On Sharing Sparks of Creativity and Starting a Fire

After 28 years of connecting communities and artists, Daniel Gabriel is retiring from his position as COMPAS’ Arts Program Director. Through his efforts, well over a million people unleashed their creativity as they learned and created with COMPAS artists. When we asked what inspired his work, he shared this story from his early days when he was a COMPAS teaching artist. It was too good to not share with you! Enjoy…

He wore a black leather jacket and a sullen stare that radiated failure all the way up from his back row seat. It was my first day as a COMPAS writer-in-the-schools and as soon as I announced to the class that we’d each be writing a story during the week, he put his head down on his desk. When I came by a few minutes later he sat up, shoulders slumped, and mumbled that he didn’t have any ideas.

                “What do you like to do?” I asked.

                The shoulders shrugged.

                “You must like something. If today was Saturday, what would you be doing?”

                Another shrug. A mumbled, “Work on cars.”

                “OK,” I said. “Do me a car story.”

                “I ain’t good at writing.”

                “You don’t have to be. Just show me what you know.”

                He snuffled into his sleeve and since I was waiting, picked up a pencil. Twenty other kids needed my attention. Can’t win them all, I figured. I gave him a backslap and moved on up the aisle.

                It wasn’t until I was reading through the papers that night that I discovered what he’d written. It was just the description of a car—sentences incomplete, misspellings rampant—but the images tumbled forth with a clarity and rhythm that fairly shouted, “I know about cars!”

                The next day I told the class I wanted to read aloud pieces of their work which had excited me the most. He put his head down on his desk.

                I read out, “It was a cherry red superstock with dual carbs . . .” and his head came up on the instant. “. . . triple mag wheels that scorched rubber . . .” I went on. Now he was looking around at the others, the dullness blowing out of his eyes like wind wiping a picnic table clean of debris. I read on, watching him out of the corner of my eye, and with each sentence his shoulders rose a little higher, until at the end he was sitting taller than anybody else, red-faced and grinning.

                He worked all that week in a fever, lingered after class to chat, and even inspected my ’63 Falcon for potential as a muscle car. His writing? Rough, to be sure. But he’d learned two things that he could keep with him: that what he cared about had value in the outside world; and that success could come in many forms—his own included.

                Neither of those revelations is particularly school-directed. But school is only one aspect of life, and it is life—with all its potentials and pitfalls and hopelessly muddled byways—that so intrigues a writer. When I step into a classroom I want to make its walls disappear. I want to toss those desks into the heaving sea of experiences and make their occupants struggle for the shore. . .

. . .  It is these breakthroughs that fuel my own sense of being. Long after I leave a school, images of kids and laughter and earnest questions dance before me, reminding me that I learn even as I teach. Some of what I learn goes back into my own writing. But much of it is about simply being alive and sharing the sparks of creativity that dwell inside each one of us. If you get enough sparks, you can start a fire.

~ Excerpt from “Shaping the World,” by Daniel Gabriel. From The Power of Creative Discovery, St. Paul MN: COMPAS, 1988.

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