Friday, 1 May 2009

Backed up with paperwork (the writing course finishes)

Late last night I submitted my second and final assignment for the OU course. This was a 1500-word story and an accompanying explanation - we were supposed to explain why we chose the narration method we did, ditto the tenses used, the place where we began, etc. For the story we had a list of words to pick from as inspiration, ranging from the more abstract to concrete stuff like "hair" or "prison". I used "abandonment" and "music" for my jumping-off points, writing a story about a young woman who was abandoned as a baby and then adopted into a family which was surprised by her musical talent. 

I found writing the explanatory text somewhat clunky. I knew exactly how I wanted to write my piece, so although I dutifully tried out a few alternatives in the way of tense and narration, this exercise pointed up how inferior they were. 

I was reminded of an art talk I attended a couple of months ago. The speaker was talking of her own very intuitive way of working, and one of the many fine arts undergraduates in the audience bemoaned the fact that her college insisted on tons of supporting documentation for any piece. It was not enough to plan and execute a painting/sculpture/installation, nor just to log what you did and keep early sketches, you also had to have a cogent game plan for how you had planned your work and what you hoped to achieve, and had to write this up formally. 

OK, to some extent, this is going to stop someone sitting in front of a tableau of roses/ elephant dung and just doing the same-old same-old term after term, but on the other hand, too much bureaucracy and paperwork seems to be deadening pretty much every area of life. The visual arts are likely to be full of people who communicate better with imagery than words, all of whom are required to submit long written reports. I think Edward Hopper had something to say about this, "If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint." 

If we are hearing complaints from so many areas of life about paperwork - as well as the ever-present statements of teachers, I have heard priests complain about management jargon working its way into the church, and I have experienced wildly excessive performance review procedures at a lot of large companies - probably something is up. Some areas cannot be measured purely on obviously quantifiable criteria, and when we try to use something measurable as a shorthand people will soon start to game the system. (NHS waiting times, anyone?) Then we react by changing the measure, probably by adding new stuff and increasing the admin burden, rather than replacement. Finally we wonder why our artists, scientists, technologists and engineers don't seem as "creative" as they used to be, and our public sector projects have massive overspends and overruns in spite of all the measurements taken. 

"Creative" vs "innovative" is a whole other can of worms - people attempting to excuse bad behaviour by explaining the person is "creative", for one thing. I am wondering, though, if there is really a type of person who simply cannot fit into corporate bureaucracies, and if such people aren't vital (in both senses). I read an interesting book last summer on Managing Creative People set in the ad industry, but with some useful things to say for other areas.

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