Creativity and The Muse: We’re Not SOL

As a baby-boomer in school, my first twelve years didn’t particularly foster independent thinking, problem solving or creativity.

But I’m pleased to have had several opportunities in the past weeks to observe and to participate in school settings locally where students are thinking creatively, both within and outside the box of the classroom.

There was no such thing in my high school, I told the twenty students in the Roanoke area Creative Writing class. They were fortunate to have this chance to “romance the language” at 17–an opportunity I wouldn’t explore until I was in my fifties.

I told them that I would not likely have been encouraged to explore creative non-fiction writing at all had it not been for the watershed year of 2002 when “unanticipated life events diverted the flow of my life toward an entirely different sea than the one I had thought of as my destination.

The next week, I met with a small class of students from Blue Mountain School in Floyd. They were gathering ideas for the Library of Congress “River of Words” project on watersheds as a metaphor and focus for the creation of individual poems or art works. I had suggested they come out to northeast Floyd County and walk along a segment of Huffville Road that is the dividing line between watersheds–Atlantic and Gulf–at the eastern Continental Divide.

There are so many rich metaphors here from the landscape we live in: water as life and rivers’ flow as time; beaches and deltas as the consequent destinations of a choice we make in the present that can send us to very different future seas. We talked that day about erosion over the millenia and invisible water underground; about gradients and meanders, sediments and tributaries–terrestrial realities ripe for poetic or artistic use towards creations full of meaning and beauty.

But then, what is beauty? This abstract concept fills volumes by the world’s greatest philosophers, so to assign it to children as young as six is a daunting challenge for a teacher. And yet, that was exactly the hope of this year’s Reflections Arts Recognition and Achievement program sponsored by the National PTA. “Beauty is…” was the assigned topic.

I was one of several local artists (for want of a better descriptor, though I argue writing is or can be a creative enterprise) who met with an assembly of Check Elementary students to talk about beauty and the arts. More than thirty children produced entries. Who knows: it might be this opportunity to explore the beautiful will mark a watershed event in some child’s early learning about the world that gives them confidence they can use the bricks and mortar of their basic education to craft works of genius for us all.

So while our teachers are compelled by rising pressures for their resident sponges to be saturated with a certain body of facts, they also struggle to nurture the creative spark so that it not be extinguished by the weight of merely “producing the right answers.” Thanks, students and teachers, for the chance to participate briefly with you in this great adventure. Bon voyage!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred, thank you for this blog entry which so touched on my own thoughts on teaching children and nourishing their creative spark. The school system would be a wonderful thing, if our kids emerged from it with a sense of place and wildness and a commitment to the earth.