If you ask a kindergartner to tell you a story, chances are you’ll hear a nonsensical and fabulous tale. If you put a chocolate chip cookie on a counter and forbid the child from using a chair to reach it, chances are she’ll find a few alternate routes to that cookie.
Children are born inherently creative. They act on it unself-consciously when they are young, willing to dance, draw or create at a moment’s notice. We all begin with enormous creative capacity, but how does our willingness to act on it diminish as we grow older?
I confronted this question when I participated in my first fiction writing workshop last year. The instructor gave us a series of prompts, and each time, I stared at a blank screen with unmitigated fear.
I was convinced that my fiction would be poorly disguised autobiography. And that it would be terrible. And that others would see just how terrible it was. So terrible that it wasn’t worth making a fool of myself. I envied how easily my children could slip into pretend stories, where make-believe dialogue didn’t sound contrived or wooden, and plot was just a four-letter word.
I called a friend, who happens to teach creative writing, late one night while struggling with this task.
“I can’t do this," I said.
“Of course you can," she said. She reminded me that I wasn’t being graded. The story, no matter how badly written, was not going to affect my professional reputation. So, with the stakes so low, why I was so afraid to exercise a new writing muscle? Because I was scared of doing it wrong. I didn’t want to do it poorly. It was safer to stay in the zones where I felt comfortable and competent.
We unlearn creativity, according to Josh Linkner, author of “Disciplined Dreaming, A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity."
“Instead of growing into our creativity, we grow out of it," he said.
Fear is the main culprit, he says. We are conditioned through years of schooling to strive for the “right" answer. We are punished for making mistakes. We are rewarded for following rules.
“People learn from an early age to get in line," he said. So, we judge others and judge ourselves when we make a mistake or — heaven forbid — fail. We talk ourselves out of creativity and hold ourselves back from big ideas.
When is divergent thinking valued? When and where are we allowed to fail?
This system does an incredible disservice to our children, Linkner argues, especially in an age when creative thinking and innovation are precisely the skills needed to meet the challenges of our world, to succeed in work and life.
There was much hand-wringing over the research out of the College of William & Mary in 2010 that showed that children’s scores on tests of divergent thinking, an aspect of creativity, had declined over two decades. Schools have been willing to cut art, music and recess. There is less time spent playing outside. This must be taking a toll.
But a more recent study reported in the Creativity Research Journal in 2011 found that children’s observed playtime creativity has actually ticked upward from 1985 to 2008. Maybe the children’s creativity during play wasn’t translating into other areas of their lives, the Case Western University psychologists suggested, in news reports.
This sounds entirely plausible. Children at ever-younger ages are told success means avoiding mistakes. This mentality makes it much harder to take creative risks.
My own children were encouraging during my creative-writing fits.
“Just try again," they would say. So, I did. And it was never as terrible as I imagined it would be before I began. It turns out that writing bad fiction is not fatal. It just feels that way to readers.