Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Teaching Creativity

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


Consider this on the subject of creativity from that great interview by Dan Schneider of screenwriter Lem Dobbs:

Dan Schneider - But, to be a good writer, I think you must learn all the rules until you’ve inculcated. Once that’s done, you have to seriously unlearn them to be truly creative. Creativity is one of those things that you either have or do not have. There’s no teaching it. Thoughts?
Lem Dobbs -  Well, I have tried teaching it and in exactly those terms.  Somerset Maugham said if you can write a play, it’s as easy as falling off a log, and if you can’t, no one can teach you.  I tell students right away that Picasso didn’t just reinvent the human form right off the bat.  First he learned to draw better than anyone else alive.  Buñuel could be surreal because he could also be real.  Sometimes both in the same movie.  My father was among the last generation who went to art school when going to art school meant learning how to draw.  From life.  Day in, day out, sitting looking at a model.  Then the Sixties came along and Do Your Own Thing became the norm.  Let the students express themselves, that’s what being “creative” is.  If they want to hang a toilet seat around their neck and chant while splashing paint on a wall, let them.  Who’s to say what Art is?  And that was the beginning of the end.  That’s how we came to this pass -- one man’s heaven, another’s personal hell -- where “quirky” now equals quality and we have SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and JUNO instead of STAGECOACH and OUT OF THE PAST and SERPICO.  There was always an insufferable subgenre of the kooky -- movies purporting to show that “nonconformists” lead more authentic lives -- A THOUSAND CLOWNS and A FINE MADNESS and anything with Liza Minnelli -- but it wasn’t the defining barometer of critical taste.

  It’s why every jackass in the world now writes screenplays -- that and the money they started hearing about.  Everyone thinks movies are accessible to them, you see, everyone has spent their life going to movies, watching movies on television, renting movies … They didn’t grow up performing appendectomies.  No one seems to realize that the people at the very top, the ones everyone else would like to be -- Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino -- they know more about movies than you do, they’ve seen more.  Thousands more.  Movies are in their blood.  It’s incredible when you read the bad screenplays of amateurs and aspirants, not only do they not resemble real life or human behavior, they don’t resemble movies.  “Creativity” is promoted now like it’s a civil right.  But to mention the sordid subject of talent is unseemly and elitist and muddies the playing field.  After all, America’s got talent.

  The fools who write those unreadable HOW TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY books don’t seem to have any knowledge of movies beyond a superficial understanding of the same handful of classics or modern hits that everyone knows.  Some director recently announced his attachment to some project and said, “I seem to be attracted to reluctant hero stories.”  Does he really not realize those are the only stories Hollywood has ever made?  You have to inculcate movies, not “screenwriting.”  There are shapes and patterns and a certain commercial contract made with the audience at the dawn of time.  Then if you want to break that contract and go off and make Cassavetes or Antonioni films, fine -- or fine.  Cassavetes, at any rate, had to do one to subsidize the other.
--- Lem Dobbs, Interviewed by Dan Schneider

At the risk of joining the ranks of the fools, I have a book in process that focuses on helping writers to increase their “creativity.” And this “jackass” also writes screenplays. But while I won’t challenge Tarantino on his knowledge of Asian action movies, I feel I could go toe to toe with both Spielberg and Scorsese on domestic films, and hold my own on international films. But knowing the length and breadth of world cinema won’t get wannabe screenwriters a meeting with that MBA studio exec who knows movies all the way back to “the early 2000s, plus Star Wars, of course. But if you want to talk about Keynesian approaches to economics...” I have, more than once, in conversations, referenced famous classic films to blank stares from industry professionals. When they compare your idea to a recent re-make, rather than the original, you know you’re in trouble. 
Dobbs, however, makes a host of valid points here. Picasso’s paintings, First Communion (1896), and Science and Charity (1896), both demonstrate that he mastered classical and Impressionist approaches to painting before he created his own unique styles of expression. 
But I believe that creativity is less mystical than many see it. Creativity, I feel, is mostly just finding a good road, less traveled. Where, normally, one idea leads fairly obviously to a next idea, and “Joe Average” takes that easy path, the creative person chooses to look for other paths to that next idea. Why? Perhaps it’s a need to get to a new and different answer. Perhaps it’s boredom. Perhaps their own experience of the world points them. Perhaps they just want to stand out. But given a hundred random individuals, it’s a sure bet that a few will find wholly different answers compared to the majority. And that’s not magic. There is no creative gene, no “midi-chlorians” giving some people a creative “force.” 
If you want proof, ask yourself whether you feel you are one of the highly creative folks in this world. I’ll venture you’ll say you’re not. Then list some of your own really good ideas over the course of your life. I don’t mean earth-shaking ideas, just good ones, things you felt blessed to have come up with for big reasons or small. Can’t think of any? Never had a single idea worth anything? I don’t believe you. Think harder. Think wider. Think farther back. “Oh, there was that one time...” Right. That was a good idea, wasn’t it? So, now, if you’re not creative, where’d you get them? I’ll tell you: you got them from the odd moment in which you thought further, longer, differently, or maybe “sideways,” rather than thinking straight-forwardly and as little as possible, the way you usually do. Think about those ideas. Examine the process you went through. Where did they come from? Might you have had some creative inspiration of your own? And might you have said one or another came “right out of left field”? That’s lateral thinking, folks. 
So, I see creativity as a conscious method employing lateral thinking to find alternatives to the obvious or stereotypical. And given this, it is only a small effort to develop strategies toward using such thinking consistently. That is what I try to do in Lateral Screenwriting. I offer approaches to laterally-derived creative idea-generation, and I apply them to story-telling in general and screenwriting in particular. And, lest this seem like a con, I offer scores of examples of how this has worked for others and myself, both in writing and in life. 
People, however, and artists foremost among them, prefer to believe that their creativity is a kind of “super-power” that they and only a small group of similarly-blessed “heroes” have. They don’t like to think too hard about how they get their inspiration, because, to put it frankly, they are threatened. Maybe it has the effect of knocking them down a notch or two in their own and other people’s estimation. Everyone is equal, but, as Orwell said, they prefer to be “more equal.” They don’t like the thought of someone using a “method” to create the same thing as what they achieved “magically” through their “God-given” talent. And to extend it further, I’ll venture that talent is just creativity applied along with focus and practice, to a particular expression or art. It’s why someone gets better at something, they apply focus and practice to the thing for which they first showed an affinity. It’s work... by creative people, people like... all of us. Including you
So, like lateral thinking proponent, Edward de Bono, I believe creativity can be taught. And that’s not to say that it can be guaranteed. The great artist is probably far more practiced at employing such strategies, far more able to take the approaches that much farther along. But you have it already, and you can get better at using it. Do so and, viola! You’re talented too! #     
Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post:
Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.
---Pablo Picasso

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