like an ascot, and my father’s old army jacket.

Still, despite my appearances, deep down, I was the classic grade grind, a nerd at heart. It took me a long time to realize the restrictions of this model, a long time to understand that there were things I needed to learn that a successful report card could not teach me. This included a crucial lesson in my becoming a writer–the value of failure.

That there was any value in failure was something I would have scoffed at when younger. For me, from grade school on, failure was unimaginable, unthinkable. Like a good Sansei (third generation Japanese American) son, I’d imbibed my Nisei (second generation) father’s admonitions on work and school and grades to the point where I felt a constant pressure to get straight A’s. At the kitchen table, my father would go over my report cards, remarking on the one A- or B+ that marred my record.

This type of thinking and training worked for me—that is, until I hit English grad school where I ran up seven course incompletes and was told to take a year’s leave of absence (as mentioned in my previous blog).

So there I was, the embodiment of the stereotypical Asian American student, a grind, a young man who went into tests thinking I should get an A because I had studied twice as much as any other student. And now I was being drummed out of grad school. A washout. I was humiliated, depressed, wondering what would become of my life now that, at twenty seven, I was deemed a failure.

 

Shortly after I flunked out of English grad school, I began to teach in the Writers in the Schools program. Gradually, like Kenneth Koch and others in such programs, I came to see that teaching poetry writing to young children involves quite a different approach from those I experienced as a student in an English Lit Ph.D. program. Rather than presenting writing as foreboding and forbidding, with an emphasis on standards and the literary canon, I needed to help young students feel comfortable with the process of writing. Through my teaching and reading books on creativity in science and business, I learned some general conclusions about the writing process:

1.  Attention to the “rules” hinders the creative process.

Though I first came upon this notion when teaching poetry to young people, I soon realized this attention to the rules meant more than the rules of grammar or spelling.   This doesn’t mean that you don’t learn these rules or other rules or techniques. As an adult I didn’t worry about the rules of grammar or spelling because I had learned them. (Well, actually that’s a lie. I don’t worry now about spelling because I have a computer and spell check does the work for me.)   What this does mean is that worrying about rules you are just learning and, at the same time, creating a new work is too difficult a task. Separate the tasks. Don’t make your brain do two things at once. When you’re creating, your unconscious needs to follow its own course rather than worry about rules.

2.  In writing, the creative mindset is one that is relaxed and loose. It involves a willingness to travel anywhere, to entertain whatever comes up. It can be helped along through work beforehand gathering images, ideas, material, etc. so that you don’t feel you’re starting to write with only a blank page before you. Instead you have the sense that there’s a vast array of materials you can draw from.   You have to adopt an attitude of openness to whatever language comes forth.

3.  Creativity comes through a willingness to experiment, to make mistakes. It involves what others might call waste or failure. But Thomas Edison remarked that no experiment is a failure; it taught him what didn’t work, and that brought him one step closer to an answer.

4.  What hampers creativity? A pressure to be perfect, to get it right every time. A pressure to produce a product, to perform to a grade. A pressure to never do anything foolish or outré, anything risky. In other words, the exact mindset I’d learned as an A student—to get everything perfect—was a recipe for writer’s block.

Or, as William Stafford put it, the key to writer’s block is “lower your standards.”

 

Where does language come from? Our unconscious.

Thus, when the conscious mind decides to write, it is the unconscious mind that sends up a sentence.

But then the conscious mind, the critical mind, the A student mind, the get-it-perfect mind, says, “Well, that’s not good enough.” Depending upon who you are, your conscious mind might add, “That’s so far away from Garcia Marquez…” or any other writing hero you might use as a critical standard setter. And then, another part of your brain might add your parents or family members saying, “This isn’t serious real work, this is a waste of time.”

A bit daunted, your unconscious tries sending up another sentence.

“Not good enough,” says the conscious mind. The other voices clamor in with their jeers.

A third sentence. Criticism, rejection.

By about the fourth or fifth sentence, your unconscious mind shouts back, “Screw you, I’m not going to work for you anymore.”

Hence, writer’s block.

 

Imagine yourself getting up before two groups and speaking.

In the first group is a committee of tenured English professors and administrators who think everything great was written in the distant past and who want to prove creative writing is a waste of time.

In the second group are the people with whom you feel most comfortable speaking, your partner or spouse, your best friends.

With which group will you be more articulate? With which group will speak to more easily, more naturally, more eloquently? With which group will you be more likely to let your personality break through?

The second group, of course.

So why do writers think if they imagine themselves writing to the first group, that will make them better writers?

Banish that first group—the censors—from your writing room. Do not listen to them. Stop wringing your own throat. Lower your standards.

When you sit down to write, there’s nothing you can do that will make you smarter, more talented, more interesting, sexier, more learned, more prepared. You are who you are at that moment. You can be no one else.

Accept who you are, accept your words.

You have to be the reader who welcomes your language. You have to listen to whatever language your unconscious mind comes up with, whatever sentences that happens to drift into your consciousness.

If you allow the unconscious to speak, it will keep speaking; it will lead you to places your conscious mind could not imagine. For the unconscious mind is smarter and far more creative than the conscious or critical mind.

Writing is a process. Enter into the process, let it unfold.

 

* It took me years to realize how this reaction was related to negative racial stereotypes and my own internalized racism (c.f. Where the Body Meets Memory).