Monthly Archives: January 2012

I Can’t Get No Satisficing


What would you do if I gave you a handful of dry lentils?


Ping them at me from across the room? Hm. Well. Not very nice, but relatively creative, I have to admit.


Here’s what most of my creative writing students tend to do: use them to spell words and use them to make pictures.


Of the more surprising uses of lentils: Motoya put them in a cool plastic pencil box and used them as a music-maker. Ji Hyun stuck them to a brick wall using hand sanitizer as a very temporary adhesive. Jesse brushed one lentil off a desk. Then he brushed a whole pile off and said, “Lemmings.”


No one’s made soup—there isn’t time when we use them in class. I give each student a handful and say, “Do something with these and then we’ll come around and you can show us what you’ve done.”


There are a ton of divergent thinking tests available online, and some of them may seem familiar—they’re often used to illustrate problem solving. The one you’re most likely to have seen before involves connecting nine dots (in three rows of three) using four straight lines. This web page shows how to do it, using ladybugs! This page from University of Indiana professor Curtis Bonk has a great summary of different types of tests as well as some background and larger issues to consider.


My interest in divergent thinking can be traced to a workshop with the California writer Al Young, who was a guest writer at the University of Montana when I was there. At some point, expressing disgust with the efforts of those of us in the workshop, he said something to the effect of, “Typical creative writing grad students. All about writing and not about creative.”


The prevailing attitude at the time (and this was twenty years ago, mind you) was that issues related to craft could be taught, but we were on our own for creativity and if we didn’t have it, there wasn’t anything anyone could do to teach it.


I don’t think that’s true. I think we can learn to be more creative, and I think we can teach our students to be more creative.


This is important particularly where I teach—the University of Wisconsin Richland, a very small two-year campus in the very large University of Wisconsin System. I don’t get many English majors, let alone creative writing majors. In a class of 20, I might have five who plan to take more creative writing classes, who want to be published writers. Twenty years of teaching creative writing at this campus to these students have convinced me that teaching students to be more creative is as ever bit as valuable as teaching them to craft better stories, poems, essays, and plays.


And ultimately, if the writers learn to be more creative, they might actually stand a chance of writing something huge—something that is polished as far as craft goes, but does something new, something no one has seen before.


I’ve been asking my students to work on creativity exercises for several years now. The lentil fun is aimed at lowering what are called our “associative borders.” In a book called The Medici Effect: What Elephants & Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation, Frans Johansson talks about how creative thinkers are more flexible about their associations—that someone with rigid associative borders is more likely to see a problem in a fixed way, and a small range of possible solutions. Someone with lower associative borders tends to see problems and solutions from many different angles.


If you look back at an earlier post of mine (“Creativity: A Pumpkin Saga”), for example, my associative borders were lower when it came to pumpkin—I was willing to see more than jack-o’-lantern or pie (o.k., so pumpkin lasagna didn’t turn out to be a genius idea, but Johansson quotes Linus Pauling who said “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas”).


This past week, I started a new semester of creative writing with a group of mostly new students (two have taken other creative writing classes with me). We started on the first day with a classic divergent thinking test. I told them to list everything they could think of that was blue.  I gave them about four minutes.


When they were done, I talked about how a creativity researcher would score their results. First, there’s the matter of fluency—how long is your list? How many blue things did you come up with? About a third of the class had more than fifteen, but one student had more than 20.  The next thing to consider is flexibility—how many different categories of things did you think of that are blue? If you had 15 things that are just items around the house, that’s not as creative as five household items, five plants, and five puns (blew, bleu, blue as in sad, blue as in balls, blue as in music). Then there’s elaboration—did you go into detail on any of them?  And finally originality—did you come up with one that no one else came up with?

Several students came up with original offerings—blue things I’ve never heard mentioned (and I’ve done this particular test pretty regularly, although I alternate it with red, since red can also be read). Jeff mentioned Kelvin 10,000 headlights. (I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to a whole semester of automotive imagery—I anticipate much jealousy from the I’d-Be-a-Working-Stiff-if-I-Didn’t-Write-Fiction guys. Seriously.) Rain said “crab blood” and then elaborated, “Well, actually, only horseshoe crab blood.” Both of those examples seem to me to rely a great deal on those students’ personal expertise, which is a really important goal during creative writing.  It’s one of the two truisms of creative writing, right?  Write what you know.  (The other being “show—don’t tell.”) The third original offering seems to me to be a great example of a student with terrific observational skills. Joe said, “blue lines on a sheet of paper.” (Note the elaboration, as well.) Think of all the students who’ve done this exercise, all the times I’ve played along, and none of us noticed what was RIGHT THERE in front of us, not until Joe came along.


My hypothesis is that if students work on creative writing exercises at various points during the semester and then evaluate their writing based on the categories of fluency, originality, flexibility, and elaboration, they will become more creative in general, and more creative as writers.


I’ll be gathering data this semester (and many, many other semesters) to test that hypothesis, but one leading creativity researcher, Mark Runco, suggests that I’m on the right track. He describes something called “displaced practice” as being “quite effective.” This is when people “work on creative thinking exercises, but then turn to something else, and later again return to creative thinking exercises…. Eventually after gradual fading, the individuals will learn to think divergently and originally on their own, even with entirely ill-defined tasks and without explicit instructions.”


If I think back to the assignments I was given when I was a creative writing student, I think “entirely ill-defined tasks” without “explicit instructions” are pretty accurate descriptors. Maybe after they finish with my classes my students will do well with those kinds of assignments. But it’s obviously important outside academia because that’s what we face in our lives all the time—goals and problems and issues and situations where we know we need to do something, but we don’t know what to do or where to start, and there’s no one giving us a detailed assignment sheet or rubric.


One final quote from Mark Runco gives us a concrete place to start. When we’re staring at problems, we may try to solve them too quickly. Why? Runco says that “Some people may be more comfortable with closure….They are uncomfortable with the uncertainty that is a part of not having a solution ready at hand. This may lead them to satisficing, which is the tendency to take the first adequate solution that comes to mind (rather than postponing judgments and considering a wider range of options).” I hold out great hope that, if nothing else, teaching students about the basic categories of scoring a divergent thinking test will help them develop the habit of finding that wider range—of not settling for satisficing.



The Hill Where I Lose You–a poem for Jonathan & Kitty

A standard-issue Wisconsin limestone bluff—
Dramatic, beautiful, and mostly in the way.
In the winter it grows these glaciers, and they’re tough—
They don’t completely melt until May
Most years. It’s where I lose your signal, just when
I need it most, commuting to Richland Center
For work. Oh sure, I could log on once I’m there,
But there’s this chasm where I lose what I intend,
For I am often addle-pated, all aflutter in the face
Of the ordinary stresses of an ordinary day….
I don’t know what I’m thinking you can do.
Would one a them HD radios do any good?
Do you have one lying around you could send?
Just know I’m driving west and missing you.




I truly love the radio station 1055 Triple M out of Madison. I’ve listened to Jonathan & Kitty for a lotta lotta years. I wish I could listen all the way to work. But I can’t. I have all the sad for this.

Getting Off On Not Putting Off (Procrastination, Part 2)

There really is something graceful and flirty and coy about procrastination—a way of dancing with time, coming in close, and backing away. The inner weasel frolicking in the deadline woods.


And there is also something desperate and shame-inducing and crazy-making about procrastination.


The image I have of myself a lot of times is not the clichéd “flying by the seat of my pants” (because I don’t actually know how to picture that, other than some kind of Tin Tin caper in which a giant hook grabs my belt loop and I fly through the air, papers trailing after me). Instead, I picture myself trying to cross a rising stream on slippery rocks that are spaced just far enough apart I have to leap a little each time. Sometimes the rocks turn out to be giant turtles that are rising and submerging randomly. And then sometimes it’s snowing. There is peril involved and palpable relief when I meet a deadline.


It’s an exhausting way to live, panicking and somehow succeeding and sucking up the adrenaline rush and then crashing. I think part of my chronic tendency toward burnout comes from depleting my adrenaline stores. The book Tired of Being Tired claims that adrenal burnout is what results, and that our bodies replace adrenaline with cortisol (which does all kinds of toxic things) after a while. I don’t know enough to evaluate the science in that book, but at least on a metaphorical level, it made a lot of sense to me.


But I had a lot of years of not being comfortable with how much I procrastinated before I started seeing any real changes. I can’t really account for why all the efforts finally kicked in Fall 2010 semester, and I can’t really account for why I’ve been able to maintain. All I know is what I’ve done, and what I’m going to keep doing.


More than 15 years ago, I read Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now by Jane Burka and Lenora Yen. This book helped a lot, even though it didn’t help me grade papers faster when I first read it. It did help me start to recognize that something’s going on if I’m procrastinating really badly or consistently, so I’ve been able to analyze the causes over the years and say no to some things.


In terms of student papers, the progress began (slowly) in Fall 2007 when I was in therapy and trying to figure out how to stop feeling overwhelmed all the time. Being behind at work was a big part of why I felt overwhelmed, and being behind in grading was a big part of that. So I started brainstorming all the reasons I don’t like grading student papers, and tried to figure out if I could change any of those things (writing better assignments helps some).


Then I started keeping track on an Excel spreadsheet of all the assignments I was grading—when they came in and when I returned them. I’d always told students I thought it was important to return things “within a couple of weeks,” but I doubt if my average was ever “within.”  It was typically on the other side of that, the fat side. Fall 07, my mean was 16. Sheesh.  Just to be glaringly, mathematically obvious, if that was the AVERAGE, then there were times I took longer than two and a half weeks. Sheesh. The standard deviation was 7.94, so not only was it taking me a long time, I was wildly inconsistent.  2008 was better, with averages around 10 and 11 days, and then I didn’t keep very good records for a few semesters.


More information helps account for the change that was coming—I took a survey in April of 2008 and asked my UW Colleges English Department colleagues about how long it took them to return student work. It bothered me to see myself at the slowest end of the scale. I had assumed (based on no evidence whatsoever) I was sort of the slowest of the middle of the pack. I could maybe have waved to the middle of the pack from where I was, but I was bringing up the rear. In a Scooby Doo episode, I’d have been the first one picked off.


And then, Fall 2010, everything came together. My mean, my straight average, for how long it took me to return student work, was 5.28 days and the standard deviation was way down, 3.59. Spring 2011 was good, but not as great—my mean was 7.25 (an increase for which I totally blame Scott Walker). I had a good summer semester, and then this past fall I was below 7 again: the mean was 6.0872, the median was 6, the most often occurring number was 7, and the standard deviation was 3.2186.


What accounts for what I was suddenly capable of Fall 2010 and after? Here’s the best list I can come up with.


Life Changes:

×        I turned 45 and just felt tired of having the same problems. I wanted to at least have different problems.

×        I’ve been diagnosed as an adult with A.D.D. I’m ambivalent about the diagnosis, except that it has helped me understand a little better what comes to me naturally and what strategies I need to adopt to compensate. A.D.D. is supposed to fade with age, and it feels to me as though I am generally less distractible. (This is something akin to saying that the ocean is a little dryer some days, however.)

×        I also started swimming two times a week. I had more energy for EVERYTHING.



×        My son was a little older, needing me in different ways. My husband and I started taking turns reading to him at bedtime, whereas for his first five years, I was almost always the one getting him to sleep. That gave me an extra hour at night, or an earlier bedtime so I could get up earlier to grade.

×        My teaching schedule changed. I began teaching a late class, 3:30 to 4:45. This made it easier to have a grading block on campus.


Behavior Mod:

×        I set up good rewards for myself and actually had the discipline to WAIT for them (can’t explain why I had the discipline last fall—I haven’t had it before).


The Glorious Glory of an Excel Spreadsheet:

Keeping track of assignments on an Excel spreadsheet was a lucky stroke of accidental genius on my part. Record keeping is crucial—instead of some vague sense of how well I’m doing, I have really precise numbers. Somehow just seeing the assignments that are coming next also helps me get to work on the current numbers—I know I’m not going to get a break, that if I’m procrastinating, I’m just delaying the inevitables.

I also pledged to go public with my numbers. This REALLY helps. I tell students how well (or poorly) I’m doing, and I even post the spreadsheet itself on D2L for them a couple times a semester. Ultimately, of course, I’m trying to return student work faster because students will learn more and feel less how-did-I-do? anxiety over the course of the semester. However.  I somehow really get off on driving those numbers down. And I seem to have a lot of friends, family, and colleagues who understand how hard this is for me and give me lots of positive reinforcement when I post good numbers.


Being organized doesn’t come as naturally to me as some things, but I’m learning, and I’m happy to say that if you’re interested in procrastinating less, it is possible to make progress. I have some thoughts on the spiritual dimensions of procrastination and I plan to write about them. Soonish.  For now, I’ll just finish with this quote from Pema Chodron: “It’s painful when you see how in spite of everything you continue in your neurosis; sometimes it has to wear itself out like an old shoe.” For some reasons I can understand and articulate, and some reasons I can’t understand or articulate, my procrastination is wearing itself out. I look forward to donating it to Goodwill sometime soon.