Why cre­ativ­ity is food for the brain

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - UPFRONT - mary-rose maccoll mary-rosemac­coll.com

Aus­tralian mu­si­cians are poorly paid, have lit­tle job se­cu­rity, work long hours and drink too much. No sur­prises there. Oh, and also, they’re happy. The Uni­ver­sity of Queens­land’s School of Psy­chol­ogy has re­leased re­sults of a mu­si­cian well­be­ing sur­vey un­der­taken in 2010-11 by re­searcher and lec­turer Dr Stacey Parker, whose re­port says “a thriv­ing cre­ative in­dus­try is key to stim­u­lat­ing healthy eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural out­comes”. Go UQ Psych! I want to shout right there. Go Dr Parker! A thriv­ing cre­ative in­dus­try mat­ters? You bet it does.

Bri­tish ed­u­ca­tion­al­ist Ken Robin­son, whose TED talks have been watched by mil­lions, keeps say­ing that cre­ativ­ity mat­ters to our very sur­vival in the 21st cen­tury. Yet cre­ativ­ity’s not on the radar of school ed­u­ca­tion with its worn-out-shoe teach­ing meth­ods, its high-stakes NAPLAN testing regime and its choke­hold na­tional cur­ric­ula. What we learn in school is about as nur­tur­ing of cre­ativ­ity, es­pe­cially in the arts, as fast food is of a body. So what keeps us play­ing mu­sic, danc­ing, paint­ing, mak­ing up sto­ries? And how do we keep cre­ativ­ity alive in our chil­dren so they can con­tinue life­long to ex­pe­ri­ence the hap­pi­ness that mak­ing brings?

Foo Fighters singer Dave Grohl’s made-for-TV se­ries Sonic High­ways ex­plores the cre­ative process in song­writ­ing. The for­mer Nir­vana drum­mer’s now 20-year-old band records a song in each of eight US cities with a mu­si­cal her­itage. Grohl wanted to fol­low the songlines of the cities as a way of mix­ing up his band’s process, find­ing the spark in each place. The se­ries has been crit­i­cised for its fail­ure to in­clude par­tic­u­lar mu­si­cians or enough women, for fo­cus­ing on Grohl’s own mu­si­cal past rather than mu­sic his­tory, and for record­ing a Foo Fighters song in each place rather than one that pays homage to the place. I didn’t want Sonic High­ways to be a de­fin­i­tive his­tory of mu­sic or a way to en­cour­age girls to play gui­tar, and frankly it would have been cheesy to do Foo Fighter jazz in New Or­leans, worse Foo Fighter coun­try in Nashville. I wanted to know if it would tell me some­thing about cre­ativ­ity and how it’s nur­tured.

Sonic High­ways dif­fers from the nor­mal rock band dis­as­ter show, which reached its pin­na­cle in Me­tal­lica’s 2004 doco Some Kind of Mon­ster that tracks that band’s jour­ney into re­la­tion­ship and record­ing hell. You know they’re in trou­ble when the band’s ther­a­pist (yes, ther­a­pist) gets out a white­board to de­fine the band’s mission (yes, mission). Grohl, rather, shows us where he came from and where the many mu­si­cians he in­ter­views came from. They all had teach­ers or men­tors, other mu­si­cians who played a role in their devel­op­ment one way or an­other. They had tra­di­tions they could bor­row from and places to gather. They had fun do­ing what they were do­ing, and change helped. None of what they learned was learned in school.

Sonic High­ways has the sad­ness of the age­ing rock star and what got lost on that dark desert high­way, the record stores, scenes, clubs, stu­dios that have gone into the west. There’s a lot less ex­cite­ment about the garage bands of the fu­ture. How can to­mor­row be as cre­ative? Grohl seems to be say­ing, and the ev­i­dence, as far as it goes, shows he’s on to some­thing. Chil­dren are less cre­ative than they were three gen­er­a­tions ago. Tor­rance test re­sults in the US – not a per­fect mea­sure of cre­ativ­ity, but pre­dic­tive in terms of cre­ativ­ity in later oc­cu­pa­tion – have gone down since 1990, while IQ scores have con­tin­ued to go up.

What I took away from Sonic High­ways was that cre­ativ­ity can en­dure much be­fore it is snuffed out. Whether it was the weird go-go scene of Wash­ing­ton or grunge in Seat­tle, cre­ativ­ity is alive in all its blood­ied sunny glory.

I’ve had cause to think about what I’ve done with my life as a writer lately, and to look at my son and won­der what he’ll do with his. I hope what­ever jour­ney his life takes him on, he’ll find the kind of hap­pi­ness I’ve found in cre­ative prac­tice. Be­cause it’s been ev­ery­thing.

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