Monthly Archives: May 2013

Does brainstorming work?

Not according to Jonah Lehrer in this two-minute video from the RSA. He says research shows that brainstorming produces less original ideas than so people working by themselves. The group becomes, he says, “less than the sum of our parts.”

Apparently the problem with brainstorming is the part that’s supposed to be its greatest strength – the rule of non-criticism, the idea that (at this stage at least) there are no bad ideas. The lack of criticism is supposed to encourage people to feel free to suggest more original ideas.

But the problem, Lehrer says, is that the process is too superficial. “Our free associations are bound by language and language is full of cliches.” Allowing constructive criticism is actually more effective because it forces us to dig deeper.

Lehrer doesn’t go into this in the video, but perhaps one of the keys to building a strong creative environment is one in which ideas can be suggested and scrutinized without the conversation turning overly dismissive, personal, or nasty. And let’s not forget the value of independent work.

I’ve seen a lot of good ideas come out of informal conversations, but few if any emerge from brainstorming sessions. Maybe part of it is the formality: “All right, everyone, let’s be creative…. GO!” as opposed to the spontaneity of a conversation in which you aren’t necessarily trying to generate ideas.

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) website is


The strange, trippy world of Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan.jpgI came across the Wikipedia page of writer Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) and thought he sounded so interesting that I read some of his work, including his best-known book, Trout Fishing in America.

Do I think he’s a good writer? It’s not a simple answer. At times I felt intrigued by his work; at times I felt like it was a bit of a put-on, like he was being bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. And that’s what this post is about: a highly-original writer whose work doesn’t fit the standard genres or criteria, who has a devoted following among some readers and who is considered little more than an artifact of Sixties counterculture by others. Continue reading

What is a poem? Two short answers

As Nebraska State Poet, William Kloefkorn (1932-2011) gave a lot of talks to students, and he could hold a room spellbound with his deep voice. Warm, funny, and profound without being pretentious, he used to give two definitions of a poem:

“A poem is a string of words that nibbles on the edge of something vast.”

“A poem is an attitude looking for something solid to sit on.”

Landscapes of memory and imagination

The old family home, long ago.

The old family home, long ago, back when the locust tree was a little stick (and the horizon was tilted).

I once edited a story by a man who’d spent many childhood summers at his grandparents’ house in a small Nebraska town. It was a distinctive old house with a cupola. Years later, he wrote, he revisited the town and saw the house, but didn’t knock on the door or even get very close. He feared that too much contact with the present reality of new owners, new furniture, and other evidence of the passage of decades would damage the house that existed in his memory.

I’ve experienced the same thing visiting my old neighborhood. I was driving back to the old family house (where my brother still lives) and took a detour to drive past the house where my aunt and uncle used to live and to take the old way home through the side streets. Continue reading

The genius of Hayao Miyazaki

Castle in the Sky (Movie Poster).jpg

Japanese poster for Laputa: Castle in the Sky

I remember the first time I saw a Hayao Miyazaki film. A cable network was showing several of the Japanese animator’s films one weekend. My wife and I stumbled upon Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986). We hadn’t intended to watch it. It was a beautifully-drawn story of a search for a legendary flying city in a world of Jules Verne-era airships and other exotic flying machines. The dialog was in Japanese with English subtitles, and we had no idea whether we were watching a new movie or an old one. It was unlike any animated film we had ever seen. We were unable to look away.

If you aren’t a Miyazaki fan already, let this be your introduction to this amazingly creative storyteller and animator. Continue reading

If we learn to look

spider web in woods

“How often, if we learn to look, is a spider’s wheel a universe, or a swarm of summer midges a galaxy, or a canyon a backward glance into time. Beneath our feet is the scratched pebble that denotes an ice age, or above us the summer cloud that changes form in one afternoon as a animal might do in ten million windy years.”

— Loren Eiseley, “The Angry Winter,” The Unexpected Universe (1969)

Pictorial Webster’s and the art of making a beautiful book

You never know where an obsession may be lurking. John Carerra found his under his grandfather’s reading chair. It was a tattered Webster’s International Dictionary (1898 edition), and “in the back were ganged together and printed all of the wonderful images printed in the book, a little universe of nineteenth century America. Little did I know I was about to devote the next ten years of my life to organizing and printing four thousand of these little blocks.”

My 1913 edition of Webster's

Like Carerra’s grandfather’s 1898 Webster’s, my 1913 edition includes a section in the back that presents all the illustrations grouped by categories. (Detail below.)

Continue reading