Showing posts with label creativity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label creativity. Show all posts

05 August 2019

Bending The Bar


by Steve Liskow

I attended high school so long ago that my class used Roman Numerals. My ninth-grade English teacher was the sister of Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke, and she was one of the best--and toughest--teachers I ever had. Because of her, I finished what was then called Junior High School with a better understanding of grammar than any healthy person should have to admit. I earned a "B" from her and was put into the honors English classes in high school because nobody else had earned a "B" from her since the Korean Conflict.


The honors classes all took a diagnostic grammar and usage test the first day, we all scored 177 of a possible 177, and the teacher called that our grammar for the year. We read lots of books, of course, and we did lots of writing, which was graded on our grammar, spelling, punctuation and general usage.

My senior class demanded a research paper of 1000 words, and we had to put footnotes at the bottom of the page and include a bibliography. The teacher promised us she would check our form carefully. I don't remember now whether we had six weeks to complete the assignment, or maybe even eight.

Six weeks, maybe eight, to complete a 1000-word essay. It works out to about 170 words a week, roughly 25 words a day. And we were graded on "correctness," with not a word about style or creativity. I don't remember anything changing in English classes until the 1980s.

In the mid 80s, I found several books that changed my teaching landscape. Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers brought the free-writing idea to daylight. Rico's Writing the Natural Way gave students stylistic models to emulate. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain amplified both Elbow and Rico. Adams's The Care and Feeding of Ideas and Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience set up the ground rules for how this stuff all worked.

Nobody else in my school seemed to notice these books, but they actually taught writing the way writers write: Say something, THEN worry about saying it more effectively or even "correctly."
Clarity and voice came first. For decades, we'd been trying to teach kids to say it right the first time, when we know that doesn't really happen.

Most of the English teachers I know are poor writers because they know grammar and punctuation so well that it gets in their way. When I retired from teaching, it took me about three years to accept that sometimes a sentence fragment works better than being correct.

One of the popular in-jokes was a facsimile lesson plan about teaching children how to walk. It buried the topic in medical jargon and psycho-babble and evaluation buzzwords until it became incoherent and impenetrable. The point was that if we taught kids basic life skills the way we taught them lessons in school, the human race would have died out long ago. (I'm carefully avoiding any mention of sex education here, maybe the only class that should be a performance-based subject...)

Back when I was in high school, golfers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer both said that when they were learning the game, they were encouraged to hit the ball hard and concentrate on distance. They learned control and finesse later, and their records prove that it was the best way to learn.

That's how it should be with writing. Until you produce enough words to say something, don't worry about spelling or grammar.

Today, I expect to write 1000 words in an hour or so. My personal record for one day, back on an electric typewriter in 1981, is 42 pages, or about 10,000 words. I only had three weeks between the end of a summer grad school class and the beginning of my teaching year, so I just got stuff down on paper to fix later. The book was terrible and I later scrapped it, but that was ten times as many words as I'd done years before in eight weeks.

My second high, done to finish the first draft of a novel before I entered the hospital for surgery, was 7000 words.

If you're a writer, this probably doesn't shock you. I know many writers who set a 2000-word-a-day goal. If we'd asked that of kids in my generation, they would have all joined the Foreign Legion. That's because we were attacking the project from the wrong side. It's like pumping in the water before you dig the swimming pool.

Maybe this is why so many people say they don't write because they can't find a good idea. They may have perfectly good ideas, but they're afraid to begin because they fear doing it "wrong." It's the age old false equivalency over priorities: is it a candy mint or a breath mint?

If you think of your story, even in general terms with very little worked out yet, and start typing, the ideas will come. You may have to do lots of revision, but that's easy when you have material to work with. You can't fix what isn't there. The only document I get right the first time is a check because all I have to do is fill in the blanks. I take three drafts for the average grocery list.

Writing CAN be taught, but we have to teach the right stuff in the right order. It's no good obsessing abut correctness until you have something to "correct." We teach all the skills and have all the standards, but they're in the wrong sequence.

Don't raise the bar, bend it.

Teach kids the fun parts faster. I still remember teachers reading us stories in elementary school or the excitement of sharing our adventures in show-and-tell. Maybe if we kept the story first and worried about the finesse later, kids would grow into adults with more and better stories to share in the first place.

THEN you worry about style. There are dozens of books on grammar and usage--I've mentioned several of them before--but there are only two books I can mention about style, and Strunk and White is only really good for expository essays and academic subjects.

The other would be a required text in any class I taught. If you haven't read this, find a copy. I'm not going to discuss it because that could be another blog all by itself.

When I see kids reading on their screens or tablets instead of books, and watch them text with their thumbs, I have a few seconds of concern. But then I see how quickly they can type and the worry goes away. If they can produce communication that quickly, they can produce many short works quickly to make a longer one, and they can connect with each other. The phone abbreviations and emojis solve many of the concerns we obsessed over, too, like spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

04 September 2015

Creativity: The Dark Side


by R.T. Lawton

Webster's Universal Encyclopedic Dictionary (2002)
     creativity: the ability to create
     creative: 1~ marked by the power or ability to create
     create:  4~ to produce through imaginative skill

For a writer, creativity is a good trait to have. It helps him write a short story, a novel, a poem. With imagination and the ability to create, almost any author has the potential to become published. Blessed with enough creativity, a writer can distinguish himself from the pack and climb to the top of the pyramid. He or she can become a best-selling author.

But with criminals, there is an additional definition from that same dictionary which they find useful for their purposes.
     creative: 3~ managed so as to get around legal or conventional limits

For some criminals, it is this third definition that makes them into successful law breakers, while others get so caught up in their supposed genius ideas that they fail to realize some of the flaws in their thinking and thus end up spending time in a grey-bar hotel. A poster boy for this latter group is the person mentioned by Eve Fisher a couple of months back in her blog about prison conditions. Eve referred to a prisoner who stated that whenever he walked into a room, he knew he was the smartest guy in the room. Eve's comment in reply was that the bar wasn't set very high.

Based on the above two paragraphs, it appears that the good trait of creativity also has a dark side. To look into this situation, various researchers set up studies to evaluate the subject of creativity. While examining the relationship between creativity and personality, researchers Silvia, Haufman, Palmon and Wiggert found that those with lower levels of honesty and humility reported more creative accomplishments and also reported engaging in more creative activities. Who knew? At this point, more research was called for.

one sample of Visual Perception Task
Researchers Gino and Ariely then tested to see if creativity increases dishonesty. Turns out it did. They constructed and ran five different tests. Using a visual perception task, the study participants were asked to count the dots contained on both sides of a line which divided a square into two equal triangles. The number of dots could vary in different samples.

Participants were told they would earn a certain amount of money for choosing the left side triangle as having the most dots, but would earn ten times the amount for choosing the right side triangle as having the most dots. Clearly, the left side triangle had the most dots in fifty of the one hundred samples. In the other fifty samples, some of the dots were clustered closer to the line in order to make the count more ambiguous as to which side contained the most dots. In the ambiguous samples, the participants could more easily "misconceive" the number of dots contained in the right side triangle and thus earn more money. And, those participants who had been tested earlier and found to have more creativity were also found to have a higher level of "misconceiving" the number of dots on the right side.

The result of Gino and Ariely's second study showed that creativity is a better predictor of dishonesty than was intelligence. Thus, I guess, just because you're smart doesn't mean you are also creative, and conversely just because you're lower on the IQ scale doesn't mean you don't have a creative ability.

Their third study showed that people who enter a creative mindset were motivated to think outside the box and this is what led to increased levels of dishonesty. Their fourth study went a step further and showed that the creative mindset led to a justification for their cheating which led to their increased levels of dishonesty. Their fifth study went out into the real world with surveys to employees across seventeen departments. In those departments requiring more creativity in their jobs, the participants disclosed they were more apt to respond to proposed scenarios in an unethical way in order to benefit themselves.

Bottom line: It looks like creativity tends to help people work out original ideas to get around rules by letting them interpret information in a way to benefit themselves while rationalizing their actions. Sounds like most of the characters in my stories, not to mention the criminals I met while working the streets.

Anyway, getting back to authors, I'm going to assume all you writers out there are those creative people on the honest side. As for myself, well, several years ago Rob Lopresti did me a computer software favor and I promised to buy him a beer. Now, here we are three Bouchercons down the road and I still haven't bought him that beer. I could justify my lack of action by saying that I heard Rob doesn't drink, and somewhere in the back of my mind I do think I heard him say something to that effect, but then maybe I'm merely being creatively dishonest. Therefore, to slip into a more creatively CYA mindset, I will now go on record as offering to buy Rob the beverage of his choice at the Raleigh Bouchercon. This offer does not include Dom Perignon. I can't really slide that one past my tax accountant, seeing as how he seems to get a little funny at tax time when he looks at my expense receipts.

So remember my motto: Given enough time, I can explain anything. They just need to give me enough time.