Imagine That!

Annals of Ordinary and Extraordinary Genius

Aha! Recognizing Everyday Creativity

Recognizing insight in others stimulates our own aha! moments.

We know an aha! moment when we have one. An emotional exultation often experienced as light piercing darkness illuminates our mind as we see something we’ve never seen before. Recognizing that aha! as it takes place in someone else’s mind can sometimes be an equally moving moment of awareness.  Last month one of us (Michele) witnessed the flare of insight in a 5th grade classroom in Mississippi. Here’s what happened, in Michele’s own words.

For some time now, I have partnered with my colleague Lynnette Overby to present a haiku dance workshop in association with the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts Partners in Education Program. As part of a recent gig, I had the opportunity to demo how some part of that workshop might shape a classroom lesson. I had 30 minutes to lead some 5th graders in an exploration of abstracting as a concept and as a framework for the writing of haiku. 

The basic idea I hoped to get across is that abstractions are simplifications. They express the essence of some complicated experience or understanding.  Picasso’s ‘Bull’ is an abstraction (see left). So is a science experiment. So are numbers and so are many kinds of poetry, especially haiku. What all these share is the finding of a simple thread that weaves its way among complex phenomena to yield a surprising insight.  Haiku can help students “get” this concept by implementing it. The form is so spare it forces novice and master poets alike to strip some heightened experience of nature to its bare bones. Feelings, experiences, emotions and ideas that may at first occur as random images and impressions must be distilled into just a few words that are both efficiently descriptive and yet sufficiently ambiguous to carry multiple meanings and intentions.

As a prompt for the writing of haiku, I gave each of the students a different nature photograph. Step by step, they observed the photographs and imagined themselves within  the scene. Then they recorded on paper the things they saw, as well as the things they imagined hearing, feeling, smelling and so forth. I call this “getting clay on the table.” Now the poets had ideas and words to work with as they learned to construct a haiku. First they pulled out a few words to describe where or when the observed scene took place. Then they pulled a few more words to describe the most important or remarkable thing in that scene – what and what about it. They assembled these words and phrases in the haiku’s traditional 3 line form. This was a lot to do in half an hour and there was just time left to share the poems and the photos with other children seated nearby and then with the group as a whole.

It was in the sharing that I recognized a moment of insight. One of the students, a young girl, drew my attention to one of the other student’s photograph and asked, what is it?  I was disconcerted. I had tried to choose pictures of things the children would be familiar with, so that the imagined experience would have some of the richness of lived experience.  The photograph in question focused on a spider weaving a blade of grass into a circular web. Spider and web were backlit by a reddish yellow sun. But the photo was not as easily parsed as I had thought.

“That’s a spider,” I said. I included the other girl in my explanation, the one who had actually written her haiku to that picture. “Did you see the spider?”

She shook her head no. “What did you see?” I asked.

“The sun,” she answered.

Considering that she hadn’t seen the spider, I wondered what kind of impressions the sun alone had made on her. “Can I see your haiku?” She showed me something along these lines (I don’t have the exact words in front of me):

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the rising sun
the sun is setting

I read the poem out loud to the two girls. “That’s an interesting abstraction,” I said. “Having two things happen that supposedly can’t happen at the same time makes an interesting poem. It makes me think.”

It made the first little girl think, too. A few minutes later, just as the class was dismissed she tugged at my sleeve.

“I think I know how the sun can rise and set at the same time,” she said. “My mother once lived way up north. I can’t remember where…”

“Alaska?” I asked.

“Yes. Alaska. My mom told me that in winter the sun comes up very low and then, before you know it, it goes down again.”

“You’re right!” I said. “How clever of you to think of that!”

How clever, indeed. That little girl had realized that during the Alaskan winter, the sun, even at it’s highest, looks like a setting sun at any other time of year in almost any other place. And since it goes almost straight across the horizon, a rising sun could not only look like, but act like, a setting sun. The girl had puzzled out an incongruity, reconciling two apparently incompatible ideas. Aha!

As the mathematician and poet Jacob Bronowski once wrote (and I paraphrase), the discoveries of science and art are each in their own way explosions of hidden likeness. The impromptu collaboration between the two girls yielded just such an explosion. If the first little girl gave voice to an intuitively felt contradiction, the second gave voice to the combustion of that tension. In puzzling out how a setting sun and a rising sun could simultaneously be one and the same, things that were different suddenly became one. What a wonderful illustration of everyday creativity!

And what a wonderful stimulant to my own everyday creativity. The more I think about it, the more I like that haiku, though I would add a final gloss:

rising sun
the sun is setting
day’s night

And even Bob, who rarely puts his mind to poetry--let alone haiku--was inspired:

far north
in evenings without days
the setting sun rises

Have the aha! moments explored here inspired you, too? If so, feel free to post your haiku in the comment section.  By sharing everyday insights we sharpen our ability to recognize explosions of hidden likeness in others—and to appreciate those moments of awareness as our own.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

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