Tag Archives: creativity

Creative People Say Yes (Sometimes)

I once came upon my cousin Reid practicing different ways to say “no.” He was 3 or 4 at the time. “No, I couldn’t possibly,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

He was onto something, that little ‘un. At least in my family, saying no takes practice.

Saying no? I’m big on it. Sometimes I’m even good at it. I certainly like the IDEA of saying no.

I’ve written about a fair number of times:
“How do I do that? How do I become the sort of person who says no to things?”

Clitter-Clatter Clutter Time , which references two terrific posts by my favorite tattooed Lutheran blogger, Nadia Bolz Weber, “The Spiritual Practice of Saying No,” and its companion piece, “The Spiritual Practice of Saying Yes!”

The Sarcastic Lutheran says, “The people who are inclined to say yes to everything do all the work and then burn out and become resentful about the people who are inclined to say no to everything. It’s as though the world is divided into martyrs and slackers.”

I don’t make a very good martyr or slacker, either one, not for very long.

I worked enough 50+ hours this spring semester, I worry my slacker credentials are in danger of not being renewed.

Busy as I’ve been, I’m nowhere close to martyrdom. I have some regrets, but I don’t regret all of the times I said yes. (Or came up with something to do that no one even asked me to do.)

Recent things that added to my to do list that I am particularly happy to locate in the land of “yes!”:

  • In addition to volunteering in my son’s classroom at the River Valley Elementary Studio School a couple hours a week, presenting a lesson on storytelling, with a way of talking about narrative arc that was a big hit.
  • Leading the Westby Co-Op Credit Union Board of Directors and branch managers in creativity exercises.
  • Serving as a (paid) reader for writing sample/placement tests for incoming UW-R students, and as a local developmental writing coordinator (unpaid).

In general, I am unrealistic about how the number of things I try to get done will fit into the number of available hours, and I don’t necessarily do things in the right order (which sometimes does and sometimes does not qualify as procrastination).

Thus, some of my commitments (such as returning student work promptly) suffered this spring, and probably, saying “yes” to new stuff impacted the ongoing stuff.

In general, I need to parse, pare, and prune my To Do list.

So, in one way, I totally get Kevin Ashton’s “Creative People Say No.”

He is right that “We do not have enough time as it is. There are groceries to buy, gas tanks to fill, families to love and day jobs to do.”

And he is right that “Time is the raw material of creation.”

Time is a precious resource. It must be guarded. I get it.

But wow did that blog post bug me.

(more on page 2!)

Marnie’s Idea Mill–churning out great ideas since…NOW.

I am pleased, excited, terrified and astonished to be announcing the launch of Marnie’s Idea Mill, a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

I’m raising money to replace myself in the classroom, so that I will have time to design and implement workshops on creativity.

Thanks in advance for checking out the site and considering making a contribution!

You can help other ways–posting the link on your own Facebook page or blog, retweeting, or forwarding to people who might make a contribution will help, too.

I also welcome feedback on any and all parts of this project.

Also accepting good wishes and blessings!

Metaphor 1.1

Metaphor 1.1


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The perks I’m offering include a shout-out on this blog, a copy of Each Other’s Anodyne (a hand-sewn chapbook, a collection of my poems about teaching), feedback on your own creative writing, customized sonnets, and personalized creativity coaching sessions.

As of today, I’ve raised $10,000 in contributions and pledges toward the $24,000 total I need ($6,000 per course x four courses). My fundraising goal on Indiegogo is $4,000, and the deadline for the online campaign is June 17.

My ultimate deadline is July 1.

When I say I love impossible things, I am not kidding.

But I’m trusting Marnie’s Idea Mill can make some magic and attract some magic and make creativity workshops possible (which will then generate even more magic).
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Because I am married to a man who is 1/4 Finn, who has read the Kalevala multiple times and also cheers for Finnish drivers in World Rally racing, I know that the Sampo is a mill that generated an infinite supply of flour, salt, and gold.

It was made by Ilmarinen (using a forge, that, as my husband likes to point out, the Kalevala never mentions being destroyed–so maybe it’s still out there…) for the Mistress of the North, who turned out to be a nasty sort, and after a complicated series of events I couldn’t quite follow as my husband described it, the People of the South decided to steal the Sampo. The boat it was in sank, but pieces of the Sampo washed ashore and prosperity accompanied even those pieces.

There used to be a store in Madison called the Magic Mill, which I loved, but it closed. The Sampo, though–that’s a really potent metaphor.

The Sampo one of the images I had in mind when I decided to call my Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign “Marnie’s Idea Mill.”

Idea generation is a huge part of how we measure creativity, so I wanted a metaphor of something that generates. Mill seemed kindlier than factory somehow….

Plus, we have a wide assortment of Peugeot hand grinders (my husband is also 1/4 French).

Another old, old story I had in mind is from 1 Kings 17. In it, Elijah curses the land of Israel, “there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” The Lord sends him to a brook where ravens care for him, and then to a widow, who, when asked for a wee bit of bread by Elijah says, “As the Lord God liveth,” (which I think would now translate to “holy crap, man”). She says she barely has enough to keep herself and her son alive one more day. But Elijah blesses her barrel and says it will not be empty until God sends rain. (I always thought that should be until a few months after the rain showed up, but I’m sure it worked out fine.)

For me, this is a story about living from a place of “enough” rather than a place of “not enough.”

I am trusting there is enough good will and money in the world to help me meet my goal of designing workshops to help people become more creative–more people who can forge amazing mills, more prophets who can see plenty when the rest of us see scarcity….

More where there is currently less.
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(You can read more about my creativity research, my fundraising, and my ideas for workshops on various pages here on my blog.)

Lazy, Lazy Thinking in the Noon Day Sun

I always used to talk about racism when I talked about logical flaws in my composition classes–that stereotypes came from generalizing badly. Sample size too small, oversimplifying, etc. (I don’t spend much time on logical flaws now, and I miss them–such fun names! Such color and metaphor–one day, the Straw Man smelled a Red Herring and Ergo, Propter Hoc!)

It never occurred to me until I read “Study: Racial stereotyping linked to creative stagnation” on Salon.com that racism was connected (in inverse proportion) to creativity. It makes sense, though.

I’ve written once before in this blog on the notion of lowering associative borders, in a post called “I Can’t Get No Satisficing.”  Having high associative borders is similar to what this study (described in more detail in in this article, “Racial Essentialism Reduces Creative Thinking, Makes People More Closed-Minded” in Science Daily) calls categorical thinking.

The lead researcher, Carmit Tadmor, and her co-authors say that although creative stagnation and racism “concern very different outcomes, they both occur when people fixate on existing category information and conventional mindsets.”

The study is hopeful that people can change their thinking. I am too–part of the reason I want to begin doing workshops on creativity is that studies show people can become more creative thinkers. We’re not stuck with what we were born with.

What I would call a “creativity workshop” is typically called “enhancement training” or “creativity training” in cognitive research. Hsen-Hsing Ma published an article in 2006 with overall terrific news about the possibility that we can become more creative.

Ma cites an early researcher, Paul Torrance,  who found that “programs teaching children to think creatively were at least 50% successful.” Another study from those rockin’ 1970s by Mansfield, et. al., showed “most evaluation studies of creativity training programs seem to support the view that creativity can be trained.”

SO WE’VE KNOWN THIS FOR A LONG TIME.

For the 2006 article, jazzily titled, “A Synthetic Analysis of the Effectivieness of Single Components and Packages in Creativity Training Programs,” Ma did what is called meta-analysis of studies (reading LOTS of studies on an issue and summarizing and analyzing their results), showing the following:

Good news item #1: “Overall, the finding of this study confirms the result of Torrance’s (1972) investigation; namely, that children can be taught to think creatively.”

But oh, gracious, the news is better than that:

“This study also found that creativity training programs tended to be more successful with older participants than younger ones.”

So–watch out old racists and stagnant thinkers everywhere. The times they are a changin’ (NOTE: if you’re old enough to recognize that song, you’re just the right age to benefit from creativity training.)

We can become more creative.

We can become more creative.

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(Image from Creative Commons on flickr, “Coloured Rooms Doorways-Brian Eno Speaker Floers Sound Installation at Marlborough House” by Dominic Alves.)

RERUN: Dry Stretch: Beer and Creativity (or, Beerativity)

[New blogging goals in my second year of blogging:  host more guest blogs + rerun some of my “notes” from Facebook, which I was clearly trying to use as a blog. The following is from July 27, 2011. Update afterward.]

My husband commented at dinner last night that it had been 18 days since he’d mowed, which he thought was a record. We’ve had such a hot, dry stretch here in Wisconsin that you can’t really even tell–the only things growing in the yard are those spiky things which we called plantains in Southern Illinois (so they’re probably called something else everywhere else).

It occurred to me that this is approximately the same amount of time I’ve gone without drinking.  No beer, no wine, and I hadn’t even gotten around to having my first G&T of the summer—I like to make tonic water ice cubes so the drink doesn’t get watery (though it does get tonic-watery).

A writer I know announced yesterday that he’ll be avoiding alcohol for 21 days in August & reporting for Men’s Health.

And doing more reading for my ongoing research on creativity, this section came up yesterday: “Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.” In this section, leading creativity researcher Mark Runco (who I like to pretend looks like Mark Ruffalo) makes these points, which seemed relevant to the whole dry-stretch theme:

  • In summarizing multiple findings, Runco gives these numbers:  One researcher “found a full 60 percent of those involved in theater probably having alcoholism, with writers of fiction and musicians not far behind (41% and 49% respectively).” Another researcher “found writers to be especially prone to alcoholism” (131).
  • (NOTE: poets score higher on the whole suicide index, to be fair.)

To make sense of the next point, you have to know that Wallas was an early creativity researcher, and any time a researcher discusses the stages of creativity, the basis began with Wallas, who described these as the stages of creativity: preparation (defining the problem, setting the task, doing research, mulling over different possibilities), incubation (setting the project aside & letting things stew/coalesce at a subconscious or preconscious level), illumination (that a-ha! moment), verification (when other people confirm whether the creativity is successful or just bizarro).

  • Runco reports two researchers who looked at drinking and creativity “found alcohol consumption to be related to improved incubation…as well as high originality but only in the illumination phase of the creative process. Alcohol seems to inhibit flexibility during illumination. It was also related to poor verification….” These researchers “were extremely precise in the methods used to administer alcohol. They used 1.0 milliliter of alcohol (100% pure alcohol, not Bud Light nor even Captain Morgan Rum) for each kilogram of body weight” (132).

Then he describes alcohol’s effect on primary processes (“Primary process is associative and uninhibited. It is impulsive, libidinal, and free of censorship”) and secondary processes (“realistic, practical, and reality-oriented”) (133).

  • Yet another group of researchers “administered alcohol with two experimental groups in an attempt to manipulate primary and secondary process. Surprisingly [they] reported that the alcohol group seemed to use secondary process more than primary process. The prediction had been that alcohol would allow primary process but inhibits secondary process….The surprising finding may explain the common misconception that alcohol frees up our thinking and therefore improves our creativity. Thinking while intoxicated may actually be more original, but it may also be unrealistic and worthless. Truly creative insights are both original and worthwhile Perhaps intoxicated individuals are simply very poor judges of their own thinking. They may indeed have a really bizarre and therefore original idea, and they may like it because it is original, but they fail to see that even though it is original, it is worthless” (132).

I have always been good at the preparation & incubation & illumination stages—it’s just the verification I’ve struggled with. And the notion of flexibility seems most relevant to revising—looking at options and not getting locked in to the original plan or draft.

So. It’s raining today in southwest Wisconsin, but at least at the moment, I’m still not drinking.  I’m sleeping better and feeling calmer overall. And it comforts me to know that I’m probably not losing anything in terms of creativity by staying sober.

Runco, Mark. Creativity: Theories and Themes: Research, Development, and Practice. Amsterdam: Elsevier,

2007. Print.

[11/26/12: I stopped drinking until I could imagine myself having a glass of wine or a beer without having a second or third automatically. It was the right thing to do–since I started drinking again (I think I went a couple months total without drinking), it hasn’t felt out of control at all. I’m checking to see if I can find the article Benjamin Percy wrote about his dry stretch.  One of the biggest disappointments about finding out that Jonah Lehrer is a big fat liar is that I really liked how his book on creativity talked about the benefits and drawbacks of drugs/alcohol on the creative process. Perhaps I’ll check his sources and write about that myself in a future blog.]

Playing with Fire, Opdyke-Style

Two innocent-looking girls take the shade off a bedroom lamp, up-end a coffee can on it, and melt crayons in the shallow tray they’d created. It’s difficult work. The balance is precarious. It’s way too easy for the waxy mess to slop onto the carpet where it will stay, a clump one girl tries to cover with furniture or dirty clothes the rest of her childhood. Neither of them got burned.

But they did catch fire, having their own little moment of alchemy when the gold crayon swirled itself into the other colors.

They will graduate to ruining plastic pitchers with their experiments. What happens when you mix nail polish remover with nail polish? This cleaner with that one?

Both of them owned Easy Bake Ovens. Neither of them owned a chemistry set.

What happens when one of the girls pours just a little nail polish remover in a shower stall and lights it on fire? She had the hand sprayer ready and the water already running, and she watched the wall of blue flame for a count of two, maybe three, before she doused it.

Don’t believe in miracles? How about dumb luck? The fact that I escaped my childhood alive, without massive burn scars, the fact that my childhood home didn’t burn to the ground—-I have to believe in one or the other. Though I will say, in our own pre-adolescent way, my friend and I were methodical in our experiments. The hand sprayer was good to go, after all.

I never set off firecrackers or wired a birdhouse to explode, the way my brother did (birds never moved in, fortunately, smart birds). But my brother and I were both dangerously creative.

We particularly enjoyed burning trash. Out in the country where we grew up, on the edge of a tiny town called Opdyke, there was no trash pickup, so you burned what you could and dumped or buried the rest. Any other chore, we’d fight to weasel out of. Burning trash, we fought to see who got to do it. Our special favorite was finding anything labeled CAUTION, FLAMMABLE, or especially, DO NOT INCINERATE. At least we had the good sense to stand back. Sometimes there was a whoosh of flame or an interesting shade of smoke or if we were really lucky, BAM! An explosion when an aerosol can slammed against the side of the burning barrel.

One of my brother’s friends was badly burned when he used gasoline to burn his family’s trash faster. All we learned from that, apparently, was DON’T USE ACCELERANTS. (Which is actually a really good thing to learn.)

An analysis of this could reveal boredom, misdirected intellectual curiosity, some variety of pathology, or a combination of all three. But we also were being true to our Opdyke heritage and our family heritage, whether we knew it or not.

On our father’s side of the family, we were only one, maybe two generations removed from people who had stills in the hills. My father’s childhood home burned to the ground, twice I think. I have a vague memory that it was my grandfather’s fault, but I’m not sure about that.

On our mother’s side, we had our solidly creative Gran’daddy, who could solve pretty much any intractable problem by sleeping on it. He regularly dreamed the solution. He could also find water by dowsing—I’ve always been afraid to try. I don’t want to know if I have that particular gift.

When it came to fire, Gran’daddy worked as a volunteer firefighter and I remember being part of a crowd watching them set the old one-room schoolhouse on fire so the volunteers had something to practice on. (I also remember one odd little boy flashing his penis to everyone that day. At least we didn’t have that pathology in my family.)

In terms of creativity and fire, I have to think of Gran’daddy’s work with Sparky, a welder and inventor in our little town.

On the main street, which now has a name but didn’t when I lived there, Opdyke had a post office, ½ of a building that also housed an old-fashioned store with a wood-burning stove. We waited for the bus inside on cold days. (At this point my memory blurs with an episode of the Waltons–I can’t believe I was so lucky and that this was the early 70s, not the 30s.) Next building down was a two-story, red-brick garage where Sparky had his shop. That was pretty much all there was, business-wise.

I know Sparky and Gran’daddy worked together to make parts for various farm machines, but I also remember fabulous inventions, like the rotation hot-dog roaster for camp fires.

It never once occurred to me to ask to visit that shop, and no one ever offered.

Had my son’s school existed at that time, in that place, there probably would have been a field trip there, or we’d have had Sparky come to class to demonstrate.

At least I like to think so, and I like to think River Valley Elementary Studio School is in the process of living up to part of its initial purpose, to give kids space to be creative as part of their education.

It’s not just that I want my son to also escape his childhood without burn scars. It’s not just that I want him not to burn our house down.

I want him to be able to play with fire and learn even more from it than I did.

On reflection, I am utterly baffled that I took Chemistry I in high school but not Chemistry II, where the students regularly made explosives behind the teacher’s back. (Well, other than being completely burned out by my senior year and also hitting a very solid three-dimensional brick wall when I tried to imagine molecules in 3-D.)

In my creativity research, I am trying to learn how to encourage and assess students’ creativity. I’m struck by these quotes from Arthur Cropley, in his book, Creativity in Education and Learning: A Guide for Teachers and Educators. He points out that

“Surveys have shown that in theory at least teachers overwhelmingly support creativity as something that should be fostered in the classroom….However, in actual classroom practice they often frown upon traits associated with creativity or even actively dislike characteristics such as boldness, desire for novelty or originality.” I don’t know how much I exhibited those traits in the classroom, but I can definitely see my obsession with fire as a bold “desire for novelty” (something other than another rerun of Gilligan’s Island) and I don’t know of any other children who set their shower stalls on fire, though a lot of people may be like I was until this moment, sensibly keeping things like that a secret. Cropley has a list of things to do to make creativity possible in the classroom, and it’s striking to me how most of those apply to my brother’s and my trash burning processes. Cropley says we should

• “encourage students to learn independently
• have a co-operative, socially integrative style of teaching
• do not neglect mastery of factual knowledge
• tolerate sensible or bold errors
• promote self-evaluation
• take questions seriously
• offer opportunities to work with varied materials under different conditions
• help students learn to cope with frustration and failure
• reward courage as much as being right.”

We did “neglect factual knowledge” for the most part, and I don’t remember much self-evaluation. I don’t remember frustration or failure, but I think the wall of flame in the shower stall scared me enough I went back to burning trash as my main experimental mode, where you could “reward courage” with an occasional but deeply satisfying explosion. We were hell-bent on making our own “opportunities to work with varied materials under different conditions.” My 8th grade demonstration speech involved dripping candle wax into a pie-pan of water. “What’s it for?” the teacher asked when I was done. It hadn’t occurred to me I needed a purpose–it was just really fun to do. But what I said was, “If you use scented candles, these can be put anywhere to make things smell nice.” I don’t remember being punished or rewarded for that project.

I want to officially and publicly and sincerely apologize to my parents who are learning about most of this for the first time along with everyone else reading right now. (I explained and apologized long ago for the mouse bones the repairman found in the dishwasher when it broke down.)

“Sin boldly,” Martin Luther said, which is what I think of when I read “bold errors.” I wonder, as a teacher, if I make any room at all for that in my students.

It scares me to death to imagine what kind of experiments my already creative son will think up. I mostly hope it’s in a classroom with safety goggles and fire extinguishers available, but I think it’s part of my job to let him experiment at home as well.

Because playing with fire? Having a sweet face that will mislead some people into thinking he doesn’t have a dark side? He comes by that naturally. So did I.