Learning whimsy instead of writing

When Katharine Beals’ son was in high school, his writing textbook was all about creativity, she writes in Out In Left Field. Learning to write apparently didn’t require practice constructing sentences or paragraphs.

These days, many believe “creativity means suppressing the logical, analytical left brain, and, thereby, unleashing those novel, right-brain-driven associations between prompts and ideas,” Beals writes.

What people forget, however, is that this is only one step in the creative process. Nor is it even the first step. That flash of insight, as it turns out, has preconditions. (Researcher John) Kounios’ studies of the split seconds leading up to creative insight show a momentary reduction in the brain’s flow of visual information, which allows the brain to turn inwards and notice those (initially weak) associations, which, in turn, allows certain ones of these associations to pop into consciousness as sudden bursts of insight.

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” Kounios quotes Louis Pasteur as saying.

Centuries before neuroscience, the philosopher John Locke distinguished between wit and judgment, she writes. “Wit allows you to think up wild new ideas, but judgment tells you which ideas are actually worth keeping.”

These days a better word for “wit” might be “whimsy,” Beals writes. Too often our approach to writing and other creative arts “mistakes whimsy for creativity.”

Most creative geniuses “work ferociously hard,” according to Temple Psychology Professor Robert W. Weisberg. “You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline,” he says.

To learn writing — creative or otherwise — students need less whimsy and more revision, Beals argues. Teachers should focus less on “inspiring prompts,” and “more on the art of sentence and paragraph construction, sentence and paragraph rearrangement, and revision, revision, revision.”

“Schools talk a lot about learning styles but refuse to acknowledge that some kids don’t find artsy projects fun and would rather write a proper report,” notes Mom of 4 in the comments.

Auntie Ann’s son “was graded down because he really, really wanted a project to be in black and white and the teacher insisted he had to color it. Very little of the grade ends up being actually learning or content based.”

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