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?

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