Saturday, October 11, 2014

Planning vs. Creativity

Indeed, nothing stunts growth more powerfully than our attachment to the familiar, our blind adherence to predetermined plans, and our inability to, as Rilke famously put it, “live the questions.”

This comes from an article written by Maria Popova at her blog Brain Pickings (it'[s a great blog, despite her love for Duckworth's grittology) entitled "The Perils of Plans: Why Creativity Requires Leaping into the Unknown." Popova is looking at Dani Shapiro's memoir Still Writing which includes this great line:

The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again.

And in reference to her own career

It might seem to you that all this has been the result of a methodically carried-out plan. Or any plan at all. But I planned none of it. Almost everything that has happened in my writing life has been the result of keeping my head down and doing the work. 

Shapiro's view matches what many writers have to say about writing-- that it is neither the result of waiting for some uncontrollable bolt of squishy lightning to strike, nor can it be harnessed by a careful and precise plan.

If you've taught writing, you've worked with young writers on both ends of the problem scale. On one end you find students who want to wait until they're in the mood, until they've had an inspiration, at which point they imagine the genius will just automatically pour out of them. On the other end, you find students who want a list of steps to follow, an exact hoop-by-hoop layout of where to jump in order to land on writing excellence.

The hoop jumpers want to be right. They want to know that there is One Right Way to get to the One Right Destination and they want you to tell them what it is. They want to know that every step they take will be Correct, and so not fraught with risk or uncertainty.

And while Popova and Shapiro are looking at writing, living your life is itself a creative venture. Our students need to learn to deal with the writerly creative uncertainty because they will meet it every day of their lives-- from deciding whether to marry someone to deciding what house to live in to picking a job to deciding what to have for lunch. To really live your life, you have to be willing to take the leap into the unknown.

The secret is not in the plan, but in the preparation. Build your muscles, marshal your strength, develop your focus so that you know the direction you want to go and have the strength and determination to deal with the obstacles and uncertainty. The best way to flub the leap into the unknown, to come up short, is to flinch and pull back at the very moment you should bear down and put all your strength and focus into launching yourself.

Putting faith in the Plan limits your possibilities, and it makes you inflexible. You make your choices based on what you think you're supposed to be able to achieve instead of your true goals. And when things don't go according to plan (as they will), you are stuck because your guide was the plan, not the goal. Planning is the straightjacket of creativity.

Again-- this is not just about writing. This is about living your life.

One of my most fundamental objections to the reformster ideals for education is that they seek to enforce a reality in schools that does not reflect the reality of the world. It is the tyranny of the hoop-jumpers. They seek to have students practice and model an approach to life that is stunted, small, low on possibilities, devoid of true creativity, sad, grey. They believe in planning, not just for themselves, but for everyone. Not even a range and variety of plans, but one plan for everyone. It is not just a bleak view of education. It is a bleak view of life.

They will say, "Oh, but within the standards and tests there is freedom to achieve the goals any way you wish." Yes, and Henry Ford offered the Model T in any color the customer wanted, as long as it was black.

It's good for us as teachers to think about pedagogical method, instructional strategies, best ways to organize content, all that good teachery stuff. But we also need to step back and ask larger questions. I prefer to ask, "Does my classroom model approaches for living a full, rich, creative life with bravery and strength? Are we learning an openness to the uncertainty of that leap?" I can't say I always know exactly how to get there, but that's the leap, and I try to take it anyway.

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