On creativity

This is another blog post following up on one Grainne Conole has written (at http://e4innovation.com/?p=661) which is ironic, I suppose, given the nature of the topic. I wanted to chip in on the conversation too, because I wanted to offer a slightly different perspective on what creativity is, and what constitutes a particularly creative person. I think our culture is obsessed by the lonely, creative genius who works away creating rare works of art, and I think this is both limiting and offputting for those of us who aren’t actually geniuses. So I’ll offer some examples of what also comprises creativity, using as an e the person I’d consider to be one of the most creative people, if not the most creative person, whose work I follow, Gregg Taylor.

You might not have heard of Gregg Taylor because he’s not someone held up as one of the great creative geniuses of our time, because what he does doesn’t fit in with that image. Gregg is the force behind Decoder Ring Theatre, which produces podcasts in the style of 40s’ and 50s’ radio serials. He’s been doing that for eight years. and I first came across them about seven years ago.

These podcasts come out twice a month. So 24 a year, of which he writes 18. That’s 18 a year, for 8 years. Without fail. We underestimate that as an aspect of creativity. Quantity. Sure it’s important to have the novelist spending his entire lifetime creating one world altering novel. But to be able to sit down and come up with something new, every fortnight. That’s an incredible achievement. I think more of us should look at the amount someone produces as a mark of a creative person.

That’s not to say the quality isn’t there. Sure there are better writers. I’m reading Midnight’s Children at the moment, by Salman Rushdie, and there’s a great writer. But the content of the podcasts are entertaining, there’s character development, nearly always a plot (as much as you can get into 25 mins), there’s some fun lines, poignancy. They have the lot. And Gregg is a better writer than most. And he comes up with that every two weeks. For eight years. Very few creative outputs have those attributes of quality and consistency.

But I think what also makes the truly creative people stand out, isn’t just the ability to succeed in one area. There’s a good team of actors in these podcasts, of whom Gregg Taylor is one. He acts, directs, does post-production and markets them. He’s also written novels based on the characters and now has launched the first comic book, to great reviews. Specialism is over-rated, adaptability is a mark of a very creative person.

I think, though, the most unhelpful of the characteristics we associate with creativity is the idea of the emotional erratic soul suffering for his art. We all know people who are jerks, who people let get away with being a jerk, simply because they are creative and innovative. This probably happens more in the academic world than the art world. Happens a lot in movie making too. They’re perfectionists, or they’re obsessed, or any one of a number of excuses we give for their bad behaviour. But really, if it’s such an effort for them to create, then really they’re not that good at being creative. Sure everyone needs to put their work first occasionally. I get ratty if I get interrupted in the middle of thinking about something. But actually … that is because if I lose my train of thought it takes me ages to get it back, sometimes I never do. So that’s a case in point, I’m actually not that creative, otherwise I could recall it whenever I want. In contrast, the DRT troupe engage with their audiences, through twitter, facebook and there’s an approachability there that you wouldn’t get, say, with other writers, actors etc. Not sure what I’d call this as a quality, but maybe not being really up yourself … humour or humility would cover it.

While on the subject of humility, I first heard someone describe themself as a Creative at a seminar day a couple of years back (at the University of Hull actually). Talk about lack of humility. To describe yourself as a Creative is, by default, implying that you’re somehow different from everyone else, that you’re creative and they’re not. No. You’re just lucky enough to be in a job that supports you to be creative, that doesn’t make you special. I get to spend a big chunk of my time writing. Sometimes I get paid for that. I am therefore a jammy bastard, http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=jammy%20bastard and I never forget that. If you ever refer to yourself as A Creative, you’re pronouncing it wrong, it’s actually pronounced “wank-er”.

Finally, and maybe the most controversial of the pre-requisites for creativity, the DRT output is free. One of the mistakes a lot of people who create things make is that they think that because they are talented, the world owes them the opportunity to put those talents to use. No it doesn’t. Work for the vast majority of people, is doing stuff they hate that they get paid for. If you like doing it, it’s not work, and essentially there’s no reason to be paid for it. People need you to stack shelves, mend roads, grow food. They don’t need your book or your music in the same way. So yes, the majority will share your music, download your movie, pass on pdfs of your book chapter. That’s tough, but it’s a fact of life and you probably need to just face up to that rather than whinging about it and trying to come up with legislation to stop it. I’ve never actually taken anything like that for free, I pay for the music I listen to, and the TV shows I watch, and I donate to DRT and soma fm and any of the free content that’s out there, but I do so because I see it as a moral obligation, not a legal necessity. And from a selfish point of view, I want to see them continue. If enough people value your work, then they will pay for it and the work will continue. If they don’t then they won’t,  and it won’t. The truly creative will therefore make their stuff open source, they’ll share it for free and then see what happens. A freemium model, whereby you find ways to make money by selling extra content works too – monetizing the long tail as I almost managed to say at a recent transmedia conference, then had an attack of self-respect at the last minute.  (Other people ripping off your stuff and making money off it is another matter, that’s out and out theft).  It’s inappropriate to rail against creating music, or writing books or making movies under those conditions.because you knew that’s the way things are when you got into it. If you don’t like it, there’s always stacking shelves, mending roads, or teaching to fall back on. If you’re really creative, you’ll still feel driven to create anyway.

Oh and if you want to check out DRT, their website is at http://www.decoderringtheatre.com/

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Flow and writing

This is my own observations and response to Grainne’s latest post http://e4innovation.com/?p=658 mainly because I’ve just spent three days solid writing and doing nothing else in order to meet a deadline so it’s on my mind at the moment.

The subject of Grainne’s post is flow, and I’ve definitely been in the zone today. The book is on Making Sense of Space and is written with a long-standing friend and collaborator Iryna Kuksa – she got the publishing deal, we came up with a subject we could both write about, and then off we went. Or rather I didn’t. I did an introduction back in September, then left it until December, didn’t quite get the last chapter written in the time I had allocated and it’s taken me until now to get it written.

What helps? Well deadlines help. They are the best cure for writer’s block there is. We all know the stories about Douglas Adams and deadlines, so I don’t need to repeat them here … I’m not as bad as DNA, I nearly always meet them, but this one has been particularly difficult to get started on. The reason, mainly, was because I didn’t believe I could do it. Although I did my half of the intro with no problem this was mainly because Iryna had laid out what she wanted from me and how much, so no real thought required there. So really six months (I started thinking about it in July) of panicking before I got down to it. But then I remembered something I really wanted to write about, which was a proposal I’d started to put together for a Marie Curie fellowship, something I’d noted about descriptions of game spaces, ritual spaces, theatre and virtual worlds while doing the PhD and had emerged in conversations with colleagues and friends. That gave me something I wanted to say. I was no longer just doing this because I felt I ought to write somethign, this was something I cared about. So that’s lesson 1 for writing: Find something you care about. Even then though it was a while before I started. I was really waiting for an opportune time, I’d taken on a few projects, and needed to get those written, but had most of December and early January set aside for writing the book (well my half of it). Other writing commitments eroded that though, so bit by bit I was reduced to only about two weeks: a few days before Christmas and about two weeks of January. This was a good time though, I’m not a huge fan of Christmas, and luckily I had a huge back muscle cramp that meant I couldn’t walk for about two weeks anyway, so I could shut everyone away, turn off the email, turn down Facebook and focus on the book. Because really you need to think, and you need to immerse yourself totally to do that properly. Lesson 2: Shut yourself away from distractions. That worked this week, three days with no Facebook, no email and no visitors and I got it done. This morning I had the conclusion to write and the only way to do that is read it through, hold everything in your head at once, and try and look for the common themes. That needs protracted durations of quiet. I wanted to link experiences of space, experiences of technology, willingness to bond with technology and ultimately look at longterm effects on what that means to be human. A lot of disparate stuff, but I think i got there without sounding too mixed up.

The reason why I wanted to bring together all those different things was because throughout the book — in fact a big part of the pitch to the publishers, was that this would be a book with a lot of contributors, but with the majority of the writing by Iryna and me. I’ve quoted friends, got them to add stuff through Facebook, interviewed them, quoted their dissertations. Of the 26k words I’ve written I’d say that about 5k were written by others (all credited obviously). I like having those viewpoints and voices, and I figure that it’s a platform for other people who have influenced me to also get into print. I’ve also let anyone read it who wants to, through posting it as FB notes, or emailing it to them. It’s made it a lot more fun, and hopefully readable. so lesson 3 Don’t do it alone.

The other thing that helped too, over Christmas particularly when I had 10 days over three weeks of concentrated work was to keep a spreadsheet of how much I was doing and set a target every day. This was around 1000 words, which doesn’t sound a lot, but some days I’d delete half that before starting anything else. The advantage of this is that you have to keep going, even when you want to stop. And also when you get to that point, you can stop. One of the mistakes with writing is to always think that you should do a bit more. The mistake with that though is, if you don’t stop, where’s the incentive in writing? If you keep going at it and get your 1000 words done by 4:00 the evening is yours, aiming towards that goal is then a point you can reward yourself, so you keep going. If you faff about and are still at it at 10:00, tough. The flow thing is all about feeding back how well you’re doing and thereby remaining motivated. so lesson 4: lots of small targets and stick to them, feed back regularly.

Although I was originally a bit peeved at the time taken off the chunk of time I’d set aside to write, when I got down to it I could see that this had been an advantage, because during that time a friend had given me a book called Virtual Literacies. In it there was a chapter on the schome project, which she’d contributed to. This ended up being the place where I started my chapter, because the discussions in the Gillen et al chapter in the book had stuff to say about how learners in Schome had related to those places. I could start by recapping that chapter and then branch out to talk about teh bigger picture. This then became the format for the other chapters too, start with a case study of one thing, to illustrate the argument, then talk about the chapter. Without finding a formula like that I’d’ve been prevaricating for a couple of days each time trying to get started. This applies really to each individual day too. If you finish one day with sort of an idea of what to do next, or even start by editing what you’ve already done, it makes it easier to start, because you know what you have to do. Some peopel I know even leave sentences half way through so they can start off the next day by finishing it off. I wouldn’t take the chance that I would be able to, but a few notes on what the next bit is, or a plan, really helps. lesson 5, if you only know one thing, know how you’re going to start.

That really applies to the conclusion too, I find it helps to start those of with one specific thing … maybe something new, or maybe something said in the chapter, that can kick off the discussion. The first bit doesn’t have to be profound. It can be only connected vaguely or occur to you because of something else completely. Just write that down and see what follows on from that. I was stuck on the conclusion for one chapter and couldn’t see what the lessons learned were, but then had a conversation about how we always try and fix things by making the technology better rather than the pedagogy. That seemed to be a lesson that also arose from the case studies I’d been writing about, so I put that down. After writing for a while, I realised that actually, it was true. lesson 6 if you’ve got too many things to say just start with one, pick it at random if you like. that’s still better than not picking one.

And finally, lesson 7, sometimes you just have to go with the flow and let yourself be distracted. The last post I wrote was when I was still trying to get down to the final chapter. I saw the Daily Post challenge and i spent a couple of hours writing a short story when I should have been working.  I can’t really argue that it helped me get the work done, but I really don’t think I’d have been able to focus until it was written. Same with this blog. I have 200 unread emails and about 250 unanswered ones, but I thought of this first so got it out the way.