Last week as I was doing my other job, I noticed a strange phenomenon. I was a substitute teacher in a history class, where the students were working on a creative project. They had to research a historical figure; draw pictures of what this person might have been thinking; and write a first-person paragraph for each picture, describing the thoughts and emotions of this person. The students all had devices to help them with their research. I loved the idea of this project which was geared towards the development of critical thinking skills. As I walked between their desks, admiring their pictures and monitoring their internet use, I was shocked to discover what they were googling.
No, none of that.
They were looking up clip art for tomb stones and Jolly Rogers, why ships in general sink, and how to draw a stick girl! Now, that one might have started out as a joke.
Student 1: I can’t even draw a stick figure!
Student 2: Google it.
The joke is funny. What was not funny, was that he actually googled it. And drew his stick figure girl exactly like the one on the screen.
Student 3: I can’t remember what the British flag looks like. May I Google it?
Me: Use your text book. I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.
Student 3 flipped aimlessly through his text book.
Me: Use the index. It’s called the Union Jack.
Student 3 turned to back of book, looking in appendixes. After watching him page through his textbook for what seemed like forever, and considering the amount of laptops I had closed for frivolous use of the internet, I allowed him to google it.
Student 3: (Face palm) I cannot believe I forgot this is what it looks like!
Student 4, cracking up at Student 3, places paper on computer screen and traces Union Jack.
By this time I was overwhelmed by the stench of perfectly good brains rotting all around me. Now, don't get me wrong, I have no problem with the use of technology or the internet. The internet is a wonderfully helpful tool. It becomes a problem when it is used as a substitute for thinking, innovation and imagination. Much has been said about the "Google effect" and how it is changing the way we apply our minds. Writer Paul Miller, after taking an entire year off from the Internet, says that we have to resist becoming blobs who "exist on the internet instead of getting into the Internet, using it as a really cool tool, and then putting it away so (we) can focus on writing or something." That day in the classroom, I was saddened by the fact that kids who had been given an opportunity to be original, had chosen to be mundane. I was flabbergasted by kids being so connected that they are completely disconnected from their own thoughts.
But most importantly, as a writer, I was concerned that they were disconnected from their own voices.
And I wondered:
Is this what our future looks like? Where is the creativity?
Innovate, don’t imitate Dan Santat whispered in my ear.
Old school, in big red letters, I wrote on the board: INNOVATE, DON’T IMITATE. After I googled Dan Santat on the teacher’s computer, I cast his lovable, friendly face on the white board with the overhead projector (Hey, it’s cool technology.) And I told these students the story Dan shared with us at the 2015 NESBWI Spring Conference.
About how he was working for Disney. And how he realized his art was being influenced by his environment until he was merely recreating existing Disney characters. How he left this “dream job” and threw himself into his art and discovered his own voice. And how he won the 2015 Caldecott Medal for THE ADVENTURES OF BEEKLE. Because he dared to innovate.
I hope those kids heard. But my heart leapt a little, because, as I am in the midst of revision, Dan was also speaking to me. Like those students, I am presented with the opportunity to be creative every time I sit down to write. Am I original? Am I true to my voice? Am I inventing?
In writing and revision, how can we be sure we are innovative?
- Question the originality of your ideas. Are they truly new, or just the same character in a new dress?
- Look at your story and characters from a different angle or new POV. Ask "What if?" or experiment with opposites.
- Examine the universal truth in your story.
- Don’t follow trends. Write your passion.
- Cut everything that is cliché. Make sure every character has a legitimate, personal reason for their words and actions. Even if you never spell that out in your story, you need to know why your character is how he is. And it can’t be because that is how characters like him have always been.
- Cut the scenes that you have seen before, whether in other books, or in movies. Even if you read them somewhere else years after you had first written them. Even if they are your absolute darlings. If the idea is not innovative, find a different way to tell that part of the story.
- Disconnect so you can connect. Disconnect from media and other interruptions so that you can connect with your creative self. Some writers use timed-out software or write in spaces where the internet is unavailable. I find turning off all notification helps me focus. Using a timer to set definite writing times, and designated social media times (with my morning coffee, during my lunch break) are also ways I disconnect so I can focus on creating. I try not to bring social media into my work space. For me, making time to quiet my inner-self - be it through walking, yoga, reading something inspirational, prayer, or the practice of solitude - is essential to my creative process. Innovation requires time and space.
Dare to discover the innovative, creative spirit that dwells within you. Dare to go on a journey to find your voice. No Google required.