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Creativity: The human condition? May 28, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Nature or nurture: It’s a question that’s probably as old as humankind. One of our friend Ben’s friends has written a couple of blog posts recently contending what I have long believed, that genetics, not medicine or lifestyle, determines the length of one’s life and the manner of one’s death. (Well, maybe he didn’t go quite that far, but I will; I’m convinced of it.) Mind you, I think medical care and lifestyle can have a great impact on one’s quality of life. But I digress.

Today’s post is brought to you courtesy of our blog host, WordPress, which highlights posts its arbiters deem worthy each day by posting them on its login home page. Today had one called “Can Creative Writing Be Taught?” by Gillian Holding of Life and Art (http://gilliansblog.wordpress.com/). Ms. Holding, a fine artist, had read an article in The Guardian that doubted it, and since she also works in a high-creative field, she had clearly given the matter of whether creativity in general could be taught a great deal of thought.

Our friend Ben is an enthusiastic but untalented watercolorist, but a lifelong creative writer from a family where writing has been a compulsion for at least four recorded generations. I composed my first poem at age two. I amused and/or horrified relatives at family gatherings by using words like “chandelier” and “elegant” (which I could also spell) by age four. (This ability put an abrupt end to my parents’ attempts to spell out inappropriate or provocative words at the dinner table, like “vacation.”) I have written poems, songs, essays, novels, children’s books, and nonfiction books all my life, and they have been effortless for me. Nature, or nurture?

I’m sure Homer’s contemporaries asked themselves if his creations of works like The Iliad and The Odyssey were the result of a gift from the gods, or whether his teacher had simply been that much better than theirs. No doubt Leonardo’s Renaissance associates, many of them sublimely talented in their own right, wondered why his paintings looked so very different—so much more alive—than anybody else’s. Maybe the fiesty, choleric John Adams stared at Ben Franklin and muttered, “Dammit! Why didn’t I invent the rocking chair, the Franklin stove, and the lightning rod?!” And Shakespeare’s fellow playwrites scratched their heads and asked each other, “How does he do that?!” And Ig looked at Og’s gorgeous pigment drawings on the cave walls and thought “Ow! Why can’t I do that?! My people look like bleeping stick-figures, and nobody even recognized that bison I drew last week.” 

Our friend Ben contends that nurture certainly helps. There is no question in my mind that it smoothes the way for every endeavor. Being read great poetry in the cradle, being forced to read great poetry aloud from the time I could first read, being taught to read so early, being exposed to the best writing from across time and cultures, being exposed to well-educated parents with huge vocabularies and picking up a vast and accurate vocabulary from voracious reading, and being exposed to and loving other languages: All this paved the way for advantages throughout life that I could never have imagined.

But could it really have made me a gifted poet, writer, and thinker? Or was it some impulse, some inherited ability, some inborn talent that made me what I am?

I’ve never known, and I always leave the door open for both, the combination that creates grey rather than black or white. What I can say is that one of my graduate degrees is in creative writing. I had some excellent teachers, but the greatest benefit I received from my classes—with the exception of poetry translation, which was unspeakably fun and really inspiring—was being forced to produce poetry and etc. on a much-more-frequent basis than might have been the case were I not confronted with constant assignments in class. What I did notice, however, was that the other students in all my classes began to write more and more like me as the semesters wore on. They had no voice, so they took on mine. I’ve also occasionally taught poetry workshops to people who couldn’t imagine themselves writing a poem, and it’s been hugely rewarding to see their surprise and delight at the end of the workshop.

Were any of these people natural writers, much less good writers? No. But they were clearly impelled by the passion, the need to create. Our friend Ben is convinced that this impulse—whether we’re talking about a novel, a painting, a beaded necklace, a knitted scarf, a haunting piece of music, a delicious new way to prepare food, a better oil filter, a new way to train dogs, or a perfectly fluted arrowhead—is somehow hardwired into us, and is what ultimately sets us apart from the rest of creation.

We share a form of aesthetic appreciation with all creation, for better or worse, and it tends towards extremes. (Think about the otherwise useless, astonishing tailfeathers of male peacocks or the giant, outsized eyes and lips, taking up far more space than is actually possible, and tiny bodies supporting the giant heads on cartoon idealizations of human beings.) But only humans seem hardwired to create outside the realm of reproduction, to create beauty, utility, or comfort for their own sake. 

Our friend Ben does, and does passionately, believe that creativity is the human condition. It is what ultimately sets us apart from the rest of creation. It is why books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain will always be bestsellers: We are all pulled to the creative, even if we have no inherent talent or our talent is modest in the extreme.

Can we learn to be artists? Well, there are certainly formulas you can follow to achieve success in genre fiction like murder, suspense, sci-fi, historical fiction, heroic fiction, and romance.  Will mastering these formulas make you the next Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Guy Gavriel Kay, Mary Stewart, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sharon Kay Penman, Mary Gentle, Sheri Tepper, Tony Hillerman, Joan Vinge, Alexander McCall Smith, even Georgette Heyer? Hardly. You can only boost yourself so far. But you can make a fabulous living, and see your works turned into bestselling movies and franchises, if you like. Just look at Harry Potter.

Our friend Ben rejoices in every expression of human creativity. However we’ve managed it, it has enriched our culture in every way that matters.

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