[Updated] Teaching Creativity. (Or, not teaching it.)

Last night I had the unique opportunity to learn from a stellar young novelist and an award-winning filmmaker on the topic of creativity.

Film school and MFA Writing programs have something in common — they take in people who want to make creative works and teach them. They charge lots of money, select their students carefully, have famous alumni (so it must work?), run a range of theoretical and practical courses.

They have something else in common — they don’t tell you how to make high art. How to actually be creative.

Like MFA programs for visual arts, the writing programs literally “teach you nothing” said my writer friend. Instead they see their goals as “shaping your voice”. He really stuck by this. No going back to the greats, no studying how the great artistic movements came out of XYZ, no aesthetic direction whatever really. They “teach you technique, not what to do with it” my film friend added

In fact it is rampant and uncontroversial that writing professors (and directors in film school) often simply “direct through you”. Meaning, you meet someone with an aesthetic scheme (“This is what good directing/writing is”) and they just constantly thrash with any student who disagrees, constantly vibe with any diligent follower, and never “search” for a new aesthetic scheme.

So, input: you (talented, some experience).
School: critical feedback as you do more work
Output: improved you

Artist meets artist and something good comes from it, roughly.

But nobody knows anything about how to go about this process of invention? In tech and entrepreneurship, and in science, there is a lot of thinking about serendipity, creativity, innovation, intersections (e.g., here, here, here, and Marc Andreessen here, plus my lecture on this at Columbia class 4 lecture notes here).

When I really pressed these guys, they kept saying no. There is no consensus, there is no method, there is therefore simply no effort made formally to tutor students on their process of “search” for a new aesthetic idea (meaning – ‘something beautiful’, ‘a new, good film’ or ‘a fresh novelist’s voice’).

This seemed insane — you pay all this money and they teach you nothing? Well, perhaps there is merit to all this in a field where the purest innovation is what’s needed. The artist’s voice is ultimately where it begins. Fine.

But then we hit upon a single key word that illuminated everything: genre.


There are students looking for the new, but then there is genre. Genre has patterns. Formulas for its production. Rules for its development. Audiences expect certain things from genre. You cannot disappoint them.

Genre is commercial. It has to make money. Viewers need to show up and pay.

With Genre, you can’t have “half the people thought it was horror, the other half thought it was a romance”.

And in both writing and filmmaking there is genre galore, which of course can be taught, patterns derived, practiced and developed.

With that insight, I now have a new idea about creativity I did not have before.

Startups, innovation, entrepreneurship etc is also about creative development of products and businesses. And it also falls into two broad creative modes: art and genre.

Art is the “Steve Jobs” invention process. Genre is the “Bill Gates” test-and-learn process — the latter is execution and can build big businesses indeed.

The latter is what you can easily teach. The former is much harder to teach but founders of that type can still benefit from the patterns and process of genre, the critical feedback of the ‘masters’, and certainly the encouragement of their peers and fans.

Now I don’t think the ‘best’ MFA programs teach you to write genre fiction but there sure are absolute loads of weekend classes you can take about ‘how to write your memoir’ at the community college.

So someday there will be entrepreneurship teaching happening all over the place, and it will be nuts and bolts ‘test and learn’ stuff. And at the fanciest places perhaps there will be a practice around the biggest, boldest, most ambitious types of founders and ideas.

[Update — my filmmaker friend added:]

I just read your post on teaching creativity. Now, I should say in film school, tey do teach you craft: quality of light, lenses, how to use the camera, working on crews, how to get good sound, lots of technical things – thing you don’t necessarily need to go to school for, but it gives you access to work with equipment and situations you might otherwise not have.

There is also writing and directing classes which in a sense are studies of how directors accomplished something through a cut, or movement or sound etc. They don’t show you new ways – this is up to you to find out, but past examples of how someone staged a chase or first encounter. Like reverse engineering. But there are established conventions – genre being one of them, or shot sizes (wide versus closeup), warm color versus cold, moving shots (tracking shots) versus static. And the school has an aesthetic: present tense – the now, no voice-over unless absolutely necessary. The main motto: show, don’t tell.

As for creativity? Yes. They don’t teach you how to be creative. Instead they make you make things. They give you tons of exercises to do with a camera and without. You get used to making volumes of work. And from that pile of work, you begin to see things during workshop and master classes about your world view, your stylistic proclivities. It’s outside in, versus inside out, which I think, is already your process. Along the way, you find professors who get you and ask you the hard question: Why? Why is the camera here? Why is the character moving their finger? Why does the wallpaper have flowers on it? Why is it day? Why is there music? Why is the color so saturated? And if you don’t have a reason for one of those questions, you are not in control of the material. You are not directing.

So they do teach technique, but not what to do with it