Jumpstarting Creativity

Jumpstarting Creativity is the second goal in Pongo's approach to teaching writing. We want to help youth access their own ideas, feelings, issues, and enthusiasm in a natural flow of self-expression, like water flowing downhill. To facilitate this process we provide writing contexts that model and frame the writing requirements, and we provide themes that are suggestive and evocative of the youths' experiences and desires. In our approach, Jumpstarting Creativity has the following three aspects:

  • Provide Structures
  • Personalize Assignments
  • Provide Wealth of Ideas to Begin
Provide Structures

To alleviate anxiety and confusion we provide structures that can be as simple as an exercise to "fill-in-the-blank" in a sentence, or as complicated as an exercise to add missing description, dialog, or scenes in a play. For example, years ago we worked in a psychiatric clinic where the teens had high levels of resistance to expressing themselves and greatly varying abilities to articulate ideas and feelings. But every year before an annual camping trip, we used to collaborate with the teens on a scary story to perform around the campfire. Our intention with the story was to help the teens deal with their anxieties about the trip.

To accomplish our goal, we'd write the outline of the story and leave blanks for the teens to fill in - What did the haunted house look like? What were the noises in the woods at night? Describe the creature in the story. This was the structure that helped the creativity to flow. The teens could write as they were able, a word or a page in response to each question.

Of course, in addition to the ghost story, there are many possible structures for a writing activity, of varying levels of sophistication. Here are some ideas:

Basic Structures
Fill-in-the-blank ("He was a very _____ man."), Sentence completion ("I wish I could…"), Lists ("A kind person does the following things:"), Multiple choice ("A friend should: [a] Take drugs away, [b] Leave you alone")

Cultural Structures
Poetic models (following pattern of traditional or modern poem), Creation myth (or folk tale, fairy tale, etc.), Genre models (ghost story, mystery, etc.), Want ad (or slogan, commercial, etc.), [and many, many more]

Personal Structures
Chronology of events, Set of priorities, Sequence of memories, Collection of sensory images, Letter (to real person, to self, in "Dear Abby" response), Wish List, Reflection (such as "the part of me that no one knows or understands"), Dream

Most often in our work at Pongo we create a structure within a poetic form. We follow the model of an existing poem, or create our own, often using an evocative, emotional, and repetitive design. For example, in a therapy group for youth who were grieving after the violent death of a friend or family member (a group led by our colleague, psychiatrist Ted Rynearson), we created the following poetic form to help youth explain their imagery of the death. (This exercise was only used at an appropriate time in the therapy, after work had been devoted to themes of connection and resilience.)

When Death Comes Suddenly
When Death comes suddenly and violently
You chase after it, or it follows you
You grab it, or it grabs you
And you hold on, or are held by

This is about our memories and emotions
The things we've heard...
The things we've smelled...
The things we've touched...
The things we've tasted...
The things we've imagined...
The things we've felt...
The way we feel today...

Ultimately, success is determined by combining structure with personally relevant (and sensitive) content, such as that described below.

Personalize Assignments

The young people we've encountered who are homeless, incarcerated, or institutionalized, are most encouraged to write and most helped emotionally by personally relevant themes. Older youth are very concrete, anxious to write about themselves, their issues, and their experiences - to make sense of their world and their history. Younger teens and children are often captured by fantasy - but again, by personalized fantasy, that matches their own dreams of escape, revenge, power, love, etc., with images of spaceships, fires, superheroes, princesses, etc. Ultimately, this personalized content, that reflects on the experiences and consequences of trauma, must be calibrated and modulated so that the youth feel safe, retaining control over what they reveal, and so that the youth are rewarded for their strength and resilience.

In an exercise like the ghost story discussed above, we made efforts to personalize the story by including people, music, situations, humor, and attitudes that the teens enjoyed. The haunted house was a familiar clinic, the noises included favorite rock music, the creature was a respected authority figure from the clinic. The process of personalizing the story included lots of discussion with the youth and openness to their own ideas. But in the end, the depth of the exercise lay in its confrontation with fear and monsters; and the constructiveness of the exercise included its opportunities for strength, conquest, and escape.

How do we calibrate and modulate openness when we encourage young people to write about their difficult lives? Part of this calibration lies in the nature of the writing task itself: the youth always control what they write down, and we support their efforts at self-expression, at whatever depth of personal openness. Also, we create evocative assignments that are indirect in dealing with sensitive material. In the scary story example, the calibration and modulation that made the activity safe was contained in the symbolic nature of the creature and the teens' escape.

In the poetic structures that we create, we make them personally relevant, but safe: We don't ask young people to write about how they were hurt by dad, we ask them to list the questions they have about fathers; We don't ask young people to write about ways that they feel they have failed, we ask them to write about qualities they have that sometimes go unrecognized; We don't ask young people to write about ways in which they feel unloved, we ask them to answer the questions that other youth have asked about how to find love.

Provide Wealth of Ideas to Begin

Finally, it is an important aspect of writing that when we offer lots of ideas and options and examples, we enhance young people's creativity. It is completely incorrect to think that a poem has no validity unless it is written in a creative vacuum. The processes of brainstorming, offering suggestions and samples, and group discussion open teens up to original self-expression. It's interesting to us that, after we fill a blackboard with ideas from a group discussion, the teens rarely use those same ideas in their writing; but they write much more fluidly with great enjoyment.