Thursday, November 30, 2006

The box of purpose

My son, Dan, a first-grader, was given a writing assignment earlier this week. The directions said, at the top of the sheet, "The sky is full of dark clouds. It is very windy. A light flashes across the sky. Make a prediction of what is going to happen."

He wrote, "A aeleein (alien) will come down and sae, 'We can't sleep on Mars.' And it is nite. There is a lot of litening and rane."

He got a smiley-face and an S+ (which I guess is good). From me he got a, "That's amazing!" He explained further to me that what he meant was that all the probes and robots and landers and stuff we'd sent up to Mars were making the light (the one mentioned in the directions), and that was what was keeping the alien/Martian awake.

He put in the rain and lightning because he was pretty sure that that was what was happening, too. On the back of the sheet he drew a UFO-style space-ship with a little alien coming out of it... wearing a stocking-cap.

Totally cracked me up. Be creative, but cover yer ass.

This blog is sometimes about being more creative. I'm lucky in that I get to do that kinda stuff as part of my job. I'm even luckier that I get to do it as a Dad. In this case, because it reminded me of an important rule about creativity -- look both ways... up and down the ladder of purpose.

Usually, when we are being creative, we start with a goal; a purpose. We want to write a story or a poem or a headline or a novel. We want to design a process or invent a better mouse-trap. We want to paint a picture, improve the city's light-rail system or craft puppets. Whatever the creative task, we almost always begin with a purpose-driven ideal. A statement in our heads of, "This is what I want to achieve."

Which is fine. Except that it's not. Because, when you are finished with almost any major creative undertaking and look backwards -- down the ladder -- what you will find is that you have accomplished many different, diverging and (hopefully) wonderful things. And so, if you only have one of them in mind at the beginning, you automatically cut yourself off from creative possibilities related to those other end states. You may also avoid equally beneficial end states. Which is (duh) sad.

Take Dan's assignment. The "real" purpose is to practice writing (and, in this case, specifically, "end marks," which we used to call "periods"). But Dan's still too young to just fill-in-the-blank without having some fun with it. And that's what amused and delighted me. Of course the light in the sky is all the crap we've put on Mars, and of course it's annoying the aliens. So they come down to complain. Beautiful...

What is the secondary purpose of this assignment that Dan discovered? To be a springboard for a story. Now, the authors of the assignment probably felt that they were giving kids a fairly straightforward prompt. It's a storm, eh? Well... What if they'd been a bit less direct? I mean, Dan is *my* kid, after all. I train him to be a bit more berzleplazzgick than the norm, so while I'm thrilled he found the aliens in his homework, I'm not surprised. With a bit more planning (and a bit less rigidity), though, this assignment could have been a story-seed for a much greater percentage of Dan's classmates.

I run into this all the time at work with projects that have both a product goal (something that needs to get done) and a repeatable process requirement (the way that we do things). Can we improve the process? If you don't assume the answer is, "Yes," you leave money on the table. So the purpose of any given project is to both "do the thing" and to find out how to do it better, eh?

Examples. We need examples. I hate windy blog posts without examples and I write too many of them myself. Here we go:

  • When you write something at work, Purpose(1) is often to make a particular point to a particular audience. Can that audience be multiplied? Can you invite someone else to join you in the writing process? Can you radially change the writing to fit another medium?

  • If you are drawing or painting or otherwise being artistically creative, Purpose(1) is to create the object. The explicit Purpose(2) is often to improve that craft skill. Can you involve prayer or meditation in that activity or time? Can you invite a friend or child to join you, making it a shared, social event? Can you film yourself doing your thing so you can watch it later and learn from that experience? Can you create on a radically new medium that you were planning on throwing out (pizza box, old CD ROMs, rags, coffee filters) in order to experience the simple thrill of new textures?

  • If you are writing creatively (let's say a poem), can you force yourself to include details that require study and new learning?

  • If you are doing a hobby craft (scrap-booking, sewing for fun, jewelry design, etc.), can you think of ways to make multiples of the same thing more quickly in order to monetize your product? Can you invite someone else to learn from you or to learn from? Can you explore literature or movies that include your craft before or during the process? Or other cultures? Can you incorporate hidden ("DaVinci Code?") meanings into your work?

My point is just this... Before beginning any creative venture, write down what it is you are trying to accomplish. Your first purpose. That's important. Because you clearly want to get that done. But don't let that goal be a restrictive box. Let your creativity be bigger than that.

Ask yourself, "When I have walked the road to this goal, what else will I have seen?" And then, before you begin, widen the road.

No comments:

Post a Comment