A path lit by words

Where writing and "real life" converge


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Doodle your way to creativity

A recent LinkedIn post described how teachers are encouraging doodling in the classroom to increase information retention and recall, and to deepen comprehension. It reminded me of a blog I wrote some years ago, after the New York Times ran an article titled Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price. Multiple studies quoted there suggested that juggling email, texts, phone calls, and all the other information that bombards us destroys our ability to concentrate and focus. Electronic multitasking, it said, “inflicts deep cuts on creativity and deep thought.” That is a problem not just for schoolchildren but also for executives and managers, since creativity has long been considered and remains a critical leadership competency.

Back then, I asked how we might reverse—or better yet, avoid—the damage and, in its place, foster creativity. One answer I found was surprising. Before we could text on our phones or check email (or our brackets during March Madness), when we were distracted or bored, we doodled. Doodling is good for us. It helps us remember things because it forces our brains to expend enough energy to stop us from daydreaming but not so much that we don’t pay attention.

Dashe & Thomson, purveyors of change management, training, and communication services, suggest that drawing has three benefits: It makes you a better thinker, as it aids recall while allowing you to see things from different perspectives; a better explainer, using pictures and stories to enhance communication; and a better information processor because drawing requires you to engage multiple senses.

Take that, electronic gadgets! Or not. Because if you look up doodling today, you will discover that the very instruments we demonized in 2010 have been put to use to help us doodle…electronically. There are stand-alone gadgets and many apps that work on your smart phone or tablet.

If doodling has changed, the importance of creativity has not. According to Joel Basgall in 5 Reasons Innovation is Crucial to Staying Ahead of the Competition, creativity is integral to innovation and innovation is what keeps a company competitive. As long ago as 2008, the Conference Board and the Americans for the Arts conducted a survey on workforce readiness called Ready to Innovate.  It asked three major questions:

  • Are U.S. businesses and K–12 school systems making the link between creative skill sets in the workforce and innovation?
  • Are businesses finding the creative talent they need to generate the innovative solutions and products demanded by the marketplace?
  • And what efforts are both of these groups making to train employees in the needed creative skills?

It concluded that educators and executives were not wholly aligned on the creative readiness of the U.S. workforce, based in large part on the limited availability of high school courses that help develop the creative skills employers seek: creative writing, music, dramatic arts, and studio arts. Most school districts offer them as electives, if at all.

Is it any wonder that reports in the intervening years indicate that creativity and innovation have not improved, or that businesses that seek creative talent are hard-pressed to find it? As funding for the arts diminishes ever more rapidly, shouldn’t we be worried that current and future employees will have no organized way to develop the creative skills that will keep our economy robust and our businesses successful?

Encouraging doodling in our schools is a meager solution, but soon it may be all we can afford. Fortunately, it doesn’t cost much to stimulate your brain the old-fashioned way: Pick up a pencil and doodle.

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This morning I scrubbed my driveway with an eight-inch brush. I’ve done this before—not the driveway, precisely, but I recognize the signs. Restlessness turns to full-blown nervous energy and the next thing I know, I’m digging a drainage ditch two feet deep and 100 feet long. Once I built a three-foot high, dry-stack stone wall around my patio with leftover flagstones and common sense. It turned out great.

People don’t get it. They think I’m insane. Back in Atlanta, where I washed my own car, a sympathetic neighbor explained that the Auto Spa down the street only charged twenty bucks. Somehow sitting on a plastic chair in a dusty reception area, reading about Brangelina in last year’s People magazine, doesn’t have the same effect as sudsing and rinsing my car until it shines.

I’m reseeding the fallow fields.

I don’t live in a cave. I know about pressure washers, both the mechanical and the human varieties, but it suits me to attack this monstrous, pock-marked driveway and its ground-in debris with a bucket of soap, a stiff brush, a hose, and what my mother would have called “elbow grease.” My approach is pure and it’s quiet—the same qualities that make me forsake the gas-powered leaf-blowers that landscapers use to blast a single leaf from one side of the yard to the other instead of stooping to pick the darn thing up. Call me old-fashioned, but I opt for a rake, a dustpan, and a wheelbarrow. It keeps me healthy, fit, and sane. By the time I’m done, I’ll know what comes next. Maybe not the outcome, but at least the next step.

Call it creative recharging. I’m a novelist seeking publication, and there is nothing more crazy-making than the post-novel process, as if it wasn’t hard enough just writing a book. First, there’s  the query letter, then the dreaded synopsis, then the conferences with their pitch sessions and manuscript critiques. Before an “agents and editors” conference last spring, two wonderful writer friends and I spent endless hours preparing the tools that would sell our books. Our weekly sessions, and the prep work before them, were agonizing, but so instructive. Let’s just say we wished we had known more about story goals and character arcs and plot points when we sat down to write our books. Never mind. Our next books will be easier. So that’s what we do while we wait—we work on the next book.

Still in the driveway, I caught myself thinking that a toothbrush would get the dirt out of the tiniest holes. Good grief! Would I really consider scrubbing my driveway with a toothbrush? Thank God I’m a writer and I know when to quit. It’s a skill I just learned with my novel.

My driveway—painted concrete at least thirty years old—isn’t flawless. Neither is my book, but it’s pretty damn good. And until an agent acquires it, I’ll consider it done.