Saturday, 28 April 2012

What is 'creativity'?

I've been exercised about exactly what creativity is for some time now.

Apparently while I've been exercised about this, others have been busy appropriating it. Which is odd, because I had the feeling that creative used to be what your mother hoped you weren't, so that you'd do well in your exams and get a good job.

These days, creativity is a term that is linked more often with enterprise, innovation and collaboration than with drug-fuelled hippies, going off the rails, and lone artists in garrets.

What's being stolen is the origin of creativity. It's being sold back to us as a commodity, something we can buy cheaply and easily, but which effaces the origins of the product, like brightly-lit supermarkets purveying white milk in plastic containers, rather than cows.

Let me give an example. Jonah Lehrer is a clever young chap, who wrote a book called Proust was a Neuroscientist (by implication, I am not, I am a grumpy old woman). I read and enjoyed this book. Basically it argued that modernist thinkers, writers and artists had somehow (despite being artists!) come up with theories it had taken neuroscience much longer to verify. Theories about memory and perception, essentially.

I noticed that the level of quotation from Proust showed a pretty basic mastery of the novel — had he actually read the whole thing, or just got wind of it from conversations, done a bit of research, and plumped for the standard quotations about madeleines and involuntary memory?

I was willing to forgive the superficial reading of Proust and others for the sake of an original argument... until I realised that Lehrer (isn't it extraordinary how people's names match their professions?) had smoothly moved on from this bouncy early puppydog book to becoming overall spokesman for imagination. Imagine! We can now be told that the 'new rules of creativity' include such insights as:
  • Take more breaks
  • Think like a child
  • Watch more comedy
  • Creativity depends on selection and limitation, as much as on excess and productivity (actually that's my insight, what Lehrer said was "It's not until we encounter a challenge we can't easily solve that the chains of cognition are loosened")
  • Work with strangers
  • Prepare to improvise
These gems are to be found in Wired, May 2012, pp. 110-15.

To give Lehrer some credit, I liked the point he makes about brainstorming. Developing what he'd said about creativity being enhanced by limitation, he cites research by Charlan Nemeth of Berkeley which broke groups faced with a problem to solve into 3 camps:
  1. those who got no instruction in how to work together
  2. those who were told to brainstorm, with the explicit instruction that all ideas are valid (at least to start with)
  3. those who were were told that 'most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other's ideas'
Those who debated came up with more ideas and went on having ideas afterwards. Competition doesn't kill creativity. This I liked — we used to call it stimulating discussion. But Lehrer and Nemeth are not quite right, or somewhat naive. Competitive creativity produces a high level of wastage, and competition does kill some kinds of creativity — there are often other things at play, like gendered behaviour. That kind of debating has to be really well facilitated to work. It's essentially Darwinian, and the fittest ideas survive, not necessarily the best.

So what was being served up as insight in Wired anyone working in the arts and humanities could have told you in 5 minutes of intense conversation. It's not that what he tells us about creativity isn't true, it's just that it's the condition of working for anyone who picks up an instrument or a pen, or a camera, or a sexual partner. These are the implicit rules of the game for frustrated writers, tired performers, hyper-competitive improv artists. Creativity is bloodthirsty, sapping stuff, not painting the walls blue, taking breaks and sucking lattes. Creativity is destructive, and not averse to bullying, gameplaying, bitching, undermining...

Sanitized versions of what it is to be innovative, creative, collaborative, like Lehrer's, are very attractive in a digitized era, because they make creativity look clean, infinitely reproducible, distributable, editable, fun with a neat Brazilian.

The monks that used to illuminate manuscripts, and the artists that painted Bible scenes on the walls of churches have given way to raspberry pis programmed by children. In the name of the democratization of creativity, we are at risk of effacing its origins, and in so doing, forgetting how to do it.

P.S. yes, I know I'm writing a blog on a laptop, and without Apple and Google couldn't be reaching out with my harum-scarum argument. Very clever thing, technology. Just don't tell me it owns creativity. It owns techne.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Fostering independence

A post scriptum to 'Safeguarding Gone Mad in Tescos'....

We were just about on time for the school run this morning. But at the last minute I realised my deaughter wasn't wearing her cycle helmet. So I told her to go back inside to get it, and catch us up. Then I set off with son on scooter, assuming she would join us a few seconds later.

Many seconds later it was clear that something had gone wrong. I sent son on scooter back as an envoy, she was duly found, and caught up with us. At first I tried to quell my ever-present impatience by asking if she was all right. But when she said that she'd been frightened because mummy wasn't there, I'm ashamed to say I lost that fragile patience completely.

I know, I know, I'm not proud of this. Why do you think I write about it?

What happened is that I told her off for not listening to me, and for not using her common sense. If you read the Tescos post, you'll sense a theme here. Into the gap between my expectation of where her logic and common sense should be, and where it actually is, floods my impatience... and anger.

All the horrible way to school, labouring under two gymn bags, a trumpet, a school bag and my own satchel, I sweated and fumed.

It was only when we arrived at school, late, that I found myself wanting to cry with the frustration of it all – the frustration of my daughter's fears making us late for school, and the fact that my daughter's fears also make it impossible to criticize her without crushing her.

And for the fact that what I am confronting here is myself. As a child I was exactly the same – not, perhaps about simple errands without Mummy, which I was able to do from around 6, but about change. I found contemplating the future, and change, absolutely terrifying. Why should my beautiful daughter feel any differently?

Later on in the morning, instead of going home and running errands, getting on with work etc etc, I spontaneously went to have my legs waxed. This is a novelty in my life – a life spent frugally and fearfully avoiding the world of female beauty treatment, condemning it for its vanity, its waste of precious time, its servitude to commodified sexuality and Mammon – but these days, a bit of pampering goes a long way.

I talked to the young woman applying the green gloop about her experience of growing up. She'd loved her teenage years, she said. She'd loved going out with friends, from around the age of 12, although she'd still been taken to school until she was around 13. She'd had a Saturday job from around 16. I realized, listening to her, what my problem is.

Although I long for my daughter to seize her independence, the truth is that she is rather like me, as I was at her age. She is dreamy and imaginative, and sometimes anxious. She's also an actress, and the world is her stage. Her waking life is filled with stories of her own devising – no wonder she doesn't know how to find me in a supermarket, or worries when she can't see me on the school run.

It quite literally doesn't cross her mind yet to use her common sense to solve a problem, and I am going to need to support her to grow this. But I am never going to be able to make her be independent, because, as was the case with me, this is a process that each individual is in sole charge of. In my case, I could run mentally long before I could walk emotionally, and it did me no favours at all, leading to teenage years of acute self-consciousness and misery, as I imagined and punished myself for all the FUN I believed others to be having, unable to bear taking a single step towards it.

I grew up sheltered, but I also sheltered myself, because I was actually unable to set off in life any earlier than I did. For many years I blamed my parents for this sheltering. But now I can see that my forming self actually craved the peace and tranquility of home, and that I simply felt guilty about this, berating myself for not being more worldly, when I had no real wish to be worldly at all. I've always been criticized for my thin skin.

So while it's hilarious that my child can't find me in a supermarket, and makes for a good story, the truth is much smaller and quieter and more painful than that: my lovely child will look for her independence in her own time, and nothing I do (although I should not stop offering her challenges and puzzles and opportunities) will speed that process up.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

It's a jungle out there - lock up your daughters!

Ah, at last, a subject for a mothering blog to really sink your teeth into. Maternal negligence.

So, I took the two children to the supermarket with me. I had only managed this by virtue of agreeing to let my son go to the toy section. He knows this particular supermarket stocks a brand of some unspeakable tut, which appears to be a 'trash monster'. Delightful. We now give our children replica waste disposal units, presumably to prepare them for a lifetime of cleaning up the environmental disaster we've caused.

Anyway, I delivered both the children to the toys, and instructed my oldest, who is about to turn 9, to keep the youngest in sight at all times, and then walk up the central aisle and look down the side aisles for me when they'd had enough of window shopping.

I peacefully got on with my shop, congratulating myself that we had at last got to a point where I could let my daughter be responsible, give her a little independence, and not have them trail after me, whining for what they knew I wouldn't purchase for them. A brilliant solution.

Time ticked by.

I realised that I was pretty near the end of the shop, and felt in my bones that something was awry, but then thought, I'm sure they're fine, I'll just get the eggs and go and look for them.

At that precise moment, I heard "Would Ingrid Wassinaw please go to the scrumupfflyephondobu –". I did not need to be told twice. I whipped the laden trolley round, and fretted my way behind various meanderthals to Customer Service.

There they both were, abandoned orphan waifs, blonde heads peeking pitifully over the counter, while a large red-faced lady with her back to me frowned loudly into a phone, "we've still got them, we'll have to call the police".

Meanwhile, yours truly was unrepentently asking the children what had happened, and whether they had come looking for me.

They had. They had looked all over the toy section first, then looked along every side aisle (carefully avoiding the central aisle, it seems). Then the staff had used the shop cameras to look for me, and identify my car (to reassure the children I hadn't just driven off, they said), and then the staff were about to call the police. They had apparently called out my name, and the car numberplate, 4 times. I'd heard none of it.

Redface was standing over me, hands on hips, glaring down at my clearly negligent head, as I crouched by the children. I wasn't sure whether to point out to her that the shop's reaction was completely out of proportion, illogical, poorly thought-through, and seemingly designed to cause the children maximum distress.

I decided against it.

But I consciously decided not to apologise, or thank them on bended knee for saving my children's lives from the band of child abductors who usually go to that branch of Tescos for their Saturday shopping.

Instead, here is what I did. I took the children round the corner, and told my daughter that next time she should listen to what I'd said, go down the wretched central aisle, and use that vantage point to scan down the sides. I told her to use her Godgiven logic, to which she pointed out that I didn't believe in God. I agreed, and told her to use my brain, which I'd very kindly put in her head. It seems to me that if you have a child who can engage in theological argumentation, she can probably find you in a supermarket.

Then I suggested we play a couple of rounds of hide and seek, in which the children, like two babes in the wood, should count to 20, then come looking for me. They were delighted by this. No, I didn't leave a trail of breadcrumbs (although I did wonder if I was being filmed by the security camera). Once we'd done this a couple of times, the children felt very happy, and I think next time we'll all manage the experiment just fine.

What do I think now? The same as I thought when the redfaced woman bore furiously down on me: what kind of society do we live in, that reacts as though I would abandon my children to their grisly fate, because I let them look at the toy section and then assumed they had the sense to come and find me? In a supermarket they've had the misfortune to mooch around behind me since they were toddlers? I've done the "could you go and look for broccoli for me, darling?" routine ad nauseam. No, give them some independence!

To me, this epitomises what I am up against as a mother. It was so clear to me that I was supposed to kowtow to the staff with their hysterical 'protocols', and not an ounce of common sense – I knew I was being judged for negligence. A few years ago I would have dissolved into tears after an incident of this kind.

Now I just feel completely cold. I no longer have an emotional reaction appropriate to this degree of mass stupidity. I no longer blame myself, and think that others must be right, that others must know more than I do about safety, caution, stranger danger and basic cognition.

How are my children supposed to grow up into independent people who can think for themselves, negotiate the outside world, use their logic, develop their self-confidence and forge lives, in a culture that thinks a supermarket is as dangerous as a trek to the Himalayas?

Basically I trust my children, I knew that they were safe, and wanted to give my daughter some freedom. On one level I feel she used this independence well: when she wasn't sure, she went for help. On another, ever the Victorian mother, I did tell her off for not following simple instructions, or asking me to explain if she felt unclear.

Yet I feel in a tiny minority. I'm using as a benchmark the degree of independence I had by my daughter's age – and I was mollycoddled by comparison with children around me at the time. I would like her to feel able to walk to the local shops or the library, and use the pedestrian crossing, or even walk to school. I get her to cross over quiet roads constantly. We've just managed to persuade her to cycle, on the pavements. Nevertheless she still clings to me, unable to believe that she has it in her to BE any more independent of me. Thanks, Tescos, for reinforcing that belief in my child.

This is the legacy of little Madeleine McCann's disappearance. Because of her terrible loss, because her loss gave form to our deepest fears, and because it is unresolved, we are all living under an imperative to wrap our children in suffocating cotton wool. We are all supposed to keep our little ones zipped to our sides at all times – and if we do not, we are judged negligent for it. But we are breeding trouble for ourselves.

Do people trust themselves so little?