I need to tell you: there is a problem with my last newsletter. I told you that a creative life is how you respond to the given constraints, but I didn’t talk about changing the constraints. Because what if life’s constraints are designed to keep you from creatively responding? I remember the moment I realized this:
It was my first semester teaching the class “Creativity Matters” at San Jose State University. One of the learning objectives of the course is to help students actively reflect on the creative process of their personal development at college and beyond. Throughout the class, we were having interesting discussions on the choices we can make to develop our creativity and how understanding our creativity can be a guidepost for our choices, but I kept feeling like something was missing, something gnawing at my psyche. Then we got to the section in our textbook entitled “Interdisciplinary Advice for Creativity”, which provided recommendations for choosing a career path. As I read the advice, I felt the discomfort grow. It said: “Examine the structure of the field—the gatekeepers, intermediaries, the art world—and see where you can best fit. Try to place yourself in an area where you’ll be given opportunities for choice and discovery.” (1) I suddenly found myself yelling at my textbook: “What if the field is designed to keep you out?! What if it was never designed with you in mind?! Opportunities are not just about being in the right place at the right time! The system is built to keep some people from taking advantage of opportunity and to give others every advantage!” I then spent the next three hours frantically searching my library database trying to find any scholarly article arguing that we need creative people to remake the world; that creativity is not about fitting to the current systems but breaking them down; that this is why we need creative people more than ever. But sadly I found no scholarship to back up my frustration, which is why I brought adrienne maree brown into my classroom:
adrienne knows the power of imagination: it’s what got us in this mess and what will get us out. I made a plea for the importance of imagination in a previous newsletter, but I didn’t discuss how to cultivate an expansive imagination, one that questions the given constraints. To do this, I’m going to pull from the context of child development.
I also teach a class called “Imagination, Play, and Adult Creativity” and have found the scholarship on play to be the closest to how I want to talk about creativity. In an article by Signe Juhl Moller, she defines the concept of transformative play: “The development of the play scenario is transformed when the constraints of the play scenario, such as the perceived possible uses of an artifact or the rules, are transgressed and children’s motives and imagination lead the activity.” (3) The theory is that children develop their imagination by changing the rules or constraints of the play scenario. If two girls are playing fairy princesses and one of them says: “I don’t want to be a princess. I want to be the queen dragon!”, not only is the girl reimagining the possibilities of her world, but the other girl has an opportunity to practice collaborative ideation. If she goes along with the queen dragon suggestion, she is both validating the idea and allowing for more imaginative play. This willingness to accept transgressions to the rules determines the playfulness of children, as Moller explains: “Playfulness is therefore understood as a willingness to affirm transgressive acts, thereby transforming the play scenario such that the transgression can be included in the play scenario to ensure the continuation of the play.” (4) I think this is an incredible model for liberatory imagination. What if we were to see each other as playmates in the game of life? And in order to keep the game going, we embrace resistance to the status quo, and understand that the transgression will only be transformational if we play along; that in fact, we can only imagine a different world if we are all playing. So now I ask you, will you play with me?
Living is a creative act,
Everyday Creativity Tip
Develop a “Yes and” mentality! “Yes and” is a foundational concept for improv comedy and a perfect example of transformative play! An improv team must “yes and” any suggestion a teammate throws out in order to keep the scene going; saying “no” derails the imaginative flow.
Try this out in your daily conversations or even better, a collaborative work meeting. Starting a comment with “yes and” helps build off each other’s ideas instead of competing for the best idea. That’s divergent thinking in action! Just practicing “yes and” mentality for a day will help you realize how often we start thoughts with “No but” (speaking from experience).
1. Keith Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, p.422.
2. adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, p.19
3. Signe Juhl Moller, “Imagination, Playfulness, and Creativity in Children’s Play with Different Toys”, American Journal of Play, 2015, p.325
4. Signe Juhl Moller, “Imagination, Playfulness, and Creativity in Children’s Play with Different Toys”, American Journal of Play, 2015, p.328
Originally published October 14, 2019 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.
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