Life is full of uncertainties, but in order to study it in a classroom setting and explore its role in creativity, it helps to have a box. Specifically, a shoebox-sized box, wrapped in plain white packing paper and sealed shut with dark gray duct tape.
One such box was lying in the middle of my table at the Marbeck Center at Bluffton University in Bluffton. The seven other tables in the room had boxes, too. I had joined 40 students, freshmen, on Monday night for a workshop on uncertainty. It seemed the perfect coda to these students’ very first day of college.
“You can do anything to that box except open it,” said our leader, Julie Burstein. She is the author of “Spark: How Creativity Works.” The 2011 book was the summer reading assignment for first-year Bluffton University students. Burstein is also an award-winning former executive producer of the public radio program, “Studio 360.” We used to work together at WNYC.
“The job isn’t to figure out what is in your box,” she continued. “It’s to work together to decide what you think is in the box.”
It took a moment for me to make out the subtle distinction.
Burstein wasn’t asking us to be right. We would never know that, she told us, because we would never see what was in our boxes, not even after the workshop was over. That brought groans from around the room. Not knowing our rightness or wrongness goes against everything we’re taught. We’re conditioned to seek the correct answer. We are encouraged in our quest to be sure.
Yet how could we be sure if we weren’t allowed to open the box?
All around me, students vigorously shook their wrapped packages up and down, like they were gauging how much was left in a box of cereal. They turned their boxes slowly in their hands, feeling the way the hidden object inside shifted, listening to how it sounded as it knocked against its cardboard cage.
The box at my table held something that did not readily rattle around. It seemed to have two moods. At times, we could tilt the box far to the left or right before gravity would pull the object to the bottom. It settled with a “ka-thud,” as if there were a softness to it somewhere. The two-part beat sounded to me like it had a big, heavy kangaroo tail.
“It seems like it has two centers of gravity,” Burstein offered, stopping momentarily at our table. “At other workshops, I’ve known what was in the boxes. I love being in a place where I don’t know.”
Her words fell like a bread crumb on the trail toward spark, like something to write in big letters on the chalkboard of my mind: LOVE NOT KNOWING.
I looked at my teammates. We were free to make up what was in the box. That part now seemed easy. The daunting task now was on reaching a creative consensus.
“What’s got a soft belly but a hard shell?” I asked my teammates. “What gets stuck sometimes and moves easily at other times?”
A turtle? A toy? Adolescence?
“Please, keep that in the box!” a faculty member groaned.
The thought of a tail made me think of a comma. The thought of a comma made me think of a pause. The clunky way in which the object slid around in our box made me think of —
“It’s an Awkward Pause!” I proclaimed. “That’s what’s in the box!”
The faculty member gave me a quizzical smile. “I think the students will need something a little more tangible than that,” she said.
She was referring to the next task Burstein had given us: to show the others, through a little skit or pantomime, what we had decided was in our box.
“OK,” I said slowly, my mood darkening. I was flustered. I wanted my teammates to fall in love with my idea, and fall in line behind it, too.
I made a note on my mental chalkboard: I’M A CONTROL FREAK.
“Most everyone I know who does creative work comes to a point where they gave up,” Burstein told us. And that was usually when a breakthrough happened, she added.
One by one, the groups took turns miming what was in their boxes: Crayons. A stick. A paper clip. A stuffed animal. My group performed our pantomime of Awkward Pause.
“Uncomfortable?” someone offered from the back of the room. We accepted it, relieved to sit down.
Julie Burstein praised everyone for being so willing to stay with uncertainty.
“I’ve done this exercise and have had grown men in the corner, stabbing at the box with a pen knife,” she said.
“I wanna open the box!” one young man piped up, sensing an opportunity. Burstein just laughed.
“Everyone always does,” she said.
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or on Twitter, @lima_eddings.