The Case of Emmett
I suggested in
What is Creativity? that
human beings are born creative,
then either stay creative or grow less so
through socialization. From early in our lives
we live in a space of possibility that expands largely
through our own imagination. Often in the course
of living, we use that ability to create and take
advantage of possibilities. Unless we learn
not to use this ability, of course. But
many of us, sadly, do learn
simple example. Nobody
tells small children that to say
they want more than one straw-
berry in English, they simply
add an “S” sound to the
end of the noun.
programmed genetically to learn
this easily, and discover these things just in
the process of ordinary social life. They have
even been described as young scientists, noticing
patterns of expression in their linguistic environ-
ments, trying things out, and inventing gram-
matical and other rules, like the S rule
for plurals, to account for and
control the patterns.
of that process are fascinating.
To my mind,
the most interesting part is
when children begin to use rules to express
plurality, tense, and other categories of gram-
matical competence. At first they learn new cases
as adults around them speak, i.e. “correctly”.
Each new case is special, and cases
accumulate slowly in the
things happen, literally
rate of learning new
plurals skyrockets upward, as if
a child awakes one morning thinking
“Oh! It’s easy! Just tack an S on
the end of a noun.
At the same time,
irregular cases that were
correct the day before were
incorrect. Man is mans, women
is womans, sheep is sheeps,
and so on.
suggest strongly that very
young children discover patterns
in their linguistic environments and
invent rules to handle
expanded competence those
rules afford is worth irregular forms
being wrong for a while. Other rules will
deal with those irregularities later. Mean-
while, kids face all those other challenges
of learning to live in the world and
they do an amazingly good
job of it.
That every child
goes through this process with
no instruction is profound. It encourages
us to recognize the creative spark in our
fellows, whatever their age,
and admire it.
Here I will
tell you about a young
businessman of primary school age,
our grandson Emmett Schanfarber,
a young entrepreneur who lives in
Vancouver and on Cortes Island.
while we set up my sculpture
gallery in the building where Emmett
lives in Vancouver, he had a wild
idea and implemented it,
all on his own.
He set up a
folding metal TV tray
outside a tall wooden fence along
the sidewalk, put a bowl of rocks
on the tray and water in the
bowl to enhance colours,
and taped a sign to
Rocks for Sale
Pay Whatever you Want
Put Money Here, with
an arrow to a space
fence, he funnelled coins
from the slot to a can. It worked
for paper money too, “just in case“.
It was a good thing he thought of
that, too, because a lot of
money went into
the can, the tray, and
the sign often, continuing to
develop his display as a sales tool
and improve it in various ways.
We were amazed!
Inside the gallery,
we would charge thousands
of dollars apiece for rocks, and sell
them only occasionally. Emmett charged
“whatever you want” for his rocks and
sold many of them every day. People
noticed, stopped to read the sign,
smiled, and bought rocks.
of course, but enough to
give him a steady and independent
source of income if he kept up his
display and his inventory, and
kept thinking about how
to make it better.
To Emmett, his idea
was a gold mine, and he was right. It
really was, and the phenomenon
was something to behold.
noticed me watching
them, for example, asked
“How old? Boy or girl? Source
of the idea? Source of the rocks?
Other kinds of rocks? I’ve bought
at least one rock every day for a
while and love those I have so
far. Some of my friends
want to come with me,
This would be
exciting for me even if Emmett
were not my grandson, and not been
6 years old when he had the idea. In a TV
news report on his business, Emmett
said he’d earned over $60 in less
than a year. Didn’t I say it
was a goldmine?
that was big bucks.
It was enough money to have
to decide what to do with it, for example.
Where to keep it. How much of it to spend now,
on what. How much to save, etc. It also made
him think about how to maintain his stock of
rocks, what kinds of rocks to offer, and all
sorts of other things entrepreneurs
have to think about.
asked quiet questions
that revealed opportunities
to improve business:
you get your rocks,
Last summer, he
capitalized on the fact that he
commutes back and forth to the city
from Cortes. He offered a line of “CORTES
ISLAND ROCKS” to city dwellers. They were
popular items, and investing time, energy and
creativity in them paid off. He selected them
more carefully than his city rocks and
modified his sign accordingly:
to their sheer mass, rockiness,
and geological difference from city
rocks, they were shaped interestingly
and displayed effectively to
Maybe Emmett did
all that on purpose and maybe
not; he didn’t say. But the effect
was the same either way. He
tried things and they
All in a day’s work
for an entrepreneur.
Where will it end?
My answer to that, which is
implied by what I said at the beginning,
is simple: it won’t end. Creativity doesn’t
have to end, and not by a long shot. Kids
are full of this kind of thing. They
ooze with creativity.
Once a bubble
of it begins to grow,
it expands by itself.
Creativity, or the
capacity to create possibility,
grows with no instruction and very
little guidance. It thrives on
is within us, ready to go and
ready to develop further. We’re born with
it, born knowing how to use it, and it needs little
help but respect, particularly from parents,
teachers, bosses, and institutions.
we don’t always recognize
creative efforts or appreciate them.
We often make people sorry they
opened their brains and
their hearts to us.
dries up and blows away.
Creativity can be a
pain in the neck, and it can be
dangerous. Often, maybe even most often,
bright ideas really are out to lunch, off the
wall, or even ‘nuts’. Bright ideas do often fail,
if they’re really new, and if we’re smart we
learn from that. But the process that
created the ideas didn’t fail.
Not at all, and that is a
all been stung by others’
responses to our creations. We
know how it feels and know what
it’s like to keep our contributions to
ourselves, withdraw our creative
services, hoard our thoughts,
inhibit our actions, and
all manner of other
ways to avoid
We know what it’s
like quit, give up, throw in the
towel, refuse to play, or whatever
else you want to call it.
aren’t we all
still like Emmett?
Why aren’t we creative
all the time?
That is a big
question and there are many
things to consider. There are real
differences among individuals here, and
they are important. We vary in all sorts of
ways. But we all imagine things we haven’t
imagined before, and that’s creativity.
My questions are about us
reserved for Rodin, Michel-
angelo, or Emmett Schanfarber. It’s
not about world class contributions in any field,
but about living. It’s about imagining things, and
not just details but the Big Picture. Imagining how
things fit together and how they work. Not just
“out there” in the world, either, but “in here”,
where we experience living in
I learned of
B.A. Moskowitz’ work on
the acquisition of language by young
children in a Scientific American article
she published in 1978. Chapter 10 of her book
on language acquisition covers it
The ideas expressed
in this story are all over this website,
in almost every story. While editing, I realized that
Bev Sellars gives perfect examples of institutions doing
their worst to inhibit learning, understanding, and
creativity in students in They Called Me Number
One, about several generations of her family’s
experience of Canada’s Indian
of ideas as bubbles comes
from the C.S. Holling memoir,
Bubbles and Spirals. He portrayed
ideas as little bubbles that arose in his
imagination, grew, and developed
in a spiral fashion over time.
I wrote about Holling
in two other stories on this website:
Heroes, masters, and wizards: Buzz Holling,
and The Volvo Environment Prize: a
video about Buzz Holling.
graduated from high school, worked full time
in a music store, writes for and performs
with his band, Gargoyle City, and is
now learning carpentry.
First published in the Vancouver Observer.
Edited June 2021.