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.