Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Divergent Thinking and Writing Books

What is divergent thinking?

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divergent_thinking) says: "Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions." For example, if I asked you how to bake a cake, you can probably recognise there are thousands of cake recipes. However your instructions will probably include spoons, bowls and an oven. What if we use clay? What if we use lava to cook? What if we make an 'oven' using a super hot car in the sun in summer?

Sir Ken Robinson did an excellent talk on the subject which can be found here, on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzBa-frc2JA) which I highly recommend. The most important part, in relation to this blog post, is the section about the test they did on schoolchildren, examining their divergent thinking abilities. It found that children are best at divergent thinking in kindergarten and progressively lose the ability as they age. Ken hypothesises it is conditioned out of us by the school system and I agree.

You will always be punished for divergent thinking by peers.

For a short period, when I was 12, I went to a very fancy private school. I did not thrive there.

For mother's day, we were instructed to paint pots. An art teacher came in and gave us very direct lessons on how to paint the pots. The body of the pot was to be white, the rim coloured, then we were to paint a specific flower pattern on the white part. All of the pots would be virtually identical. Pretty, but mass produced.

I had a much more interesting idea for my pot. A sort of Inca mosaic. However when I tried to bring it to life, I realised we had not been given the right colours to realise my goals. We only had the white, the purple and small dabs of the 'flower' colours.

My pot did not turn out well. However out of the 28 pots painted that day, it was the only original. All the pots were on display at the front of the class and after a week of listening to my classmates ruthlessly mock both me and the pot, I quietly asked for paint in a lunch break and painted it white. With a purple rim. There was no time to add the flowers before I gave it to my mother.

I was glad about ten years later when she threw it away.

And so I learned, as we all do, that divergent thinking is a punishable offence when dealing with peers.

However I refused to stop. Every activity we were given, I found an alternative way to do it. Steadfast, through all the bullying. To this day I regret caving in. I regret painting over my ugly pot.

However you will be applauded when it works.

Around the same time, I went to an art workshop run by a very famous aboriginal painter. There was about 100 students there. This man's art sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and, as an example, he painted a killer whale on cardboard, right in front of us.

We were then all given paints and told to paint something. The artist would then judge our entries and the winner would get to take home the painting he had just created.

I watched everyone around me try and copy his whale. Poorly. I knew I couldn't copy his whale and I didn't want to. I think I painted a crocodile, in the style of the cave paintings I grew up around at Laura and Aurukun.

I could hear the kids around me mocking me as I painted. "Look at what she's doing! It's not even a whale!" You'd have thought I was eating the goddamn paint. I didn't care. I never wanted to copy, only to create.

I won.

And that was when I learned a second valuable lesson. The people at the top don't want clones. Divergent thinking will be rewarded when it works.

Divergent thinking rarely works.

You might be thinking: 'I bet your pot was better than the other pots and kids were just jealous'. No one was jealous of that pot. It was the ugliest pot ever painted. Mostly because I didn't have the resources I needed. Had I been more experienced, I could have worked with what was there. But I wasn't, and I didn't, and it was a hideous pot.

When I tried to make up my own swimming stroke at the school swimming carnival and my team lost, it was great divergent thinking, but a terrible time and place to test my theories. I was bullied for that too. So much, I remember the teacher having to pull another student off me who was trying to rip out my hair.

This all applies in a general sense to writing too. New genres, odd stories, things that 'break the mold', most of them suck. Then, sometimes they don't. Harry Potter springs to mind, and Blair Witch Project. Along with any other book or movie that 'spawned its own genre.'

Divergent thinking and you.

When you were five, you were really good at divergent thinking. I'm still pretty good at divergent thinking, but I don't expect you to be. I was spared the conditioning largely due to staying out of traditional schooling models as a child and partly because I lack a certain capacity for empathy that means I am largely unaffected by others. It has pros and cons.

You probably don't want to be good at divergent thinking for the same reasons I am. However it is important you realise once you were good at it, and that you are now bad at it because you were punished for it. Brutally. For years and years.

Now, when you feel a divergent idea coming on, you probably suppress it. Quickly. You quickly tell yourself it's too different, too odd, unmarketable. Whatever. You're really just trying to spare yourself the pain of what you have experienced in the past. Don't touch fire, fire is hot. Don't be too original, originality will be punished.

The problem is, if you see 'failure' as punishment, you're probably going to keep being punished. Because while divergent thinking leads to a lot of ideas, odd, original and new ideas, that doesn't mean they're good. In fact, they're probably not. But that is okay.

The key to winning with divergent thinking isn't to hope it's going to be successful, it's to say: 'Okay, this is likely to flop, but what if we tried it this way?' and be okay with the outcome, whatever it is.

For me, divergent thinking is about creation, curiosity and enjoyment. I enjoy the act of finding out if something works. The outcome is less important. Which is probably why I love writing, but am a bit blasé about actually selling books. They tend to go to whichever editor asks me for something.

And you know what those editors say when they read whatever handed them? 'Different' and 'not what I was expecting'. Which most of us are conditioned to think of as insults. They also say 'exciting' and 'loved it' and 'original'.

Which is nice. I love positive feedback. However I'm usually off painting another ugly pot by then.

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