Two years ago, we recorded this interview with the brilliant travel writer, Dr Tim Hannigan. At the time, Tim was working on the Credne project at Dublin City University, exploring the nature of creativity.
Tim was a great interviewer: friendly, enthusiastic and astute, and as a result, the interview gives a really good overview of our work at Wind&Bones. The interview below is very lightly edited. Happy reading!
Hello, Will and Hannah. I’m going to start with our standard opening question: What single word do you associate with the concept of “Creativity”?
Difference — I think creativity is rooted in our individuality and our own unique experiences and perspectives on the world. And I think it’s absolutely richer for that.
Delight — people like the idea of the suffering artist, but creativity is a kind of play, it involves pleasure.
Will, as well as travelling widely in person, you also travelled widely in terms of discipline during your academic career - from anthropology to philosophy, to somewhere in the vicinity of literary studies, or certainly creative writing. How would “creativity” be viewed in those different disciplines, and has your own perspective on creativity travelled to new places during your disciplinary journeys?
It has been a strange itinerary. I started out as an art student. So I spent four years in art school. And although this didn’t make me an artist, in the end, it was an incredibly creative period. I read lots, and somewhere along the way, I decided to become an anthropologist. I cobbled together some funds from various grants, and ended up in a remote village in eastern Indonesia, where I spent six months studying the work of local wood-carvers.
I came back from Indonesia and did an MA in anthropology, then I crashed out of a PhD due to a tropical illness I picked up in Indonesia. After that, I spent about a decade practising Buddhism, and eventually wound up going back to do a PhD in philosophy.
My interests are still pretty much related to anthropology and philosophy. But I don’t really see myself belonging to literary studies. I spent the best part of a decade teaching in an English Literature department until I left academia five years ago. But I never really worked out what those folks were up to. For me, writing is about communication, and it is about exploring the world. But I’m not much preoccupied with questions of literature, or what it is.
I think Joan Didion said that she wrote to find out what she thought. And I do the same. Since leaving full-time academia, I no longer have anything like an academic career. But this has certain advantages. I don’t have to worry about disciplinary boundaries. I don’t have to worry about what kinds of research are going to go down well with university committees. And so on. And this means that in this process of exploration, I am more or less free to go in whatever direction I like.
As for creativity, I see it as something fundamental to what makes us human. The thing I learned from anthropology is that human beings are hugely flexible. We organise ourselves in all kinds of different ways. And it doesn’t take long studying anthropology to see that your own way of going about life is culturally determined, and only one possible way of doing things. And my understanding of philosophy is similar: philosophy could be seen as the invention of new ways of thinking about, and seeing, the world. So for me, what is interesting is the diversity of human ways of being and thinking. And in this, creativity and invention are fundamental. They are not special skills, or add-ons, or things only certain people have. Human beings are naturally inventive. We’re naturally creative. Hannah, your academic background is a bit more constant, in English and creative writing. There’s sometimes a prejudice or preconception that creative writing, as something very much about creative practice, sits awkwardly in formal academia. How do you see its place within academia? And how do you see creativity and criticality, scholarship and practice, intersecting?
My academic background looks pretty constant, I think, on the surface at least. But the journey there certainly wasn’t. I’m from a working-class background and went to a really deprived inner-city school in Leicester. Some of the teachers were exceptional, and I did well at my GCSEs. But it felt right at the time that I’d leave school and rather than do A-levels, I’d go and do something trade or skills related. So I trained as a beauty therapist. I’m really interested in people and their experiences, so this was a way of meeting lots of interesting, yet ordinary people and hearing curious insights in to the lives that were happening around me.
I loved English at school, but I also loved science too and my beauty therapy qualification was very science focussed. And so, after my beauty therapy qualification, I actually started a Biomedical science degree. The plan was to explore my science interests and continue working part-time. At the time, I found the university setting quite intimidating. And I also realised that the degree funnelled us into very narrow options… mainly quite isolated lab work, and so I dropped out because this really didn’t appeal to me.
So afterwards, I worked as a beauty therapist and counter assistant in various department stores for a number of years. I really enjoyed working with different people and collected a lot of stories over the years, I guess. But I was often treated as though I was a bit of a bimbo. Not by clients, but generally when I told people what I did and that really grated after a while. After a few years, I wanted a change. I’d started writing in an ad-hoc way and wanted to study in a more formal way. So I did an access course in humanities at college. I loved the experience. The syllabus was so broad and there was a really interesting mix of mature students there. This allowed to me to go on to a degree in creative writing and English. Which I also loved… Particularly the creative element. So that’s how I ended up in creative writing, and that’s where I eventually did my PhD.
In terms of creative writing and formal academia: I really think creative writing needs to move away from the English department. It would be much more at home with the other artists and creators. I need time, a nice space and interaction with people to be creative. Studio spaces offer all of that. I think it’s a myth that writing is a solitary endeavour. At least for me. And I don’t think you can cook up your best work in a two-hour session in a dingy classroom. So I would move creative writing in to the art department, and we’d all have studio spaces to be creative and drink lots of tea together.
Will and Hannah - you now both operate around the borders of academia, often teaching in higher education settings, or working with academics, but without a formal institutional affiliation. Are there benefits to that, in particular when it comes to encouraging creativity amongst those you teach? Would being fully embedded within academia restrict creativity?
Absolutely. We have both spent portions of our live in academia and outside, and although there’s a lot we like about the academic world, it’s a hard place for creativity to thrive. Not just for those working in academia (although that can be true) but also for students. For example, one thing about creativity is it involves experimentation. And one thing about experimentation is that experiments often don’t work out. But when there’s a deadline looming, and you know you will be graded, it is very easy to play it safe. This means not experimenting, but just turning something out that is solid but takes no risks. And, in fact, this is often the rational choice for students. But it isn’t the creative one.
There are ways of mitigating this. You could ditch grading for most assignments, for example, to encourage experimentation. And I agree with what Hannah says about English departments. If we had our way, creative writing courses would be liberated from English departments, and we’d have a model closer to that of Fine Arts. One thing I’m particularly interested in is the kinds of spaces that foster creativity. Studio spaces do. But university classrooms often don’t.
As for our own work, we like being on the margins. It’s a place where you can experiment, take risks, and also have the freedom to focus on communication and creativity, without worrying about the instrumental demands of the academic world. Look at any medieval manuscript. There are lines of well-copied text. But in the margins, the scribes have added all kinds of strange illustrations: misbehaving animals, bishops, nuns, courtiers, and so on. The margins are where the fun stuff happens.
Yes, I agree with Will. I like being on the margins. We can really focus on the importance of communication, expression and creativity without the pressures of conforming to university measures of success.
Wind&Bones - origins
Hannah, can you tell us about Wind&Bones? What was the idea behind it, and what kind of work do you do?
We set up in 2017 after running a series of creative writing workshops with refugees and asylum seekers in Leicester.
During the workshop, participants shared stories of their homes and journeys, and experiences. It was really moving. And also really fun. Which I wasn’t necessarily expecting. And it was lovely to connect with people from hugely diverse backgrounds and to build a community.
It became clear during these workshops how powerful a tool writing was in terms of building community, connecting different groups of people and fostering positive social change. So we really wanted to continue doing that and doing it with all kinds of different people in different contexts.
As a result, we set up Wind&Bones. The name comes from a medieval Chinese text on the art of writing called The Carving of Dragons and the Literary Mind. In the text, it says that good writing needs both wind, or life and energy, and bones, or structure and organisation. We thought this was good advice for writing, but also good advice for bringing about social change, and for life in general.
Our remit is pretty broad. We want to explore writing and creativity, and we want to see how these things can be used to make a positive difference in the world. In 2018, we were invited to run some workshops and events at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers Festival, and then to run an eight-month writing residency in Yangon, Myanmar. So this really kick-started our work. In Myanmar, we worked with grassroots educational organisations, community teacher training colleges and civil society organisations to develop their storytelling skills. And we also ran classes with journalists, former political prisoners, NGO workers, students and activists, to explore writing and social change.
Since then, we’ve worked in Greek refugee camps, on a range of educational projects in Sofia (where we’re based at the moment) and soon we’ll be working on a really exciting new project with survivors of domestic abuse. Alongside all of this, we’ve been continuing to work mentoring individual writers: our students have included oral historians, fantasy writers, and a tenured professor of Chinese history.
Crossing languages and cultures
Will, you’ve taught and run workshops in a very wide range of cultural and educational contexts - in different countries, and with very different groups of people. Do the underpinning approaches to creativity and creative writing travel well across those different contexts? Are there any particular challenges? What about teaching creativity across language barriers?
With our work for Wind&Bones, this has been a learning curve for us. Traditions of writing, storytelling and so on are different in different places. It doesn’t take long, when exploring creativity in these cross-cultural contexts, before you realise that what is taken to be solid creative writing advice — or creativity advice in general — is more like a kind of rag-bag of folk-remedies. And these remedies are relevant only in particular places, and perhaps not as curative as we might hope. One of the things that we’ve become more sensitive to is the ways in which creativity manifests in different ways in different places.
But also theories of creativity differ from place to place too. With my philosopher’s hat on, I’m particularly interested in this. One thing I’ve been obsessed by for years is the Wenxin diaolong or The Heart of Literature and the Carving of Dragons… It’s by the medieval Chinese writer Liu Xie, and provides a hugely powerful account of creativity, but one that also feels fresh and new to readers like myself who come from the Western philosophical tradition. So there are huge untapped theoretical resources out there as well, once we start thinking about creativity cross-culturally.
Alongside recognising the divergent ways that creativity manifests, and the divergent theories of creativity that there are, in all our work, we recognise that underlying this, creativity is a general human trait (however you define it). People like making new stuff. They like discovering things. They like play.
And this is why teaching across language barriers can be so fun. Because these various approaches to creativity collide in creative ways. The more we do this kind of thing, the less we think that these linguistic puzzles are actually barriers. Communicating and storytelling can take place across and between all kinds of languages — ones you speak fluently, badly or not at all. So playing around with this has all kinds of creative possibilities.
Hannah, do you want to say something about this?
Absolutely. One of the challenges is not to impose our own narrow ideas of what creativity is and what it can be. So we have to be sensitive to this difference and diversity., because this is one of the strengths and where the fun lies.
Coming from an academic creative writing background, there are all kinds of things you internalise about how stories should be told. But this is only one storytelling tradition. But human beings everywhere are storytelling creatures, and they do this in typically idiosyncratic ways. So it’s fun to explore with writers from different backgrounds what it is that makes a story worth telling, and how they can connect with different audiences.
Building creative communities
Hannah, creativity in general - and perhaps creative writing in particular - is sometimes seen as an individualistic thing, something connected to personal fulfilment. But at Wind&Bones you explicitly tie writing and creativity to social change. Can you tell us more about that? What role do writing and creativity have in fostering social change?
This idea of writing as being mainly about yourself and your own fulfilment is itself culturally specific. And it’s also quite weird. Fulfilment doesn’t come from just fulfilling yourself. It comes from connecting with other people. Because none of us exist in a vacuum. We all relate to other people in some way. And so with our Wind&Bones work, we start from the point of view that writing is about communication. It is interpersonal first and foremost. And only after that is it personal. It’s amazing how little emphasis is put on this in academic approaches to creative writing. We think about the writer, and we think about the text they are writing. And we think about the relationship between the two. But we don’t really think hard enough about writing as an act of communication. We don’t think about who we are writing for, and about trying to connect with other human beings.
So we put this centre-stage in our work with Wind&Bones. And in some ways, questions of social change naturally follow from this. If you see writing as individualistic, then it becomes very hard to see how it can change anything at all beyond our own selves. But if you see writing as interpersonal, then everything you write, every story you tell, has some kind of social impact.
With Wind&Bones, we want to foreground this question of the social nature of writing. We’re storytelling animals. And storytelling is interpersonal. So we want to put centre-stage the fact that writing is about communication. And why do we communicate? We communicate because we want to change things. We want to make deeper links with each other. We want to persuade others of our point of view. We want to address problems that trouble us. And so on.
This means that social change is at the heart of everything we do. It’s not an add-on. It’s just what stories do.
Absolutely! I have nothing to add
Will and Hannah, as educators, what can we do to promote a culture of creativity in general, beyond any specific subject or discipline, and to cultivate students’ creative ability?
The first thing for me is trust. Often creative writing training is seen as giving people particular skills that they don’t have, or telling them how to do stuff. But our approach is based on a really deep trust that people are already creative: it’s a kind of trust in individuals — there is no such thing as an uncreative person —, but also in the flexibility, playfulness, powers of invention that human beings naturally have. Often our job is to point people to this thing that is already there, rather than giving them something they haven’t yet got.
This is reflected in the way we run our sessions. First and foremost, we aim to set a tone of friendliness, with minimum hierarchy, so that people can connect on a deeply human level. There are some terrible creative writing classes out there where the great (often male) writer hands down judgements on students’ work, like some minor god. And maybe one or two people might benefit from this kind of thing. But as a general approach to teaching creativity, it is absolutely terrible. So instead, we start from establishing this friendliness and trust, and get people talking, sharing stories, seeing the effect of their storytelling on each other. And from this beginning, amazing things start to happen.
Work in progress
Will and Hannah, what are your most recent publications/projects?
My most recent project is Hello, Stranger: Stories of Connection in a Divided World, which is coming out soon from Granta. It’s a book about how to develop more openness, more hospitality, towards strangers. And about how this openness can transform our lives and our communities. That’s not to say that it is an easy thing to do. So while I talk in the book about all the things that can go right with this process of opening-up — drawing on philosophy, anthropology and storytelling — I also talk about all the things that can go wrong.
My short story collection In their Absence was published early this year by Roman Books. It’s a collection of short stories based on the theme of missing people. In the UK, 176,000 people are reported missing every year and the reasons for people going missing hugely vary. Through this collection, I aimed to explore the human complexities of this. I researched the phenomenon of missing people extensively during my PhD and the collection resulted from this.
Currently, I’m working on a new short story collection called On the Bodies of Strangers which is a collection loosely linked by the theme of tattoos.
In terms of Wind&Bones projects, later this year we’ll be working on a writing and storytelling project with survivors of domestic abuse. We’re partnering with an excellent Sofia-based organisation called Emprove. And the project is funded by the British Embassy here in Sofia. So we’re really excited about that. (See the project link here)
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