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The Storm of Creativity: Meditating, Not (Necessarily) Producing

[This is a guest post by Janine Utell, who is a Professor of English at Widener University in Pennsylvania. She teaches composition and 19th and 20th century British literature; she has also facilitated a number of on- and off-campus workshops on writing, critical thinking, and general education. Previously at ProfHacker, she's written on "Practical Wisdom and Professional Life", "How to Study Your Own Teaching (And Why You Might Want To)," "Visualizing Your Promotion Portfolio with Cmap," and "6 Strategies for Deep Listening." You can follow Janine on Twitter: @janineutell.]

Kyna Leski insists that with The Storm of Creativity (MIT Press) she is not writing a self-help book.

Leski, a professor of architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, instead proposes to offer reflections on the nature of creativity and its processes using the extended metaphor of the storm. She also draws on the visual arts and design, as well as a variety of texts and thinkers from Steve Jobs to Charles Darwin. (The latter strategy reminds me of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and is used to better effect there. Johnson delves more deeply into his cases, reading their work more thoroughly and drawing more interesting conclusions.)

As a person who spends most of her time immersed in the written word, I approach both the concept of creativity and the means of developing it and deploying it from the position of a writer. I take lessons from stories like the ones Leski uses, and much of my teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing around creativity has to do with how much I’m writing, how to capture fleeting ideas in writing, how to organize those ideas into paragraphs and articles and books. Of course I’ve read Annie Dillard and Virginia Woolf on the subject, and I spend a lot of time in class with students talking about how writers do what they do and why, and to what effect.

But it was the focus on design that drew me to Leski’s book, and I found the way she used that focus to invite reflection and meditation on creativity to be very valuable. Even more, by picking up a book that forced me to think about creativity differently — how DOES an architect think about creativity? — I was able to enact the very things Leski suggests are necessary for creative thinking: abolishing preconceptions, thinking about form differently, making connections. Using The Storm of Creativity as a tool for meditation, for mind-opening, rather than as an instruction manual for creativity, I was able to pause and think differently about my own work. (I have Hugh MacLeod’s Ignore Everybody for the instruction manual part.)

The Storm of Creativity is divided up into stages of creative process. Leski several times suggests reading the chapters out of order; she does so to push back against our impulses to treat this like a self-help book, and she’s also trying to show the cyclical and recursive nature of creativity. You should be able to enter into it at any point in the process. I am a resolutely linear person, however, so I read the thing from start to finish. So, from start to finish, creativity, according to Leski, involves:

  • unlearning

  • problem making

  • gathering and tracking

  • propelling

  • perceiving and conceiving

  • seeing ahead

  • connecting

  • pausing

  • continuing

Each chapter opens with a return to the metaphor of the storm: “Like a storm, creativity is bigger than you. It begins before you know it. It is beyond your complete control” (8). Rather than attempting to create the perfect conditions for creativity, Leski suggests being mindful of the moments where it comes upon you, and then clearing a space for it to enter and overtake you. This means embracing the instability that comes with unlearning, and abolishing the contrived encounters we call “brainstorming,” which are in fact simply accumulations of preconceptions. Creativity should involve not confirming what we know but “wanting to know something you don’t know” (38). She connects this nicely back to her work as a teacher, as well, elaborating with thoughtful anecdotes about her introductory architecture classes.

For Leski, this means thinking of creativity as making a problem to solve. As an architect, she thinks of a problem made as another way of thinking about space and form. A gap emerges that needs to be filled. A window is not simply a window, and the question is not simply where to put it. A window becomes a way of working through the relationships between inside and outside, between a room and the world beyond. This turning inside out is a kind of insight, and in the chapter “Seeing Ahead” she describes making thumbnail sketches of designs over and over again until she sees differently. The sketches become a part of her memory, so she can see beyond to something new that wasn’t there before.

I found the notion of problem making to be particularly powerful. An idea becomes a problem to solve; if I think a book needs to be written, I’ve created a problem for myself to solve, and every step thereafter is leading to the making of something that wasn’t there before, something that fills that book-shaped hole in the universe. This makes it sound like Leski is advocating a product-oriented approach to creativity, and I think that doesn’t quite do justice to her ideas. We aim to solve a problem, but creativity is recursive. Even with the solving of a problem, we continue down the path created by that idea; we return to gather more, we stop and start again. Leski’s approach doesn’t necessarily lend itself to deep focus, but it does lend itself to pausing on glimmers of insight and thinking about where they might lead.

[CC-licensed Flickr photo by Cliff Johnson]

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