Michael Ralph: For our first segment, we read the power of creative constraints in tiny writing.
Laurence Woodruff: This was written by Laura Gibbs and Heather Kretschmer.
MR: And we are so pleased to have both authors joining us for this segment. First, Dr. Laura Gibbs taught at the University of Oklahoma for about 25 years, primarily online. She taught writing often fanfiction on folklore and mythology created by students. Welcome Dr. Gibbs.
Laura Gibbs: Thank you.
MR: And we also have Heather Kretschmer, who moved to Germany from the United States and has taught Business English in a variety of contexts. She now works at the University of Gottingen with courses geared toward Business Administration and economics majors. Welcome, Heather.
Heather Kretschmer: Thank you. Glad to be here.
MR: So I saw on social media where I think both of you were promoting this article, and it resonated with me immediately, because I also really like interesting constraints as a means to driving creativity. That is something that has resonated with me for a long time. And so I was like, Oh, they get it. I want to learn more about how they’re doing it, because I love that kind of thing.
LG: Well, the first article that we wrote, it’s a two parter. The first article was really focused on words and sentences. So constraints of length, how many words are there in a story, so 100 words, or 50 words, or 25 words, or even just six words. And these are forms of what are called flash fiction. This is extreme flash fiction, flash fiction is usually 1000 words or less.
HK: And in our second piece, we’re going to be focusing or we focus on, for example, Blackout poetry, where you have a text, and you hand out black markers to the students, and then they choose the words that they want to keep, and they blackout, the rest. And so you can come up with a lot of creative things that way, or, for example, magnetic magnetic poetry. This was originally with these magnetic sets that you could put on your fridge to create poems. But you can also, teachers can create their own sets. Or you can even have students create their own sets of magnetic poetry.
LG: Well, Heather and I met, I think, for the first time through something called the Mid Year festival, my fest. One of the activities that was happening all throughout the summer was something called… Did we call it the daily-create, Heather? Did Allen have a different name for it? A daily-create where there was a creativity prompt for people to engage with and play with, often involving different kinds of media. I was familiar with daily-create from Twitter and the work of Alan Levine for many years. But I think Heather, that was the first time you’d encountered daily-create, is that right?
HK: That’s right. Yes. And I was at first I was like, What is this? Some kind of strange prompt where you spend about 15 minutes? Yeah, finding a solution to. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer, sometimes a little bit, It’s a little bit shorter. But at first I was like, Ha, this is kind of strange. So I gave it a try. I was like, Well, why not? You know, there’s no grade here. There’s no promotion or anything. It’s just for fun. So I gave it a shot and I found that I really liked it. That kind of helped me to release some creativity, I guess.
LG: They’re really fun. And they involve all kinds of constraints. Heather and I, in the article that we wrote, we’re focused on writing and supporting student writing. But the kinds of creativity that the daily-creates explore involves all kinds of communication and expression, not not just writing. So if people are interested in that, the hashtag is D. S. 106, it is from digital storytelling, of course, it was taught, I don’t know, maybe for the first time back around 2005, I can’t remember. I’m at the University of Mary Washington. And this is a creativity spin off from that class that just won’t stop. It keeps going and going, and they have a creativity bank that’s full of Gosh, it must be 1000s of different kinds of prompts by now, Heather, is that right?
HK: Yeah, I think they have over 4000, they just reached 4000 Mark, it’s a really actually, I think it’s a really nice resource for teachers.
LW: I, I liked, I liked this. I think that oftentimes when a student says I’m not blank, whether it’s creative, or I’m not a mathematics student, or I’m not whatever, what is really happening is that they are, and they’re afraid of judgment. And what happens in these, the way you framed these creative tasks, these creative prompts, is that instead of asking them to create a poem that will then be judged by your peers and assessed for its literary value, you have instead given them a puzzle to solve, and that makes the creative process a game. And that was, that was my notes. Your, your paper was an easy read, it was well written, it was smooth, it was short, It was an easy, easy to access article, I enjoyed reading it. And the note was when you give the constraints, instead of making this an assignment where they have to like, it doesn’t, it feels like a puzzle that they’re solving instead of a, a big task, a daunting piece of art that they have to create. It’s a puzzle that they solve. And when it’s a smaller task, it’s a smaller puzzle that they have to solve. So it’s less intimidating. It’s less about judging the quality of the literature, and more about, well, how do I solve this puzzle.
LG: One of the prompts that I worked with the most was maximum word length, with stories that are, say 100 Words long, or even shorter, all the way down to six word stories. And that’s really how I got started doing this kind of constrained writing. I’d been doing creative writing for all those years when I was teaching, but I really didn’t discover the power of constraint writing and I should tell the story of how it happened. My father, who was already quite elderly, got diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and, and had radiation therapy, just palliative. And then he went on hospice, and he had brain fog really from the radiation and, and from just from being so ill. And he had always loved to read. But he couldn’t really read the way he used to, you know, he would look at a page and read it. But the way he described it was that when he turned the page, he just lost everything, you know, so the kinds of books that he liked to read were mostly nonfiction history books, but also science fiction. He couldn’t read them anymore. What I discovered though, was this genre of 100 word stories. And there are books of them out there. 100 word, science fiction stories, horror stories, which he liked. And so I was getting him all the 100 word story books that I could find. And he really liked those because he could sit there and read the story. And he would talk about it with the caregiver, whoever was with him or a friend who was visiting. And then when you turn the page, it was fine that he had forgotten everything that was on the page before because that story was done. And so I ran out of 100 word storybooks for him. So I started writing 100 word story books for him. And I realized that I loved writing 100 word stories, it was just thrilling for me exactly because of what you were saying Laurence. It was a kind of puzzle to solve. And it was motivating in that sense in a way that I had never found my own writing to be motivating for me before. I’m a good reader. I’m a good editor, but I hadn’t been a very prolific writer because I really didn’t have my rhythm. My sort of, you know how to get started in and keep going but those 100 word stories and writing them in books for my dad really did that for me. So I managed to finish three books of 100 word stories for him before he died. And one of my favorite pictures that I had of him was maybe about a week before he died, is him sitting in his recliner reading that last book of 100 word stories I’d written for him. I wish I discovered this many years earlier, it came quite late in my teaching career. And that’s why I’ve been motivated to go out and tell everybody about this is like, don’t wait until the last few years of your teaching, start now start exploring these short forms and see what you can do with them.
MR: One of the one of my big notes coming out of this that again, it resonates with things I already think are important. But your article makes the makes the point of midway through about the importance of the revision process, and the difference and what it looks like for students, especially for early for early career writers to be able to productively engage in that revision process between different formats. And so so often especially, you use the example of like an eight page paper where the focus is, well, I’ve got to generate eight pages of content and the quality of that content is really secondary, I’ve just got to get everything in there. So I can possibly hit that maximum, versus when you have these sort of constraining structures, where generation is such a trivial task, like getting 100 words, the great many students are going to be able to hit that mark pretty quickly. And before they get all the really good content in there, which is an experience that like a professional writer who’s creating a novel, where they have these really big intricate ideas, and they’ve got to find a way to fit them all in, that’s the same thing that the students are going to experience in that much more limited format. And so then they can practice a skill that I think, I Michael Ralph think, is grossly unpracticed, across all educational systems, which is the revision process. And it’s that’s what the actual puzzle solving looks like. And your article does a really good job, I think of referencing some of the underlying brain anatomy and brain physiology that explains why that revision process is so productive. And what we miss out on if all we ever focus on is generation. And there’s some great brain anatomy in there, Laurence and I, we used to like we used to geek out on that all the time. So I love it. But you mentioned the activation of multiple systems in our brain, and I’m gonna read them, the coactivation of the central executive network, the default mode network and the salience network. And being able to link that back to some of the neurophysiological research that shows that coactivating all those things together, give us an opportunity to make connections in a way that just does not happen if all were focused on his generation, where you’re just dumping the existing state of your schema and whatever it looks like just put it on the page. But when you’re engaged in that revision, you’re activating more things in your brain at once.
LW: I also liked that brain anatomy neuroscience thing. And when I was reading it, I didn’t know about the salience network, like I knew I kind of knew about the executive function stuff, and I knew about something a background processing stuff, but that network that sort of re routes you back to executive it made me think of the apocryphal Archimedes Eureka story, where he’s trying to work on this, this puzzle, how do I solve whether or not this gold is real or not, and he’s doing all of this stuff, and he doesn’t know. And then he goes on, he relaxes and takes a bath. And so it shifts from his executive center to his, you know, default mode center, and he’s just bathing. But then he has that default mode center finds an idea, because it’s, he’s taken a bath, and then the salient said, Oh, my gosh, ship that directly back to the executive center, we got to do this. And then he runs down the street naked, excited that he solved the problem. And so I liked this salience network idea, because that’s the aha moment that us teachers are looking for in the classroom, when the kids eyes get bright, we know we’ve activated that we know that they have activated that, and that we’ve got an environment where they can do that. And that feels really great. And to have a sort of a psychological construct to name that function was very satisfying to me. So thank you for introducing me to that concept.
MR: Heather, Do you give any of that? Do you discuss any of that with your students? As you’re talking about the writing process and providing them support? How prominently does some of this neuroscience feature in the way that you message the structures?
HK: That’s a really good question. I haven’t thought about actually telling students about this as they’re doing as they’re writing during the writing process. But I think that’s a really nice idea. I did do something this semester about exam anxiety and working around those kinds of performance anxieties that I did with the students. But I think that’s a really good idea. Thank you.
MR: Often especially when we were still sharing a department, we talked a fair amount about things like schemas, structures and Retrieval Practices are a big is a big deal to both of us. And it made me think of these constraints reminded me of the way that chunking works, and made me wonder about how interrupting chunking is a means of promoting creativity was what I thought I read in some of the way you were describing how this constraint writing can boost creativity. If I’m used to recalling an idea. And it comes out in this big chunk because I have expertise. And so like, I think of this one idea and ideas 234567 all come out in like an existing network of connections and relationships. And if I don’t have any constraints, every time I think about that schema, it’s gonna come back out the exact same way. Like I remember it the way I learned it, and it’s well rehearsed to activate every time. So the constraint is an opportunity of you literally cannot pull that schema out the way that you have it in there in the first place. If you want to have room to solve the problem, the way it’s presented, you must choose only a subset of that schema structure was kind of felt like I’m trying to make a puzzle out of three other puzzles that already have existing pictures, how can I make a new picture, and like, if I pull a piece from that puzzle, I can’t pull a piece over there. And so I’m forced to find new connections, simply because you’re interrupting the opportunity to do retrieval in the big chunks, which is interesting, because in my classroom, I very often thought about promoting big chunks for retrieval. But for the sake of creativity, I’d never thought about the idea of wanting to interrupt some of that chunking, Thats’s a very satisfying insight. So that was great.
LG: I mean, that’s a big part of what poetry does, right is poetry interrupts the sort of normal flow of sentences of ideas. You know, students are often very intimidated by poetry, because I think it’s all about meter and rhyme and sort of those kinds of formal constraints. But poetry is about more than that. It’s about a kind of, defamiliarlization, a kind of intensification. And one of the things that we talk about in the follow up article is about how these short forms of writing just inherently start to feel like poetry, to students, and to carry that weight of poetry. And to make them pay attention to the short writing the way that they pay attention to poetry in a different way than prose, you know, prose, the ideas, you just sort of read through it to get to the end, whereas poetry is something that you experience, word by word, moment by moment as it unfold, and helping students to get in touch with that kind of language, again, is I think really important in school, because so much about school is not just even normal prose reading about getting to the end of something, but about skimming, you know, and, and, and just not paying attention, like getting it done, but not paying attention. And one of the things I like best about short forms of writing is that you can really pay attention to it, that’s what was happening with my father, right was that his ability to focus and pay attention had changed and become really constrained. And so he needed a different form of writing. And with students, their their ability to focus, it’s not constrained in the same way that my dad’s was, but it’s constrained in different ways they’ve got too many things to do, they’ve got too much going on, they’ve got all kinds of habits of skimming and rushing and not paying attention. So one of the things I love best was that when students went to revise the short form of the writing, they were, they were really paying attention to it, they could hold the whole thing in their mind, you cannot, unless you’re a pretty sophisticated writer, hold an entire eight page paper in your mind at once. You don’t get that holistic experience. But that holistic experience that we’re used to with poetry, because poems are short, is something that we can have with short forms of prose, too. And I would argue it can work in a science classroom as well. You know, being able to write a really good paragraph in response to an article, I think, is more valuable than a five paragraph essay, that one really good paragraph means you focus harder, you pay more attention, and then you have something that you can share with more people in the classroom to who are going to be able to pay attention to it as they read it.
LW: A lot of these like actual historic scientific breakthroughs that scientists actually make come from when their concept that as they understand it, isn’t actually descriptive of the world that we live in, but much of it is so when you what, what parts of this are usable, what parts of this are valuable, what parts of this are accessible. Well, I need to interrupt my understanding, and just pull up this parts and try to fill in what’s around this. And so I think this, this, this piecemeal pooling of things to try to find the valuable chunks is really valuable, not just in creativity. And on a personal note, I’ve definitely been inspired by this paper. One of the courses that I teach is a course that prepares students to go to college who have declared that they will be the first people in their family to earn a degree. And and I teach a lot of academic study skills, a school culture, navigation and stuff. And we do a lot of writing, we write personal reflections every Friday, about things that we’ve learned and then try to contextualize in our life. Anyway, so I have them write every Friday. And what I’m thinking about it, what’s great about this short form is that you can do it, you can get it done, and then you can revisit it. But also, I’m thinking about them creating characters, and then talking, using their characters to illustrate challenges that people have in school or challenges that people have in college, or challenges. And then like, you know, in a one 100 paragraph essay, now that you’ve introduced me to this, this character, one week, next week, I want you to write a story about how this character faced this challenge in an academic setting, and how that got them or how they overcame it. And so you can revisit the small things and create over time, something larger, that initially would have been too intimidating for them. But then when they look back and say, we’ve been doing this for 12 weeks, and I’ve got this whole paper about this creative person over, like challenging these, because it’s small, it doesn’t seem as intimidating. So providing those constraints makes it accessible, makes the writing accessible, so I’m going to start doing that. That’s gotta happen. Now that is done. Like, I know this, like next Friday, they’re going to start this process. So I’m super pumped, this is absolutely influential.
LK: Well, actually, I was going to touch back on the revision process, and also talking about what I do with my business, English students, for example, they have to write a report, and the report is 750 words long, which is a little bit longer, obviously, than what Laura had her students do with her 100 word stories. But it still is pretty constrained. I mean, especially if students are used to writing what, who knows eight, page 10? PAGE 20, page papers? 750 words is quite, it’s not a lot at all. And sometimes students are like, Oh, I know so much. And I want to put so much in and you know, can I you know, write 1000 words, can I write you know, 2000 words, and, and I’m just like, No, decide what you think is most important. You don’t have to write about everything, it’s okay, that you’ve learned so much more than you can put into 750 words, right, decide on your own what’s important. And, you know, and stick with that. And, you know, I have them do peer review in class, you know, before it’s due, and which I’m sure many teachers do, right, I think that this is a very common thing that teachers have their students do, but that helps them to get some feedback from their peers. And I also asked them, I say, very specifically, please don’t be looking for grammar or word choice or punctuation. Please read as a reader, right, be, you know, read for the content, maybe for the organization, if there’s something that’s unclear, something that you don’t understand or question that you have, you know, those are the kinds of things to give feedback on. But don’t be saying, Oh, I see that you forgot your S here, you know, third person s. Right. You know, don’t be looking for those kinds of mistakes. That’s not the point of this.
MR: Heather, knowing that you teach in a technical and a business context. And so thinking about I’ve worked in industry, for the last several years now that’s I’m a full time researcher, and I work in I don’t work in academia anymore, I work at a company, I can imagine, somebody might argue that a technical writing class, they don’t need to be creative, who cares about like, who cares about all this junk, they just need to be able to write whatever they’re going to write. And like that would be false. I can hear in your description of the constraints, the same kinds of conversations that I have, where I have a lot of communication responsibilities in my role, and talking to other folks who are looking to improve their ability to give a client meeting to give an interview pitch to give whatever it might be. And those sorts of constraints. There’s a there’s a quip that I’ve used several times with colleagues where, if they want me to give a presentation for an hour, I don’t need any, like lead time, like whatever like, Sure, let me know, if they want me to give a precision for half a day, let me know I need to prep for that. If they want me to give a presentation for 10 minutes, I need a lot of lead time, because that is much harder to prep and do a good job with than if I have an hour and I can say whatever comes to mind. And that’s something that has really been useful in a lot of those conversations to understand that the difficulty and the importance does not scale linearly with the time of the engagement. If I’m going to step in and have a high pressure, high importance, I need clarity, I need resonance, I need to impact and I have three minutes to do it. I am going to practice the absolute loving snot out of that three minutes, because every word matters and I don’t have words to waste. And that’s not true. That’s not unique to me, everybody in that context. That’s true. And our business lives and dies by that like if we’re if we’re not able to communicate in that setting. We won’t get the work and we won’t get to keep doing what we do. And so I think I love hearing your description of this approach with your students knowing it’s a business context and a technical context. Because somebody who works in the places where they may eventually work, that is absolutely a skill that is worth its weight in gold. Like we need more new hires who have those kinds of competencies, because those are the places where we’ve got to be able to do it well, and it’s often under-practiced. So. So cheers, kudos to you. That’s amazing. I want to hire all your students.
LK: Okay, I will tell them. Yeah.
LG: The revision of learning how to shorten writing is really fun, too, because it’s very teachable. You know, you can actually tell students about how to find words that aren’t doing any work. And yes, it’s okay to use contractions. I really had fun coming up with things like, how to revise down how to expand, it’s just fluff. And now we can use AI writing generators to expand anything infinitely, right? So the idea of long writing as being a measure of anything is now just gone. But short writing, just like you were saying, that’s going to be a skill of value that students need going forward.
MR: We really appreciate you both joining us to talk about creativity and the role of constraints and promoting creativity. If any of our listeners want to consume more of the things that you write and the things that you’re thinking about, where can they find you?
LG: I’m always writing tiny tales. And I work on other short forms of writing, like proverbs and riddles, and it’s all on my website, Lauragibbs.net, there’s always something going on there. And I’ll close with a very old Latin proverb, that’s, that’s my keystone habit, I guess, which is “nulla dies sine linea,”
No day without a line of writing.
HK: And I can highly recommend the Mind Brain Ed think-tank. I’m one of the editors for those. And I often write articles there as well. Yeah. And the second thing I would promote would be the daily-create, if you want to do a little daily challenge. And you can always upload those to Twitter if you want. Or if you’re not on Twitter, you can just do it for yourself, that’s also fine. And my keystone habit would be “coach kindly.”