What would you do if I gave you a handful of dry lentils?
Ping them at me from across the room? Hm. Well. Not very nice, but relatively creative, I have to admit.
Here’s what most of my creative writing students tend to do: use them to spell words and use them to make pictures.
Of the more surprising uses of lentils: Motoya put them in a cool plastic pencil box and used them as a music-maker. Ji Hyun stuck them to a brick wall using hand sanitizer as a very temporary adhesive. Jesse brushed one lentil off a desk. Then he brushed a whole pile off and said, “Lemmings.”
No one’s made soup—there isn’t time when we use them in class. I give each student a handful and say, “Do something with these and then we’ll come around and you can show us what you’ve done.”
There are a ton of divergent thinking tests available online, and some of them may seem familiar—they’re often used to illustrate problem solving. The one you’re most likely to have seen before involves connecting nine dots (in three rows of three) using four straight lines. This web page shows how to do it, using ladybugs! This page from University of Indiana professor Curtis Bonk has a great summary of different types of tests as well as some background and larger issues to consider.
My interest in divergent thinking can be traced to a workshop with the California writer Al Young, who was a guest writer at the University of Montana when I was there. At some point, expressing disgust with the efforts of those of us in the workshop, he said something to the effect of, “Typical creative writing grad students. All about writing and not about creative.”
The prevailing attitude at the time (and this was twenty years ago, mind you) was that issues related to craft could be taught, but we were on our own for creativity and if we didn’t have it, there wasn’t anything anyone could do to teach it.
I don’t think that’s true. I think we can learn to be more creative, and I think we can teach our students to be more creative.
This is important particularly where I teach—the University of Wisconsin Richland, a very small two-year campus in the very large University of Wisconsin System. I don’t get many English majors, let alone creative writing majors. In a class of 20, I might have five who plan to take more creative writing classes, who want to be published writers. Twenty years of teaching creative writing at this campus to these students have convinced me that teaching students to be more creative is as ever bit as valuable as teaching them to craft better stories, poems, essays, and plays.
And ultimately, if the writers learn to be more creative, they might actually stand a chance of writing something huge—something that is polished as far as craft goes, but does something new, something no one has seen before.
I’ve been asking my students to work on creativity exercises for several years now. The lentil fun is aimed at lowering what are called our “associative borders.” In a book called The Medici Effect: What Elephants & Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation, Frans Johansson talks about how creative thinkers are more flexible about their associations—that someone with rigid associative borders is more likely to see a problem in a fixed way, and a small range of possible solutions. Someone with lower associative borders tends to see problems and solutions from many different angles.
If you look back at an earlier post of mine (“Creativity: A Pumpkin Saga”), for example, my associative borders were lower when it came to pumpkin—I was willing to see more than jack-o’-lantern or pie (o.k., so pumpkin lasagna didn’t turn out to be a genius idea, but Johansson quotes Linus Pauling who said “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas”).
This past week, I started a new semester of creative writing with a group of mostly new students (two have taken other creative writing classes with me). We started on the first day with a classic divergent thinking test. I told them to list everything they could think of that was blue. I gave them about four minutes.
When they were done, I talked about how a creativity researcher would score their results. First, there’s the matter of fluency—how long is your list? How many blue things did you come up with? About a third of the class had more than fifteen, but one student had more than 20. The next thing to consider is flexibility—how many different categories of things did you think of that are blue? If you had 15 things that are just items around the house, that’s not as creative as five household items, five plants, and five puns (blew, bleu, blue as in sad, blue as in balls, blue as in music). Then there’s elaboration—did you go into detail on any of them? And finally originality—did you come up with one that no one else came up with?
Several students came up with original offerings—blue things I’ve never heard mentioned (and I’ve done this particular test pretty regularly, although I alternate it with red, since red can also be read). Jeff mentioned Kelvin 10,000 headlights. (I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to a whole semester of automotive imagery—I anticipate much jealousy from the I’d-Be-a-Working-Stiff-if-I-Didn’t-Write-Fiction guys. Seriously.) Rain said “crab blood” and then elaborated, “Well, actually, only horseshoe crab blood.” Both of those examples seem to me to rely a great deal on those students’ personal expertise, which is a really important goal during creative writing. It’s one of the two truisms of creative writing, right? Write what you know. (The other being “show—don’t tell.”) The third original offering seems to me to be a great example of a student with terrific observational skills. Joe said, “blue lines on a sheet of paper.” (Note the elaboration, as well.) Think of all the students who’ve done this exercise, all the times I’ve played along, and none of us noticed what was RIGHT THERE in front of us, not until Joe came along.
My hypothesis is that if students work on creative writing exercises at various points during the semester and then evaluate their writing based on the categories of fluency, originality, flexibility, and elaboration, they will become more creative in general, and more creative as writers.
I’ll be gathering data this semester (and many, many other semesters) to test that hypothesis, but one leading creativity researcher, Mark Runco, suggests that I’m on the right track. He describes something called “displaced practice” as being “quite effective.” This is when people “work on creative thinking exercises, but then turn to something else, and later again return to creative thinking exercises…. Eventually after gradual fading, the individuals will learn to think divergently and originally on their own, even with entirely ill-defined tasks and without explicit instructions.”
If I think back to the assignments I was given when I was a creative writing student, I think “entirely ill-defined tasks” without “explicit instructions” are pretty accurate descriptors. Maybe after they finish with my classes my students will do well with those kinds of assignments. But it’s obviously important outside academia because that’s what we face in our lives all the time—goals and problems and issues and situations where we know we need to do something, but we don’t know what to do or where to start, and there’s no one giving us a detailed assignment sheet or rubric.
One final quote from Mark Runco gives us a concrete place to start. When we’re staring at problems, we may try to solve them too quickly. Why? Runco says that “Some people may be more comfortable with closure….They are uncomfortable with the uncertainty that is a part of not having a solution ready at hand. This may lead them to satisficing, which is the tendency to take the first adequate solution that comes to mind (rather than postponing judgments and considering a wider range of options).” I hold out great hope that, if nothing else, teaching students about the basic categories of scoring a divergent thinking test will help them develop the habit of finding that wider range—of not settling for satisficing.