If you’re a writer, it’s a question you get asked all the time. Literally every time I enter a classroom, the first hand that reaches for the ceiling will have the same question attached to it:
“Where do you get your ideas?”
And that’s odd, because in 30 years working in the creative industries, writing, illustration, animation, theatre, TV and film, I’ve found primary school children (and their teachers) to be absolutely the most creative people I have ever met. My stock answer is to ask them where they get theirs.
It’s not limited to schools either. In fact, I’m likely to fall head over heals for the first woman who doesn’t ask the question on our first date.
We are all taught that ideas a kind of magic – that they’re floating around like fairies, and some magic people can see and catch them, and the rest can’t. But worse than that, we’re taught that the route to “good” writing or art is through mastery of the technical disciplines – drawing, grammar, spelling.
In reality it’s not like that. Creativity is a set of muscles and they’re absolutely vital ones in every area of life even if you never want to compose a story, or draw a picture. By not recognising that, we fail to train and exercise those muscles, and they waste away until we struggle to remember where it is ideas come from.
This week I took part in CWISL’s Shoutsouth workshop as part of National Writing Day (http://www.cwisl.org.uk/shoutsouth-2017/4593844242). Two days of intensive creative writing and story making for children from south London schools, in which none of the writers and illustrators and teachers involved ever mentioned spelling or punctuation, or tried to tell a child how to make a drawing look neat.
Why? Because there are two types of creativity:
First, there’s the creative use of technical skills – the construction of sentences, the drawing of shapes and shades, the clever solving of the hundred problems that every attempt at communication throws up. This is the creativity we all understand, and we all get taught in school and beyond. It’s the creativity of the builder. Vital, practical and sharp, and it depends on your ability to work with your technical tools.
And then there’s the other kind. The big stuff. The creativity of the architect – who sits and stares at an empty sheet and asks “What do I want to achieve, and why?” The feelings, and the philosophies, the abstract notions, and motivations and concrete realities that swirl and crash together to form the underlying structure of (and I do not exaggerate here) every decision in your, my, and everyone else’s life.
This is the muscle we don’t train in school, because these connections are fragile and personal, and if you don’t learn to solidify them properly, they don’t survive first contact with paper or screen. They’re easy to spot, but almost impossible to mark, so we generally just sit back and hope that somehow kids will start to develop those muscles on their own. The problem is, we are not giving them room, in our current curriculum to try. And nothing kills big ideas like spelling and grammar.
Concentrating on the technicality of your work focuses you away from the ideas, and into the execution of them. We all instinctively know when someone is using technical small scale creativity, but isn’t doing the bigger thinking behind it.
A badly executed brilliant idea is still a brilliant idea. Whereas a technically perfect nothing is still nothing. All too often, that’s what we train ourselves and our children to create, and I’ll bet you read work like that every day, or watch it on TV, or hear it delivered in a meeting.
We need to train people to have ideas. Not for the sake of art and literature, but because big ideas drive everything we do, feel and think, even if we pretend that they don’t, and if we treat them as magic fairies that only the creatives can see, then we don’t see ourselves as capable of making the choices that drive our own lives.
But we can do it. We can get rid of the “where do you get your ideas?” question. I know we can, because, at the workshop on Monday, once our group of children had abandoned spelling, and torn out that first scary blank page of their exercise books, it took about fifteen minutes before those magic fairies started settling.
And we could all see them.
If you’re thinking of getting an author to talk to your school, and you’re in the UK, just get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org