More About Creativity First, Rules Last: A Walk Through The Woods

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My Tale of Two Screenplays is definitely not the only time I’ve encountered feedback on my work offered first and foremost based on where it sits relative to institutional conventions and rules. In fact, not long before I wrote this, I had an experience of feedback where someone I’d paid started by trying to categorize me within a form and then a genre rather than meet my work where it was.

I fully honour that this human was legitimately tired out by their role in the weekend writer’s retreat of which our exchange was a part. I respect – as I’ve said before – that figuring out where we fit and how to “play the game” is important. I also got the sense, and fully accept, that she just didn’t like my writing or think my story fit the conventions of a “short story.”

In the end, though, when I’m getting feedback, I don’t need people to like my work. I need them to help me make it better no matter what they think about it. And, making a project “better” doesn’t ever start with strategic, institutional conformity…

In our session, I was once again asked about my influences and we talked extensively about my reviewer’s dissertation and the work of a few world-renowned writers. The actual discussion of my story was minimal and would have been very harmful to me if I had not spent most of my life offering other people feedback and thinking about what it means to give and receive it well. That human, for their reasons, absolutely put rules first and creativity last. In the end, I did manage to glean some useful bits and pieces with which to improve my piece, but they were hard won, built more on my own capacity than on the reviewer’s, and the process was in no way connected or supportive.

So. I want to take you on a little imaginary stroll to further illustrate my strong feelings about “Creativity First, Rules Last.”

You’re walking in a lovely English-style park. A ramble of open space between short and long grasses is soon broken by wooded copses dappled in sunlight, by little nooks and crannies where people sometimes sit.

On a pathway through one of these little nooks, you come upon someone with a sketchbook in their lap, a soft-leaded pencil at-work. They’re sitting on a rock, doing little studies of flowers, twigs, and the whispers of veins in fallen leaves. They don’t seem to mind when you slow down and peak over their shoulder, maybe they even tilt the book a bit so you can see more clearly.

If you choose to speak to them, do you:

(A) Immediately ask them if they learned their techniques by studying the work of Picasso or Rubens and where they went to art school?

(B) Point to a particular sketch of a dandelion and say the proportions look off.

(C) Talk about the importance of having artistic hobbies and encourage them to keep on at it!

(D) Ask them why they chose this spot? Why they chose that flower or that leaf? What first caught their eye in that little stack of twigs? When was the first time they ever drew something?

“Okay! Okay, Sulya!” Some part of you says, “I know where you’re going with this, but this is not the same as a writer or student getting feedback from an industry professional or an educator!”

No. Maybe not.

But, it should be.

Anyone who sees something in the world and finds that they must do something about it… Learn things, analyze things, write things, draw things, paint things, heal things, sing or dance things, build things, grow things… It doesn’t matter if we are in school, at a job, or choose to pay for a more freelance, ad hoc form of feedback and guidance, we all start just sitting on our rocks.

No matter how old we are or how much we’ve accomplished, that’s where we always are when we offer up what we think, do, and care about for the consideration of others:

Vulnerable, alone, tentatively tilting our sketchbooks into better light so someone else can see…

And that’s how we should always be met first.

Thus, though it is only one way to meet somewhere right where they are, the only appropriate answer in my little scenario is “(D)” because it’s the only one that is actually about the person on the rock.

I understand that sometimes we are at a polishing phase, know exactly which institutional rules to which we must conform, and require feedback that doesn’t treat us like we’re just starting out. But, in my experience, in at least 80% of a creative process, everything more critical or institutional can – and should – come later. Our responsibility is first and foremost to meet our ideas and each other with presence, curiosity, and compassion.

That’s the job.

Push comes to shove, I’d say that it’s maybe the most important thing we ever do as human beings and I do know that institutional structures and pressures (as well as preconceived notions of masculinity and femininity, of productivity and success etc.) can make it hard.

But, colleagues, friends, and I have done it in a university setting so I know it can be done. I had a teacher in high school who managed to do it at least a little bit, five days a week for four years of my secondary school experience. And, I’ve done as much of it as I can with clients and friends over and over again for more than twenty years.

I learned all the French I know – which is still enough to communicate reasonably well after 30 years – from that secondary educator.

The way entrenched views shifted and genuine dialogue increased when we cared less about formatting and spelling and met university students with presence, curiosity, and compassion was astounding.

It is mesmerizing and beautiful to see the growth in friends and clients when the first thing I do is make it clear that external, institutional definitions of success and “right” don’t matter to me as much as who they are and what they care about.

The time and place to honour institutional expectations and rules will always come and will, 99 times out of a 100, be necessary. But, when we twist creativity into knots trying to make sure a project fits where we think it should belong, we frequently stunt the potential of some projects to find their most full and evolved states. We also risk the preemptive silencing of ideas that – while they might not wind up being part of the final version of the project in question – might be vastly important to entirely different future projects.

We inadvertently shut down that artist on their rock by covering one of their eyes so they lose their sense of depth and shadow. We unintentionally tie one of their hands behind their back so they can either draw or keep the sketchbook steady, but never both. We block their light so they cannot see anything clearly and undermine everything from their inspiration to their confidence that what they see – that what they have to offer – has value.

At worst, we hover in a cloud of our own knowledge and define “support” and “feedback” as a way to help them serve that knowledge instead of finding the best and most loving way to truly serve them.

As I have said a million times before, and will say a million times again, we are creative beings in an essentially creative universe so let’s start there.

I want each person I encounter on their rock to know that my goal is to see them; that I want to know them.

I want to find out what it is they truly want to say, to whom and in what ways. Then, I want to use all of my creativity, passion, and – finally – whatever institutional knowledge is required, to help them get closer to that goal.

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