Want to Be Creative? Relax. And Look Around.

Archimedes having a Eureka moment

Archimedes having a Eureka moment

Sure, it’s all well and good to talk about being creative, to agree that creativity is vitally important to success in school, to effectiveness on the job–and even to a joyful life (see Glorious Curious To-Do List and Credo, Item #2)–but here’s the fundamental question that underlies these notions: Where do creative ideas come from?

“By looking attentively at old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marble of various colours, you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused liines the inventive genius is excited to new exertions.”

That’s our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, giving advice on “The Method of awakening the Mind to a Variety of Inventions,” from A Treatise on Painting, a volume that was assembled from his writings by his assistant and companion Francesco Melzi. The master prefaces his suggestion with an admission that students of painting might find his comments a bit unusual: “I will not omit to introduce among these precepts a new kind of speculative invention,” he says, “which though apparently trifling, and almost laughable, is nevertheless of great utility in assisting the genius to find variety for composition.”

By looking closely and losing himself in the random lines and designs of old walls and stones, Leonardo found inspiration for his masterworks. Other “inventive geniuses” discovered their creative ideas in equally odd places. In 1934,The New Yorker reported that Gertrude Stein was fond of driving around the countryside every morning, with her partner Alice Toklas in the back seat, seeking inspiration in the great outdoors:

“Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow.”

Yep; observing cows stimulated Stein’s creativity.

Often, inventive geniuses get their creative ideas in a “Eureka!” moment, when they’re sitting around not doing much at all; in fact, the very term “Eureka” to describe such a moment comes to us from Archimedes, who stepped into his bath, watched the water rise, and realized that he could measure an object’s density by comparing its weight to the volume of water it displaced. The story goes that he was so excited by this epiphany that he leaped out of the bath and ran,  naked and dripping wet, through the streets crying out, “Eureka!”–which means “I have found it!”

J.K. Rowling was pretty much doing nothing, as well, when the idea for a story about a boy wizard came to her:

“I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head…. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one.…I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”

Rowling even credits this lack of a writing tool with helping her to develop her idea for her novel: “Perhaps,” she muses, “if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them.”

When Ernest Hemingway was interviewed by George Plimpton for The Paris Review in 1958, Plimpton asked the writer where his ideas came from. Hemingway talked about the importance of observing the world around him:

“INTERVIEWER: So when you’re not writing, you remain constantly the observer, looking for something which can be of use.

HEMINGWAY: Surely. If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen.”

“The great reserve of things he knows or has seen.” From that reserve come ideas, connections, realizations that inform all sorts of creative work. Shakespeare was of a similar mind, penning these lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V.1. 12-17):

“The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

The poet observes, as Hemingway did, as Leonardo did, and out of the “airy nothing” of his observations come creative ideas.

It seems, then, that inspiration comes to us not when we’re chained to our desks but rather in the in-between times, when we’re driving or bathing or wandering about. This speaks clearly to the necessity for taking breaks–for stopping our work for a bit and going out in the world, to relax, to look around, to think and breathe and absorb the landscape. The more we do that, the more material we have in our “great reserve,” and the more easily we can make connections and have realizations that lead to exciting, creative endeavors.

Image: By Giammaria Mazzuchelli (www.ssplprints.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


#indie30 project: Day 1


How has your view of the world changed because of travel?

That’s the prompt for today, Day 1, of BootnAll’s #indie30 project. BootsnAll is a travel website specializing in RTW–Round The World trips for indie travelers. It’s the site that inspired my daughter and me to sprawl on my bed with a big map of the world a few years ago and try to list the 50 countries we’d like to visit next. (We failed: we couldn’t keep it to 50. We were up in the high 60s when we finally cut ourselves off.)

The #indie30 project is directed at anyone who is creative and loves to travel. Each day in the month of April, BootsnAll will publish a prompt, and anyone who wants to participate will respond to it in some creative fashion: a photo, a video, prose, poetry, even a Facebook post or a Tweet.

Of course, I’ll be participating. Read on:

The Top 6 Ways My View of the World Has Changed Because of Travel:

6. I’ve learned that outside of the United States, a lot of people love eating octopus as much as I do.

5. I’ve learned that a dog in a restaurant is not necessarily a reason to place a frantic call to the health department.

4. I’ve learned that a country’s government may be prickly and ornery, but its people are often astonishingly friendly and kind.

3. I’ve learned that some things that we’ve seen a zillion times on tacky coffee mugs and calendars and tee shirts–things like London’s Tower Bridge, the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower–are so extraordinary in real life that I now understand why everyone puts them on coffee mugs and calendars and tee shirts.

2. I’ve learned that some things that we’ve never seen seen on a coffee mug or a calendar or a tee shirt–things like a late afternoon rainbow over Austria’s Wörthersee; a mother and her little girl giggling and playing Rock, Paper, Scissors on a Tokyo train; a crowd of grinning people dancing in the sunshine to a reggae band on a Barcelona sidewalk–are so extraordinary that I now understand why you can’t just read about these places–you have to go and see for yourself what is really there, in the small moments, in the spaces between cathedrals and monuments.

1. I’ve learned that to even have a view of the world, you have to get out there into the world.


Happy travels, everyone!



Reflecting Is Not Loafing. Really.

Eternal reflection: Rodin's "Le Penseur" (The Thinker)  [Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell's gate]

Eternal reflection: Rodin’s “Le Penseur” (The Thinker)

“The painter or draftsman must be solitary, and most of all when he is intent on those speculations and considerations which, continually appearing before the eyes, give material to the memory to be well stored.”

Thus Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, quotes our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, on the subject of contemplation and reflection. It was apparent to the master that in order to process what we have learned and to commit it to memory so that we can use it later on, we need to be still for a bit and think about the things we’ve observed, absorbed, and created.

The problem with this concept, though, is that reflection involves a distinct lack of moving about. It’s quiet and, well, reflective–so in some cases, it might resemble, to an alarming degree, sitting around and doing nothing. In education, where teaching time is brief and precious and the last thing to be valued is letting the kids sit around with nothing constructive to do, the practice of reflection can be easy to pooh-pooh. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable tool and an effective method of evaluation; reflection can help students process what they’ve just learned even as it provides insight for their teachers into what the class understands and what still remains to be mastered.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero has, over the past 37 years, been examining the development of learning processes in children, adults, and organizations. Their Visible Learning initiative features a set of “Thinking Routines”–mini-strategies that teachers can embed into their lessons so that students can reflect on their own work–on what they have learned, and on what they have yet to understand. Thinking Routines are like little games or challenges. They’re fun, they take up very little classroom time, they provide both the teacher and the students with a way to make learning visible, and they illuminate a path for continually adjusting and tweaking what goes on in the classroom.

The subset of Core Routines, in particular, encourages students to reflect on what they think they already know about a subject and what they’d still like to learn. For example, the routine called “What Makes You Say That?” consists of two simple yet powerful questions: “What’s going on?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?”

One of my favorite routines, which I often use at the end of one of the series of arts-integrated writing workshops that I teach, is “I used to think…But now I think…” I like to present this routine in the last few minutes of the last workshop, asking students to write their answers out and then calling on them to share their responses with the rest of the group. This routine can indicate progress in a much truer way than a multiple-choice test can.

Sometimes the insight I gain through this routine is deeper than I expect. Last year, I led a week-long Spring Break workshop for fourth and fifth graders from a poor neighborhood in South Florida; I centered my curriculum on a young-people’s version of Homer’s Odyssey, re-told by Gillian Cross and gorgeously illustrated by Neil Packer.  My young students spent the week hearing and discussing the episodes and then using writing, visual art, and movement to craft their own creative responses to the ancient classic. On the last day, I used the “I used to think…” routine to see what about the weeklong process had impacted them. I gave them a few minutes to think and write in their “Reflection Journals”–little handmade books that they had created during the first workshop. One boy made me grin with his answer:

“I used to think…the older times were really boring and like I was going to pass out. But now I think…they were really fun. I don’t know if the other Greek books are boring, but I know the Odyssey was super fun.”

Good to know that his knee-jerk reaction to ancient literature  had been tempered by his arts-integrated experience!

My favorite response of all time, though, came from Jakayla, a tough little fourth-grade girl and the self-appointed ringleader of my Spring Break group. After a few minutes of reflection, Jakayla concluded:

“I used to think…that this would be all about writing. But now I think…it was all about finding what you love.”

Lest this all seem too kumbaya-warm-and-fuzzy, understand that every day, in the simplest fashion, I would determine what facts and vocabulary the students were absorbing: I would fire questions at them at random moments. “What was the Cyclops’ name?” “Who turned the sailors into pigs?” “Where is Odysseus trying to get home to?” The kids would practically fall over raising and waving their hands in the air with the answers. There was no need to test those simple facts; the children were learning the story and its elements as a natural result of listening, writing, making art, and acting out the episodes.  The simple Thinking Routine, though, along with a few moments to reflect quietly on what they knew and felt, and the opportunity to write about it in full sentences rather than bubbling in a row of circles on a computer-graded test, painted a clear picture, for me and for them, of the joyful learning that took place that week.

In his introduction to John Francis Rigaud’s translation of Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting, John William Brown notes that when the great artist was painting The Last Supper on the wall of the convent of La Madonna delle Grazie,

“[T]he Prior of the Dominicans…became impatient whenever he saw Leonardo in contemplation instead of continuing his picture; he being one of those who imagine that a painter must be neglecting his work whenever his hands are not actually employed on it.”

Leonardo, of course, strongly disagreed with this view. As do I.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell’s gate

Only Connect! (It Will Make You More Creative.)

An 1828 engraving of children playing tag, by Johann Michael Voltz

An 1828 engraving of children playing tag, by Johann Michael Voltz

E.M. Forster said it in Howard’s End:

“Only connect!…Live in fragments no longer.”

He was referring to connections between human beings–surely, some of the most important and satisfying connections we can make–but his exhortation applies most aptly to creativity and the establishment of a creative practice in our lives. Connecting two or more ideas, whether they resemble each other or are completely dissimilar, often results in a new discovery, a new creation, that is informed by, but rises above, the original concepts.

Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, said of our hero and his tendency to explore everything that interested him:

“This exceptional ability to interconnect observations and ideas from different disciplines lies at the very heart of Leonardo’s approach to learning and research.”

Leonardo started out by studying the elements of painting, then moved on to studying the objects he painted, then branched out more and more to study fossils, weapons, the earth, the stars. He filled his head and his notebooks with questions and information about all these seemingly dissimilar fields, and then he made connections that no one else at the time was making. This vast breadth of knowledge enabled him, for example, to draw upon the sciences of geometry and anatomy when he was making art, and to bring elements of design into his scientific inquiries on flight. The things he created combined his findings in various fields and synthesized them to create something greater. The whole was astonishingly  innovative and much larger than the sum of its parts.

Last November, I traveled to Mérida, Mexico, in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula, with my friend and Blue Planet Writers’ Room co-founder Susan Hyatt; we went to observe and work with teachers and students at Habla: The Center for Language and Culture. This school, run by our brilliant and talented friends Kurt Wootton and Maria del Mar Patron-Vazquez, teaches languages (Spanish and English) through arts integration. Through connections, in other words, between seemingly dissimilar subjects. Students learn English, for example, by designing a new game with directions in their new language, or by playing drama games to illustrate scenes from (and deepen their understanding of) stories in English. (Susan and I use arts integration at Blue Planet to teach creative writing; it’s an approach that works in many subjects.)

While we were there, I got to work with groups of students who were involved in an international collaboration with our students in Florida. The students in both countries made folded- and cut-paper stars as gifts for each other. They also wrote letters expressing their wishes for each other, and inscribed some of those wishes on their stars. (They wished each other everything from “a family who loves you” to “a scholarship to college” to “lots of chocolate.” All of which are, in my opinion, splendid wishes.) Susan, who was observing the workshops as part of her doctoral dissertation research, also interviewed the students. With the help of Tommasso Iskra De Silvestri, the bilingual teacher, she questioned the children about their ideas of what creativity is.

The answer given by one eight year-old boy stood out. Without even thinking about it, he said:

“Creativity is when you take the best parts of two things and put them together to make a new, better thing.”

He used the example of a game he liked to play, a game called Tofu: it combines two different kinds of Tag, he said, and it’s more fun and more interesting than either of them. It’s a better game, he noted, because it takes the best parts of the other games and puts them together.

That answer raised the eyebrows of the three adults in the room, because that idea of creativity being a combinatorial process is a sophisticated concept. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe we know innately that learning about a lot of things and putting them together in new ways is key to growth and innovation–and even fun.