Friday, February 1, 2013

The Creative Process: One Brick From the Wall

It was the late 1970s and I was working as an art director for a New York City ad agency. We worked in creative teams, one art director and one writer to a team, under Big Sherm, or Sherman the Creative Director. As a reward Big Sherm sent a couple of art directors off to a creative skills building workshop one Friday afternoon. Funny thing, I picked up some ideas that day I still use, and continue to use in genealogy all the time. They're kinda basic, really, but just thought I'd mention what happened to see if any of it is helpful to you:)

It was a big room with those round tables you see at conferences, 8 to a table. I picked a genial looking group of friendly, laughing folks and sat in an empty chair. The speaker wasn't much older than most of us but had command of the room right away. "OK, here's what we're going to do. Each table is going to come up with as many uses for a brick as you can think of. Somebody volunteer to write all the uses down and keep a list. Let's see which table gets the most. That's the objective: the table with the longest list wins. You have 15 minutes for this. Now GO!"

Seriously?! You have to be kidding, this is silly! Nervous laughter, then giggles, but just a few. Would there be a prize, someone wondered. Certainly bragging rights, another offered. Then we got down to business.

The first wave was full of all the obvious and practical uses and functions for a brick. Maybe we had a dozen on our list. Someone pointed out that there was no test of rationality or practicality for this assignment and the goal was to make the longest list. Then we really took off... and got kinda crazy!

After 10 minutes we ran dry. But we looked at the clock and knew it was crunch time so we dug deep to find even more uses for a brick. Some one, I forget who, started analyzing how practical and worthy the uses were because it was getting real nuts. About that time the presenter walked by and interjected that we were not to evaluate but simply make the very longest list possible. We took off again!

At the 15 minute mark we were bone dry, but time was up. Then the presenter told us we had 10 more minutes. Groan! How can we do this for 10 more minutes? But we did. Then a magical thing happened: we really let it all flow and came up with some of the most inventive solutions of the day. Some were surprisingly good.

As I remember, and I probably don't because it was so long ago, our table had about 38. The high table had at least 10 more than that. Imagine! Almost 50 uses for a brick!!

So what is it that I remember and took away from that seminar? When doing creative problem solving, the obvious solutions might be the good solutions, but they just might not be. When you think you've run out of options, have some coffee and give it a moment because you haven't gotten to the good stuff yet. Don't worry when you get to a dry patch, because the better stuff is bubbling just below the surface. Wait. It will get here. And go a little crazy.. maybe your ancestor did do that wild thing you just thought of.

I think, looking back on it, that seminar was all about persistence. That's a big component of the work we do as genealogists and creativity in general. And trusting yourself to wait out the rough patch and knowing that better stuff is waiting... just past the next brick.

Nutshell analysis and the obvious take-aways:
* Sometimes the obvious answers are right, and sometimes they are not.
* When brainstorming, it's usual and normal to turn dry after a short length of time. Doesn't mean that's all you have and that you're finished. Don't be fooled.
* Don't judge yourself. Just feel free to think of all the possibilities no matter how ridiculous. You can sort later.
* Give it time. Sit with it. Go slow. Maybe take a break and think of something else if that works for you.

Photos of the day from Aunt Betty's Archive of the Daniel Williams family:

Thomas Williams 1890 - 1950, William Williams 1894 - 1964, James Thomas 1882 - 1936, 
and their father  Daniel Williams 1852 - 1920. 

Jane Price Williams 1862 - 1939, wife of Daniel Williams and mother to the boys, above
with her brother James Price 1865- 1933.

That's Mom and her sister Dot holding hands in the front row with their mother,
Emma Whetstone Williams 1897 - 1956.

Daniel Williams family home in Ocean, Allegany, Maryland.

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  1. I love the analogy. And it reminds me that we need to go back again and again, even if we think we have ALL of the available answers. Thank you.

    1. Hi Karen-
      Isn't it amazing how that works?! I've just been taking my own advice and going back over my research notes for a particularly nasty brick wall and I see something that I didn't see before: maybe they didn't go to Upstate NY as everyone believed... and just maybe I need to think where else they might have gone, with no limits on my thinking.
      Cheers, Diane

  2. Hmm, why was the brick exercise so difficult? I came up with 20 of my own in 3:17 - couldn't think of any genealogical uses for the brick though.
    20 Ways I Can Use a Brick
    1. door stop
    2. freezer filler
    3. window breaker
    4. start of a brick wall
    5. replacement for missing couch leg
    6. water diverter at end of gutter pipe
    7. ballast in hot air balloon
    8. anchor for bunch of helium balloons
    9. start of a brick oven
    10. workout hand weight
    11. bookend
    12. computer monitor stand
    13. self-defense weapon
    14. start of garden boarder
    15. wheel stop when jacking up car
    16. footrest
    17. desk paperweight
    18. replacement for 10 year old fruitcake (and whatever it was used for)
    19. ant crusher
    20. hold down picnic blanket

  3. Doug- Your #17 would be my first choice as a genealogical tool! Oh, those stacks of paper;)
    Cheers, Diane