(published in Oregon English Journal, Spring 2016)
A few years ago I took a dance class that made me see the creative process in a new way. In one exercise eight of us stood around the sides of a 14- by 20-foot rectangle marked on the floor with tape. We took turns making passages through the marked-off space, using any steps or motions that occurred to us, then stepping out of the space on the other side. We could stop, but no more than three seconds, and we were told not to plan our movements ahead of time, but to be mindful enough of them to repeat them if asked.
The skips, lurches, sways, and leaps were fun to watch. Afterward people told what they noticed about these “dances.” One recalled the feeling of getting ready to dive into a swimming pool. Another saw in the wheeling arms of her friend’s dance a run-away washing machine. As an artist with 25 years of mark-making– drawing and painting and scraping–, my big Aha was this: the rectangle was a giant sheet of paper, and we dancers were pencils and paintbrushes moving over it! Suddenly small twists of the body became flourishes of the brush, a series of hops was a dotted line, pauses were emphasized points, twirls were circles. I saw us as elements in an evolving picture rendered with invisible ink.
I borrowed this and other activities to make some unorthodox multi-media exercises of my own, which I use in creativity workshops with groups of all sorts and ages. They can play a role in transforming education into a more artistically fluid forum for intellectual growth.
Finding Original Ideas
To understand the best approach to creativity in the classroom, we can use Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity: “The process of having original ideas that have value.” (Robinson 2) Because the “original idea” is by definition unique, no formula or prescribed method can lead to it– it must be discovered. Such an undertaking requires wandering in uncertain territory, and relies more on the senses, perceptions, and intuitions of the wanderer than on measurable benchmarks or step-by-step instruction.
Here’s what masters of creativity say about the creative process: fiction writer E.L. Doctorow: “It’s like driving at night in the fog. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” (Doctorow); painter Bridget Riley: “It’s like playing with a hoop as a child…it goes along and you run with it, but if the hoop bounces on a stone you don’t exactly know where you are going next.” (Snyder 86); musician Joni Mitchell: “It’s only through error that discovery is made, and in order to discover you have to set up some sort of situation with a random element.” (Rodgers)
Randomness is built into my version of the taped-off rectangle exercise. After each student has had a chance to move across the space, I ask them to recall each path of movement, their own and others’. Then I give them an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper and have them draw from memory those paths, denoted by lines or dots or swirls to show the flavor of the movement. Interesting shapes and designs emerge when lines traverse the paper from several directions, and sometimes they form silhouettes of people or animals or landscape features. By the time the students are finished embellishing lines and coloring shapes they have turned these maps into beautiful drawings, even though a half an hour earlier they may have said, “I can’t do art. I’m no good at drawing.” So what started off as a short journey through space ends up being a journey into the world of artistic creation, in part through the vehicle of the body.
The “leapfrogging” that happens in this exercise– moving from dance to storytelling to drawing– relies on the synchronicitious accidents which are bound to occur when you shake up linear reality. While it doesn’t take much for children to launch into such an open-ended inquiry, adults may be reluctant to trust the unknown, or need a primer on the sort of attitude most conducive to creative adventuring.
The words of poet William Stafford are helpful: “To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me. Something always occurs, of course, to any of us. We can’t keep from thinking…If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come, and I’m off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started. These things, odd or trivial as they may be, are somehow connected. And if I let them string out, surprising things will happen.” (Stafford 17-18)
Teaching such delving requires an instructor at ease with randomness, error, and nonsense. What is needed is a guide who demonstrates a simple searching tool (like dancing through a rectangle) and says, “See what you can find.”
For young children the simple searching tool might be combining objects not normally seen together. “Students, now I want you to draw two things you like but you hardly ever see together. I drew a hammer and a donut. What will you draw?” As soon as they juxtapose two disparate items, they will be in the realm of original ideas, and those ideas can be parlayed into more ideas. Let’s say second-grader Jenny has drawn an apple pie/pencil sharpener, and her classmate Jim has drawn a vacuum cleaner/bowling ball. You could then ask them to each make up a story involving their own and their partner’s hybrids, with new characters and plot lines revolving around the functions of their newly-created inventions. All this is in the realm of pure play, as there is no goal except the thinking up of something new from which to craft an image and then a story.
However, such an activity can be vital to a child’s success in school. The chance to find within the individual psyche an acorn of passion, an image or a game or a story inherent to that child–this can be the start of an enduring treasure hunt. Furthermore, to have the discovery of that original idea be encouraged and celebrated–such is the empowerment called for by advocates of diversity and equity and “alternative” learning styles. So much of school is about studying things that someone else already found; creativity encourages finding things that have never been found before.
Again, one effective way to reach truly original ideas is to leapfrog between sound-making and mark-making and the dancing body. The advantage of this multi-media approach is that it confuses the rational/analytical part of the mind– what Julie Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls “logic brain” (Cameron 12) –so that it essentially gives up and takes a nap. This leaves “artist brain” free to meander in search of ideas that are uncontrived and arise unexpectedly. Here the free-roaming mind can collect material to compose or discover original ideas. The teacher’s job is to introduce such exercises in an easy and enjoyable way. (More accounts can be found at davidlochtie.org).
A curriculum of creativity can be continued as the child grows older, with more structure and analysis brought into the process at appropriate times. An exercise I have used at the middle school level is what I call the Poet-tree. Students write single words on leaf-shaped pieces of colored paper, which they tape to the limbs of a branch stuck into a pot to look like a small tree. When the tree is full of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, they stroll around it and write down any words that catch their eyes. From these they make poems that are outrageous and nonsensical, or juggle the words to make haiku.
Another great technique to bring on creative adventure is the “exquisite corpse.” Children love the drawing version of this exercise, which results in hilarious hybrid creatures. Each student gets a piece of blank paper, holds it vertically, and folds it in thirds, the top third for the head, the middle third for the torso, and the bottom third for the legs and feet. Preliminary dash marks should be made to show the neck (visible on both sides of the top fold) and the waist (visible from both sides of the lower fold). The student then draws a head from his or her imagination. Encourage outlandishness! Say, “Weird is good!” When they are done with their heads they fold them out of sight so that only the middle fold is showing, along with small marks for the neck and waist, then pass them to the right, receiving a new paper for their left upon which to create a midsection drawing representing human, animal, or object. When they are done with the torso, they fold it out of sight and pass the paper on with just the lower fold revealed, with small marks indicating the waist at the top. They pass their papers and this time draw imaginative legs. When everyone is done drawing, it’s time for the ceremonious unveiling, as the students on the count of three unfold the entire drawing and see the funny disjointed creature, usually to the sound of great glee. In addition to some unique and humorous pictures, they now have brand new characters (original ideas) to flesh out and place in stories with other drawn-up characters.
There are many fruitful versions of these games: charades, tall tales, making rhythm, and connecting disparate objects with string or tape, all of which can be combined or alternated to shake up the habitual rational mind and produce surprising images. It can also be fun to juxtapose opposites like “delicious starvation” or “lazy overachiever” to see what wit or insight arises.
The main point of all these activities is to find seed ideas for visual works of art, poems, dramatic works, and stories told and written. They have the element of randomness sewn into them, and make use of a sort of Mad Lib magic that cuts and pastes reality into original ideas.
In each case the learner gets a taste of divergent thinking, which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says is crucial to creativity: “Divergent thinking leads to no agreed-upon solution. It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas.” (Csikszentmihalyi 60).
Such exercises introduce the beginner to the wide-open, shape-shifting quality of the creative landscape, and lead to irrational and even bizarre notions, the genetic material for the novel idea. “That’s the way ideas come about for me,” explained Stafford, “…through a willing acceptance of sub-ideas that aren’t really dignified enough for most people to pay any attention to.” (Stafford 112).
The Madman and the Editor
The creative inquiry will look different at the high school level, though it will retain some unpredictability and randomness. During a creative writing unit, for example, the teacher can try leapfrogging from one activity to another to increase the odds that rich ideas will arise. By this time students may have adopted some of society’s judgements and become jaded, making it harder to move into the realm of uninhibited thought.
Rhythmic body movement can bypass the judging mind and lead to deep associations. So you might start with slow-motion calisthenics, rhythmic to-and-fro of the standing body, until students begin to be reminded of some machine or animal or activity either in their own movement or in a classmate’s. Then to paper, where they can write down an image or two that has come spontaneously to mind during the movements. Tell them to write a paragraph about the images, anything they want to say about them.
Next, give them scissors and have them cut out each word of their paragraph separately. Have them find a clear area of the floor and fling their handful of words toward the ceiling, recording the new paragraph the words make when they fall. Seemingly silly, this step will strengthen one of the traits that is a mark of creative people: “the combination of playfulness and discipline.” (Csikszentmihalyi 61)
Tell them to add nouns and verbs to the new “nonsense” paragraph so that it makes some sense, and then invite them to underline interesting passages. The meanings of their combined words will probably read nothing like their starting paragraphs. One of my students came up with “hyped-up buggies throwing lawnmowers over a deer.” Strange, yes, but there is little doubt that this constitutes an original idea, one that has possibilities for poem, short story, drawing, dance, etc. Like the primary children playing with word-splicing, explorers are likely to find amongst the underlined passages some new image that captures their fancy, either as the germ of a story or a metaphor to be explored.
Until now we have succeeded in leaving judgement and assessment out of the process, so that doubt and habit would not inhibit discovery. However, there is still that final piece of Robinson’s definition, “…that have value.” In the adult world value can be measured by how useful a new tool, concept, or artwork proves to be in the public realm. But the measure of value in the schooling of youth should be of a different sort. The original idea that second-grader Jim arrived at when he imagined his vacuum cleaner/bowling ball playing tennis with Jenny’s apple pie/pencil sharpener has value because he likes it and is willing to develop it by drawing it or telling a story about it or acting it out on the playground. At his age, he has achieved success, in that he has assembled from his inner and outer worlds an original idea, and it has value because it has shown him the fertile possibilities of his own imaginings. He has brought an aesthetically interesting thing into the world.
The high school student, subject to more rigorous standards of what is valuable, will have to develop her idea through supportive content, organization, word choice, and perhaps some research and interviewing to craft the idea into a coherent presentation that passes muster as a serious work. This is the appropriate place for assessment in the creative process (we remember the old writer’s quip “The madman creates, the editor edits.”), but it should only take place after the gem of the original idea has been unearthed, held in hand, admired for a while.
The main thing for teachers to understand is that the first part of the creativity process, the discovery of the original idea, must be left free of assessment. Stafford again: “I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgement can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on. I am making something new, something that has not been judged before. Later others–and maybe myself–will make judgements. Now, I am headlong to discover. Any distraction may harm the creating.” (Stafford 18). This approach runs counter to much of current educational practice, which rushes to measure and assess classroom activities. Creativity, unlike other fields of study, does not conform to data-based “truths,” and will not be pinned down by maps or measurements. No one knows for sure where the frog will hop to next.