Sunday, April 24, 2011

Using a Sketchbook Commonplace Book to Jump Start Your Creative Thinking

The summer semester of Creative Thinking is coming. With only four weeks until class, my wintery and myopic mind, preoccupied with work and dulled by the grind of the New England weather, has finally bloomed and started to look forward to the horizon like a sailor in the crows nest.

With the fire of teaching rekindled in me, I take stock of the syllabus and begin some tinkering. I keep the general format of the class and the core lessons, but I tighten and hone the information that enhances them. While I am looking forward, I also look back and review a few things that struck me about the last couple semesters. From here I brainstorm on what I can introduce or communicate better to give the students more tools, information or interpretations to make the experience more dynamic and effective.

My post-mortem introspection of the fall semester, coinciding with some mind-blowing reading of Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From, actually presented me with a new way of presenting one of the core tools in the class. As it so happens to also be a very important paper-based idea connector (of which I can’t overstate the importance to creative thinking) I thought I would assemble my thoughts here and test them in the wild. Which is why this long promised blog post is about a key creativity tool: Commonplace Books.

In the large and detailed document that is the class syllabus there is a list of supplies that the students must have for the class. One of these is “a sketchbook roughly 9 x 12.” By the second class I notice that two camps form: students who embrace the sketchbook as though they have been looking for permission (or an excuse) to buy one and carry it around; and students who only bring a sketchbook to class when required. In lieu of a sketchbook as a constant companion, this group likes ruled notebook paper, small lined journals, and other structured note-taking items that have lines, margins, and generally no really great place to let your mind wander.

It is important to mention here, that I have no bias against how the students are taking notes in the class or using note paper or their sketchbooks. My main focus is that the information is engaging, that it helps them learn, and they have a place to capture their thoughts. To a certain extent though, from my perspective as a teacher, that requires the right tools. Through the last few semesters, I have begun to pick up on an increased level of “Why do I need a sketchbook?” or even as I was asked one time after class “How do I use a sketchbook?” (which is a completely valid question.)

I have come to realize that to a group of highly intellectual and analytical graduate students a sketchbook is an oddity. It was something that some of them had never worked in or owned before, and many believed that sketchbooks are solely for sketching. I understand that this makes it a discerning object, especially if drawing as a form of self expression is not your forte.

Even more "terrifying" is that which also makes the sketchbook so great---finger-flip after finger-flip of blank pages. No lines running right to left to tell you where to start and keep your writing. No lines to sever illustrations or charts. No margins to keep everything framed and boxed in. Just blank pages that can be filled with a little, or a lot. Categorized however you deem to place the information. Diagonal writing, full bleed images, illustrations and text, just images, cut outs, sketches, collage, lists, ideas…there is nothing that can’t go into a sketchbook—that wild white abyss—and become a testament to your creating something new and unique centered around a single theme or a testament to your exploration of ideas.

Also, without lines, the possibility exists that the true nature of your crooked handwriting is revealed and with it—the freedom to create mind maps and integrate other images and things that you may discover your mind likes to read much better—and, most importantly, sparks ideas from the randomness and spontaneous placement of the gathered information.

Which brings me to commonplace books and why I am going to begin the summer semester by making the disclaimer that the Sketchbook tool for the class is really a Commonplace Book—a place to gather ideas. To integrate mediums, to take notes, draw mind maps, do musical interpretation exercises, list things, etc.

Commonplace books date back to the late 15th century Europe and played a key part in the intellectual ideas of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Key thinkers used common place books with the goal of nurturing focused thought and logic to lead humankind away from superstition and old traditions (ultimately this thinking leading to the ideas that inspired the American and French Revolution). Commonplace books were also a way for the people of the time to deal with information overload. Similar to our fascination and frustration with the Internet now, the invention of the printing press provided a never before seen amount of information in the form of books and pamphlets. The information would be amassed (through copying or pasting) by scholars and thinkers into their commonplace books and interspersed with personal thoughts, quotes from letters, illustrations and other relevant information that related to the owner’s passion or the theme of the commonplace book.

Commonplace books also by their very nature integrate two of the most essential elements of learning and mentally processing information: reading and writing. By arranging and commenting on the information gathered in a commonplace book, not only are reading and writing a continuous joint effort for understanding the world, but the information also comes together in a unique way to spark new ideas. Johnson discusses how the commonplace book plays an important part in “the slow hunch.” As the owner of the commonplace book rereads or browses all of the information, the lack of organization leads to a more organic and powerful source for fostering ideas or sparking the final “ah ha” of a hunch. Johnson recommends, “Imposing too much order runs the risk of orphaning a promising hunch in a larger project that has died, and it makes it difficult for those ideas to mingle and breed when you revisit them. You need a system for capturing hunches, but not necessarily categorizing them, because categories can build barriers between disparate ideas, restrict them to their own conceptual islands.”

This organic, intensely unique, idea-sparking book is the special roll that a sketchbook can play when it becomes a commonplace book.

A little extra:
• Commonplace books can contain any assortment of information, from ideas to observations, from recipes to photos and scraps of textiles. The most important thing is that you have a place to capture and integrate items that spark your thinking.
• Commonplace books are essentially sketchbooks, just customized with information rather than sketches. So you have lots of styles to choose from. Just remember that the most important thing is to get started and then, as your common place books grow, figure out what are the elements (size, shape, paper weight and texture) that help you work best.
• Commonplace books have been at the side of some of the world’s greatest thinkers: Darwin, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau to name a few.
• In recent literature, Klaus Baudelaire, of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events keeps a commonplace book.
• For more information on ideas and the role of commonplace books, I highly recommend Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. Also wiki is a great source of information to get you started if you want a more detailed history.

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