The British Council spoke to Inua Ellams, the award-winning poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer, about learning to be creative and why that is important.
What does creativity mean to you?
In the simplest sense, creativity is flexibility. It means having no fixed way of beginning conversations or approaching problems. It is always being open, fluid, looking at the tools available around you, and finding the most effective and economical ways to solve problems. That is at its purest what creativity means to me.
What role does creativity play in the digital world of the 21st century?
I think the role of creativity hasn’t been explored enough, and that a lot of the technologies around us are limiting our capability for imagination and, by extension, our capability for problem solving in imaginative ways. Social media is negatively affecting our attention span, which means that we do not think deeply enough to solve problems. We look for the fastest way out, which tends to be ‘find someone else to do it’, or ‘make another app’, rather than looking around and picking something up. So I think it hasn’t been explored yet and that makes me more nervous for the future than excited about its possibilities and potential.
I was recently asked by a think tank to consider what the next generation of toys might be like. My response was an electromagnetic pulse. Something that parents and children can trigger that would knock out the technology around them with a chip, so they can return to the stone age, and have to go out into the world with thread and rope and build things again.
So right now, [the digital age] fills me with dread more than anything. Especially in the West where there is constantly a drive to command and calculate growth by GDP, so it is always focused on financial gain. We are always looking towards science and physics, and looking at that as some way of divining the worth of an individual or the growth of a community, rather than looking at creativity and the ability to make something out of nothing.
One of the things that frustrates me most is that a few years ago someone created an app that knocks out things like Facebook and Twitter. It just deadens the apps, so you get no notifications. But it was so effective that people were spending less and less time on their phones. And then Apple and Android took it out of their shops because it was making it more difficult to sell products. So we need to drastically shift and change something. And I say this as someone who is addicted to his phone, I need it for work. I wish that app was there so I could just knock it out, and discipline myself. But it isn’t there.
How do you think that you became creative?
Out of poverty. I had no money, and I had a big imagination and time on my hands. I couldn’t go to university, so I couldn’t learn any of the traditional jobs or practices. I just had time on my hands, and paper around me, so I began drawing and I began writing. I couldn’t buy anything to entertain me, and so I had to entertain myself. In doing so I just made things up, and that is what I still do for a living.
Do you think there is a certain way in which practice makes perfect, or did it come out of the environment around you?
Practice definitely gave rise to it; I have been doing that since I was a kid. The first thing I made was a plan for an entire city when I was about four years old. I was already thinking big when I was small, and my father fostered that.
At the same time I was a geek, and I was a nerd and I was top of my class in most subjects. So my father knew I could do all the maths and science stuff, but at the same time I had a wild imagination, and he encouraged both. So when we moved to London and my sisters could go to university and I couldn’t. This bone that I had been playing around with since I was four years old, I just focused on that because that was the only thing I could do. I had been practising for that more or less my whole life without knowing I was practising.
Do you think that the current education system facilitates the development of creativity?
It used to when I first came here, back in 1996. It was awesome. The drama department was on point, the arts teacher was on point. There were arts festivals. When I moved to Dublin, same thing. The art teacher gave me the keys to the art department and said, ‘Just do what you want here.’ There was an arts festival in school.
Since then, the world has changed so drastically, the climate has changed so drastically, the education landscape is changing so drastically. In the UK we are trying to compete with superpowers like China, India, the US, Brazil. And we don’t stand a chance. The number of people, first of all. We are a tiny island. A single tribe in Nigeria is equal to the entire population of the United Kingdom. We don’t stand a chance competing with the world.
That frustration leads to people in charge of education championing things like physics and science, things you can quantify. You cannot quantify creativity, and so they don’t see the value, and all of those subjects are dying, as they are being underfunded. Things like youth services and youth centres which foster creativity have been decimated all around the country. It is giving rise to youth violence, to kids on the street. They have no time to make things, so they weaponise their thoughts. It’s not looking good in the UK.
Do you think there is ever a way in which subjects like science or physics can also teach creativity?
Absolutely! If they were taught that way, but they are not.
One of the things I loved as a kid was learning the basics of how circuits work. My sisters would come to me with their dolls and say, ‘We can’t afford a doll’s house’. So I would help them build a doll’s house, rig everything up with lighting and switches etc. It meant that I got to play with my sisters and play with dolls, but I was also this little electrician running around with wires and cables. We don’t teach that. I think we teach science, and we teach circuitry and you have to tick the box, but we don’t say, ‘The world is out there, go build.’
I think there are a lot of failsafes in universities and schools right now which mean that we don’t let kids experiment and discover. It’s all about tried and tested methods rather than creating your own thing, getting it wrong, trying it again. It could be beautiful, but it isn’t.
In your work, how do you encourage creativity, either with collaborators or with students? What approaches do you think are most effective?
What I try to foster mostly is unguarded conversation and how to distill that unguarded conversation. Conversations about yourself and your colleagues… just throw things out there, be unguarded and be fearless in doing so. And when it is out of you, then we begin to edit, rather than editing first and fitting into a tiny box.
Whenever I teach poetry I find a poetic form that exists, I deconstruct it, I dismantle it to show the workings of it, and then I say, ‘Add your own soul to this. Throw half of the rules out the book if they aren’t working for you’. That is how I try to foster creativity. To focus on the individual, on their soul, on how it feels to be them. And use that to rebuild the world as they see it, as they imagine it to be. That is what I always try to do.
It’s very forward looking.
It’s one of the things that the internet really promises, but things like internet providers are destroying -- how to use this tool to discover things rather than it being an end to itself. Creating lots of options and teaching people how to whittle down those options is important to creativity because otherwise you would be stunted by the possibilities. And poetry, if anything, is a series of choosing options.
You know, there is this saying which I love: ‘when you pick up a pen to write, the entirety of language is behind the pen, and the choice is which word do you begin with’. How do you choose? How do you decide? And all of the choices come from asking yourself who you are as an individual, what are you interested in writing, how can I best sound like myself? Being aware of the possibilities and the options, then refining your decision-making skills, is an aspect of creativity which poetry definitely underlines.
Do you think different approaches to developing creativity are appropriate for different age groups?
I think that when you are young, the world needs to be completely open. To feel free to colour and paint and colonise as much as you can. We should give kids as much space and unrestricted access to that creative space. Just go for it.
I think the older you get, the more you learn about constraints, you learn about budgets. And then you apply blue sky thinking – I hate that phrase, but you understand what I mean – you apply that open, limitless thinking to those constraints, so you are able to think around them.
Rather than being like a rabbit running through a puzzle, you question: why is this puzzle made of wood? What would happen if it was made of something else? How can I be within the puzzle and change the nature of its matter so that I can best achieve what I want?
How do you think children and young people, growing up, come to understand the systems that they exist in?
I think a lot of times it is taught to them through lessons in trial and failure and fear, and through the repercussions of getting it wrong. And fear is one of the greatest inhibitors to creativity, because you think, I cannot think that, because this and this and this might happen; rather than just going forth and thinking it through and realising that it doesn’t work. We just stop.
What role does creativity play in encouraging social inclusion and international/intercultural understanding? Does it play a role?
I think it could. But I think it’s been underdeveloped. And I think it doesn’t play as great a role in social inclusion as it could.
What could be done to increase its impact in that area?
I think one [way] is to try and find a common denominator. I do a project called ‘The Midnight Run’ where I gather complete strangers and we are all walking by foot, and being as mobile as possible, and we try to limit how much money people have to spend on the night, so people come prepared. We try to make sure that everything that we create on the night, from writing poetry to creating theatre to creating song and dance, are inclusive to a fault. Everyone can take part, even the facilitator.
Things that work counter to that philosophy are things like class, the stereotypes attached to certain art forms and therefore peoples, and the power dynamics associated and attached to each art form. I believe, for instance, that classical music is almost by construction an art form only accessible to the upper-middle class in the United Kingdom, because of how expensive instruments are. Whereas with hip hop, all you need is a voice and something to beat, and sometimes the something to beat is your own body, it’s your own cheek, it’s your own chest. That makes it almost by design a democratic art form. I think that is why it has exploded across the world, whereas classical music is still the preserve of the wealthy and the famous. Which is why to this day I look on it with deep suspicion.
So I think power and class inhibit social inclusion, and there is a role for creativity to play, but it isn’t playing that role yet. I don’t think so.
What about on the international or intercultural level? What role can creativity play in bringing globally dispersed populations together? Or can it?
I think it can. I think creating ways of communicating that are not specific to language is quite big. I think creating ways of communicating that aren’t specific to money is another. Ways of communing together which don’t have capitalist overtones might create space for greater international inclusion.
The nihilist in me thinks the gaps are too wide. But the optimist in me, which is rooted in the fact that I write poetry for a living -- which means that I largely make art out of air and yet I am able to make a living from it -- always thinks that there are ways of redefining things, of creating more intense, truer communication and bridges. So I think there is hope.