As a college student I had the good fortune to meet Bob Gish, an English professor who turned me on to Styles and Structures: Alternative Approaches to College Writing by Charles Kay Smith.
This head-exploding book is a liberal education between covers. It begins with one big idea:
The premise of this book is that patterns of writing enact patterns of thinking, that by finding and practicing ways of writing we can literally think different things.
That sentence was a revelation that I’m still unpacking. In particular, I’m drawn to Smith’s process for unleashing creativity.
Creativity for all of us
Many of us have a romantic view of creativity. We see it as a rare event — a sudden flash of insight that emerges from the Eternal Mysteries. This means that only a few people blessed with special abilities can be creative.
Another option is to see creativity as a skill that anyone can develop. This skill involves:
- Stating an assumption
- Transforming it by rewriting it
- Evaluating the results
Smith calls this the rhetoric of reperception. As an example, he starts with this assumption:
The Middle Ages was a repressive and intellectually stagnant period, whereas the Renaissance flowered into a time of great creativity.
We can transform this statement in eight specific ways.
1: Reversal Transformation
Take the major terms in our assumption and switch their places in the sentence:
The Renaissance was a repressive and intellectually stagnant period, whereas the Middle Ages flowered into a time of great creativity.
Sound strange? Perhaps. But Smith finds evidence to confirm it, including the works of Dante, Chaucer, Albrecht Dürer, and other artists of the Middle Ages.
2: General-to-Specific Transformation
Replace abstract terms such as Renaissance and Middle Ages with concrete details, such as the names of specific people:
Erasmus, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and da Vinci were men of great creativity, whereas Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, and Dürer were repressive and intellectually stagnant.
This transformation immediately reveals a flaw in our initial assumption.
3: Comparative-Quantity Transformation
Here we often the wording of our assumption so that it becomes less absolute. This simple change yields a fresh viewpoint:
Only some types of intellectual endeavor, such as painting and sculpture, displayed great creativity during the Renaissance…whereas only some types of endeavor, such as lyric poetry and individualized portraiture during the Middle Ages could be said to be intellectually stagnant.
4: Definitional Transformation
Notice the key terms in our initial assumption:
- Middle Ages
- Intellectually stagnant
We can take each of these terms, question their definition, and explore the consequences.
For example, what does Renaissance mean? Does this term refer to a specific period of time? If so, then when did it begin and end?
Perhaps Renaissance does not refer to a period of time. What if we instead define this word as a creative process that’s been practiced throughout human history? With this definition we can take our thinking to new places.
5: Implicit-Assumptions Transformation
Look for mini-assumptions that are buried within a single statement. For example, our initial assumption implies that:
- Creativity can happen suddenly in the midst of stagnation.
- Conditions can change radically in a short period of time.
- People can change radically in a short period of time.
If we can counter any of these smaller assumptions, then new ideas become available to us.
6: Implicit-Criteria Transformation
Many assumptions reinforce value judgments such as innovation is inherently good and stability is inherently stagnant. And yet these are simply additional assumptions for us to question and test.
7: Figurative Transformation
Our initial assumption contains a figure of speech — “the Renaissance flowered into a time of great creativity.” To Smith, this is an image of “some sort of swamp flower blooming above a stagnant pool.”
What happens if we use a different metaphor?
For example, we could describe the Middle Ages as the seed or nurturing soil that allowed the Renaissance to bloom. We can see the two periods of history as continuous rather than unrelated.
8: Diagrammatic Transformation
We can also translate our initial assumption from words into visuals.
For instance, we could count the number of inventions and works of art produced in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. Then we could arrange those numbers in a table or diagram that allows us to compare the two periods of history in a visual way.
We can apply these eight transformations to any assumption — and have fun with the process.
To get the most value from the rhetoric of reperception, approach it like a child at play. Experiment and stay open to pleasant surprises.