Higher Education: The Battle Royale – Creative Vs. Critic

Barbara Jwanouskos on a Saturday… because now that school’s out, it’s always Saturday. Plus we just plain forgot to run her column yesterday.

Grades were due today for my graduating students so it was a scramble to the finish line as always as I read seven 41-60 page plays that served as the culmination of their work in my Advanced Playwriting class. It’s interesting reflecting on the structure of that class and thinking to myself, what I would do if given another chance to teach this course? And, what would I, as a student taking this class, want to get out of it?

I read an interesting article by Mike DiMartino, one of the co-creators and executive producers of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra” – both fantastic shows that I’m captivated by. DiMartino talks about elements of story and creativity on his blog. The subject most recently was on “Your Inner Creative vs. Your Inner Critic”. The idea being that the creative side of building a new project is freeform, loose, and expansive in its ideas whereas the critical side shapes, orders, and prioritizes what should take precedence. DiMartino points out that both are needed in order to create something, but that too much will kill a project. He then poses the questions:

In your life and work (whatever you consider your work to be), do you tend to be more creative or critical? Is there a way to bring more of one or the other into your process?

I thought about teaching Advanced Playwriting because as I grade I see the creative, but respond with the critical. As I read, I’m thinking about what is it that is still unclear in the script? Did a something that was set-up pay off reasonably well? And do I ever get lost in the story – in a good way – where I’m simply enjoying how the events unfold before me?

It’s interesting to read my students’ writing and then also to look over their feedback on the course evaluations. I asked if given more time, what would you like to have gone over in depth? Many of the respondents said that they would have liked to learn more about types of story structures, which is really interesting. In class, we spent a lot of time doing generative exercises that in my mind were core to what I felt I could offer people who wanted to take their writing to another level. It can be hard sometimes to get out of a prescribed way of thinking of things. As a student learning a new skill, I like to play with my new toys a bit and get comfortable using them before I’m ready to start learning the nuts and bolts of why they work the way they do, but everyone is different.

I was fortunate enough to have intelligent, engaging students who all have a talent for writing. Earlier today, when I told someone that I’m graduating on Sunday, she observed that Carnegie Mellon is odd in that it is well known for its technology programs as well as its entertainment/arts programs. The two are usually very disparate at other schools. Part of me wonders whether the students’ want for a more academic, structured approach added to a future rendition of this class was out of our desire to satiate the critical side of ourselves with rules and order that make sense. I can understand and appreciate that desire, but I also wonder if having the lexicon of lots of different creative tricks arms them for times when writer’s block looms.

There’s a part of me that can’t really say which one may be “right” because its imbedded in how I approach art and frankly, life in general. If the class is about the creation process as a whole, then maybe there is no real beginning or end. The “final” play that they submitted, in many ways is a first or second draft for many of them. I had no designs that in an elective course that I’d be able to do much more than that, but I did want them all to push towards finishing at least a couple of projects.

For me, the battle between the critic and the creative are really more of a conversation. The creative side starts it off, then the critic molds what is most interesting, then the creative fleshes it out, the critic refines and so on. I don’t think the two need to be adversarial, but they both have distinct functions that are both needed to ultimately get to the finished product.

When talking about ways to bring one side into the other, I think that’s where you end up having to play little games with yourself in order to progress. For instance, when wrapped up in idea generation, it can be easy to become expansive to where you’re somehow completely off the map, but that’s when you bring that critical side in with the map that limits where it is that you can go.

For DiMartino and “Legend of Korra”, the writers are working within the framework of the show and characters that have been established, which is helpful in reducing down the amount of ideas that are viable. One of my favorite writing exercises is simply a free write of whatever comes to mind – Julie Cameron calls it “Morning Pages”, Naomi Iizuka calls it “swimming”, others call it “free association writing”. There are variations, but you basically write whatever pops in your head continuously – stories, character ideas, to do lists, feelings, etc. The trick is that it’s timed and most instructors I know encourage their students to set aside that writing for a couple of days or weeks (or forever) before looking at it again.

In terms of putting the creative into the critical, it’s doing just the opposite – it’s looking at a limit or a barrier and finding a way to subvert it. Another favorite writing exercise Rob Handel likes to give us, is to write the play that you hate. I’ve heard variations on this with regard to scenes, “write what wouldn’t happen next”. For me, this exercise responds to the brain’s attempt to shut down the creative and start evaluating, “well, this wouldn’t happen, he doesn’t even have a horse to get to the next town over. He hates horses!” Then, it turns it into a tool to be used and ultimately it might reveal something interesting. Perhaps a new relationship or a more interesting conflict. Who knows!

Oscillating between the creative and critical side is ultimately what helps us find an end point, whether temporary or permanent. It’s all part of the process that cycles through birth to death to rebirth over and over again.

What other tricks or exercises do you use in your creative or critical processes? Share with us! Because sharing means caring. 😉

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