Can Creativity Be Taught, Then?

A Story of Learning Across Two Countries

Hannah Weiss’ comparative reflection on the reception of creative writing in schools across the UK and Singapore arises from her recent summer school experience at NTU in Singapore. She takes us on a round trip observing cultural differences of deliberate apathy and structured inspiration, receptivity to adult and teacher instruction, all while probing her impulse and affinity with storytelling. Yet what emerges from writing the unreality of culture shock is Hannah’s suggestion of an unlikely lesson in creativity to take home with her.

Not everybody wants to learn. In the UK, my A Level English Language classmates were apathetic when instructed to write a story, in comparison to their long lost eight year-old selves, fizzing with excitement at the prospect of the same task a decade earlier. Will we write about fairy-tale castles or spaceships?  A murder mystery or epic quest? But learning is not considered cool, in my country.

From where do we find this apathy? Why is it so ingrained, in all TV shows and movies aimed at western teenagers, that gaining respect from friends is about refusing to show interest in learning? Perhaps at that age it is about declaring mutiny from all adult instruction. I assumed everyone felt this way, until I went to study abroad.

For every British teenager knows that they must slouch back in their chair and stare down the teacher, chew gum with exaggerated insolence, and swagger their way past centre-stage to slam the door behind them as they are sent from the classroom, all to prove to their peers that they defiantly do not care. To put any less effort into this act is to be labelled a boffin, a swot, an arse-licker. And if you find yourself achieving too many A grades or failing to laugh off the teacher’s threats of failed exams, you will trip up, stumble and fall to the very bottom of the food chain. School is a jungle, and you do not want to become the prey.

I was the kid who blatantly flouted the dress code and got kicked out for doodling in class when I should have been making notes. But at home, where there was nobody to mock my tentative first scrawls of storytelling, I began to create vast, intricate worlds of my own. Staying up late into the night, pen in my hand, as I named the characters of my first novel and transcribed their stories.

The habits learnt in school were vices I struggled to shake off at university. And so became the pattern: procrastinate by day, then stay awake, dreaming, into the night. The stories grew longer. But the creative writing seminars I trudged to through the grey English dawn were peppered with bored first years, bleary-eyed from nights at the student bar. The few remaining attentive spouted references to highbrow tombs I had never opened, by eminent luminaries I had never heard of. Cowed, I slumped lower in my seat, to the refuge of doodles and dreams.

But I wanted to write. To tell stories, they say, you must have seen things, done things, know the world. You must be an adventurer. So I went with this small seed of a plan to the study abroad office, and through piles of paperwork and stark airport corridors and the ocean of the sky, I found my way to Asia.

Imagine how surprised I was, with this history of seeing study as something to be scorned, to arrive in Singapore and receive a gentle reassurance from the wellbeing counsellor on the very first day, that I must not put in so much effort as to find myself awash in panic. They say there are bars on the top level of the student dorms for a reason. The students surrounding me were from Shenzhen and Fukuoka, Seoul and Jakarta. They sat silently in the classroom. They made neat notes and worked hard.

I was impressed. And intimidated.

It’s a well-known stereotype that Asian countries place higher value on education than in the west. And clearly this has positive and negative consequences. My classmates in Singapore were well prepared to sit attentive through four-hour seminars, while I was blankly appalled to find this seemingly endless sermon on my timetable. But a focus on results is not always conducive to art. The technical aspects of writing are of great importance – you cannot sustain a reader’s attention without a strong plotline, nor immerse them in the world you have created without being able to use description effectively. However, when the teacher instructed us to ensure we included enough detail in our work, many of my classmates, new to being novelists, and accustomed to following orders precisely, wrote reams of exposition and described the minutiae of settings and characters to the detriment of the flow of their stories. Can creativity be taught, then?

Many writers suggest that it is innate. But the habit of writing, of redrafting and editing one’s own work, is a skill that is hard to grasp without some guidance. I was impressed with the focus of the course on providing students with trips to explore various aspects of Singapore’s culture, from the Art Science Museum, a paradox in itself as a concrete flower, to the kaleidoscopic alleys of Little India. We were encouraged to use these places as inspiration, and to write about not only our new surroundings but our response to being there. Free writing was encouraged at the start of each class, and without the shackles of direct imperatives about their technique, I was fascinated to hear other students read aloud their thoughts on homesickness, small moments of culture shock, and that sense of unreality that dazes every international student; as you try to pinpoint your place on the other side of the world.

I was forewarned by Singaporean students that study would be hard there; not an exploration of learning but a crushing pressure to succeed. I was told by friends that the nation was struggling to cement its place in the world. That the dazzling skyscrapers shooting up around me, and the tour guide’s lengthy exposition on the city branding itself as a multicultural haven were attempts to cover up foundations recently built. As a foreigner who only attempted to sleep standing up as the MRT carried me home for a mere five weeks, I don’t believe my brief impressions can truly weigh in on the debate. I know the response of my fellow exchange students was overwhelmingly positive: the awe at the university, whose investment in impressive new buildings and research far outstripped our own, at the dedication to creating spaces for community and expression amongst the rush of city life. I have seen dancers in London claiming spaces in train stations and parks, wherever they can find, while Singaporeans have SCAPE; a whole arts centre to play in.

Creativity has a grand tradition in my home country. But perhaps we are taking it for granted. The British government pours cash into funds for students studying the sciences, while arts students are left to flounder. Singapore’s students may struggle through a more rigid education system than the one I grew up in. The nation may only now be making its own history. But during the few weeks I called the city home, I felt in it a vibrant potential for innovation that England seems to have forgotten it once had. In contrast, I think much of Singapore’s story is yet to be told.


Currently reading English Literature at the University of Exeter, HANNAH WEISS admires all storytellers from Shakespeare to Scheherazade. As Online Comment Editor for Exeposé student newspaper and world music columnist for Pearshaped magazine, her proofreading experience has landed publishing work placements where she was paid in books. One mission in life is to master headspins and make it as a pro b-girl, smoking opposition in battles worldwide.

Photo credit: Hannah Weiss

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