About 4,100 words




An article by Jane Piirto, Ph.D.

for the Texas Association for Gifted Children Newsletter, Summer 1999


In 1990, when I began to write the first edition of my book, Understanding Those Who Create, I began it with this vignette:

It was a convention for teachers of the talented. Katherine Miller had just been hired to teach in a pullout program for fourth, fifth, and sixth grade talented students. She was glad for the opportunity, for in her undergraduate years, during her student teaching experiences, she had always seemed to gravitate towards the bright students. Her new superintendent had received an announcement for the state convention for teachers of the talented, and had told Katherine that he would pay her way to go, so she could learn what she was supposed to teach.

There was no written curriculum to guide her. Besides teaching the students, Katherine was to develop a curriculum. As in most states, Katherine's state did not require her to have any special training in how to teach talented children. Katherine, her superintendent said, was bright and young, and not jaded, and the school district could afford to hire her because she had no teaching experience and would come in on the lowest rung of the salary scale.

Katherine had not been taught anything about talented children in her education courses, though she had a course in the education of other special children, so she had gone to the state university library in a town nearby to do some reading for her interview. She memorized the categories of the talented children that the state served. Among these were "creative" children. Katherine was not sure what creativity was, and was even less sure who "creative" children were. Were they the ones who colored outside the lines? Were they the ones who looked a little weird? She stepped into the large ballroom of the hotel where the convention was being held, took a cup of coffee, and sat down to hear the first keynote speaker.

The conference organizer introduced him as one of the experts on creativity. "Oh good," Katherine thought. As he began to speak she settled in. He told a joke or two, and was a little mussed, his hair caught into a fashionable ponytail, his cowboy boots and jeans in contrast with his blazer and striped tie. He spoke with a microphone snapped to that tie and his voice boomed over the ballroom of the hotel where the conference was being held. Katherine had not expected so many people to be here. There were almost a thousand people! Were all of them educators of the gifted and talented?

Overhead transparency after overhead transparency bloomed behind him on the giant screen. There were lots of diagrams and curves and arrows and dots and lists. He illustrated his points with cartoons cut out from Peanuts. There was a list of tests, also, but Katherine couldn't believe that you could give a test for creativity.

Well, he must know. She scanned the program as he spoke, and underlined all the sessions that were on creativity. If he was a keynote speaker, and the topic was creativity, obviously she was supposed to teach creativity. This would be her main emphasis at this convention. She collected the handouts of the dots and diagrams and psychological words, and she hurried down the hallway of the hotel convention wing to a small room.

There, with a pitcher of iced water and two glasses, behind a table with a podium and a microphone and a smaller screen, and another overhead projector, were two middle-aged women. They were local coordinators in a faraway corner of the state, and they were going to talk about how to enhance creativity in elementary school children. They also had many overheads, blooming like flowers on the conference room wall, and they had the group play some simple games. It was fun, and everyone relaxed. But Katherine was getting anxious. The coordinators were very good speakers, and they were using words like "fluency" and "flexibility" and "elaboration" and they talked about creativity as if it were "problem-solving."

Well, they must know, Katharine thought, for they have been in this field a lot longer than I have. But in the back of her mind, she thought that creativity was a little bit more than fun and games and generating alternative solutions.

When I wrote that, I had already been an educator of the gifted and talented for 13 years, had been a county coordinator in two states, a principal of New York City’s oldest school for gifted children, and was now a college professor. But in my inner life, my real life, I was also an artist— a published novelist and a poet— and I saw the world through an artist’s eyes. I had worked for awhile as a Poet in the Schools in the National Endowment for the Arts "Artist in the Schools" program during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I began to think about my own creative process, for I was certainly a creative person, wasn’t I? Here I was giving Guilfordian workshops on fluency, flexibility, and elaboration as one of the first SOI (Structure of Intellect) trainers, but my own life contained little brainstorming, SCAMPERing, generating of alternative solutions, or creative problem-solving according to the flow charts I had been given at the many workshops I attended. In fact, I only knew one person who had really used the CPS process in her real life, and she was a fellow professional in our field. She and her husband, a teacher, had had some rocky times in their marriage, and they had gone to a restaurant and had jotted down the "mess," and had brainstormed solutions.

But as I read and reflected, I found that most creative adults who had had biographies written about them, who had written memoirs, who had been interviewed and researched, talked about their creative process in more organic terms. The creative process has engaged the best thinkers of the world from prehistoric times. Common mythological perspectives on the creative process have viewed it as the visitation of the Muse. Historically, the creative process has been tied with erotic desires, desires for spiritual unity, and with the need for personal expression. The use of substances to enhance the creative process has been prominent in the lives of creative people. Many creative products have resulted from insight, illumination, and unconscious processing. Solitude seems to be a necessary condition during some aspects of the creative process. The creative process can be viewed in the context of a person's life and the historical milieu. Contemporary psychological and religious thought have emphasized that the creative process has universal implications. What is popularly called "right-brain thinking," as well as visualization, metaphorization, and imagery seem to help people in the creative process. The creative process is a concern of scientists as well as humanists. Scientific experimentation has resulted in the demystifying of many popular creative process beliefs. I concluded that the repertoires of school people, who often use only the CPS process in enhancing creativity, should be expanded.

Another, perhaps the most, popular theory of the creative process is that there are four steps. This is the theory propounded by Wallas in 1926. Wallas was one of the pioneers in critical (not creative) thinking, working out of the tradition established by John Dewey and Horace Mann. He said that there are four stages in the creative process: (1) Preparation; (2) Incubation; (3) Illumination; and (4) Verification. In the first stage, the person does both formal and informal work—she gets herself ready for the act of creation by studying, thinking, searching for answers, asking people, etc. In the second stage, the process rests, is in gestation, the person is pregnant with the creative product. The unconscious is working on the problem. In the third stage, a solution arises, and light is thrown on the problem. The most famous example of this in the creativity literature is the vision of Archimedes rising from his bathtub and running naked down the streets, shouting "Eureka! I have it!" when he understands the theory of the displacement of water. The illumination, the "aha" had dawned upon him. See Patrick,

I found much similarity in what I read from people in the various domains. For example, the poet, novelist and screenwriter Jim Harrison described his creative process in writing poetry, and it seems remarkably like that described by Wallas:

A poem seems to condense the normal evolutionary process infinitely. There is the distressed, nonadaptive state; an unconscious moving into the darkness of the problem or irritant; a gradual surfacing, then immediate righting or balancing by metaphor, as if you tipped a buoy over by force then let it snap upwards; the sense of relief, and the casting and recasting the work into its final form. The last stage "calcifies" or kills the problem and you are open to a repetition of the process, though not necessarily willing. Though this is all rather simplified, it captures, I think, the essence of the process. There must be the understanding of time lapse though—the "gradual surfacing" may take months, the space between the first sketch and final form an even longer period of time.

Many of the creative and productive adults whose creativity I read about seemed to have creative processes that fell into thirteen categories. (1) They seem to have rituals; for example, they like to walk; (2) they crave silence; (3) they go to retreats and colonies; (4) they are inspired by travel; (5) they use imagination; (6) they trust their dreams; (7) they seek solitude so they may go into a state of reverie (or flow); (8) they fast; (9) they meditate; (10) they get inspiration from the muse, (11) they are inspired by others’ works of art, science, and music; (11) they may use substances to attain altered states of consciousness; (12) they improvise; (13) if they are blocked they read or write self-help books. In fact, the creative process often verges on the spiritual, but I had never heard that mentioned in the education workshops I attended.

I began to offer an undergraduate interdisciplinary studies course called "Creativity and the Creative Process," and I began to try out some ideas that tapped into this "oceanic consciousness," as Brewster Ghiselin called it. The course became popular with undergraduates majoring in the liberal arts, though not so popular among education majors. A year or so later, I saw a new book by University of Chicago psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, called Flow, which confirmed my own experiences and those of the creative adults I knew. When schools asked me to do workshops, and when I spoke at conferences, I began to try my newly derived and idiosyncratic exercises out with the participants. My students in the graduate course in talent development education, called "Creativity for Teachers of the Talented" also tried them out.

By now, I have assembled a full course—nay, more than that—of activities that tap into the mysterious, nebulous, dreamy, solitary, quietness of the creative process as it has been written about and talked about by adult creators. A typical creativity course taught by me utilizes exercises in the core attitudes of risk-taking and naiveté. We do a lot of trust building by cheering each other’s creative efforts. The students also try exercises in cultivating self-discipline by working daily in creativity thoughtlogs. We work with the five I’s: 1. Imagery, including guided imagery and film script visualizing; 2. Imagination, including storytelling; 3. Intuition, including the intuition probe, psychic intuition, and dreams; 4. Insight, including grasping the gestalt, going for the aha, and zen sketching; and 5. Inspiration, including the visitation of the muse, creativity rituals such as solitude, creating ideal conditions, and using background music.

We imitate those creative people who treasure nature and its contents, making naturalist notations and drawings. I have an exercise called "This is the day which the lord hath made / Let us rejoice and be glad in it." We try meditation, meditating on beauty, on the dark side, on god. We do improvisation with jazz, theater, word rivers, writing practice, creative movement, rhythm and drumming, scat singing, and doodling. We try to see the humor in everything and one day everyone brings a joke. Last fall I had to caution them not to bring any Monica jokes, as these would descend into areas not appropriate for our small, conservative Christian college. (I failed, and the day descended all right, as we laughed and shifted our embarrassed eyes.)

We cultivate all five of our senses and also blend them for a sense of synaesthesia. We vigorously exercise so endorphins will kick in. We "trance dance" to a sinuous and hypnotic videotape that allows free expression while providing a fine workout and even the guys do it—if I do it late enough in the semester and if the lights are down and the blinds are pulled.

We focus on my notion of the thorn of fiery passion as explicated in my model of the Pyramid of Talent Development. See Figure 1.


Place Figure 1 "The Pyramid of Talent Development About Here"

Click Pyramid on the buttons above.


We try to find our domains of passion, that which we can’t not do. We explore the joys of good conversation and start a monthly salon at my house. We visit a cemetery to meditate on the dark side. We visit a beautiful and silent church with symbolic stained glass windows, to meditate on God. We hike in nearby nature parks to meditate on nature. We go to an art museum to meditate on beauty. We visit a bookstore, a library, and for the midterm the students must attend a live concert, a play, a poetry reading or a lecture to honor the creativity of talented others.

The culmination of the course is an individual creativity project. The students may not use already existing kits or molds, and must avoid the "season curriculum" — Christmas decorations, Hallowe’en pumpkins, or St. Patrick’s Day shamrocks. One student in Finland wrote a poem when we visited the art museum, and it became the lyrics for the first song she composed. Other individual creativity projects have been included an autobiographical video ("My creative self"); performance of an original song; performance of an original radio play; design and modeling of an original dress for a sorority formal; a plan for an advertising campaign; a synchronized swimming routine; a grunge rock band audio tape; a photographic exhibit; an exhibit of original art works; a reading of an original short story; an autobiographical multimedia presentation; a translation into English of Chinese, Greek, or Spanish literature; an original dance routine; a new recipe for scones; an original afghan; designs for costumes for a play; a reading of original poetry; a business plan for a new business; a music video; a capella singing; an original rock n’ roll song; philosophical musings about the meaning of life; and display and demonstration of a particularly creative Thoughtlog.

One football player, a defensive back, took all the game tapes for his entire college career, spliced them together to show himself in the improvisatory acts of dodging, running, and hitting. One student thought that his creativity came in his preparation for and study of contemporary popular music. He took all the concerts he had attended and did a project on how to get the most out of concert attendance. We laughed uproariously as he peeled off concert t-shirt after concert t-shirt, putting on a tropical Jimmy Buffett hat, passing out Bic lighters for us to sway to the music of the Grateful Dead, flashing strobe lights as he stripped down to his finale, a Black Sabbath t-shirt. Projects are evaluated with a holistic scoring system, and we are often so moved at the projects that we weep. At the end of the course, most agree that indeed, creativity can be enhanced through direct teaching

Here is a list of some of the activities I have devised.


Fig. 2:

A Course in Organic Creativity

Used with permission by Jane Piirto (1998; 1999).


               1. Imagery:  10 Minute Movie, Guided Imagery

                 2. Imagination

                3. Intuition:  Intuition Probe, Psychic Intuition, Dreams and Intuition

                4. Insight:  Grasping the Gestalt, Aha, Zen Sketching

                5. Inspiration:  Visitation of the Muse


 My students who are becoming licensed to be teachers of the gifted and talented tell me that yes, indeed, the K-12 students that they work with can begin to see the creative process as something that is, at base, an emotional journey more than a cognitive one. Every week they try out the activities we have done in class, modifying them for their own use, for I am a firm believer that what I teach is conceptual and not practical. I am not giving my students exercises to try on Monday morning, but a conceptual framework from which they can devise their own exercises, suitable for the age of the groups they are teaching. The concept of "risk-taking" is what is important; the concept of "inspiration" is important—to devise an activity at the application level that is suitable for the children one teaches is where the true creativity of the teacher comes in.

Over the past few years, I have learned to trust my own creative process instead of mimicking the thought of others. In writing the two big and detailed nonfiction books, Talented Children and Adults: Their Development and Education, and Understanding Those Who Create, I had to draw on everything I knew about the field of the education of the gifted and talented. I read and read, organized, thought, walked, swam, obsessed on, and slept these books, but it was self-discipline that got me through. I would write for about an hour every day, seven days a week. When it came time to put it all together, in the last chapter of Understanding Those Who Create, I was no longer so shy about trusting my own knowledge. While swimming deep lengths at the university pool during its open hours, I began to make a list of what I knew about how to enhance creativity in children. The list came out to have twelve items. Here they are:



from Jane Piirto's book, Understanding Those Who Create. (1992/1998).

Tempe, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press. Used with permission.














Teachers and parents can work in partnership to enhance creativity. First of all, creativity is affective— the necessary risk-taking and sense of openness to experience, or naiveté required --demand a safe environment in which to explore. Both the home and the school should try to provide such. Trust is also important; that is, that someone who is trying out creatively should not be put down, and should be permitted to fail as well as to star. A person who tries out creativity should have a safe group (the class, the family) with whom to be.

My friends help a lot. My course evolves and changes as experiences in my life happen. I and a friend who was my former student, F. Christopher Reynolds, began to combine his emphasis on the affective and my emphasis on the creative process as I understood it from the reading I was doing of biographies. He had published an article on the creativity enhancement course he gives in the high school where he teaches French. He is a singer songwriter and understands, from his own artistic work, how the emotional must be tapped into in order for true creativity to flower. His finger painting exercise where we paint "where we dwell" became a part of my teaching repertoire. We do workshops together, and he became an adjunct professor at our university as well as an instructor in our summer program for talented adolescents.

A friend who’s a poet-beekeeper in Colorado contributed his knowledge of the creative process as he was inspired by his muse, a famous woman writer, to do some of the best work of his life while in his fifties. His experience inspired a lesson on love, on the importance of eros in the works of creative people. Students write a love poem, put it on beautiful stationery, seal it with sealing wax, and send it or not. Sentimentality is out, and often the poems are angry, defiant, hurt, scared, reflective of the emotions inspired by eros in all of our lives. A friend who’s a blues musician talked about wanting, as a child, to "crawl into the speakers," and his acute auditory and improvisational creativity inspired a lesson about the use of popular music in inspiration. Another musician friend talked about spending hours teaching himself to play yet another instrument, losing time consciousness while he does so. Examples could go on. The point is that we artistic types are not alone. We have many friends who experience their creativity in ways similar to the ways we experience it. The point is that many creative people use techniques and inspirations that have been little written about or modeled in the classroom.

My evolving process as a creative teacher is to try to capture some of what I have learned and to make activities or exercises that can make conscious what has, for many, been rather unconscious. Perhaps you will do the same.



1.  Piirto, J. (1998). Understanding those who create. 2nd Ed. Tempe, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press. See www.giftedpsychologypress.com.   Also available from

www. amazon.com   and books@ashland.edu

2.  See, for example, Piirto, J. (1985). The three-week trance diet. Columbus, OH: Carpenter Press. Winner of 1985 Carpenter Press Tenth Anniversary First Novel Award. Piirto, J. (1995b). A location in the Upper Peninsula: Poems, stories, essays. New Brighton, MN: Sampo Publishing. Funded by a grant from the Finlandia Foundation. Piirto, J. (1996). Why does a writer write? Because. Advanced Development, 7 (39-59). Piirto, J. (1997). Between the memory and the experience. 2nd printing. A poetry chapbook. Ashland, OH: Sisu Press. My website also contains many poems, essays, and short stories. www./ashland.edu/~jpiirto.  These books area available from www.amazon.com

3.  Wallas, G. (1926). The art of thought. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

4.  Harrison, J. (1991). Just before dark (Collected nonfiction). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 200.

5.  Ghiselin, B. (Ed.). (1952). The creative process. New York: Mentor.

6.  Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York: Cambridge.

7.  From Piirto, J. (1999). Talented children and adults: Their development and education. 2nd Edition. Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall/Merrill. Available from books@ashland.edu and www.amazon.com

8.  Reynolds,F.C. (1997). Reifying creativity during the adolescent passage. Paper presented at Ashland University Ohio Summer Institute. July 13, 1997. Reynolds, F.C. (1990). Mentoring artistic adolescents through expressive therapy. Clearing House, 64, 83-86. Christopher. (1997). Released from the past. Recording on compact disc. Berea, OH: Shirtless Records.  Mind of the land. (1999).  Recording on compact disc.   Berea, OH:  Shirtless Records.

9.  Tipton, J. (1995). The wizard of is. Denver, CO: Bread & Butter Press. Tipton, J. (1998). Letters from a stranger. Forward by Isabel Allende. Crested Butte, CO: Conundrum Press. available from www.amazon.com

10.  Personal communication, Richard Aiken, December, 1997; Personal communication, Elliot Gaines, January 1999.