“I don’t know dude.” Or: the creative process unpacked

Several musician friends this morning retweeted the above thought by Mitski. I’ve enjoyed some of Mitski’s records (last year’s ‘Be the Cowboy’ had some great moments and often put me in mind of Jens Lekman) but I found the tweet even more interesting: “every song i write feels like the last song I’ll ever write, and the moment it’s done I fully forget how I did any of it lol. if artists were fully honest in interviews half our answers to Qs about “process” would probably be “i don’t know dude””. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the reference to process that interests me, or more specifically the explanation of process. This is something our students are expected to do as part of their art/photography GCSE and it is always one of the most difficult things for them to do. The phrase I keep using in class is “you need to tell the examiner what’s going on inside your head” and I’m always intrigued by the differing degrees of response to this. Some are able to unpack that thinking process fairly well (I model it all the time when we do one to one tutorial sessions) but other just don’t seem able to do it at all. Of course this is all tied into metacognition and we know from research that metacognition is perhaps the ‘strategy’ that has the single most positive impact on learning.

Now I understand artists’ wish to keep the secrets of their creative processes hidden because it maintains the mystery and magic and it may be that Mitski is being somewhat disingenuous with this tweet because I really believe that if someone asked the correct questions (‘tell me about your creative process’ is rarely a question that will get you to that answer) she would have some really interesting insights into what happens. Mitski might genuinely feel she ‘forgets’ how she has written any one song but the ‘secrets’ of that process are clearly woven into her neural pathways. She does know, but she seems to be telling herself (or us) that she doesn’t. Perhaps this is a self-preservation mode kicking in or perhaps it is, as I said, a somewhat disingenuous dodging of the issue in order to maintain the mystery.

This is fine because as an artist you don’t have any exams to pass where someone is going to judge you on your ability to explain your creative processes, but from an educational perspective it is critical. It brings to mind a research project I did around 20 years ago (when funding still existed to facilitate such things) exploring the creative process within film editing. My findings from that project were largely around unpacking the creative process and debunking the notion of creativity as some innate skill or ‘gift’ and this has driven much of my own thinking (and practice) in education in the intervening years. My favourite phrase for a time (apologies to the colleagues who must have wearied of hearing it) was “the creative process is the learning process and vice-versa” and an intrinsic part of that creative process is that very metacognition that we know leads to progress. Mitski might want to think about that if she ever needs to pass a GCSE in art..

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