Creativity and Non-Linear Learning

The culture I live in, and even some of the more creative people I know, believe that learning a creative art (whether writing, music, dance, Tarot card reading, blogging, or whatever you choose) is a linear process. You pick what you want to master, start at the beginning with the rudimentary skills of a particular tradition or lineage, and practice those until they are “good enough” to go to the next level. Lather, rinse, repeat. Keep going, step by step, no matter what. Only when you’ve achieved some sort of mastery are you “allowed” to experiment, break the rules, improvise, and get creative on your own.

Excuse me? Allowed by who?!

As you can probably tell by now, that’s not my chosen way of learning.

I realize it does work well for some people. And I’m in no way diminishing the importance of practice. In fact, practice is one of the tools I value most in life. I feel that it’s the key to improving at anything.

What I’m talking about here is the structure of learning and practice, and how they interact with one’s innate creativity.

My learning emerges from my creative passions. I like to play and experiment. When I do practice a skill in a regimented way, I am choosing to do it in service to the muses. When my technical abilities aren’t keeping up with my desire to create, I learn new ones and practice the ones I know. When I want to expand my abilities, I employ a wide variety of learning methods drawn from many different sources.

I grew up, as did most of us, in the epitome of a linear-thinking environment, public school. I was a people-pleaser, and I actually enjoy academics and studying, so I did well. But truly, the whole “learn something so you can get it right on a test” or “learn something and describe it the way the teacher wants to hear it” wasn’t good for me. It stifled my creativity, and it took me quite a long time to break free of those blockages.

As an adult, I’ve discovered and follow the model of unschooling. When I find something that grabs my interest, I set out to learn it. I usually, though not always, begin with research. I read, read, read. I also like to take notes. I may or may not ever look at them again – the particular act of writing about something tends to help me internalize and remember it. My research allows me to make an informed choice, based on intuition, about whether a particular art or craft is something I wish to learn.

If so, then I follow my inspiration, choosing some aspect to begin practicing. Often, my practice is lived as a natural part of my daily life. When I first started drumming, my “practices” were drum circles around the fire, all summer. I might take a class, a workshop, or several, if I feel the knowledge and experience gained there would be useful.  Since I’ve largely healed from my public-schooled mindset, I have no problem with stopping in mid-stream if something isn’t working. If a class isn’t what I thought it would be and isn’t helping, I might choose to leave (of course, I’m respectful to the teacher and our agreement). What I once would have seen as “giving up” or “being a quitter” is now allowing myself to follow my intuition and choose the best path for me at this time.

Sometimes I choose to collaborate with peers on a creative project, and that provides for lots of learning as well as fun. We all bring our own unique skills and wisdom to the endeavor, and teach one another in the process of interacting. This is something I see often in groups of unschooled kids, and I admire their willingness to share freely of their skills and knowledge.

Sometimes I run into the traditional model in strange moments. Someone will ask “who was your teacher?” or “what tradition do you follow?” and I’ll have to explain my eclectic learning style – or not (I may choose to remain mysterious). These days I perform professionally with other artists, some of whom follow a very different learning style than mine, and with attention and cooperation it can work quite well.

What I am suggesting is not that one style of learning is preferable to another. On the contrary, I feel that we each have our own best ways of learning, and that we should make an effort to discover what works best for our unique situation. To complicate it even further, your own learning styles will change depending on what you are learning, and will evolve over the course of your life.

An important question to ask yourself is “am I having fun?” Sure, not every moment of practice will be a delight, and sometimes you’ll choose to push yourself in service to your art. Yet in the big picture, why waste your precious time doing something that’s not fun? When you discover your own best methods of learning, then you’ll uncover the vast joy of expressing your innate creativity. Learning is fun. Art is fun. Try something new!


Tell me what you think!