[stextbox id=”info” caption=”The first in the series of five articles. Look for one a month through October.”]
Barbara Florio Graham was invited by the National Capital Branch of the Canadian Authors’ Association to present a mini-version of her popular online course, Tapping Your Innate Creativity.
They also requested an article for the Fall 2015 issue of their quarterly newsletter, The Byline.
Both the workshop and article were so well received the executive commissioned four more articles on creativity. Although The Byline is a paying market, they allowed Bobbi to keep all rights, and agreed to allow her to publish these articles in other writers’ newsletters, as long as CAA was credited with first publication.
by Barbara Florio Graham
There was a movement a few decades ago to introduce creative writing into the classroom. This was, for the most part, a spectacular flop, producing either unintelligible gibberish or regurgitated TV plots. We mustn’t blame the teachers for this; nobody showed them how to encourage and develop the creative process.
We’re a left-brain, right-handed society that rewards, throughout our school system as well as later in the work world, logical, linear, orderly, sequential thinking.
Many teachers felt threatened by the unorthodox thinking of creative students. Teaching is a very left-brain activity that requires patience, organizational ability, high verbal skills, and logical thinking. School systems in the Western world have traditionally encouraged left-brain students and faculty, realizing that there was no way to measure some of the abilities of the right-brain minority.
Even math is often taught using story problems. When one of the 10% of right-brained kids is asked to figure out how many pieces Jane can cut from six apples in order to share equally with her ten friends, the right-brain student might discuss the fact that no two apples are exactly the same size and weight. Will his teacher recognize superior ability, or scold him?
Before more extensive study of the brain was pursued, it was thought that people were dominated either by the left brain—which made them better at thinking logically, using words to express themselves, and following step-by-step instructions, or right-brained—which meant they were good at art, music, and math.
But we now know it isn’t as simple as that.
Think of it as a continuum. At the very far left are those who are so rigidly logical that they have difficulty relating to other people, lack imagination or the ability to enjoy anything they can’t explain, and often have astounding abilities in hard sciences. We have a great example of that today in Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. He is a prime example of how we misunderstand the wide autism spectrum. Some people with autism fall on the far left side of the continuum, although many are on the far right side and have difficulty expressing themselves in words, but are hugely talented in music or the visual arts.
Most of us have left-dominant brains, but recent research has revealed that children can be nudged to the right.
My own experience has been interesting. My father was a practical man with excellent business sense, but he was also an inventive thinker who figured things out not by logic or following directions, but by experimentation, unafraid of trying something to find out if it might work.
My mother was very verbal, but also had many right-brain characteristics. She was an accomplished self-taught musician, wrote verse, including song parodies, and was a talented artist and seamstress.
She encouraged me to do well in school but also to enjoy music and art and use my imagination to make up stories. One of those brief stories won a contest at Humpty Dumpty magazine, which awarded me five dollars and a free subscription. So I was a published writer at age nine!
Even after I became a journalist devoted to capturing the truth, I wrote poetry and the occasional short story in my spare time. There’s room for both in any writer’s career.
It’s a myth that creativity is inborn. In fact, parents and schools can nurture it, and most adults can stretch their ability to develop more creative solutions to problems or to write more original and creative material.
Creativity helps you look at ordinary things more closely. For example, it was just a little more than a century ago that cobblers began to make right and left shoes. Is there another product for which there is an obvious need that no one has yet thought of, even though it’s right under our noses?
In fact, recent research indicates that high activity in the right side of the brain contributes to optimism and overall happiness. Perhaps this is due to the realization that everything is possible in a world in which all options are open.
Throughout history, left-handed geniuses astounded and confounded their peers. Among them were individuals as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, Leonardo da Vinci, Cole Porter, Albert Schweitzer, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein.
When I was hired to teach English to grades seven and eight at the prestigious Latin School of Chicago, the headmaster told me, “I want you to teach these kids how to write easily and well, so that by the time they finish grade eight we no longer have to spend time correcting grammar, sentence structure, organization, and clarity.”
That was a challenge I welcomed. But then he added another. The eighth-graders had been divided unequally into two sections, with only twelve—including his older son—in the higher group.
“These kids have I.Q. scores more than 10 points higher than yours. You aren’t going to be able to teach them anything. They’re reading sophisticated adult nonfiction, and will rebel if you assign them boring spelling and grammar homework. Find some way to keep them busy and engaged, no matter what it takes.”
That led me to examine my own writing process. I realized I had no actual plan. I just focused on an idea (or the notes I’d taken) and started writing.
Already a student of psychology, I read about the brain and began to develop unique exercises to surprise the class. Once a week, on a randomly selected day, I would tell them we were going to do some creative exploration.
One day I announced that everyone was going to receive the same mark for that class period, and that I was not going to participate except to check to ensure that everyone in the class contributed. They would have to organize themselves and write a complete poem on the board in forty minutes.
They immediately selected the girl with the best penmanship to write on the board, agreed on a theme (the city of Chicago), and began by throwing out ideas and quickly forming them into phrases, which got moved around from one section of the board to the other.
The result was a really good poem that later appeared in the school newspaper.
There’s a Rad Bradbury quote that describes this process: “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”
Many writers tend to focus only on plot, character, setting, or background history. These are all left-brain activities.
Researchers have pointed out that the left hemisphere is “the resident storyteller,” while the right jumps to conclusions, filling in visual elements, adding music, emotion, and sensory impressions. In fact, most of our thinking happens unconsciously.
So to write more creatively, you have to engage the right brain. Listen to running water by taking a shower or installing a fountain in your office. Post engaging visual images where you can see them as you write. Include images from nature as well as abstracts, and avoid photos unless you’re writing about these people. Keep things nearby that you can touch, feel, and smell.
Imagine the outrageous. Change the context, the premise, the frame, and the vocabulary. What would happen if you switched the logical order, or stretched the limits beyond logical bounds? How about connecting things that appear to have nothing in common, or eliminating what appears to be essential?
Stop. Change direction. Find a sense you haven’t used yet.
It costs nothing to invest in your imagination.
Barbara Florio Graham is an award-winning author, publishing consultant, and marketing strategist. Her popular workshop on creativity has won accolades from participants all over the world, and is now taught as an online tutorial. See the wealth of free information on her website: SimonTeakettle.com.