Hurrying the eureka moment: smarter brainstorming

I’ve heard the story of how J.K. Rowling came up with Harry Potter about a dozen times, and every time it changes.  In some versions, the boy wizard comes to her while sitting in a cafe, and she jots down the essentials on a napkin. Other times, she’s waiting for a train, and she muses over plot for the rest of the rid.

What never changes is the drama of the eureka moment. Rowling recognizes immediately the value of the idea and the direction in which she’ll take it. That moment takes on a mythic quality, a moment that changes the world of literature forever. And like most good myths, I’m confident it has a small germ of truth surrounded by a whole bunch of window dressing.

Screen shot from Steven Johnson's RSA Animated talk. Source: norweiganshooter.blogspot.com

I’m sure there are some who want to protect the genius of Rowling and sanctity of the myth of Harry Potter’s divine inspiration. They probably take my skepticism as snark. We all like to believe that inspiration might strike at any moment and an idea that will make us richer than the Queen of England will materialize from the ether.

Looking at the history of good ideas tells us a different story though. Behind every good idea is a story that looks quite different from the one where a genius plucks inspiration out of thin air. Instead, good ideas usually come from a combination of musing over a topic and exchanging ideas with other thinkers. That’s good news because it presents a process writers can follow for smarter brainstorming sessions.

It’s also a good thing because getting started writing is often the hardest part, and the myth of the eureka moment does little to help. If ideas come from some form of divine inspiration, we tend to not pursue them directly. Instead, we wait around for an idea to come to us. Developing writers are especially prone to this type of thumb twiddling. Too many students hesitate to start writing until the night before a paper’s due date because all of the ideas that come to them seem unlikely to yield promising results. The problem with that thinking is that most ideas fail to reveal their value until after a thinker has meditated on them and attempted to connect those ideas to other ideas.

For example, look at the history of the light bulb. Thomas Edison usually gets the credit, but that’s not entirely accurate (even if it is what I thought until reading Bill Bryson’s At Home last year.) Bryson illustrates that the story of the invention of the light bulb is much more complicated, involving the work of many. The first public demonstration of an incandescent light occurred as early as 1840, seven years before Edison was even born. By the time that Edison got around to his tinkering, the principles of incandescent lighting had been fairly well understood for nearly forty years.

The problem with those early demonstrations was that the bulb’s filament burned out much too quickly, usually in a matter of minutes. Although inventors experimented with several methods to extend the life of the bulb, no one really cracked the problem.

Then something strange happened. After forty years without much progress, two men, working independently developed a practical light bulb within eight months of each other. Most of us know Edison (and his team of workers) was one of these men. He demonstrated his lightbulb in late 1879, but he wasn’t the first to demonstrate a cost effective, practical light bulb. That distinction goes to Joseph Swan of England who showed off the light bulbs he installed in his home in January or February of that year.

So why after forty years of little progress did two men reach the same breakthrough within eight months of each other? It certainly isn’t divine inspiration. Some will answer that it was Edison’s tinkering with hundreds of different materials to find the right one, but the problem of finding the right filament was a minor compared to the problem of removing oxygen from the bulb. As long as oxygen remained in the bulb, any filament would burn instead of simply glow.

As it often happens in the history of invention, the oxygen problem is one that neither of the light bulb inventors solved themselves. Instead, that solution came with the invention of another clever device, the Sprengel pump (named after its inventor, Hermann Sprengel), in 1865. Both Swan and Edison depended on the Sprengel pump to create the vacuum for their light bulbs. Swan had worked on finding a practical light bulb some twenty years prior to his demonstration but gave up because he couldn’t crack it without Sprengel’s pump. Edison depended on the pump so much that several of his workers’ teeth fell out from exposure to the large quantities of mercury that it took for the pump to run.

Of course, in popular culture, Edison gets the credit, but that has more to do with the success of the promotion of his idea and his pursuit of patents. Swan lit up his and his neighbor’s houses with his bulb. Edison lit a whole district of lower Manhattan. While Swan beat Edison to the punch in demonstrating his bulb, Edison was first to file a patent in the United States and several other countries, including Swan’s own Great Britain. Edison’s real advantage wasn’t genius for invention; it was his business acumen and his persistence in pursuing his good idea.

This pattern, innovators building or borrowing on the ideas of other inventors, isn’t unique to the light bulb. It appears again and again in the history of good ideas. Steven Johnson wrote a whole book about it, Where Do Good Ideas Come From. Johnson condensed his premise for an RSA talk where he describes how a good idea often just starts off as a hunch, and before it can be turned into something brilliant, it needs “to collide with other hunches. Often times what turns a hunch into a real breakthrough is another hunch that’s lurking in someone else’s mind.” Neither of Edison nor Swan’s had to discover the principles of incandescent light, and neither of their inventions could have succeeded if Sprengel hadn’t invented his mercury pump. They were both successful in their luminary endeavors because they pursued the connection of others’ hunches.

Johnson’s ideas suggest that we ought to rethink the twiddling thumbs part of our brainstorming process. I’ll record those ideas that strike me below, but I’d be eager to hear what others think as well.

Ideas for freewriting: I know many are a fan of freewriting, sitting down with a sheet of paper and just writing whatever comes into your head about the topic. That approach can be a great way to get started writing, but I find that many writers increase their anxiety when they write through their thoughts and don’t find a thesis in the first few minutes.

The examples above suggest that writers ought to adopt a different frame of mind when freewriting. Instead of looking to arrive at a conclusion, they should use freewriting as a way to generate half-formed hunches. Sometimes connecting those hunches may lead to great insight, but more often than not those hunches will only take on real value when connected to other hunches and researched further. Sometimes the real value of freewriting is discovering the places where a topic is only half understood. That can generate questions for the writer to pursue in research.

Ideas for researching: A lot of writers don’t dive into their research until they have a thesis that they want to prove, but that attitude misses the fact that many of the best ideas are going to come from a broad exposure to other writers’ ideas without a narrow prejudice about how to view a topic.

Writers who go into research with the main goal of simply finding articles on the subset of the topic that they’ve decided to write on will often find the process difficult. The ideas they encounter will seem to dwarf their own, as well they should, given the fact that these ideas were published because they somehow advance the knowledge of that topic. Reading the writing of others on that subtopic can become a frustrating process, and too many student writers end up using their research time to simply harvest quotes of writers they believe agree with them while ignoring the ideas behind those quotes.

On the other hand, the writer who goes into writing to simply learn what other writers think will eventually find a better, more complex understanding about the topic that s/he can share with readers. I say eventually here because writers need to understand that research is immersing themselves in the discussion and trying to work through as many varied points of view as possible. If writers attempt to come up with their own ideas based on reading one article, it’s likely they’ll have trouble departing from that article’s understanding of the topic. Only after exposure to several different view points can alternative understandings become apparent.

Workshopping ideas: Just as it is useful for writers to immerse themselves in the ideas of others who are experts on the topic, it is also useful to have the opportunity to share those ideas in the hunch form. In a TED talk on his ideas, Johnson tells a great story  about the NASA scientists sitting around and listening to the Sputnik satellite after it was launched in orbit. This sitting around and talking about what they heard eventually led to a group of scientists realizing a method of pinpointing exactly where the satellite was in orbit at any given time. After they showed their boss, he asked if they could run the calculations in reverse, finding a point on the ground given their relationship to a known position of satellites in the sky. Those casual water cooler type conversations eventually led to the invention of GPS technology.

Simple workshopping of ideas with other writers, especially those writers with different expertise, can lead to the same productive conversations. Those others’ ideas can show paths for the writer to take, places where others need to know more about a topic, and their ignorance within the field that the writer is developing an expertise gives the writer an opportunity to attempt to explain his/her ideas, which develops the writer’s own understanding of his/her own ideas.

Getting started: All of these approaches, however, take time. That’s why the most important part of writing is getting started no matter how ill formed the idea the writer has is. The very act of writing and researching will force the meditation that it takes to reach a deeper understanding.

The history of innovation suggests that some of the best ideas come from jumping out of the proverbial airplane and working on building the parachute on the way down. That takes a lot of faith on the inventors part. Perhaps the greatest lesson that this teaches us about brainstorming is that writers must develop a faith in themselves and a mindset that any work, no matter how unproductive it may seem, will eventually lead to a greater understanding.

That lesson is important because those who fear failure, especially those who see the first shuffling steps towards a hunch as signs that they are on a path to failure, will often not start the process until too late. In writing and any other kind of invention, it’s important to develop the mindset that the only true failure is giving up, and that only thing worse than that is not starting.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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