November 29, 2015

Learning imagination: a week at Arvon at the Hurst

One of the biggest challenges I've been struggling with over the, oh, last decade, is finding my imagination. For a long time I didn't think I had one—mostly because, through my entire education and working life, I'd never been expected to produce any imaginative content. All the original thought and work I've ever done has been product of extensive research, scientific method, collaborative thinking, and were, more or less, grounded in logic and reality.

On the flight back from London yesterday, I listened to the episode of NPR's TED Radio Hour podcast which includes an interview with Sir Ken Robinson on how modern education doesn't help foster creativity and imagination:

Here's the part of his talk I keep thinking about (emphasis mine):
Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there's a reason. Around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas.

Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don't do music, you're not going to be a musician; don't do art, you won't be an artist. Benign advice—now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.

And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn't valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can't afford to go on that way.
It made me feel better to hear him say that because at least now my struggles with this feeling-of-something-missing makes sense. I just don't know how to reconcile it with the other voice in my head: the one that tells me I have 100 stories to tell, 100 books to write, a whole entire life I haven't tapped into yet, but I'd better hurry up and do it because I'm not getting any younger here.

Last week, I booked myself into The Hurst—playwright John Osborne's former home in Clun in Shropshire—for a five-day writing workshop with poet Michael Laskey and novelist Jess Richards. Every morning at The Hurst, attendees are put through a intense rapid-fire series of writing exercises (afterwards, you wind up reading things you've just written aloud—it's kind of like group therapy) and every afternoon is dedicated to individual writing (or long walks). Going in, my ultimate, loftiest, pie-in-the-sky goal was to come away with two or three first-drafts of complete chapters of a fiction novel—and, because of this notion that I'd be able to run before walking, by Wednesday I was already completely stressed out and not sleeping, trying to commit to a book idea.

Instead of landing back at JFK with two or three perfectly polished chapters to immediately send off to Mel, my agent, I left The Hurst with something completely intangible—and a little bit of a personal breakthrough.

I really underestimated how much blockage I have around imagination. I'm still pretty sure it's in there—but it's buried a lot deeper down that I'd originally thought. Every morning, when I'd sit down at that big round table with all the other writers, I'd panic. My work was bad; there were a lot of writing exercises I couldn't complete (at all); my imagination failed me over and over again; reading my crap poems out loud at the end of workshop made me break out in cold sweats. Every afternoon at 1 when we'd break for lunch and individual writing time, I'd be so emotionally and intellectually drained, I'd have to lie down and turn everything off for at least an hour (read: nap).

But by Friday morning, our very last workshop session, I felt something give. It was a teeny tiny little something. That morning, I could complete all the exercises the tutors threw at us; what appeared on the page surprised me as my hand was writing it; and there was even one moment where somewhere in between my brain and my fingertips, I was pulling thoughts and ideas out of thin air—and writing down names, characters, plots, actions, and images that had never occurred to me before that very second. Tl;dr: I think I opened a new synapse, you guys.

So yeah. That's what happened. And it only took five days of self-imposed isolation in a country manor house, a few sleepless nights, a lot of bad poetry, and some truly dark existential moments where I seriously questioned everything I'd ever believed about my own abilities and purpose. The only problem now is that I want to keep going, see where this leads. Stay tuned.