Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Creativity Challenge: the final product(s)

Here we are, end of June, and the end of this month's Creativity Challenge. I have posted both my entry and that of a good friend below.  Please post a link to your creative work based on this month's word prompts in the comments.

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[note: I have spent a LOT of time lately researching how to write an outstanding query letter... you know, the kind that will rise to the top of the slush pile. In particular, I have relied heavily on the extremely informative and always reliable Querypolitan for advice. So here is my carefully crafted query letter with first page of MS...]

Dear Editor Mr. A ent,

Did you ever wish you could wake up to find yourself on another celestial body? To meet creatures you never dreamed existed? To ma ically understand every word of their bizarre lan ua e? And to join forces with them to figh the dark forces of the universe? Cissi the elephant does all of this in Moons of Shambala, my 80,000 word debut middle  rade novel.

I am thrilled to submit "Moons of Shambala" for your perusal. It has the amazing potential to be the next Harry Potter, and I'm sure that Matt Damon Ben Affleck will jump at the chance to play the role of Cissi the Shambala leader.

I have taken the liberty of translating the story into Shambalian (a lan ua e I have created over the past ei ht years), and I have included the first few pa es for your deli ht and entertainment. (Please excuse the missin  --letter between f and h--my keyboard is missin  that key.)

I look forward to hearin  your enthusiastic response.
A. Stevens

Moons of Shambala

Cissi rolled over. She couldn't  et comfortable. The cushion felt lumpy and she squirmed. Then she si hed and opened her eyes. No way to sleep, she thought  rumpily, as she rolled to her side and lumbered to her feet.

Cissi rubbed her eyes with her trunk and looked around. She  asped. Nothing looked right. Her cushion was a rock!  Cissi swung her  reat head from side to side and spotted a blue and white orb in the sky. She  asped again. It was Earth!

Wait, she thought. Am I on the moon? Is this a dream? She rubbed her eyes a ain and blinked furiously. She pinched her ear with the end of her trunk.

"Ow!" Nope, I  uess I'm not dreamin . Now what?

As Cissi stood helplessly in the  reat crater, she heard a sound. She turned to see some purple creatures with antennae and five le s walking toward her. Their  iant compound eyes reflected the li ht of the earth,  litterin  as they came nearer.

"¤Þξ æ Ч¤ω," the leader said as they drew near.

Cissi was amazed that she understood. "ζÝ," she replied. The leader  lanced at a slightly taller individual to his left and they nodded.

"ζÝ ξÐæ," he said, and the Shambalans turned to leave. Cissi followed behind, curious to know how they thou ht she could help.

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And for another take on the word prompts, here is a sketch from Fong and one from each of her children. Thanks for participating--these were fun to see!

As for the rest of you, post those links below! (Please)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Window of Insight #2: Michael Grant

This window of insight focuses on a non-writer, and, by many accounts, a non-creative (but don't be fooled). Michael Grant is a computational mathematics researcher who focuses on the concept of optimization, which he applies to a variety of topics. Here's what makes Michael creative (all answers are copyright Michael Grant).

1. Please describe the kind of work that you do.

My degrees claim that I am an electrical engineer. But over the course of my college work, I discovered that I was more interested in the computational and mathematical details than in the specific engineering applications.

For my doctoral work, I focused on the field of optimization: the mathematics behind selecting the best choice among a family of alternatives. Whether the challenge is to find the highest performance, the lowest cost, the most efficient use of resources, or the lowest risk—any time the notion of “best” can be expressed mathematically—optimization is the method. Not surprisingly, optimization has applications in a wide variety of fields, including engineering (of course), the applied sciences, business, and finance.

My work these days takes several forms. I teach a graduate-level course in optimization at the local university, and I give seminars and lectures in academic and corporate settings. I develop and maintain software that is used by a variety of researchers around the world that makes it easier for them to use optimization in their work. And I apply optimization and related concepts to a variety of engineering problems.

2. How does the creative process fit into your work?

I think it is fair to say that people typically associate creativity with, well, the creative and aesthetic arts: music and dance, visual arts, fictional writing, and so forth.

But at its most basic, creativity is simply the act of generating concepts and works that are new and original (at least to their creator). And in that sense, it is clear that creativity can be found in many technical fields as well, and engineering in particular. Any time I am developing the first solution to a new problem, or a new and better solution to an old problem, I am being creative.

Constructing a new piece of software certainly can a creative act, depending upon how much latitude the programmer is being given to accomplish it. But in the case of my most popular software, CVX, I created not just some new code but also a new methodology: a new way of thinking about or approaching the problems it is designed to solve. So there was creativity involved not just in its construction, but in its very conception.

Creativity enters into the teaching and communication as well. Every student or audience member approaches the material with a different background, so I must often invent new ways to explain or demonstrate particular concepts.

3. Where do you find sources of inspiration?

I try to keep up with the latest developments in my field by reading a lot of papers and speaking with colleagues. I typically have a number of problems percolating in the back of my mind, each stuck in limbo waiting for the right new idea or concept to come along that enables me to solve them. I would love to say that I always invent that critical missing piece on my own. But frequently, perhaps more often than not, I will find it in other people’s work and adapt it to my purposes.

4. What role do you feel that creativity plays in your life (in your work and beyond)?

I think I’ve addressed how creativity is involved in my work. But of course I think creativity is useful and even essential in a vibrant life outside of work as well.

Certainly, family life benefits tremendously from creativity. My wife is probably better about this than I am, but we both strive to find creative new ways to teach our daughter new ideas and behaviors. I’d like to think I apply creativity in how I treat with my wife as well; at the very least, we can agree that it would be nice if it were true. :)

One interesting outlet for creativity I’ve enjoyed lately is my work at church. I volunteer one or two Sundays a month to work on the light board, a bank of levers and buttons that control the house lights, spot lights, and decorative stage lights. As with many contemporary church settings, the feel is at times reminiscent of a concert! Along with the objective technical aspects like making sure that the singer or pastor is adequately lit, I have the opportunity to be creative in the selection the colors and patterns to follow the mood of the service.

5. What is the most challenging part of the creative process for you?

I often find it hard to finish a project and send it out to be consumed, used, and critiqued. I’m always finding something I can improve, tweak, rework, re-cast… Of course, what good is a creation that cannot be shared? My challenge is to set aside that urge to perfect and just get the work out there. It seems to me that this challenge would be more intense with the creative arts, because once a work is out there it often cannot be revised. In my case, I frequently have the opportunity to improve upon my work after people have had the chance to try it out. It is good for me to remember that.

6. What is the most rewarding part of the creative process?

Certainly, the accolades and encouraging words of others are among the most important rewards. But more than these are the implicit accolades that come when people use my work to further their own, citing my software or papers in theirs. I recently had someone incorporate the use my software into a textbook. I think that means I am immortal! :)

The “Eureka!” moments that come when I make a new discovery or solve a particularly vexing problem are intensely rewarding as well, and I’d say that they are the reasons I love to do research versus straight-ahead development.

7. At what point do you feel that you have succeeded with a creative endeavor?

I think it is when the external rewards come in that I discussed in the previous question. I certainly acknowledge that a personal satisfaction in the quality of my work is important. But truthfully, the very purpose of my core work is to enable others to solve problems that they would have been unwilling or unable to do without it. So without the positive feedback from others, I could not be certain I had succeeded.

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Thanks, Michael, for the insight. As for immortality, that's Creativity with a capital C: what a lot of creatives secretly crave. ;-)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Poetry Friday: The Haven of Words

I have been reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. In it, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi discusses Creativity (with a capital C): the sort that changes the world. He's not interested in personal creativity, rather the type that creates memes that spread new ideas and concepts from person to person, generation to generation. The type that changes the world.

In Creativity, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi reflects on a series of interviews with world-changing creatives and innovators. They provide a wealth of insight into their personal creative processes (the ultimate window of insight).

One of the people interviewed was Hilde Domin, a Jewish German poet who lived in exile for three decades with her husband. Forced to move from place to place, learn new languages and customs, it was not until she was free to return to Germany that she discovered the poetry within her.

In her interview, she says, "One evening, [following the death of her mother] I started writing a poem. I didn't have the idea that I wrote, but I started. It happened to me. Like, you know, falling in love. Or like being run over by a car. It happened. I had the language and I needed writing, so I wrote." (p. 244 of Creativity)

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi explains further, "This flight into a world of symbols saves the writer from the unbearable reality where experience is raw and unmediated. When painful experience is put into words, the poet is relieved of some of her burden." (p. 245)

The power of poetry is an extraordinary thing. It rescues the poet from events that could be life-shattering. At the same time, readers of the poem are provided with a window into the poet's soul, into the rough emotion found there. (See a nice reflection on the power of poetry by Simon C. Larter.)

The original poems are in German, but Elke Heckel and Meg Taylor have translated them into English. One of my favorites:
The Golden Rope
Nothing is as fleeting
as an encounter.

We play like children
we invite and reject
as if we had forever.
(read the rest of the poem)

What's your favorite poem? How does it affect you?

Poetry Friday Roundup is hosted by Amy Graves at The Art of Irreverence.

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Joined the Creativity Challenge, yet?  Last day to post your work is June 30. New word prompts will be up at the beginning of July.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Creativity Challenge Word Pool

I am the only person in our household to lack a Y chromosome. As a result, I am surrounded by pirates, dragons, kings, knights, racecars, and similarly boyish things. Add that to my background as a zoologist/ecologist, and you end up with a lot of word prompts that fit into one of two categories.

To make the Creativity Challenge interesting and fun for everyone (and more of a challenge, to boot), please suggest word prompts!  You can post them in the comments below. I will add them to the ongoing list of words on the challenge page.

At the start of each month, I'll use to choose three words for that month's prompts (words are numbered sequentially; as they are used, they will be removed from the pool).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Avoiding Title Trouble

I'm not very good with titles, so when I come up with one I like, I REALLY don't want to let it go. Sadly, sometimes I must. (Note that this is long before an editor gets hold of the work in question.)  Case in point:

Me: "I'm almost finished writing "Web of [insert complicated Latin term here]."

Beloved Husband [BH]: *dumbfounded look on face* "Web of what?"

Me: "[complicated Latin term]. You know... the web story I've been working on."

BH: *shakes head* "Yeah, you can't use that."

Me: *heart doing little flip-flops* "Why not?"

BH: "Cognitive fluency."

Me: "Damn."

So what, exactly, is cognitive fluency? And what does it have to do with titles?

Cognitive fluency is the tendency of people to prefer things that are easy to think about, easy to remember, easy to pronounce, and easy to read. Naturally my complicated Latin term isn't any of those, so out the window it goes.

Does it really matter that much? Yes. In fact, cognitive fluency has been shown to influence the decisions people make when they buy stocks. Stocks with easier-to-remember names do better (might want to keep that one in mind).

What does work?
  • Things that rhyme (Nate the Great)
  • Things written in an easy-to-read font (don't let the publisher put your book title in a crazy hard-to-read font without a good contrast between the font and background; if you're self-publishing, don't you do it, either!)
  • Things that repeat (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can sticks in our minds better than the book title, The Little Engine that Could)

Now, the flip side of the cognitive fluency issue is termed disfluency. Disfluency has been shown to increase people's sense of how novel something is and to make them think about it more. So if the goal of your piece of writing is to stimulate critical thinking or to provide a sense of novelty or innovation, then disfluency can work in your favor.

Just keep in mind that disfluency won't get the book jumping off the shelves. Perhaps that's why so many publishers change book titles prior to publication.

If you want to know more, check out this article.

What are your favorite examples of great titles?

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On an unrelated note, have you checked out the June Creativity Challenge? Join in the fun! Post your creative work on your blog and provide us with the link on June 30 (if you don't have a blog, email it to me; I'll post it for you).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Celebrating solstice

Today is the summer solstice, the first day of summer and longest day of the year. In Germany, the time from sunrise until sunset is almost 17 hours. Plus the many hours of not-really-dark dawn and dusk. The birds start singing around 3am, and you can't see anything dimmer than Venus or the moon by midnight.

What better day to burn those long daylight hours and finish writing a novel?

I just did it. Finished the MG novel that I started in mid-May. My first one. It's still rough, but it's there... the characters, the plot, the scenes and dialogue. And it was a lot of fun to write.

I plan to set it aside for a week or two while I work on non-fiction travel series I've been thinking about. We'll see what comes of that.

But for now, I am exhausted. Spain just scored a goal, so I'm going to zone out in front of the TV watching the World Cup (shh... don't tell my muse).

Friday, June 18, 2010

June Creativity Challenge

I had forgotten about the Creativity Challenge, but after a bit of positive feedback regarding my first attempt, I've decided to bring it back. It's a good exercise in creativity for writers, poets, illustrators, artists, photographers, and other creative people, and the more people who participate, the more fun it will be (so spread the word).

The challenge is based on an exercise from a drawing class I once took (long, long ago, in my pre-creative-desert years). We had to incorporate three completely unrelated things in our compositions and somehow make them work together.

Please see the Challenge Rules before beginning. All posts must be completed by the end of June. Post a comment with a link to your blog/creative work in the comments. If you don't have a blog, email your final product to me at anpstevens [at] gmail [dot] com, and I will post it for you.

Without further ado, here are three words to get your brain jiggling for the month of June: elephant, moon, cushion. Have fun!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Traveling with children - things I have learned

I love to travel. The world is full of amazing places, and I wish I could visit every one of them. Obviously not realistic, but a girl can wish.

Last week, we went to Munich for a few days. It was hot, but it was also sunny and beautiful. We visited the Audi factory in Ingolstadt (oh, man, did I want to drive off with one!), explored Marienplatz where we happened upon a festival, watched the Glockenspiel, ate (and drank) in the Biergarten at the 700-year-old Hofbräuhaus (pronounced hof- broy-house) and explored the Viktualienmarkt.

One reason we don't travel as much as we would like is because we have young children. Simply getting somewhere becomes much more complicated when you are dealing with kids. That said, Boss Man and Snuggle Monkey have traveled a lot for their years (Boss Man has visited 10 countries, Snuggle Monkey has visited 6). So here's a bit of what I have learned about traveling with children.


Pack well Pack clothes that you can layer, shoes that won't cause blisters, and at least two extra outfits per child (I assure you, you will use them). Also take along a piece of laundry line and some clothes pins, and some detergent you can use to wash clothes. The sink works wonders, particularly if you encounter something like horse droppings after a parade, a dirt hill that the kids just must slide down, car sickness (we've been known to buy new shirts for that one), or overfilled diapers/lack of toilet.

Be a boy scout Be prepared for everything. Kids are guaranteed to get hungry and thirsty at the very moment when you have nothing to give them. Don't leave without snacks and drinks. Many countries don't have drinking fountains, so don't count on them.

Be prepared to be a pack animal  Public restrooms are not always easy to locate, and sometimes you have to pay to use them. Have extra diapers and changes of clothes (more than you think you could possibly need) on hand at all times. Plastic bags, too, for getting soiled clothes back to base camp.

Our diaper/travel bag contains the essentials mentioned above, food, drinks, bandaids, two coloring books, a baggie with broken crayons, a small deflated beach ball, straws, and a few new balloons. We've used each and every one of those things on more than one occasion, and I won't travel without them.  


Don't try to see everything. Yes, it's very tempting to run around seeing all of the sights, particularly if you have traveled a long way from home and don't think you'll make it back. But for the sake of your sanity, don't do it. Pick the few most interesting places and stick with those. Dragging your kids from place to place will only make everyone really grumpy. And your back will hurt from toting luggage day after day.

Take a tour  If you really must see all of the major sights, do it by tour bus. Take one of those on-and-off tours, so that you can ride around all day, get off to see things up close, then get back on another bus. Buses are also good for naps (kids... adults... doesn't really matter).


Find a base  This should probably have gone at the top, but I'm too lazy to move it. The most successful trips we have taken are the ones for which we have rented an apartment and have made it our base. Major benefits:
  • We make day trips, but we don't have to deal with luggage.
  • There's a kitchen so we can eat at our "normal" times, rather than waiting for restaurants to open (also saves a fortune).
  • And (perhaps most important) the kids get their own room, so we don't have to read in silence by book-light for two hours after they go to bed. 
You can search for apartments through or Vacation Rentals by Owner, among others.


Know the local customs  This goes along with the previous point (believe it or not). Find out when people usually eat. For example, if the locals eat lunch around 1pm then everything closes for two hours, you need to plan your activities accordingly. In such situations, dinner probably isn't served until late (9pm or later)—after the kids are in bed. Restaurants don't open early just to cater to the American tourists, so have lots of snacks and an alternate plan for feeding the munchkins.

This also applies to the clothes you wear. In some places (e.g., churches in Italy), it is considered offensive to wear sleeveless tops and shorts. Be respectful and dress appropriately. (This point is for the parents, not the kids.)

Try the local foods Yes, there will be things that just don't sound very appetizing (even in Tuscany), but try them and have your kids try them. These are local specialties for a reason. The people there like these foods. They are edible, often even tasty! I finally tried Leberkäse (translation: liver cheese) last week, and it was quite good. No hint of liver, definitely not cheese, kind of meatloaf meets bologna.

Learn a few important phrases in the local language  I cannot stress this enough, but if you (and the kids—this will win you MAJOR points if the kids do it, too) learn a few important words, you will be miles ahead of most tourists, and the locals will really appreciate your effort.

Learn the local words for hello, goodbye, please, thank you, I'm sorry, excuse me. Your pronunciation doesn't have to be perfect (in fact, my bad pronunciation has made more than a few people smile, but I think it made their day.) Do not expect everyone else to speak English, and be respectful. Teach your children to be respectful, too.


Do your research  Know when (and where) the trains/buses run (if you're taking them), where the playgrounds are, and where you can find a park where your kids can run off their extra energy (and they will have it—there is nothing like visiting a new place to get them hyped up).

If all else fails find a fountain. Winter or summer, it doesn't matter. Kids love to play in/on fountains.

Have the kids pack their own backpack with books, toys and games  But do a check to be sure there aren't too many little pieces that can will get lost, and that whatever you bring is not a favorite toy. Do you really want to be down between the seats on the airplane or train, hunting for Lego man's cap? I didn't think so.

Transportation IS an experience  Chances are, your kids will be far more excited about taking new/unusual forms of transportation than they will be in seeing museums, ancient artifacts, or whatever else it is you want to see. Make a point of taking buses, trains, boats, as much as possible. The kids will love it.


Attach beloved stuffed animals to the luggage We made a loop on the side of Boss Man's backpack for Bear II, after he left Bear I in the Glasgow airport.

Take a stroller Young children may be active, but their legs are short. They walk several steps to your one, and they will get tired quickly. When they're under 3, you will want a stroller, and if you don't take one, you will kick yourself for it. We spent much of last week wishing we had taken ours, and our backs and shoulders are still recovering from carrying Snuggle Monkey 50% of our time in Munich.

Don't let yourself by distracted by your kids  Think pickpockets will leave you alone because you have kids? Think again. They provide the perfect distraction, so be sure to keep important things (passports, large sums of money) in a very safe location, and pay attention to what's going on around you.

Personal story: when we were in Prague, waiting for the Metro, there were quite a few people waiting for the train. Several men were in front of the doors when the train arrived, and they (very kindly, I thought) moved out of the way for us (Boss Man was in a stroller and I was 7 months pregnant). When the last of us entered the train, they bounced him around and tried to steal his wallet. Fortunately, he had the presence of mind to realize it and stopped them from getting away with it.  I also had someone try to open my purse on the Prague Metro (my bulging belly made it a nice target, I guess). The apparently inexperienced thief worked away at my purse while his very large and intimidating friend hovered over me. Fortunately, my wallet was inside my jacket, and all he got was a package of tissues. The point is: anyone can be a target, so pay attention.

I hope this helps a few of you with your future travels. The world is full of amazing places, people, and cultures, and I think children should learn to appreciate them early in life.

If you have other tips or suggestions that I have left out, please post them below. Or any stories of travels with kids that you'd like to share.

What is your favorite travel destination? I have lots of places that I love, but I think Delphi tops my list.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Paying it Forward

Well I was planning to write about my recent trip to Munich today, but I just discovered something much more exciting and blog-worthy: a chance to pay it forward by spreading the word about an upcoming online writer's conference. Want to know more? Check out the vlog:

Thank you, thank you, thank you Elana Johnson,Casey McCormick, Lisa and Laura Roecker, Shannon Messenger, and Jamie Harrington!!! I am one of those people who can't afford to attend a major conference (but really, really wants to). You are the best.

Now to find a babysitter for my kids, who will be home that week...

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Pasta Detectives

I have this wonderful writer friend who gave me The Pasta Detectives for my birthday. She writes youth novels. I'm writing (and rewriting) a youth novel. Or two. Or is it three? Wow, those simultaneous WIPs are getting confusing.

The Pasta Detectives by Andreas Steinhöfel (the English translation of Steinhöfel's German novel, Rico, Oskar und die Tiefferschatten, wonderfully translated by Chantal Wright) is the story of Rico, a child proddity detective and his child prodigy detective friend. Rico explains that being a child proddity is "a bit like being a child prodigy, but also like the opposite."

Told from Rico's point of view, the story opens a window into the brain of someone who thinks a lot but needs a lot of time to sort things out. If he thinks really hard about something, the "lottery balls" start up in his head, confusing him. But when Rico teams up with a new friend, Oskar, the two of them are able to solve the mystery of Mr. 2000.

The original was a bestseller in Germany. I can only assume that the voice Steinhöfer gives Rico is as perfect in German as it was in English. The translation certainly shines. Voiciness is essential to any good story, as Julie Hedlund recently wrote. Maybe it helps to find your voice when you have a distinctive character in mind and tell the story in the first person.

Two of the stories I'm writing are first person POV. I will have to go back to look at them closely to get a feel for the voiciness of each main character. But books like The Pasta Detectives provide a delightful opportunity to study how it's done.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Nurturing the muse

I have been wondering, lately, where my muse was hiding all those years when I lived in a creative desert. I think it was afraid of the TV.

I've never been one to watch TV for hours on end, but I was in the habit of having it on for "company" when I lived alone. Later, after I met my husband, we used to eat dinner in front of the venerable boob tube. I am embarrassed to say that this persisted until we had kids.

Looking back, it's really no wonder my hobbies and creative pursuits fell by the wayside. My muse had been beaten into submission by an onslaught of visual and auditory stimulation that was (for the most part) anything but stimulating.* Numbed by the programs, my poor brain couldn't come up with a creative thought. Didn't need to, when the advertisements told me what I should eat, drink, and wear.

Yes, I'm being snarky, but I really think TV had a lot to do with my time in the creative desert. Why? Because when we moved to Germany, we got rid of the TV** (in reality, it is sitting in storage in the US and we are paying ridiculous amounts of money for a giant, out-of-date paperweight we will never use again—free TV anyone?).

When we got to Germany, my muse peeped its tousled head out to look with sleepy eyes at the world around it. It saw all kinds of wonderful and began to knit those little strands of detail together to make a tapestry. One that tells a story. Several, actually.

Now, my muse seems to have a bit of ADD, but maybe that's from all of those TV shows. I'm still nurturing it. It's shy, but it gets a little bolder every day.

What's your muse like? What kinds of experiences stimulate your muse?

* some shows are very thought-provoking, but I think it is easy for us to be lulled into a sense of complacency by the vast majority of programs
** we do have a TV, but it's not connected to anything but the DVD player, which we use about once a week

Monday, June 7, 2010

On family

Yesterday, we celebrated Boss Man's birthday with a pirate party. It was great, everyone had a lot of fun, but all I can say is how grateful I am to my Beloved Husband and my parents for all of their help.

Beloved Husband put together a terrific treasure hunt with clues the early readers could follow with relative ease (there needs to be some challenge, after all).

My mom and Boss Man worked together to make a big cardboard pirate ship for the cannon-ball toss, and my dad kept Snuggle Monkey out of the way. Meanwhile, I made the cake (not my idea, saw it on the internet one day):

So it was a creative effort for all of us, and everyone had a great time. And today, we're all still recovering. Wishing you a wonderful week!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Getting a new perspective

"I like your orange blog, Mama."

"Thanks, honey. I see it as green."

"OK." Boss Man shrugs and walks away. He's used to us telling him that we see things differently.

Boss Man is color blind, so he sees the world in a completely different way from most of the rest of us. It's a permanent condition, there is no "cure" (at least not yet). But really, why would we want to fix it? It's not a disease, it's just how he sees things.

Animals see the world differently from humans. Many birds and insects can perceive ultraviolet radiation that is invisible to the human eye. With so much variation, no individual (human or otherwise) sees the world how it "really" looks. Who is to say that we normal-vision people see things the same way?

I used to wonder about this when I was a kid. What if my blue sky looked green to you? Meaning, what I see as blue, you see as my green, even though you call it blue. This would actually explain wild variation in color combination preferences. For example, I really dislike orange and blue (or green) together, but other people really like it (or so I assume from the orange/blue and orange/green clothing that has been so popular of late). Maybe someone else's orange is my yellow, which completely changes the picture.

Perception is a highly  individual thing. It's easy to get caught up in our own perceptions, but it is probably worthwhile to occasionally take a step back, take off our perceptual goggles and try on someone else's. If we all did this (in all parts of our lives), it would help us to better understand each other and be more compassionate.

Trying on someone else's perceptual goggles also helps spark the creative process. To give you an example, this is how Boss Man sees the rainbow (what you and I see is on the left, what he sees is on the right).

His world looks completely different from mine. The green leaves that I adore look brown to him, except for a few weeks in the fall, when they turn yellow. Dark reds look black (he often thinks that black ink on his hand means he is bleeding). Pink looks gray and purple looks blue. He loves pink and purple, and I have to remind my husband that those colors look gray and blue to him (very manly, think Dallas Cowboys).

There are other forms of color blindness and varying stages of loss of vision, too. If you are looking for a bit of inspiration, whether for a story, a painting, a drawing, or something else, do a little experiment. Put yourself in someone else's perceptual position for a bit. You might just find the inspiration you were looking for. Here's a web site to get you started.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Window of Insight #1: Evelyn B. Christensen

Creativity is such a personal process; it works differently for everyone, and people use it in a wide variety of situations (it is NOT exclusively relegated to the artists and writers of the world). I pondered this for a while, then thought, Who better to provide insight into their personal creative process than a creative? Herewith, I present you with the first Windows of Insight interview. *bows with a flourish*

Evelyn B. Christensen is the author of a variety of educational puzzle books. Ev was the first person to respond to my very first post at the CBI Clubhouse, and she was also the first to respond to my request for an interview (Ev is clearly much more on top of things than I). And I am honored to begin the WoI series with her. (Please note that all responses below are copyright Evelyn B. Christensen.)

What got you interested in creating puzzles and games?

Puzzles and games were a big part of my childhood. I have five siblings and grew up in a small town in eastern Kentucky where the kind of extra-curricular activities that fill most children’s schedules these days were practically non-existent. That left plenty of time for games and puzzles.

My father had also spent two years of college studying to be an aeronautical engineer before he decided to become a minister. That engineer’s mind of his didn’t disappear, and he was good at challenging us kids to wonder about the hows and whys and puzzles of all kinds of things. And Mom was the wordsmith. She taught Latin and I still remember some of the Latin riddle-puns from her class.

So puzzles and games were ‘in my blood’ from my childhood. Then in college I decided to major in math. A good math problem, by its very nature, is a kind of puzzle, so my higher level academic training reinforced my interest in puzzles.

How does the creative process fit into your work?

The creative process comes into play in a variety of stages of my work. Sometimes it’s active when I’m coming up with the basic puzzle design. Examples of that are my first book Clip Clue Puzzles and my book Subtraction Secrets.

But sometimes my publisher tells me they want a certain type of puzzle book, and then the creativity is in making the book something unique within the framework of that kind of puzzle. Examples of that are my Venn diagram books. I didn’t create the concept of Venn diagrams, but when I came up with basing all the puzzles in one book on nursery rhymes, basing the puzzles in another on stories about a kid and his interactions with friendly aliens, and basing another one on the fifty states, that was the creative process coming into play.

Then, of course, designing the individual puzzles involves creativity. I had great fun deciding how to turn each of those nursery rhymes into a puzzle. A lot of times in designing individual puzzles I also draw on my creativity when I figure out how to state clues. You have to communicate a certain amount of information in clues, but how you state it can make the difference between a challenging, fun puzzle and a boring puzzle.

For a simple example, compare these two clues: “Ev’s age is 6” and “Ev’s age is the lowest even number between 4 and 10.” Coming up with interesting ways to say the same thing takes creativity.

Where do you find sources of inspiration?

Depending on your spiritual outlook, you may not like my response to this question. But the truth, for me, is that my source of inspiration is very much God. When I have a creative idea, I feel strongly that it’s a gift from God. The God I believe in is a Creator God. We humans are made in his image, and some of our most satisfying, joyous moments are when we are participating in the creative process. Using my creativity puts me, that creative part of me that is in his image, in tune with God in a very special way.

What role do you feel that creativity plays in your life (in your work and beyond)?

This is a hard question, because creativity is intrinsically bound up in so much of what I do. This was especially true when I was teaching. I am a teacher at heart, even more than I’m a writer. I loved teaching partly because it gave me so many opportunities to use my creativity—planning interesting lessons, developing materials to help kids learn, figuring out the best ways to explain concepts, deciding fun ways for kids to practice skills, writing songs and poems to convey content, and on and on.

The trend toward government-mandated curriculum scares me, because I see it taking away from teachers more and more of the opportunities for them to use their creativity. I’ve talked with wonderful, creative teachers who are very frustrated by the constraints that have been put upon them, and I think we’re going to lose a lot of our most creative teachers. I would not want someone telling me exactly what I have to teach, when I have to teach it, and how I have to teach it. That’s too much like teaching from a cookbook, and where’s the creativity in that (or for a creative person, the fun)?

What is the most challenging part of the creative process for you?

Ummm…keeping it under control? Seriously. Creativity gives me the ability to see multiple, unintended uses for almost any object. It’s my curse. It means it’s hard for me to throw anything away. Normal people can get rid of an object when its intended use no longer serves them, but since I can easily see at least five other uses for it, do you think I still have it? Of course! Along with the 6,957,184 other things in our car-less, 2-car garage.

[lol! I can relate to this, but we have a serious shortage of storage space, so the tops of the closets are covered with things I've saved, they're stuffed in what little extra cabinet and drawer space I can find. And sometimes I have to sort through the discard the things that haven't been reused to make way for the new. Makes for a messy household.]

What is the most rewarding part of the creative process?

It’s definitely a rewarding feeling, very satisfying, when I realize I have a great idea—at whatever stage I’m at in the puzzling process. Writing puzzle books can sometimes include parts that aren’t very creative. For example, I might have an idea for fun math puzzles that produce a picture as their end product (like my Multiplication Mosaics). Coming up with the initial idea and developing the pictures is creative, and therefore fun. But coming up with the math problems to go with the pictures is not creative, and therefore often simply tedious. So definitely, the most rewarding part is generating the new ideas.

At what point do you feel that you have succeeded with a creative endeavor (e.g., a puzzle or book of puzzles and riddles)?

When I have created a puzzle or a book of puzzles that I know intuitively, in my mind and heart, is a good product—one that will challenge kids or adults to think and stretch their minds in fun ways—then I feel that I have succeeded in my creative endeavor.

Holding the published book in my hands is another level of feeling that success, but even if that never happens I can still feel I’ve succeeded in creating something special. For example, my Aba-Conundrums, puzzles based on the abacus, took seven years to find a publisher. But in spite of all the rejections, during those seven years I still felt I’d created a successful manuscript. (Fat Brain Toy Co. is bringing the book out in June.)

Of course, the ultimate feeling of success for me is having a child or parent or teacher tell me that they love my book. The goal of my creative endeavors is to help make learning fun, so hearing it from the ones I create for is confirmation beyond my own feelings.


Ev's puzzles are wonderful fun for adults and children alike. (My oldest adores the addition and subtraction ones.) Check out a few of them on Ev's author site. And while you're there, check out her books. Then go buy some. Why do Sudoku day after day, when you can do Wordoku or work your brain with a bit of math or a hinky pinky instead?