Thursday, May 8, 2008

Writing what you don't [already] know

After the last session, the conference broke up into hands-on studios (Art Center's Heidrun Mumper-Drum leads "Nuts to Butter: a Sustainable Design Exercise," above). There were places to create, learn, build, and play. I joined the writing workshop led by author Irene Borger. Here's what I learned: The creative process is a fertile and dangerous place. A liminal state. It has the attributes that anthropologists would characterize as ritual. In traditional rituals, elders protect the neophytes as they pass through the experience. For this reason, creativity requires a protective "container" in which to take place.

It also requires the right attitude, one of openness and non-judgement, as you would want to find in brainstorming. We talked about Flow, about Csikszentmihalyi (see the book list at right).

After spending some time discussing the nature of the protective environment and attitude required, Borger led us through a very simple exercise that had amazing results. She asked us to name three things we had created, and taking one of those, to create a "clustering" exercise around it. This was very much like a mind map, but without the link lines.

Then she read us "One of the Lives," a poem by W. S. Merwin, which begins with the line, "If I had not met the red-haired boy whose father had broken a leg parachuting into Provence to join the resistance..." and continues in a long winding thread to tell a story. Borger asked us to take that starting phrase, "If I had not..." and write about the topic we had chosen in one, unbroken session of about 10 minutes.

The clustering exercise set the stage in the mind and when we turned to the actual writing, we all scribbled non stop. When it came time to read, we were astonished. I came away thinking that it was nearly impossible to not write a compelling story using this exercise, and when we heard one story after the other read, it was fascinating to see how, though each of us started with the same original phrase, our stories were different.

So here are the tools:

Attitude (tolerate delay of closure on a problem)
Protective Container for the process (time, space)
Clusters (both of which are divergent tools)
Breaking the task into smaller units
Focusing devices (both of which are convergent tools)
Fun (this was the Serious Play conference, after all)

Two bonus tools for expanding a part of the writing:
Deepening: take any word and dig into it. In the phrase "the name was already taken," for example, "What I mean by taken is..."
What I don't remember: ask yourself what you don't remember. This might take you somewhere.

And there you have it.

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