Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Creativity Negativity

There's an interesting article about creativity in America in the July 19th issue of Newsweek magazine. You do have to plow through a lot of political garbage to get to it (the piece begins on pg. 44), but the topic was interesting enough to tempt me to buy the issue and wade on through.

According to Newsweek, things are pretty dismal in the creativity department. Evidently for the first time in decades creativity among American adults and children is in decline. Since this observation is based on a single test administered by psychologists to a limited number of citizens, I'm more than a little skeptical of the conclusions. The article does make some valid observations, such as noticing the creative deficits in public education (likely the culprit of budget cuts, which is now hurting even the ever-popular athletic programs.)

Some social and cultural changes seem to have adversely affected creativity in children, and the top two offenders may be video games and mobile phones. Instead of playing outside the way my generation did -- you couldn't pay us to stay in the house -- today's kids are closeted in their rooms with their Playstations and Gameboys. Inactivity causes obesity among children, so why not atrophy of the imagination? Then there are the phones. Now rather than hanging out and having real conversations with friends in person, kids are texting each other; as often as ten thousand times a month. Kind of hard to play pirates digging for buried treasure in the back yard on Twitter.

I will concede that video games and mobile phones do have a few good points. Thanks to computerized gaming, my kids have become so tech-savvy their dad and I defer to them now whenever anything electronic needs to be set up, tweaked, fixed or upgraded, and no, I'm not kidding. While neither of them texts in the ten thousand range per month, they both have scores of friends and can arrange get-togethers, movie dates and other gatherings in a few seconds (I remember spending half an afternoon riding my bike around the neighborhood just to round up enough kids to play a decent game of softball.)

I don't think creativity in American children is declining as much as it's changing, and the tests we used fifty years ago to measure it are now basically obsolete. I teach enough writing classes in public schools to know exactly how creative kids are, and trust me, they never fail to blow me away. Classes in the arts are important, but even without them children find ways to express themselves, explore their passions and create. We just don't see them because they're doing it after school, during weekends and over summer vacation. Creativity has gone off the grid, underground, and probably because teachers and adults have stopped paying attention to it.

Both of my kids are creatively active among their social groups in interesting ways. My daughter gave her spare flute to her best friend, taught her how to play it, and now they have their own practices and jam sessions, both at school with other friends in the band and here at the house. If I'd let her Kat would live in the band room, but when she can't be there she creates her own opportunities to indulge her passion for music, including dressing in character and playing her flute at a local RenFaire. For an end-of-the-year project, my son got together a half dozen other students and made a short spoof film on, of all things, Calculus theories. One afternoon when he and his friends were baking (and you really have not lived until you've watched four big, strapping young men take on the challenge of making Toll House cookies) they also studied for a language final by speaking to each other in French.

I try to contribute to their creativity by encouraging it in fun ways (and if you visit my photoblog, you've seen how we've made cake out of a poem) but even if I didn't, the kids would do it on their own. My kids are not exceptional; their friends are doing similar things. Children are so naturally creative that I imagine the only thing that stops them are adults with their outdated psych tests and their half-baked conclusions.

The Newsweek article's best points were in how we can foster creativity in children, ourselves and other adults, and they included common sense suggestions like turning off the damn television (hooray!), exploring other cultures, and allowing time and opportunity for the development and pursuit of our passions. Creative harpy that I am, I'll add a few more:

Arts Cross-pollination: Creative souls need outlets, and not just in their area of talent. I'm a skilled quilter, a decent gardener, a competent cook, a fair sketcher, a terrible painter, a scary poet and a journaling addict. I also make jewelry, books, clothes, pillows, handbags, digital art, and whatever else catches my eye (at the moment it's mixed media art.) I live this Renaissance life because I want to make things myself, and because I know there is more to me than the writer. I also learn from everything else I do, and aside from recharging my batteries, I get tons of ideas and images and concepts that I pour right back into the writing. Nearly everything I know about arts other than writing I got from books -- I even taught myself how to knit from a book -- so all you really need to try something is the willingness to do so, whatever supplies are involved, and a public library.

Failure: An essential part of the creative journey is not to succeed. As a society we are so focused on achievements and honors that we forget we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our triumphs. Adverse reactions to perceived failure discourage us like nothing else, which limits us creatively. I'm not saying we should celebrate every failure, but it would be nice if we curbed some of our negative reactions to it. The only reason we try again is if at first we don't succeed, right?

Fun: In our stressed-out world, no one seems to be having much fun these days. We're overworked, under-appreciated, and so exhausted we can't even enjoy a vacation. We also know that lack of joy = sour stagnant souls. So we desperately need things that we enjoy and that make us laugh. Feed yourself a steady diet of hate, negativity, depression and what have you, and after a while you can starve a sense of humor -- and the creative soul it nurtures -- to death. I try to do one fun thing every day, even if it's just for five minutes (I've been working on my fun little art book every afternoon.)

Non-Herd Mentality: We're a tribal species, so it's important to us to have a sense of belonging, both at home and at work. This is why personal and professional organizations are so popular. But group-think can become so corrupt and controlling that it squashes individuality and kills imagination, all for the sake of conformity. Social networking, self-promotion, and homogenizing ourselves so as not to offend anyone does have a price, and I think it costs us our creativity. Writers have always been the upstarts of the arts; I can't believe we'd give up that simply to be more acceptable sheep. So while belonging to a group is fine, letting them suck the creative life out of you isn't. See exactly what you're getting out of the group, and if you think it's worth it, keep some part of yourself and the work separate from them and their influence.

Zen Vengeance: There are people out there who take pleasure in your pain or even in causing that pain. They became the way they are because of people who did the same to them, and this is why they feel entitled to do it to you. Want to break the cycle and get even with them without hurting anyone at all? Practice Zen revenge. For every wrong done to you, and every pain you've been made to suffer, don't just turn the other cheek. Let your response be to do something positive for someone else. Be generous and caring, encouraging and helpful, and find ways to bring happiness to others. Let not becoming like the people who hurt you be your revenge. Because you know what? It is.

As for the outlook on the future of creativity, I'm not really worried. Creative people are the way they are from birth, even if they're not aware of it until later on in life. We are driven, too, by forces that people outside the creative community will never fathom. I have faith that we will always find ways to nurture ourselves and hopefully each other. It's part of who we are, ingrained in us on the cellular level, and that's not something Newsweek or a psych test can even begin to measure.


  1. Most interesting post. Pause for thought as I try to figure out my response. As a mom, I spent countless hours exposing my kids to art, music, nature, books. I turned off the TV and had them play outside. Took them places where they had to create their own fun. Always seemed like I fought a battle to expose them - that the world of videos and games overrode my efforts.

    Are they creative now at 24, 22, and 18? They certainly are aware of a vast world, but many of their friends do not share these experiences and depend or find comfort in organized creativity. Does that make sense?

    Does creativity change as time goes by? Certainly all this technology came from creative minds. Hmmm, you have me thinking. Great post.

  2. I read that article, too. The creative drive is inherent in us, but yes, it can get squashed or lack outlets. However, give a kid a box of crayons and some paper and they'll do something with it. We try to keep the house stocked with creative tools of all kinds.

  3. It's sad, isn't it? I want my son to be something creative because I'm a writer and so I will often try to find creative things to do during the day but I can see how other things can drive that desire out.


  4. Great post! I'm shoving my kids outside this morning. As it is, when they are inside, they play all sorts of creative games. I thought the Wii would get a lot of use this summer, but I don't think it's been turned on once so far.

    Now I'm off to sew, paint, writing, play, do some piano...

    Perhaps creativity is alive and well.

  5. Anonymous10:29 AM

    I love the ideas here and look forward to reading the article too.
    I do think that kids will thrive and find ways to express themselves. The thing I've tried to allow is to not over-schedule my children. I almost made this mistake seeing other mothers of the herd.

    For example, my oldest is like your daughter. She's taking both band and orchestra and did freshman year as well. If she could take chior as well she would -- she'd even take more classes in a day just to be able to do so. When she was little -- about 5 -- I signed her up for some very informal piano lessons. She had them for just less than once school year because her teacher moved. I tried to find another teacher but wirh scheduling and two other, younger children, I never did. I worried, since I'd had piano, was I depriving her? She was in girl scouts and dance though, and that was all we could afford timewise and, for me, mentally. :)

    When she was in about 4th grade I asked her if she'd like to try taking lessons again and she was very adamant. No thank you. However, when she went into 6th grade she decided she'd like to play the cello. She had her first lesson a few weeks before school and was hooked. When school started she practiced without prompting and moved ahead of the class on her own just because she wanted to. The next year, she asked the band and orchestra teachers if she could switch between the two classes every day and they said yes. She's never looked back and has learned bass guitar and plays the piano again.

    My middle daughter is very visual and loves to draw and dance. My son loves dance, and he will sit at the computer and lose track of the time. I worried that he was playing too many arcade style games. Instead, he takes screen shots from the games and imports them into a point program, where he writes stories and advertisments and makes and laminates posters. He also makes spy cards for his friends. He thinks outside the box with the tools he has. I think it's because they have time.


  6. Replace "video games" with "television" and Newsweek could have run this in 1985.

    Having a couple kids of my own now, and video games, I can see that too much time spent on the box means less time spent, I don't know, creating great works out of macaroni and glue.

    But I can't buy that creative people can be crushed by games. The drive to create is too innate to be so easily suppressed, just as people who are driven to write will not be deterred by failure or silence.

    Remember that publications need something to write about, even if there isn't anything there that they want to write about.

  7. Darn Newsweek with their stimulating covers! They do a good job of grabbing the reader, and their articles like to strike fear in people's hearts, but so far as I can tell it's usually a lot of fuss over nothing. Like a lot of media, they wind people up for the sake of sales. Hey, maybe they're working with the pharmaceutical companies to sell antidepressants!

  8. Lynn, thank you for a thought provoking blog entry. My children are 25 and 21 and I think they are pretty creative. My daughter has written wonderful poetry (and now manuscripts) for years and my son is a pretty good painter/sketcher.
    I love the term "Zen revenge" and I have done just that in the past but didn't have a name for it. I shall endeavor to practice "Zen revenge" more often.
    Be blessed,
    Jennifer Wofford

  9. Liz B3:15 PM

    I don't know about everyone who plays videogames, but I find that they inspire me, the same way that I'm sure playing games like Dungeons & Dragons or Axis & Allies have done for generations. It's the same thing with TV. As a kid, I never understood why adults thought TV was bad for kids' imaginations. I didn't realize until I was older that I was an exception because most kids just sit and watch while I would actually think about what I was watching. While I wasn't writing them, I was imagining fanfics as early as five-years-old when I would pretend that I was a Power Ranger long after the TV had been turned off. I'm glad I didn't find out that it was weird for me to try and plot out and guess the ending of a show or movie until high school.

  10. Anonymous5:26 PM

    Don't forget boredom in your list. Every summer, the minute my kids started complaining that there was "nothing to do!", I'd just grin and remind them that boredom is the mother of creativity. Shortly thereafter, a family newspaper would be underway, a fort built of furniture and old blankets, the stuffed animals would be running a town... It never failed. And they always had to get bored first. Too many parents make suggestions when their kids are bored and fail to let them find the way themselves.

  11. Thanks for a very well-written and thought-provoking post! I do believe minds have become more dull rather than sharper due to constant clicking on technological devices. There's pros and cons to the rapidly increasing tech world, the key to it all is balance.



  12. Anonymous10:48 AM

    My creativity came back once I stopped watching tv. I would average maybe an hour or two a week, usually news or the weather channel. Am avoiding tv totally now due to a big election build up here and I am heartily sick of politicians pitching duplicitous woo. I do buy dvd's of shows I want to watch and view those in the comfort of my room on my pc from time to time. I never play video games. Not even solitaire which I played right through my University years. Just not for me I guess.

    I knit, bead all sorts of things and do heirloom embroidery. I am working on a table cloth right now that has earned squees from folks. It's a probably a knee jerk reaction to being told to buy "ready made" for a couple of dollars and makes me feel great because it's mine. I used to be able to draw but I seem to overthink things now and stop projects way too early. I still buy sketch books of all sizes but the drawing muse has left me for now.

    I have some friends who live on large country properties, grow their own food and live at a slower, healthier pace. They keep me real, and describe daily interactions with their neighbours that sound almost Anne of Green Gables. They read a book and mull it over for days, finding deeper and deeper layers of meaning. Bliss. By the end of a frantic week I am usually weeping with envy.

    As for Zen Revenge I am typing up an awesome quote I found on author Maggie Shaynes blog attributed to a Herm Albright, Readers Digest.

    "A positive attitude wont solve all of your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort."

    I LOVE it. Thanks again for another excellent post.



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