Source: Courtesy of NKNapier
Trust the process.
I’ve taught in an executive master of business program for a decade. These participants are older (average age 42) with decades of management experience. They’re smart and they know it.Executive MBA Program: A Challenge to the System
Usually, we do a great job of setting expectations for the culture right off the bat—during a week-long residency of participants and faculty members only. We explain the program, the way things work, and the likely obstacles they’ll face. Usually, they buy in.
Sometimes, though, a cohort challenges the system. One year, seven out of 18 participants had military backgrounds—either currently in the military or recently retired and looking for new careers.
It seemed that every month, someone had a “suggestion” about how to change the program: “I think you should put this finance segment in the first month, not in the third.” “Why are we doing this reading? This presentation? It doesn’t add to what we’re learning?”
Repeatedly, faculty members said, “Trust the process. You’ll eventually see why it works.”
The challengers remained skeptical throughout the first semester. “I don’t think you should teach that session in that way. Too many spreadsheets, not enough discussion.” Or, “You need to include more power points, more data, more handouts, so we don’t have to take notes. How do you take notes on a discussion anyway?”
But when March of the first year came along, one day in class a naval officer said, “You know, the dots are connecting. I see now why we did that in November, why you brought in this reading, and how the assignment supports our learning of that concept. Ah. Trust the process. I get it now.” He winked.
So I applied that logic to myself this week after beating my head against the wall for days.A Fiction Writer’s Struggle
I’m a “fiction-writer-in-training” these days. After 30-some years of writing scintillating academic prose (don’t believe it) and creative non-fiction essays and books, I’ve turned to real fiction, where I have to make things up. During those academic years, I wrote about something concrete (e.g., how employees adapt to corporate acquisitions, whether expatriate American women can succeed in overseas assignments, or how organizational creativity works).
But now, I’m stumped. Without concrete ideas, I’m flailing. I’m not as imaginative as I’d hoped and can’t seem to come up with twists and turns for my plots. I worry that I’ll write a page “wilter,” rather than a page-turner.
So I went back to that wisdom I try to pass on to executives and tried to coach myself: I took an hour to think through what was going on and realized I do have something concrete to draw on and write from: loads of notes and interviews and photos about the topic of my novel (art forgeries, Vietnam), as well as my experience in Hanoi.Trust the Process
Monsoon afternoon in Hanoi
Sure enough, that allowed me to open up my process, to find a pathway. I needed the visuals and notes to stimulate memories of places, sounds, smells, and the air on my skin. The afternoon of strolling through Hanoi’s Fine Arts Museum was filled with art pieces that focused on war. The galleries I visited, the artists I talked to. The night I passed the Hanoi Hilton prison.
And the day that I got caught in a monsoon downpour.
It reminded me that I have something to write from, not just about.
And as I move forward, I’ll find a new process to trust. Now, back to work.
Overcoming the “I’m Not Creative” Mindset
You’re stuck. You’re working on a project or assignment and your mind shuts down. It’s clear that ideas are not flowing as rapidly as you would like. You’re losing steam and your mental energies are on an extended pause. Eventually, you start telling yourself, “I’m not creative,” or “I just can’t come up with a decent idea to save my soul.”
You’ve hit a brick wall, creatively speaking.
For much of our formal education, we are directed to look for a single solution to every problem or question (e.g. How many countries are in Africa? What is the chemical symbol for salt?). We have been conditioned to think that for every intellectual challenge, there is one—and only one—way to solve that problem.
Our educational experiences have been focused on learning “the right answer” or discovering a pre-determined response listed in a teacher’s manual or in the mind of an instructor. Seldom have we been offered opportunities to consider that there might be a multitude of potential responses to issues or conundrums. The “one-problem, one-answer” syndrome has been thoroughly ingrained into our patterns of thinking.
Sir Ken Robinson put this all into perspective when he wrote: “Too often our educational systems don’t enable students to develop their natural creative powers. Instead, they promote uniformity and standardization. The result is that we’re draining people of their creative possibilities and… producing a workforce that’s conditioned to prioritize conformity over creativity.” In short, by the time we graduate from high school or college, our innovative capacities are often reduced to an “I’m just not creative” mindset.“I Can’t Do This!”
Edward de Bono, the pioneer in lateral thinking and originator of the “Six Thinking Hats” method, suggests that all too often when we’re faced with a creative challenge, we resort to an “I can never do this” frame of thinking. In short, we categorically reject the possibility of creative responses since we don’t have the expertise or we have suffered a plethora of creative rejections in the past.
This is also the result of a seemingly non-stop barrage of low-level (fact-based) questions over the course of our educational experiences. (By the time they graduate, most high school students have been exposed to well over one million classroom questions.) Consequently, students come to the conclusion that education is merely collecting information or memorizing lots of facts.
Substantial research, classroom observations, and anecdotal evidence over the past three decades confirm an immutable fact of classroom life—that is, students tend to read and think based on the kinds of questions they anticipate receiving from a teacher. And when a significant number of questions are factual in nature (typically more than 80 percent of any classroom interaction), students get the message that memorizing stuff is much more important than creating multiple responses.
As a result, we frequently generate restraining statements when faced with a creative challenge. Since we are unable to generate a single “right answer,” we give up and offer an excuse/explanation for our creative incompetencies. Here are some typical responses:“I can’t do this.”“Apparently, I don’t know very much about that.”“I’m too busy to do that.”“That’s way out of my league.”“I’m not qualified.”“That will take way too much time.”
You will note that these statements put restrictions on our ability to solve a problem. They inhibit the possibility of creative thinking and effectively extinguish the opportunity for answers. In short, we self-reject a chance to solve a challenge.“In What Ways…?”
Instead, de Bono advocates for “IWW” (“In what ways…?”) questions. These are questions that open up our minds to unique possibilities and stimulate the generation of solutions and creative explorations.
Creativity Essential Reads
In place of the all-too-common self-destructive behavior relative to our creative instincts, here are some thought-provoking questions that stimulate multiple possibilities. That is, whenever we are faced with a creative challenge, instead of resorting to an “I’m not creative” response, we should consider queries that produce multiple responses.“In what ways can I…?”“If it were possible, how could I…?”“If this is time-consuming, how could I shorten it?”“What if there was more than one way to figure this out?”“What if I looked at this from another point of view?”“How would my best friend (or worst enemy) approach this?”“What might be the worst possible solution for this issue?”“What are some different ways I could…?”“I wonder if I could come up with ______ responses?”
One thing you will note about these queries is that they require something more than a “Yes” or “No” response. In fact, they require a plethora of responses, any one of which could be a potential solution.
By transforming common negative statements into multi-response questions, you give your brain creative license to examine a multiplicity of responses; you ignite dynamic conversations in your mind. So too, do you suspend self-judgement and embrace a diversity of potential solutions.
Bottom line: Creative thinkers regularly ask themselves open-ended, exploratory, and flexible questions. They seldom, if ever, default to “This can’t be done,” or “I’m not creative.”
The Psychology of Creative Writing
The Psychology of Creative Writing takes a scholarly, psychological look at multiple aspects of creative writing, including the creative writer as a person, the text itself, the creative process, the writer’s development, the link between creative writing and mental illness, the personality traits of comedy and screen writers, and how to teach creative writing. This book will appeal to psychologists interested in creativity, writers who want to understand more about the magic behind their talents, and educated laypeople who enjoy reading, writing, or both. From scholars to bloggers to artists, The Psychology of Creative Writing has something for everyone.
“An outstanding collection of provocative essays. Psychologists, writers, and anyone who likes to read, think, and learn will enjoy this profoundly revealing window into the creative process.” —Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning
“[T]his book . . . has an enormous amount of information and insight on the process and practice of creative writing, and I believe writers and non-writers, creative or not, can benefit from its discussions.” —Piers Anthony
”The Psychology of Creative Writing offers unparalleled insight into the lives, minds, and processes of literary artists. The book is an utterly original and deeply satisfying exploration of the creative writer, a nuanced study that consistently dispels myths and engages the myriad, fascinating complexities of how literature is made. In assembling the book, the editors have opened a new field of inquiry into the psychological experiences, costs, and rewards of the writing life. Every reader and writer is in their debt.” —Bret Anthony Johnston, Harvard University, author of Corpus Christi: Stories
“It’s an intellectual treat to see the best-known writers in creativity research writing creatively about creative writing. Kaufman and Kaufman have assembled a fine team of scholars to illuminate how people create with the written word.” —Paul J. Silvia, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, author of How to Write A Lot
“What are the secrets of creative writing? Who are the creative writers? What is so special about what they do (when it works), and how do we help others, or ourselves, to find that magic? Here is psychological research, theory, and experiential wisdom from well-known experts, on creative person, process, product, and cultivation of creativity – both in eminent writers, and in our own everyday efforts. The book rings with value and can open new doors for both scholars and practitioners. A unique contribution – highly recommended.” —Ruth Richards, Saybrook Graduate School, editor of Everyday Creativity and New Views of Human Nature
“Like a multiperspectival novel itself, with surprising revelations and an interesting cast of characters, this wide-ranging collection by well-known creativity researchers provides a valuable resource about creative writing: where the corroboration and conflicts are among studies, and where opportunities lie for further expanding our understanding of creativity and the literary arts.” —Seana Moran, Stanford University
“…This rich collection of papers by (mostly) psychologists who research creative writing from a great variety of perspectives offers major sections on the writer, text, process, development, and education… this volume a good one to have at hand.” —Rebecca Wells Jopling , OnFiction