Thursday, September 15, 2005

We're All Creative Types

We were sitting on an airplane on the way to a meeting. Two editors, Beth and Chris, were by the window. I was leaning across the aisle in a discussion with them. The conversation was about Kindergarten Mathematics. Kindergarten is particularly tricky business because the kids can't read.

“So, 3 bunnies plus 2 bunnies equals 5 bunnies,” Beth said. She and Chris were new. They were working and learning together. This was their first encounter with this golden oldie of a Kindergarten issue. How would they solve it once they knew about it?

“That won’t work.” I explained. “You see, it ends up with 10 bunnies on the page, which is pedagogically misleading for the kids. The numbers say 3+2=5, but the picture says 3 bunnies plus 2 bunnies make 5 more bunnies. We have to find a way to communicate 3 bunnies joining 2 bunnies by only showing 5 bunnies. Set the page aside. Approach the problem from a new direction.”

Beth and Chris looked at me. They had thought they had already found the answer. Welcome to publishing where the truth changes regularly. They went back to work.

I’d fixed this problem for what felt like thousands of pages before. I wanted to give them space to find their own solution. So I turned my attention to the guy in the suit who’d been totally taken by our conversation—he couldn’t see what we were discussing.

I smiled and said, “Isn’t it amazing how some grown-ups make a living?” He blushed at being caught eavesdropping. I smiled and shrugged saying, “No worries. We get this reaction wherever we go.” Then I read a unit of fourth grade history.

In a while the two editors had found their way to a solution. It involved 3 bunnies playing and 2 bunnies walking up to join them. Basically they were rewriting pictures. Now the page worked mathematically, pedagogically, and visually. Beth and Chris had solved the problem creatively. Creativity was the only available tool.

Legend says that creativity comes only from “creative types,” that a second group of noncreative sorts don’t have the “stuff” to keep up with. Rumor has it that rooms are littered with towels that these poor noncreatives have thrown in to show they’ve given up trying. I say that’s Balderdash, hokum, and piffle. Don’t believe it for a minute.

Beth and Chris aren’t the stereotypical “types” that come to mind when the word creative gets whispered as some genius walks into a room. One is an ex-teacher. The other is a history major. They don’t smoke cigars or wear outlandish clothes. They have no visible tics or strange compulsions surrounding hygiene. Neither leads a bohemian lifestyle, train turtles, or romances with exotic old men who don’t speak English. Yet they have creativity just as you and I do.

Creativity comes from the sum of one’s life experience. It pulls from knowledge and technical skills, and calls upon an ability to get beyond the first answer—to think outside that darned proverbial box. People who don’t see themselves as creative make the wrong assumption right there. Beth and Chris stopped with their first answer—an answer that seemed to work. It took someone to point out a problem to push them into creativity. It’s not that they aren’t creative. It’s that they don’t go there automatically.

Problem-solving or writing a page is not the same as finding lost keys. One answer, the first answer isn’t the time to stop looking. It’s an invitation to start thinking creatively. Rather than stopping with answer one. Write it down and start looking for answers two to infinity.

Those we think of as naturally creative love their work. “Testing constantly testing,” you'll hear them say. Failure is just another risk that’s gone astray on the way to the beautiful, elegant simple answer they seek. These “creative types” don’t fear the bad idea, because they know it takes a lot of them to latch on to the one real diamond that you can polish to sparkle endlessly. It’s true that it’s hard to get these creative thinkers thinking inside of the proverbial box, but that’s only because their curiosity takes them to enjoy looking at it outside from every direction. Our creative friends have talent for chasing down multiple answers, and push even harder to find them when they’re not feeling terribly creative. Creativity motivates them. Curiosity nurtures and energizes them. “What ifs” drive their vocabulary. Put those qualities together and you have Jon Luc Picards going forth where no one has gone before and enjoying ever minute immensely.

It had to be an ordinary caveperson's creativity that got us fire. The wheel is surely an example of plain old human creative thinking. Yet, the best example of creativity I can think of is any three-year old. Three-year-olds are most effective at managing parents creatively. If they weren’t they wouldn’t survive. Being creative has to be an instinct that somehow some of us get convinced we don’t have or don’t need. Balderdash, hokum, and piffle. Don’t believe it for a minute. There isn’t a problem, a relationship, a meal, or a passtime that isn’t better served with a little creativity in it.

Now tell me again why you’re not creative? Say it enough, and you might convince me. It goes without saying that you’ll surely convince yourself, but why would you want to?
—me strauss Letting me be
photo-Geek Philosopher


Anonymous said...

They say necessity is the mother of invention, perhaps it is the mother of creativity too.

However, I am considering your advice on being a "creative" type and examining my life for bohemian leanings. I don't think I would like to train turtles but that romance with exotic old men who don't speak English sounds intriguing.

My son was playing with pennies and grouping them (strangely enough) into one group of two and another group of three so I tried to introduce that 2+3=5 concept as a natural consequence. But he was only interested in writing the number 2 and telling me it was Twos-day.

Thing is, you can never figure out how a kindergarten mind works. It's been so long since we had one.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Hi Ned,
Maybe you and I are the same person. Come to think of it I've never seen us both in the same room . . . I thought of including that idea of necessity being the motioner of invention and it's always been my goal to find an esoxtic man who spoke no English .:)

You make a good point about the Kindergarten mind. It's very different from that of, say a fourth grader, the K kid's brain won'd develop enough to take on abstract thought until he or she is around 8 or 9. That's why 4th grade textbooks are so much fatter than third grade ones.

I know this because I still have my Kindergarten mind.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but Picard goes there with legs crossed while Kirk goes with a way more credible sitting style.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Welcome, Cube,
You have a point about Picard v. Kirk. I suppose it wouldn't do any good to say I was thinking of Janeway . . . I like your iconography--Guess you can go right through the the box anytime you want.


Anonymous said...

Hi Crayon Lady

I very much enjoyed this piece - the system's perspective on art as well.

BUT - seems to me we need to be a little more careful in how we regard & value "creativity" & "creative types". It's almost too western.

In our culture we tend to celebrate the individual yet many systems, including those of man, evolve solutions over time that seem to be the product of "creativty" but are, in fact, the result of trial and error over time.


"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Good Morning Anonymous E,
You make a good point. In fact, I was just reading last night about something they're calling group creativity which, though not the same, dovetails with what you're saying. My point today was I've heard over the past week too many people say that they are not creative. To which I reply Hogwash and bull pucky.


Anonymous said...

I fully agree - everyone is creative in some way or another, or we couldn't find a way to do things as mundane as un-knot a shoelace, etc. (wait, maybe I'm not creative...!). Anyway, it's always amazing to me to watch kids who haven't learned to feel self-conscious deal with the world - they really are creative, and the moment where they start censoring their ideas because they might not fit in with everyone else's is just kinda sad.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Welcome Sandra,
You're right, so right that social conformity has a lot to do with whether we allow our creativity to show. Thank you for joining the discussion.


Anonymous said...

Oi you - where did you get my modelling shot?

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

My Brothers Angelo and Pasquale can do almost anything.


Anonymous said...