Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fleshing out Ideas: The Orange exercise

Fleshing out Ideas: The Orange Exercise

A couple of years ago, when my son was at university, he was coming home upset when he got his assessments back either with a fail or barely scraping in a pass.  He complained that he was giving it his best, and that he just mustn’t be good enough. He didn’t want to drop out, but he wasn’t sure how much more humiliation he could take, constantly facing being a failure.

My son is never a failure, even if he fails in some of his efforts. He always received top marks for all the practicals required of him and was able to answer the lecturer’s questions even when no one else attending the lecture could, but according to him and some of his lecturer’s they just had no idea why he couldn’t transfer his competence when it came to getting things on paper.

Being an actively involved mum and worrying about him not achieving his dreams, I asked if I could assist in any way. And, because I have been working on improving my writing skills over the last ten years, even though I was applying them within my novel writing, he asked if I wouldn’t mind having a read of his failed assessment to see if I could detect where he was going wrong. We both knew that if I had completed the same assessment, I probably would have got higher marks, so we just needed to know what I would have done to work out what he was missing out on doing.

First up, my son was in deep trouble with putting words down on paper.  What he could rattle off to me with ease verbally became a tangled web of confusion when he attempted to say what he meant on paper. All those years in primary and high school, and he had never been shown how to get his words down right, never shown how to improve, only assessed and graded at a lesser level than others.  So my first piece of advice to him was to write it like he says it; to actually answer the question by speaking it aloud first, then having heard his answer and how smooth it had come out, to then try to write exactly what he had just said, verbatim.  This took him quite a bit of practice, but he started improving his written words immediately, until this was no longer a problem and he no longer had to answer the question aloud first.

The next thing I noticed within his answering was that he was limited in his ideas.  Whenever there was a ‘give an example’ type question, my son was unable to come at that one thing from a number of different angles. 

I used to be the same back when I used to go to school, but I must have changed over time while learning to write novels. Quite exacerbated with him one afternoon when I could see three or four different points that he couldn’t think of on the topic he was trying to answer staring at him in his text book, I worked out that he was suffering from ‘limited thinking’ and was just not allowing himself the time to come up with ‘more’ ideas with which to include as part of his answer, not allowing himself to explore other options.  

To try to help him along, I spontaneously asked him to think of the word ‘Orange’ and write down everything he could think of in relation to the word ‘orange’ over the next hour no matter how loose the association for him, and whether or not that association is ‘correct’ or not; and advised him that I would leave the room and sit down somewhere and do the exact same activity so we could compare results.

I left him sitting at his youngest sister’s writing desk and I went to my study.  I grabbed a piece of paper, and I listed all the things that were shouting for me to write down on the A4 notepad from the moment I wrote ‘Orange’ in the centre of the top line. 

In the first five minutes I listed one item after another until I had about fifteen items listed.  Then, my well of ideas dried up, and I looked over my list feeling quite satisfied by my efforts. Then, having given my mind a few minutes of rest, a second wave of associations to the word ‘orange’ started coming to me, and I slowly added another couple of items to my list, feeling rather proud of myself.  As I reread the list, just to make sure I had listed everything I could think of (not believing I could come up with any more ideas), yet another wave of ideas hit me. By this time, I had cottoned on that I needed to give myself breaks in between listing things, to allow some of the previous words listed in front of me to trigger new lines of thinking, sparking even more ideas.

Some of these new ideas weren’t directly associated with ‘orange’ only the association listed, and some ideas repeated themselves. But I kept adding more things that I associated with the word ‘orange’.  When the hour was up, I returned to my daughter’s room where my son was sitting down looking bored and frustrated even though he was straining to get a few more ideas on paper so that I wouldn’t be disappointed or something because he could hear me coming. I was surprised (and slightly disappointed – but not in him) when I found he had only five things listed on his sheet of paper.

When I told him how many items I was able to add to my list, he cried with frustration and amazement that I had reached thirty two things. 

Now I wasn’t trying to make him feel bad for not having achieved the same; but I was able to point out that there were more possibilities than he wasn’t allowing to flow through him.  I suggested that he cease trying to force the ideas to come to him, and do little things to help him become stronger at generating more ideas than just the initial ones. So, I didn’t show him my list.

Instead, I left him alone again with the advice, ‘now that you know that there are at least thirty two possible associations that I have come up with, why don’t you try again. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a high number like I did, just that you find a couple more ideas than what you have.’

This cheered him up a bit; it wasn’t a competition for which he was losing. He was free to only have to churn the cogs in his brain enough to come up one or two more than what he currently had.  The pressure came off. I stayed outside the room he was in for a few minutes listening.  

At first, he wasn’t writing anything on the paper, because I couldn’t hear the pen scratching.  But, after a while, I heard sudden movement followed by the pen on paper, and I could tell even without seeing him that he had just hit on his second wave of brilliant ideas; and I smiled.  I knew my son had it in him.  I knew he is smart and just needed to stop limiting himself to what immediately comes to mind, to give himself time to let those ideas come to him. 

Maybe, me being twenty three years older than him gave me more life experiences, more associations to the word ‘orange’ than him, but I didn’t think so.  He lived in the same house, the same suburb, the same country. Therefore, he saw much the same things as me.  This was not about how intelligent or smart either of us might or might not be.  This was about letting go of control and trusting your own self to deliver what is already within you.

When I returned to the room, my son did something that I do often but he had never done before: he lifted a hand into the ‘stop’ gesture, signalling for me to not start talking else I would ruin his concentration, ruin his line of thinking, would cause him to lose the flow of ideas now coming to him.

Did you get that?  Line of thinking.

Lines of Thinking

When my son first sat down to complete the ‘list anything and everything you can think of associated (no matter how loosely) to the word ‘orange’’, he only allowed himself to listen to the first line of his thinking; the one with the immediate responses.  But he had other lines, buried deeper, just waiting for a neural pathway to connect the lines and bring the idea forth into his consciousness.

I immediately retreated from the room.  And waited until he was ready to come and get me.

Then we compared lists.

Our first three things listed were exactly the same.  These were the immediate, easy, obvious associations we both made: it’s a colour; it’s a fruit; it’s the middle colour in traffic lights.

My son had built his list up and now had seventeen things on his list’ a huge improvement from where he had first believed possible.  And, when we compared what we had both recorded there were three or four items that were on his list but not mine, and vice versa that when we both heard the other persons idea that we had missed out on, had us both slapping our foreheads wondering ‘how did I miss that?’

My son learned a very important lesson that day that he still applies to this day.  For all future assessments, he no longer stuck to just the first three things he thought of (though he made sure he included these because he would have lost marks if he didn’t include these obvious ideas), but he started providing more content and less waffle. Everything his teachers and lecturer’s had been telling him all the way along, only he had not understood how to provide more content so did what most people do: fluffed his word count out with waffle. I’m really proud that I helped him learn this; and I appreciated him taking me out for dinner as his way of saying thanks.

And because of this new understanding, his marks jumped from averaging in the 48 – 53% mark to now hovering consistently at the 70 – 75%: a comfortable pass rather than a fail or just scraping in one.  We both don’t understand why he doesn’t get higher compared to other students, but we took the marks happily because they fell into the ‘breezed it in’ pass range.

This expanding your thinking exercise is useful for writers, and jobseekers, not just struggling university students. 

As a novelist, don’t limit yourself to just the first couple of story or scene ideas that come to mind.  Why not allow your mind to give you its second, third, fourth, fifth or more lines of ideas as well.  You might later dismiss some of those ideas, but at least you have more to choose from; at least you aren’t playing it safe and going with what everyone else thinks of.

As a jobseeker, don’t limit yourself to the same old boring method of submitting cover letters.  Use this technique to assist you think about your skills, knowledge and experience, so you can present the right information to potential employers.  Every jobseeker tells employers ‘I’m reliable’ and ‘I can do this job’.  Come up with examples from your past and demonstrate your knowledge rather than claim it.

Yesterday, I chanced upon a blog by a novel writer giving the exact same advice that I gave my son four years previously. Under the context of novel writing, this same blogger/writer was dispensing the same points I was trying to make with my son that day.  Unfortunately, I can’t link to that post because I was working on my laptop under battery power, and was unable to get mains powered in time, so lost the page I was at.

So, if you are a school or university student, a writer of fiction or non-fiction, or a jobseeker stuck for ‘fleshing out’ ideas, then I recommend you completing a similar idea generating exercise to that of my ‘orange’ exercise. You never know, you may just find that you too have more ideas than you thought you had.

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