What is creativity? Can creative writing be taught? And what are the implications of technological advances for the fiction writer? These are some of the daunting questions tackled by Brian Chikwava, who is an artist in residence at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS). He is also an award-winning writer and musician and he is at STIAS to work on his latest collection of short stories. In a seminar held on Stellenbosh campus he interrogates the notion of creativity.

“Research on creativity is a relatively new and marginal field and, until recently, has received little attention,” said Chikwava.

In his seminar Chikwava set out to examine the role of creativity in the practice of writing fiction, the creative processes used by contemporary writers and the influence these processes will have on future writers and artists. Chikwava said that there are different conceptions of creativity and the definition he uses is that creativity is the product of novel, useful or meaningful ideas. Delving into the history of the concepts of creativity, he says it was usually associated with the supernatural.

“Early conceptions of creativity contained heavy supernatural associations, with novel ideas seen as originating from the gods, and the artist’s job being that of revealing the sacred and transcendent qualities of nature,” he said. “More recent ideas about creativity regard it as a set of practices that further the emancipatory potential of human action. However, even among practitioners in creative arts, narrow notions of creativity still prevail.”

According to Chikwava, part of the challenge lies in the continuing myth of the artist and the creative process which largely arose from the Romantic period. “Creativity was tied to romantic notions and the mythology of the spontaneous creative genius,” he said.

He mentioned some of the ritual and, even superstition, supposedly linked to the processes of writers like Dickens, Joyce, Dumas and even Dr Seuss. In opposition to this viewpoint, Chikwava highlighted the proliferation of creative-writing courses or ‘programme writing’ which have become popular and widely available.
Chikwava said creative writing courses are premised on the idea that it is possible to teach writing and that narrative can be constructed in a rational way, step by step, in contrast to the historical notion of spontaneous creativity.

“Proponents say that these courses don’t claim to teach creativity but teach students to participate in creative practices. They equip students with a set of skills and techniques. This helps the student to develop a benchmark for quality writing and the techniques to achieve it. It is process oriented and can therefore be interpreted and analysed,” he said.

“It’s based on the argument that most new ideas are a new combination of old elements which depends on an ability to see new relationships,” he added.

According to Chikwava, those who oppose such courses would argue that “writing cannot be taught, and such courses are a pyramid scheme. It’s writers who have not been published teaching other writers how not to be published. And that true creative writers have less control over the process – in other words you cannot know what you know until you have written it.

“There is a snobbery about such programme writing – that it is mechanistic, all style and technique but no substance. Not art but design…narrow conceptions of creativity have led to sharp differences, with one set of writers and creative-writing teachers disparaging the creative practices of the other,” he said.

But in reality, it is more complex than that. “I think most contemporary novel writers tend to be hybrids of these different viewpoints and techniques,” he said.

Artificial creative intelligence

Chikwava believes technological advances are set to further challenge our notions of creativity and what new conceptions of creativity that may emerge from the new information age and fiction writing in the future. He used the project being undertaken by Google as an example, the Magenta research project which seeks to explore the role of machine learning in the process of creating art and music by, for instance, producing music using new sounds generated with machine learning.

Chikwava says technology cannot be divorced from the future of creativity and it’s already being used by the top brass in the industry. The famous Abbey Road Studio in London is trying out simulation programmes for music creation and the existence of computer algorithms that can identify the markers of a bestseller with up to 90% accuracy.

“Technological tools open huge possibilities,” he said. “There are new frontiers and conceptions of reality based on IT and media. What we regard as creativity is changing constantly. Artificial intelligence means computers have the capacity to learn. With more advanced tools it’s likely that new forms of novels will emerge,” says Chikwava.

“The hardest parts of creative writing are the boring bits,” he laughed. “Maybe we can develop computer algorithms to help with those?”
Chikwava discussed his own writing process which comprises gathering materials and looking for possibilities but then abandoning the materials to build again from a position of naivety. “I try not to bring preconceived ideas into the writing process,” he said. “I find that too much knowledge overburdens the creative mechanism. I lose perspective and can’t see the obvious connections. I need to rework as a process of discovery.”

“Knowledge is helpful to creativity, but it depends on the kind,” he added. “Excessive declarative and theoretical knowledge has been said to impede the creative process.”

He also discussed the challenge of creativity within bureaucratic academic structures.
“Creativity is about unlocking human potential but it’s hard for an individual to get into and remain within an institution without conforming. It’s probably about thinking to the limit of the box. Outside the box is more radical, less confined to institutional structures.”

He discussed the dichotomy of isolation and connectedness which are part of the challenge of being creative in the digital age. “It’s very difficult to be the isolated creative genius now,” he said. “We need to learn to inhabit a different space which strikes a balance between isolation and connectivity.”