Flex that Creativity Muscle

One place I more easily tap into my creativity is at the water.


More and more I understand the importance of creativity for surviving (and thriving!). But I also see the failure of so many people to live creatively. Teaching someone how to tap into their creative being is the best gift we can give each other.

A few years ago, I met a gentleman who was a film producer, producing (and sometimes writing) countless movies for television, the kinds of movies I watch to escape. Much like when I read Danielle Steele as a teenager because I just needed a break from the intensity of a Tolstoy or an Orwell. And I loved her books for that. And I enjoyed his movies for the same reason.

I was fascinated with his process. And he was fascinated that I taught writing. But he was shocked when I emphatically stated, “Education kills creativity.”

He had never heard such a thing. I thought it was obvious.

I speak here solely as an English teacher, my area of experience, however. I will not speak to creativity in math, science, or history classes because I am not part of those departments and in the trenches, although I have my suspicions.

Why is creativity killed in English departments across the land?

One reason is the egotistical need of many teachers to have students regurgitate their opinions. We have all had those teachers – no more needs to be said there.

grade.jpgAnother one is the awarding of points. I am not opposed to grades. Grades provide necessary feedback. But many teachers, many institutions, encourage or even require grading on a point system. So a research paper on the impact of one-to-one laptop programs in elementary schools is graded out of 100 points rather than holistically graded as an A, B, C, D, or F.

I struggle with this because how many points should be taken off for a vague sentence in the middle of the third paragraph? Or should any? What about an unclear transition or two? Hence, I see many teachers  focus on taking off points for easily measurable errors: misspelled words, format errors, subject/verb agreement errors, generic titles, etc. Both the reader and the writer become hyper-focused on the the mechanics rather than the ideas. Plus, it is much easier to subtract points for mechanics because it lacks subjectivity. Docking points for lackluster ideas opens one up to protests and arguments.

I have worked at schools with this philosophy and have tried my hand at grading on a point system. I also found myself deducting points for grammar errors (after all, grammar does matter!). But if I took a point off for a misused comma in paragraph one, did that now mean I had to take a point off for every misused comma throughout the paper? Sometimes that alone would kill a grade. It also opened the door for students to quibble about a point here or a point there.

“I got an 89 out of 100 because you took a point off for this comma. Who cares about a stupid comma? Now I am going to get a B because of a comma?”

More awe-inspiring water!

These are the students, of which there are many, who spend more time calculating their grades than writing papers.

Perhaps I could note the errors on the page but not take any points off. Spend ten minutes in a classroom, and you will quickly find out that the only thing that seems to get students’ attention is the number of points taken off. The other marks will go unread.

One way to combat the problem of grading that has become wildly popular is the use of rubrics, a complicated chart that explains the grading process of a particular assignment.

This sounds like a great idea: students know exactly what the teacher is looking for on each assignment. However, rubrics are the biggest creativity killers I have encountered.

A rubric lists different categories to be graded and descriptions of what is required for each grade or number of points.

Oftentimes, the rubric is longer than the assignment. And I have seen rubrics where you need a PhD in rubric assessment to understand it. Even this definition from Wikipedia (yes, wikipedia!) is more complicated than necessary.

Students then typically focus on the backwards creation of a paper from the rubric. Plug in what’s required and then fill in the blanks.

Here are a couple of examples pulled from the web:

Can you see how a “good” student would be inclined to forgo creativity for checking off items on these lists?

When I give an assignment to my students, I expect a thesis, I expect a logical flow of information, I may expect research, I expect a paper clean of formatting and mechanical errors, I expect a command of the language and of sentence structure. That’s about it.

The fun comes in the unexpected. I often have no idea what I am going to get.

I teach a business writing class to college juniors and seniors. After a few semesters, I have really pared down my instructions. I provide one-sentence instructions: Investigate the parking problem at the university or safety on campus, propose a social media plan to a florist or urgent care, communicate a crisis to employees of a hospital.

That’s it.

At the beginning of the semester, students are in a panic. Dozens of hands go up.

“How many pages?”

“How should we format it?”

“What information should be included?”

“How much background should we give?”

“Who is the audience?”

My answer to each question is the same: “I don’t know.”

They quickly realize I will not be giving any more information. Sometimes, I have students stay after class to complain that it isn’t “fair” that I don’t tell them exactly what I am looking for. But I am telling them. I want an investigation of the parking problem. That’s what I am looking for.

Many of these students most likely have never had to make decisions about what format would make this the most readable, who has a vested interest in parking, what kind of information would  need to be included for a complete investigation, what would be the best sources, what information would my audience specifically be looking for, etc. This is usually handed to them. This kills their creativity. It becomes a atrophied muscle.

creativity success
Success magazine emphasizes the necessity of creativity as the key to thriving in the new “You Economy.”

In a recent issue, Success magazine highlighted the changes in our economy and the importance of being creative in order to survive, and indeed thrive, in this new world. Creativity has always been valued. It took creativity to create To Kill a Mockingbird. It took creativity to float an ocean liner, to fly a steel tube through the air, to put a mini-computer in everyone’s hands, to cure cancer. Everything that we see started with a spark of creativity, an idea. But in the past, much of the population could make a living off of other people’s creativity. That is no longer true. The demand is even greater for all of us to be creative, to make connections, to conceive of the impossible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Probably because I am knee deep in creating at a level I have never created before. I don’t have any words of wisdom to offer. But I do know that it is not easy tapping into and acting on the creative. It is much easier to sit back and watch what others have created or to implement what others have created.

Instead, we must strive to actively create every day – our lives, our relationships, our passions, our work, our messages. And we must encourage those around us to do the same!

Beautiful, huh?!


I go to the beach when I just need to think. I like busy, public places when I want to write (yes, I focus better among the chaotic!). Where do you more easily tap into your creativity?


3 thoughts on “Flex that Creativity Muscle

  1. Great essay. As you so eloquently point out, the problem with most academic environments is that they focus on results — how do I get the best grade possible?

    Creativity is a process of discovery in which the results are made manifest through the work. The best piece of writing advice I ever received was from my Rhetoric professor in college. After tearing apart my essay, she said, “Don’t rewrite it. Go home and think about why you wanted to write it. Once you know why, figure out what you wanted to say. Then figure out how.”

    When we focus on the internal impulses that compel us to generate words and images, when we question our ideas and expressions for their efficacy and beauty, when we allow the inchoate notions floating through our imagination to present themselves in relationship to one another, we are actively creating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Vickie

      Thank you for this! And I am stealing what your rhetoric teacher told you – that is great. And true. I think that is the problem with so much of writing in academia. Students do not understand why they are writing beyond trying to get a grade to check off a requirement.

      Liked by 1 person

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