The Paradox of Teaching Creativity
There’s a lot of criticism these days about the way creative writing is taught in college. And as someone who both takes college classes and has a blog about writing and creativity, I’m uniquely positioned to experience both sides of it. A lot of successful writers complain that colleges stifle creativity, forcing students to adhere to “rules” that are never actually enforced in the real world. Which is absolutely true. But as a student who sees the quality of writing that these professors are dealing with on a daily basis…I kinda get it. Oftentimes, stifled creativity is a massive step up over what you’d otherwise be left with.
The more bad teachers (and bad students) I meet, the more I’m amazed by how hard it is to teach creativity. There’s an incredibly fine line to walk, and stepping too far in either direction can ruin an experience. It all goes to show just how delicate of a thing creativity is.
The way I see it, there are two ways to screw this up. The first is what I call the “you’re valid” approach. Early in my college career, I was constantly frustrated by professors who never criticized anyone’s work because “art is subjective, and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard.” It’s easy to be sucked in to the romance of this idea, especially at a new wave school like mine. But when you don’t enforce standards for anybody, you’re left with a lot of incoherent drivel. You can tell a student that their ideas aren’t working without applying fake, arbitrary rules to everything.
When I had a lot of teachers who worked this way, I found myself disagreeing with all of the famous screenwriters who said that writing professors kill creativity. But if I wanted more rigorous criticism, I eventually got it, and I eventually learned that these guys might be onto something.
It turns out that the second way to badly teach writing is to view everything through the lens of selling scripts. I recently had a professor who lives and dies by the five-act television episode structure (something that many top writers admit to no longer using, because it’s only purpose was to design commercial breaks into episodes). He was obsessed with commercial formats, and constantly discouraged risk taking. Whenever somebody pointed out that we’re living in an age of unprecedented disruption in television, his only response would be “nobody is allowed to take risks until they’ve proven themselves by creating a conventional show.”
That statement may or may not be true, but it ignores something even more important: at this stage of our careers, none of us will be creating a show anytime soon. Our “customers” at this point aren’t network executives, they’re creators hiring staff writers. Networks may be in the business of playing it safe, but the showrunners want to make their shows as interesting as possible. They know how to write conventional scripts, but they want to hire writers with bold, unique voices. From that perspective, discouraging risk taking in a classroom setting is a borderline-idiotic idea.
All of this makes me appreciate how hard it is to teach writing, and appreciate even more the few teachers who do it really well. If I ever find myself teaching college students, I’ve learned that there’s only one way to teach creativity. You have to let the student choose their goal, but then be incredibly rigorous in helping them achieve it.
I really do respect professors who pick my work apart, but not when they try to impose a goal onto it that’s different from mine. Not everyone is trying to write a 22-minute sitcom that will be shown on CBS at 8:00. If a student is writing something more experimental, you have to accept that, and then push them to write the best experimental piece they possibly can. Have standards, just make sure the goal you’re working towards is the student’s, not yours.
Student, blogger, rigorous creative