Monday, November 23, 2009

Ensuring the Future of Creativity

Today we have a guestblog from (our long-time friend) @kilotango. If you've seen Ethanael's profile picture, you've encountered Katy's artistic talent. Now, read on to see her wordsmithiness...

Ensuring the Future of Creativity

Ever since I was little, I've been surrounded by creative culture of some kind, and a lot of it has—in some way—been stories. Even aside from having a mother who devours books like candy, the traditional music scene I grew up in is rich in storytelling in both songs and spoken word. So, the idea of creating characters and worlds and plots has always been pretty close to my heart. Even though what I've published so far has been non-fiction and focused on art rather than writing, it's still been engaged with that love, hopefully empowering kids to express some of the stories that live inside their own heads.

As I've been teaching workshops over the last year or so, the importance of this idea keeps growing for me. With the swelling focus on exam results, targets and vocational skills, the joy of just indulging your own ideas seems to be getting more and more undervalued in schools. It's simultaneously wonderful and a little heartbreaking when you have to explain to a child that the character they are creating is theirs, and so of course they can give it long hair or wings or a big coat or whatever detail they want to add. Seeing the realisation click that their creation really can be however they like is great, but that they don't already know this and are instead so worried about getting things wrong seems more than a little sad.

It's not just the kids either. If the children have a parent in tow, I usually try to make them join in. More often than not, getting them to pick up a pencil will take more encouragement and more insistence that I'm starting right from the basics than I have to give to the kids. It takes hard work to be really good at anything, but that doesn't mean there's anything shameful in trying to do something new. Or in being really bad at that new thing. I hear a lot of sentences that start with "Oh, but I can't—" from adults sat in on my workshops. And maybe they're right, but really... that sentence should psychologically end with the word 'yet.'

Especially when we're dealing with something as low risk as making some marks on a sheet of paper, or spending five or ten minutes thinking up an imaginary person.

If you have that time to spare, there's not really any risk in following up on that potential skill either, especially as a child. No, not everyone who picks up a pencil or throws around words will be able to make a living from it. But creativity has a worth way beyond making you some cash. If it doesn't go anywhere... oh no. You've used some time using your brain and making something fun that you could have spent watching the X-factor. How very tragic.

Thankfully kids tend to be more willing to take that 'risk', but when school often fails to give them the outlet, that hurdle is far from as easy to jump over as it could be. Young people are much smarter and much more creative than people give them credit for, and they live in a world where they're looked on as fragile things made of glass that must be kept away from sunlight and experience at all costs, or horrible hoodie-wearing happy-slapping blights on society—and often not much in-between. Throw on the pressure to grow up in double time with plenty of shiny bits of paper to use as proof they've learned stuff, and that doesn't always leave a lot of space for healthy, imaginative expression. And that's a huge loss. A friend once told me that if you want to cut down youth crime, install a skate park and a graffiti wall in every town. I don't dissagree. I've spoken to youth workers with just the same view. Kids want to express themselves, and if we don't give them a constructive way to do it, we can't really be surprised when it explodes in other ways.

Back on the 'mercenary' note, all this talk about the Harlequin Horizons drama-storm took me a little personally as well. Not because I've had any experience with vanity publishers myself, but because a kid at one of my workshops got caught up with one. While I understand that everyone needs to make money somehow, the vanity method of preying on creators borders on the disgusting. Sure, if you were horribly cynical you could claim it was a tax on people not doing their research. But, when you're talking about convincing a young person to pay £5000 to 'publish' something they could have printed themselves for £200, with only limited editing, marketing and minimal distribution for their money, that steps into 'how do you sleep at night?' territory for me.

Unfortunately the kid that came to me for advice about what it's like to publish something had already signed the contract. They sent it to me to look at, and after how both enthusiastic and anxious they had been in our conversation, having to explain to them the nature of the company that had given them the offer was probably one of the most difficult emails I have ever written. All this would have been bad enough a few years ago, but with the amount of solid Print On Demand services out there, the fact it's not hard to get an ISBN and that some of these services will even throw your work up on Amazon for you... frankly, there's no excuse for this. Especially not when you're landing impressionable young people 5k in debt, taking a huge cut of the profit and then on top of that, taking their intellectual property rights with it.

This is not how we should be treating the people who are writing our future.

For all that anger though, there has probably never been a better time for just getting your stuff out into the public view, and in ways completely accessible for young people. No, you might not make a living out of it, but that doesn't always have to be the point. You can set up a print on demand shop for pretty much no overhead other than your own hard work on your book or comic. If you don't care about selling, you can start a blog, for free, in less time than it takes to make yourself a brew. From what I've seen, the small press scene is still thriving in comics, with new talent rising all the time, some of it from people not even out of their teens.

And this is with a large amount of the population convinced they're not creative, that they can't make things, that there's no point even trying to learn or trying to improve. Which is why when I get to teach, it's one of the most fulfilling experiences in the world. It might only be with a few people, and what they produce might not always be polished... yet. That takes work and practice and development. But potential is potential, and it's a great honour to help open that door. You never know what somebody has in their head.

Just imagine what we could see if they were all given the confidence and opportunity to share it.

Katy Coope is an author, illustrator and web designer based in the UK. She had her first book published at age 16, and her most recent, 'Making Manga Characters', came out last year as part of Collins' Big Cat series. She has a BA and an MA and runs on concentrated geekery, caffeine and spiral power.

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