What is creativity? Can creative writing be taught? And what are the implications of technological advances for the fiction writer?
These are some of the daunting questions tackled by STIAS Artist-in-Residence Brian Chikwava, award-winning writer and musician, who is at STIAS to work on his latest collection of short stories.
“Research on creativity is a relatively new and marginal field and, until recently, has received little attention,” said Chikwava. “What creativity is and what it is not is a question that is not yet entirely settled.”
In his seminar Chikwava set out to examine the role of creativity in the practice of writing fiction, the creative processes common to contemporary writers and “how these are placed to articulate the cultures of the future”.
“We continued to battle with the notion of creativity – what is it and what it isn’t,” he said.
“There are obviously hugely different conceptions of creativity,” he added. “With perhaps some consensus that creativity is the product of novel, useful, meaningful ideas.”
“Early conceptions of creativity contained heavy supernatural associations, with novel ideas seen as originating from the gods, and the artist’s job being that of revealing the sacred and transcendent qualities of nature,” he continued. “More recent ideas about creativity regard it as a set of practices that further the emancipatory potential of human action. However, even among practitioners in creative arts, narrow notions of creativity still prevail.”
Part of the challenge lies in the continuing myth of the artist and the creative process which largely arose from the Romantic period. “Creativity was tied to romantic notions and the mythology of the spontaneous creative genius,” he said.
He mentioned some of the ritual and, even superstition, supposedly linked to the processes of writers like Dickens, Joyce, Dumas and even Dr Seuss.
In opposition to this viewpoint, Chikwava highlighted the proliferation of creative-writing courses or ‘programme writing’ which have become popular and widely available.
“These probably originated as a result of the fear of Communism and were seen as a defence of individuality and humanistic expression versus group thinking,” he added. “They had a huge influence in the US but are now all over the Anglophone world.”
“Such courses are premised on the idea that it is possible to teach writing and that narrative can be constructed in a rational step-by-step way in contrast to the notion of spontaneous creativity.”
“Proponents say that these courses don’t claim to teach creativity but teach students to participate in creative practices. They equip students with a set of skills and techniques. This helps the student to develop a benchmark for quality writing and the techniques to achieve it. It is process oriented and can therefore be interpreted and analysed.”
“It’s based on the argument that most new ideas are a new combination of old elements which depends on an ability to see new relationships.”
According to Chikwava, those who oppose such courses would argue that “writing cannot be taught and such courses are a pyramid scheme. It’s writers who have not been published teaching other writers how not to be published. And that true creative writers have less control over the process – you cannot know what you know until you have written it.”
“There is a snobbery about such programme writing – that it is mechanistic, all style and technique but no substance. Not art but design.”
“So fairly narrow conceptions of creativity have led to sharp differences, with one set of writers/creative-writing teachers disparaging the creative practices of the other,” he continued. ”In reality I think most contemporary novel writers tend to be hybrids of these different viewpoints and techniques.”
“Writers are a product of history and social circumstances – these enable different creativities. You can’t impose a standard methodology.”
“Part of this is the classic tension between artistic and scientific methodologies – we are breaking down disciplinary boundaries.”
“There is a need to reconcile and live within both worlds,” he added.
However, Chikwava believes technological advances are set to further challenge our notions of creativity and the creative process.
“It’s interesting to speculate on the outcomes of new conceptions of creativity when coupled with emerging tools from IT and what potential this may unlock for fiction writing in the future,” he said.
Chikwava referred to some examples including the Magenta research project being undertaken by Google that explores the role of machine learning to create art and music, the fact that the famous Abbey Road Studio in London is trying out simulation programmes for music creation and the existence of computer algorithms that can identify the markers of a bestseller with up to 90% accuracy.
“Technological tools open huge possibilities,” he said. “There are new frontiers and conceptions of reality based on IT and media. What we regard as creativity is changing constantly. Artificial intelligence means computers have the capacity to learn. With more advanced tools it’s likely that new forms of novels will emerge.”
“The hardest parts of creative writing are the boring bits,” he laughed. “Maybe we can develop computer algorithms to help with those?”
In discussion, Chikwava discussed his own writing process which comprises gathering materials and looking for possibilities but then abandoning the materials to build again from a position of naivety. “I try not to bring preconceived ideas into the writing process,” he said. “I find that too much knowledge overburdens the creative mechanism. I lose perspective and can’t see the obvious connections. I need to rework as a process of discovery.”
“Knowledge is helpful to creativity but it depends on the kind,” he added. “Excessive declarative and theoretical knowledge has been said to impede the creative process.”
He also discussed the challenge of creativity within bureaucratic academic structures.
“Creativity is about unlocking human potential but it’s hard for an individual to get into and remain within an institution without conforming. It’s probably about thinking to the limit of the box. Outside the box is more radical, less confined to institutional structures.”
Lastly, he discussed the dichotomy of isolation and connectiveness which are part of the challenge of being creative in the digital age.
“It’s very difficult to be the isolated creative genius now,” he said. “We need to learn to inhabit a different space which strikes a balance between isolation and connectivity.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw