Can creativity be taught? Yes.

I thought I’d celebrate the second anniversary of my last blog post with another on the same topic – viz creative writing courses.

A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to convince a friend of the value of these, and not making much progress. After what was, in retrospect, a painfully long process, we discovered that our disagreement came down to a fundamental difference: he assumed that creativity could not be taught. Thus, a writing course might impart grammar, principles of structure, advice on point of view and tense, but the magic – and that was his word – had to be there from the start. Innate.

I suspect the reason it took so long for us to get to the assumption was that it was well buried: never really recognised, articulated or tested. And if we do test it, it falls over pretty quickly.

Let’s start by recognising that creativity is routine and everyday, as everyday as talking. Every time we speak, unless we’re following a script, we’re being creative. We’re making it up. Every time we write a sentence, same thing. Sure, we can be more or less creative: not every sentence is going to be deathless prose, but we are making something that wasn’t there before, something original. So teaching creativity is not about jumping from non-creative to creative, but about helping people get better at it.

Let’s turn it around. I used to write computer programs and build databases, and that involved coming up with designs and solving problems – classic creative activities. I started off not being very good at it, and progressively got better. I suspect most of us can relate to that: doing something creative and getting better at it: it’s called learning. Teaching is nothing if not about facilitating the learning process: offering techniques, practice, feedback.

That said, the creative process was probably the most poorly taught aspect of both my writing and technology studies. I suspect many of my teachers shared my friend’s implicit belief that it was either unteachable and / or magic. Strange, because there’s a substantial body of research on creativity and design theory. Seems it doesn’t cross over into the applied disciplines where it’s needed.

Let me be a bit more practical. Here are five dos and don’ts in teaching creativity – and not just for writers.

  1. Do recognise the creative process as something that can be managed and improved. Teach some models and principles. I studied general design theory and found it remarkably useful in story design and review (I did a Tedx talk about it – it’s at
  2. Don’t assume your own experience is universally applicable. This is probably the greatest failing of teachers and indeed the famous authors who publish advice on the subject. Rather than teach what works for you, encourage students to identify the settings and mind-sets in which they solve problems or generate new ideas and encourage them to replicate them. (Drug and alcohol warning here).   
  3. Do force students to expand their tool-set and to get practice with the new tools. Make them write in different tenses and persons, program in different paradigms. Problem solving is easier when you have a variety of options and models to draw on.
  4. Do teach the value of incubation, recognised as one of the central components of the creative process. Get students into the habit of putting work aside and coming back to it. Perhaps make them resubmit an early project for a second assessment.
  5. Don’t treat Edward de Bono as the only authority on creativity. His lateral thinking techniques are useful tools to have in the box, but they represent only a tiny populist part of a rich field.

Creative writing courses – do they help?

The subtitle of this post is “do they help?” rather than “do they work?”. The latter subtitle suggests a process that will, by itself, reliably churn out successful creative writers. I haven’t seen one, and I’m not going to argue that they exist or are possible. But, as a consumer of creative writing education over the past six years, I’m going to argue that it can help immensely.
The topic is timely in Australia, because the new fee regimes for TAFE education mean that enrolling in a course is likely to cost a lot more than it once did, especially for mid-life changers like me who already have qualifications. What do you get for your money?”
Well, if you are one of those mid-life changers, or indeed anyone with skills in a job or hobby, ask yourself: what does it take for someone new to my area to become proficient? I suggest that the answer is going to include instruction, practice and feedback. And these in turn require discipline – to study, to put in the hard yards and to accept criticism.
A good creative writing course will give you all of these. There are other ways to get them, of course. You can read, practice alone or in a group, find a mentor, submit work for publication and take note of the feedback.The creative writing course is just one means to that end. But for many of us, it’s the most convenient,and the assessment system imposes a discipline. Sure, it’d be nice not to need the discipline to be impose externally, but most of us do.
On the downside, it’s back to school, with its fixed hours, rules for interaction, public criticism and those assessments. For some of us that’s going to be a turn-off. Many men, in particular, of my age, had experiences at school that they may not want to revisit. Personally, I didn’t enjoy most of my schooling, but my recent studies have felt like a second chance.
Do I need to say that enrolling in a course and earning the qualification won’t guarantee publication or production? Writing fiction is a tough game – think tennis, golf and acting. We don’t expect everyone who studies these disciplines to achieve their dreams, or even making a living from them. And that’s when we start talking about talent, previous experience, and the amount of work you’re prepared to do. IN my observation, the last of these is one least often blamed for failure but the most common reason. You can pass a course with WAY less than the 10,000 hours experience widely quoted as the benchmark for proficiency in a field. I’m not criticizing here – many of us struggle to find time for our writing in a life that includes family, friends, leisure – and a full-time job.
But enrolling in a course is a start…
At a personal level, my Professional Screenwriting and Professional Writing and Editing studies at RMIT in Melbourne have connected me with like-minded people who have become valued collaborators and good friends, and with the production and publishing industries. They’ve made me do things I wouldn’t have done if I’d designed my own learning program – and that stretching has been to my benefit. And my fellow students have given me examples of what to do and what not to.
Recently I’ve had some success with my novel, The Rosie Project and the associated screenplay. But if I had not, I would still have regarded my investment in creative writing as one of the best I’ve made.

Wrong! Disagreement and dysfunction

Commenting on a recent hard-fought byelection, The Age economics writer Tim Colebatch made a plea for some cooperation, observing , “in reality, most of us agree on most things.”

It’s a commonplace: that the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us. (Stay with me, I’m going to get practical shortly, but I want to tell a story first).

Four years ago, I facilitated the “Rural Industries and Communities” strand at the Australia 2020 Summit – one hundred leaders, activists and prominent “thinkers” in an area where there is substantial potential for conflict around development, conservation, the role of government, etc. Twenty working groups each presented one or two ideas to the plenary session, and, rather than invite discussion, I asked each participant to rate the idea on a scale of 1-5 (strongly disagree through strongly agree). At the end of the day, we analyzed the responses. As I recall, not one idea had more than 10 people disagreeing or strongly disagreeing – i.e. at least 90 of the 100 participants agreed or were at least neutral.  In most cases the support was higher.

BUT… the next morning, the session co-chair, former Nationals leader and Deputy PM Tim Fischer, invited discussion on the ideas in a “town hall meeting” format. There was passionate debate, and the distinct impression was that each of the topics was highly controversial and subject to substantial disagreement. It teased out the issues and problems all right, but you’d never have guessed the broad level of support.

It’s the nature of politics, the media and the legal system to emphasize disagreements. And in writing: as Syd Field says, without conflict there is no drama; without drama there is no story…

Which brings me to being practical. In all aspects of my work, I encounter disagreements. In facilitation, a disagreement is often the reason for the workshop or meeting. In my advanced consulting skills classes, most case studies brought by participants focus on a disagreement. Right now, I’m watching the (extended) correspondence between two data modeling experts on choice of conventions. And when my editor sends me “suggestions” she’s saying, implicitly, “I disagree with the way you’ve done this.”

Great. Debate teases out the issues. But most of us seem to be better at fueling disagreement than resolving it. There comes a point where we need to move forward and we are not so good at this. The debate goes on “beyond the tag”, progress is stymied, relationships are damaged, and the will to cooperate on implementation is sapped.

My advice is pretty basic and hardly original: Constantly remind yourselves of the things you agree on. Play them back. Write them down. Recognize that you will be working together to do these things going forward if you can get over the things you disagree on.

Yes, it’s simple, but not as simplistic as what one of my screenwriting teachers used to call, inelegantly, the ‘shit sandwich’: Say something positive, deliver the tough message, say something positive again. What I’m proposing is not about platitudes or formulas – it’s about genuinely recognizing the common ground. If I believe my editor genuinely loves the story and the main character, then I’ll be receptive to her suggestions as to how to make them stronger on the page. But if the suggestions come without the common starting point, then I’ll just see them as an attempt to impose her own vision.

Basic stuff? Maybe. But I make a living out of coming into situations where it hasn’t been done. Feel free to call it basic if you do it all the time. Otherwise it’s time to get the basics in place.

And, in contrast to the usual warning – DO try this at home.

What makes a good whatever?

Once again, issues from different aspects of my work highlighting a common theme:

1. Feedback from my editor on The Rosie Project novel.

2. Mike Sager’s post on data model quality – on which I commented – at

The common theme is: how do we measure the quality of a creative product? Bryan Lawson, who, you may notice, I reference often on design issues, states that “Design inevitably involves subjective value judgment.”

In data modeling my single most useful tool is a one-page list of “quality dimensions” (you’ll find them in the first chapter of Data Modeling Essentials) as a framework for discussion, especially when trying to decide which is the “better” or “best” among alternative designs.  The list helps us to break down the assessment into different dimensions and understand the tradeoff: this model is more flexible, but this will be easier to code against; this embodies more rules but this one is more stable in the face of change etc. The dimensions give us a language for argument and discussion.

In screenwriting, it might be “the scene is funnier this way but the joke works against the character arc or this approach tells us a lot about the character but makes the first act too long.”

The level of subjectivity varies from one dimension to another.  I see a continuum:

At one end is the “right or wrong” rule – things that are so widely agreed that any violation will need special pleading. In a book, grammar. In a genre screenplay, length. In a data model “will it work?”

Then there are the principles that will have wide, but not necessarily unanimous agreement, at least amongst the experts. Introduce your hero early. Don’t go “beyond the tag” in a scene. Don’t build unstable structures into the data model.

And at the other end are purely subjective choices. Should I call my character Lorraine or Claudia? (Even here, there will be principles we can apply – unusual names may be easier to remember, names carry connotations of origin, class, age – but within these there will be many choices). What should I name this entity? Ditto!

So the message: In whatever discipline you’re working, knowing the dimensions of quality, and the level of subjectivity in assessing them,  is a huge advantage, especially when reviewing, advising, editing, conciliating, arbitrating.





Writing Fast

My last post on planning proposed that if you get the plan right, you can write a draft very fast. How fast? Well, when I’m on a reasonable roll (that is to say I’m fired up but not clinically hypo-manic) I can churn out about 800 reasonably clean words of prose per hour. My partner Simone Sinna can do 1,000 and from what I’ve seen, Danny in my Novel class can do about 2,000 – I’m not sure I can even type that fast. I reckon my 800 is probably about average, and I do do a bit of reworking within that, I’m not just pouring it out. I’m actually trying to write as well as I can without straining at it.

Simple maths – I’m going to write an 80,000 word draft in 100 hours at that pace. Call it twelve big days of about 7,000 words a day. Can I really write for eight or nine  hours a day? And churn out a couple of 3,500-word chapters? Sure. And I can sustain it. Simone, who can be a little competitive as we sit opposite each other in the ‘no interruptions’ country shack can do 20,000 in two days. I’m guessing many writers can, with a bit of practice, if they’ve done the hard yards in the planning – see previous post – and recognise that there will be plenty of editing to come – see “Work in Progress” post.

Is this a sensible way to work? It is, at least for some. Simone wrote two novels at a page a day for a year, and prefers this way. First draft quality is much the same – what’s lost in reflection time is picked up in continuity and having her head in the space. Oddly, it’s sometimes easier to find big blocks of time (cancel that day out or that weekend away) than to consistently find an hour a day.

The huge payoff is the psychological return on getting the damn thing drafted. After that, it’s only re-writing. Or editing…