I looked at the date of my last post and wondered where time had gone. Truthfully, I’ve been fully occupied with creative endeavors–with my hands, my heart and my head. Running a virtual handmade goods shop (JN Originals) means you’re always jotting down ideas, shopping or searching for supplies, and developing new items. I love it! As a Board member of Students for a Creative Iowa, I’m also heavily involved with the Destination ImagiNation program that will be coming to a head very soon at the end of May at Global Finals at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. My husband and I are volunteering as Appraisers at this event. At the end of this month, I’ll be judging middle school students’ creative theatrical interpretations of this year’s National History Day theme, “Conflict & Compromise in History.” So, life is rich and full, and I’m deeply immersed in a multi-directional, creative journey. Along the way, however, I find it helpful to think about different kinds of framework in which creativity thrives.

In Destination ImagiNation, the program stresses the importance of divergent thinking, or “out of the box” thinking. People who are new to the program (or have even been involved in it for a number of years) are struck, however, by what seem to be an overwhelming number of rules. There is a Team Challenge that each 2-7 member group solves that is accompanied by half a dozen pages of single-spaced rules, in addition to a 40-page-plus general rule book called Rules of the Road. On the surface, this does not appear to be thinking outside the box at all, but instead the box itself! My philosophy, however, is that a box, or a framework, helps you to be creative. Having restrictions or limitations is not really limiting, but instead empowering because it stretches your imagination. This stretching is not always comfortable (in fact, sometimes it can be quite painful), but when you are able to solve a challenge or problem despite the limitations that exist, personal growth develops and creativity emerges.

In psychological terms, limitations create a state of “dynamic tension,” or a condition in which what we already know is mismatched with what is new. In Destination ImagiNation, the rules and/or restrictions push at the boundaries of our comfort zone, leading us into a “groan zone” that can make us anxious and uncomfortable, and sometimes disappointed. However, when we are willing to take a few risks, resist the temptation to drop the challenge, ignore the rules, or look for the easiest (and probably least unique!) solution, we emerge into a “growth zone” with new feelings of mastery, accomplishment and familiarity. And then the cycle begins again with something else that is new. This is what experiential learning is all about, and it is the foundation of the Destination ImagiNation program. It is no accident that the logo for the program is a box and a ball! The box represents the framework (with limitations), and the ball represents the team’s growth as it bounces out of the box. Of course, there’s always another box around the corner!

You often hear famous writers speak of the anguish that accompanies the act of producing a novel, a poem, a play or some form of writing. The limitations of their “box” can involve genre, time, place, point of view, characterization, plot, speech patterns, story length . . . and the list continues. What they are really dealing with is the proverbial groan zone that accompanies the process of creativity. “The only way to produce excellent writing,” says story analyst and writer Staton Robin (“How to get past Writer’s Block,” The Writer, April 2008), “is to work through story problems methodically, and know which ideas ought to be discarded and which can be improved.” Robin points out that writing, essentially, is problem-solving. When the writer works through these issues, creativity emerges and mastery of the subject matter ensues.

An engineer or artist, on the surface, appear to be dealing with different types of creativity. But in both cases, these individuals need to know the properties of the materials they are dealing with–and their limitations–before they can develop something new. Sometimes these limitations are self-imposed, and sometimes they come from outside sources, but in either case, the result is something new that would not have existed without the limitations. Necessity truly is the mother of invention!

As I think about the handmade goods I am now selling, these same creativity principles apply. When I first considered selling the items I made, I considered the range of skills I already had, as well as the published patterns to which I could apply them. Obviously, this was my comfort zone, and it would be easiest to simply produce items from these patterns. But I really wanted to challenge myself, so I set up a prevailing limitation: I would use only my own patterns. Of course, that meant I would have to develop them! This, then, became my groan zone, where I definitely felt anxious about my ability to develop my own patterns, and where I feared that what I produced would not appeal. I started with what was familiar to me: crocheted scarves and hair scrunchies. But as time continues, I am developing patterns for felted bags, needle books, flower brooches and Artist Trading Card organizers (“Treasure Books”). Before I began selling via the Web, I was comfortable with using the Web in general, but knew next to nothing about Web marketing, little about photography beyond the automatic settings on my camera, and had no idea how to price handmade goods. But you have to bounce “out of the box” sometime! I am gradually becoming more comfortable with these new challenges. You could say I’m dwelling somewhere in that growth zone, unconsciously looking for the next box around the corner.

In the end, I think, limitations are a good thing . . . perhaps even necessary to developing creativity. So, bring on those boxes!

© 2008 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved. Please note that the image in this post may not be used without permission.

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