Bamboo and the Elusive Art of Creativity

Bamboo and the Elusive Art of Creativity

“I told you to draw a forest. That’s not a forest.”

“Yes, it is. It’s bamboo.”

“What do you mean ‘it’s bamboo’?”

“It’s bamboo, teacher. It's a forest.”

I snatched the drawing, inspected it, and returned it to the nervous little girl and her nervous little desk. 

“You're right. It’s bamboo. It’s a forest. OK.” I said. And I feel like an idiot. I felt like everything I never wanted to be. I walked away to go look at another forest.

“Creativity” is the irritating little brother of education—and civilization. It's a pest. It’s unimportant. It’s impractical. Most of the time, we just can’t deal with that shit. The problem with this little brother is inherent in his nature. Creativity, like the emotions it inspires—wonder, contemplation, stupefaction—is impossible to quantify. That’s why it gets us. Human beings are so irretrievably disposed to quantification that we become categorically pissed off when it eludes us. We need to quantify, to reason so that we can maintain control.

Being subjected to creativity when we aren’t looking for it is disorienting.

The problem in the interplay between creativity and education doesn’t need to be discussed at length. Education—to an ever-increasing extent—relies on standardization. Standardization is a nauseating ideal/concept/word. Standardization is practicality, ease, and know it when ya see it. Lately, we’ve unleashed it on society with a vengeance. Even creativity and self-expression must be confined to neatly packaged spaces like 140 characters or a Facebook profile.

In education though, it’s way way worse.

The reason we love standardization (the score) is because it explains. It purports to contain a great deal of information. The problem with standardization is that it inherently lends itself towards things that are measurable—in much the opposite way that creativity does. You can measure 1+7 to equal 8. You can measure a lot of other things, too.

Thus, in our epic pursuit to standardize everything, we are naturally going to marginalize that which is immeasurable. Thus, creativity becomes impractical. It’s been pushed out as a deterrent, an irritating little brother to our civilization’s goals. Because, even though we might kinda sorta know it when we see it, we can’t tell you what it is. We can't grade it.

But, I know what it is.

Creativity is fearlessness. It’s the audacity to

1). Put yourself out there and

2). Question perceived reality.

Essentially, you have to give few enough shits to have your personal eccentricities on display and beyond that, to have the effrontery to suggest that everyone else might be missing something. That takes some legitimate backbone. If you’re willing to do neither you will never create.

See, the key tragedy is that creativity is socialized out of us. We are told about yes and no pretty soon after we greet the world. We are told that 2 + 3 = 5 and stuff like that. We are told that we are looking at a hat instead of an elephant inside of a snake.

I’m not going to argue against 2 + 3 = 5, because original thought deserves to be tempered with a hint of rationality. 2 + 3 = 6 isn’t fearless. It’s trolling. However, I’ll argue that it takes cojones--real big fucking cojones--to say, as The Little Prince did, that it’s an elephant inside of a snake and not a hat. It takes real big fucking cojones because, that's a notion personally offends people. People will go so far as to fear it—be shaking-under-the-covers scared of it—because such a proposition (elephant inside of snake instead of hat) questions their beliefs and the very foundations of society and puts a shiver in their steady control of the way of things. Impractical is the word they use for things that make them shake at night.


You’ve got to be long on guts to question society and/or reality.

A few minutes before I told my second grade student that her forest wasn’t a forest, I'd shown her some real forests. I gave my students six or seven examples of pictures and paintings of “forests.” They were landscapes, set at a fair distance, with plenty of visible trees and predictable, Hudson River School-esque, streaks of light. One had a fox. Another had a bird. One had a moon.

I had neatly scored the forest. I never once said,“draw these pictures.” I said, draw a forest. And that’s what they did. And that’s where most of their minds will go every time someone tells them to draw a forest—for the rest of their lives.

But not this one girl. She had the audacity to suggest that it might be ok to call a magnified drawing of a few intersecting sticks of bamboo a forest. Her impracticality disturbed me. It complicated my day. It questioned my supposed authority on the matter of drawings of forests. Where was the streak of light? Where were the trees? The trees! It made me very uncomfortable.

A world devoid of creativity would be a perfect world; it would be a place where numbers and quantification reign unilaterally. We could teach our kids everything we know and they’d do the same and on and on.

But we could never achieve perfection without the fearlessness of creativity. 

We need people to stand up and say, “Nah, that's an oblate spheroid,” or “Sorry, but your great-great-great-great grandfather was a monkey.” Those people were the ones that said, “Yes, it is a forest. It’s bamboo.”  We can’t lose those people. We can’t standardize them into obsolescence. We can’t scare them. We need them more than we know.

Forest. By Zhang Xue Ying

Forest. By Zhang Xue Ying

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