How to be Mentored by your Hero

How to be Mentored by your Hero

My wish? To be mentored by Madeleine L’Engle.

In my twenties, I wrote a letter to Madeleine L’Engle.

I knew the chances of hearing back from her were very low. She was busy and surely couldn’t respond personally to every reader. Knowing these truths didn’t stop me from harboring a fantasy that somehow, in some way, my letter would spark a connection between the two of us. In the end, I did hear back from Madeleine. Her assistant wrote me a sweet note to say that Madeleine had been touched by my letter and wished me all the best with my writing.

I realized that I had received more than most people do. And still, I couldn’t help feeling slightly tragic about the situation. Tragic enough, actually, that I spent time unpacking the issue. What did I want? Why did I want it? Was there a way I could achieve that goal even if I couldn’t spend time with Madeleine herself?

A quick side note: I’ve written before about the superpowers that belong to writers. The scenario I just described is a prime example. Writers know in their bones that what a character wants isn’t always what she ends up achieving. Since this truth applies to characters, it’s not hard to see how it applies to our real lives, too.

In any case, as I unpacked my wish, here’s what I discovered.

1. Mentorship is the art of asking resonant questions.

While mentors often have life experiences we seek, mentorship isn’t about being given a step-by-step guide. Someone else’s story is unique and particular to their own life circumstances. However, their stories offer connection points that lead us to questions of our own. The best mentors open discussions and then listen as we explore the resulting questions and possible answers. Through asking questions and seeking answers, we unlock the answers and that next-step clarity that we seek.

2. Often, we’re already being mentored without realizing it.

Why did I want Madeleine L’Engle to mentor me? Because she already had. Through her nonfiction and fiction, she had already led me to deep questions that sparked significant growth. She had unlocked next steps for me. What I wanted was more of that experience. It’s not only writers who can be mentors. Visual artists mentor us through their artworks and their artist statements and stories. Musicians mentor us through their music, their liner notes, and their interviews on the process. The same is true for dancers, teachers, chefs, gardeners … any creative person whose work results in something we can observe, examine and explore.

3. In order to make use of the mentorship at our fingertips, we need to think in specifics.

As an enthusiastic reader of Madeleine L’Engle, I gained a certain level of mentorship. To dive deep, I thought I needed to meet her in person. Had she been sitting with me in person, however, I’m sure she would have turned the focus back to me. She would have asked me questions, pushed me to reflect, and invited me to make discoveries. I wondered: what if I read her work with my specific questions in mind? Might I stumble across clues that would lead me to deeper discoveries––in writing craft, in mindset, in creativity? It turned out that by bringing specific intention to the reading process, I entered into an entirely new level of mentorship with Madeleine L’Engle. The amazing thing was that not only could I have her as my mentor, but any other author who I also admired. I had a new skill set that allowed me to learn from the masters.

As another side note, it’s important to point out that I continue to work monthly with an actual living, breathing mentor. An outside perspective provides insight into our blind spots, encouragement and accountability. Finding ways to mentor with the masters doesn’t replace our need for authentic connection with advisors. However, once you learn the skills needed to mentor with the masters, libraries, museums and even Netflix turn into treasure troves of learning opportunities.

What skills are needed?

  1. Observe a poem, painting or film to identify what is working.
  2. Analyze specifically why and how that element of craft works.
  3. Experiment with similar strategies in your own work.
  4. Riff on the strategies until you make them your own.

And don’t forget that you can replace “poem, painting or film” in the above list with “creative life” or any other focus that appeals to you with regard to one of your heroes.

Here are your action steps:

  1. Choose a hero-mentor and decide what you’d like to learn.
  2. Reach out to someone you know and respect. Ask them if they’d meet with you regularly as you pursue your learning goals.
  3. Give them permission to challenge you, and commit to listening fully without defending yourself. Remember, growth takes courage and determination.
  4. Get started!

Naomi’s Playlist: Knowledge Map

My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.


Object: Creating a focused learning plan

What Didn’t Work: Allowing the content that others post, podcast or promote to shape my learning on their schedule, being constantly overwhelmed and distracted, not knowing where to start.

My Aha! Moment:

You know how it feels

when you see your to-do list

and its filled with tasks

you don’t know how to do

your heart races

and your mind fizzles

and you feel like a rock climber


with no hand-holds

your feet slip-sliding

Why am I so behind?

I know I need to learn but what

do I type into google?

Does everyone else already know …


You remember

How simple it seemed

In school

Your teacher shaped your learning

All you had to do was show up

The day planned in sturdy blocks

Topics listed in clean lines on the board

Here’s the next step

And the next

Sometimes you were bored

But if you were overwhelmed

You could raise your hand

I’m lost.

Where do I start?

Where do I start?

If I only study what I already know

What about the things I don’t know?

What if I’m missing that one

magic wand


If I raise my antenna

to take it all in

I won’t miss anything.

But what if I actually miss everything?

What if the noise

drowns out what actually matters?

Thus: The Knowledge Map

  • You know more than you think you know about where to start learning.
  • Think of your growth like a jigsaw puzzle. If you obsess on one middle piece, you might be stuck for years.
  • Instead, you start with the edges, and look for what fits. What you’re doing is giving yourself a starting place.
  • A knowledge map pins down the “you are here,” arrow and constructs a learning plan from that location.

How to Play:

  1. Brainstorm the general categories involved in this area of knowledge. For instance, in marketing, your areas might be social media, email marketing, content development. In writing, your areas might be character, plot, setting, theme.
  2. Are any of your subcategories of others? Sort accordingly until you have master categories and subcategories.
  3. Add any other key subcategories that come to mind. The more intricately you know a topic, the more subcategories that are likely relevant to you.
  4. Put your categories on a map. Tap into your intuitive thinking by assigning each category an image. Draw them or collage them––have fun with it. Perhaps “dialogue” is a well on the farm labeled “character.”
  5. Use two post-its per category and subcategory. One post-it is for knowledge or mastery. Where is your firm footing when it comes to this topic? The other post-it is for what you wonder. What would you like to know?
  6. Map the entire area of knowledge, and then step back to take a look. It may be that some categories are stage one, others are stage two, and some are stage three. Alternatively, you may have stage one, two and three within each category.
  7. Give your stages names that clearly describe their aims. For instance, your stage names may include: build foundational skills, experiment with possibilities, dive deep into specifics.
  8. Sort your questions into these stages.
  9. Figure out a plan for how to start stage one. Seek out resources specifically focused in this area.

Player’s Notes:

  • Keep the process playful. Don’t think in terms of right and wrong. The point is to figure out where you are currently, and based on that location, where your energy will be best focused next.
  • Keep the process loose. As you head into stage one, you’ll encounter new information that may change the categories or timeline. Give yourself permission to revise your plan. You’ll know if you’re sabatoging yourself and derailing the process, or if a change is genuinely needed.
  • Keep the process rule-free. Once you know a topic fits in stage three, you won’t be so overwhelmed when you encounter it in real life. If you find a podcast about stage three that you’d like to listen to while you’re in stage one, go for it! Your map isn’t a set of rules. It’s a navigation tool.

Our world is changing at an extraordinary rate. Lifelong learning is no longer optional. If we want to work, play, connect, and make a difference in the world, we need to engage with new ideas, new technologies, and new skills. It’s true that we need to stretch ourselves. True growth, however, takes time. When we choose to go deep, to learn authentically, and to build bridges from current knowledge to new concepts, we may feel like we’re going to be left behind. However, in the end, much less time is lost skittering from idea to idea, only to learn nothing. Take the time you need. Make choices, however difficult they may be. See how life becomes more settled and richer because of the decisions you have made.

How to Reach a Complex Goal


Do you have enormous goals on your mental or physical to-do list such as:

  • Learn how to podcast
  • Write a novel
  • Run a half-marathon
  • Learn to play the guitar

Projects such as these beg the question: Where should I start?

When learning to draw, the first task is to stop one’s mind from translating the concept “apple” into a symbol. We must see the real apple with all its curves and irregularities in order to accurately draw it.

In my experience, the same is true with goals. Our brains, amazing tools that they are, simplify complex projects into impossible-to-tackle placeholders. While we can pick up a guitar and start plucking strings, for most of us, the time spent isn’t likely to result in learning to play guitar.


  1. We haven’t clarified what we mean by “learn to play the guitar.”
  2. We don’t know where to start.
  3. We quickly lose heart when we can’t track or measure our progress.

Let’s turn these challenges into proactive steps, and see where they lead.

Clarify the Goal

In the Attic, we explore the heart of a project. In the Studio, we improvise to bring new possibilities into the world. However, the Workshop provides us with tools to give our loose idea-material structure. In the Workshop, one asks: What do I know? What do I need to know? What are the pieces of this project or this skill? Where might I start?

One major task of the Workshop is to determine the scope of our project. It’s one thing to learn to front a rock band, and an entirely other one to learn to strum campfire songs. When we clarify our project, we determine our focus. With focus, we can clearly see which actions will be most effective to help us reach our goal.

One of the best strategies for clarifying your project is to take a quiet moment, close your eyes, and picture success in detail.

  • What will the scene look like on the day you achieve this goal?
  • What will you see, hear, feel?
  • What will you be physically doing?

Once you have a clear picture, capture the highlights on paper. This scene becomes your destination point, and helps you determine which actions are relevant, and which are not.

Determine Where to Start

While we want our destination to be a firm location, with creative projects especially, the path to the goal can vary widely. Consider an open space with many trails that end at a lake. There may be four or five possible starting points, and various trails with scenic points along the way.

In the end, our experience of “hiking to the lake” is singular. No matter how much we plan a hike or a creative project, something is bound to surprise us along the way. Ideally, we want to create a plan with enough structure to keep us moving toward our ultimate goal, while leaving room for surprise.

Ask Yourself:

  • Where are my current circumstances with regard to this project?
  • What do I hope to learn along the way?
  • How much time and stamina do I have?

Track and Measure Progress Toward Your Goal

Each year when Society of Young Inklings begins the Inklings Book editorial process, we ask our mentors to choose a specific revision focus. For instance, the mentor and youth writer may focus on developing character through dialogue.

By focusing on dialogue, the youth writer sees improvement that can be specifically described. “My dialogue used to be x, and now it is y.” This clear growth builds confidence. While revising with a specific focus, writers often identify other weaknesses and fix them without becoming sidetracked. Contrast this approach with a general “I’ll fix everything that’s wrong” approach. You can see how rabbit trails and discouragement easily set in.

In order to track and measure your progress, be specific about what you’re tracking. Ask yourself:

  • What external milestones are essential along the way?

    Here, consider the achievements between start and finish, such as character profiles, a plot, a first draft, a critique session, a revision, etc.

  • What internal milestones are essential along the way?

    Here, refer to the question: What do I want to learn along the way? Break that goal into measurable steps. If you want to learn about developing believable characters, what is involved?

First Steps

If you do have a giant project on your to-do list, depending on your style, your first step may be to head into the Attic to figure out why this project is so important to you. Alternatively, your first step may be to hit the Studio to play around and find your general direction.

Somewhere, though, early on in the process, the Workshop becomes a necessary step. For most of us, the purpose of major projects such as writing a novel or running a half-marathon is to challenge ourselves to grow. Growth will happen naturally whether we make a plan or not, but we’re more likely to see the results we hope for if we understand what those results will look like—both externally and internally.

I look forward to hearing about your projects and successes! Make sure to share so we can cheer you on.

Naomi’s Playlist: Cardflow+

My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.


Object: Breaking a complex problem or idea into manageable parts

What Didn’t Work: Starting a project with the first step that came to mind, trying to hold an entire problem in my mind at once while playing with possible solutions, hoping a solution would show up if I simply “thought harder.”

My Aha! Moment: When I first rolled up my sleeves to try David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, the piece that sounded most ridiculous to me was the suggestion to “write each to-do on a separate piece of paper” as part of a general brain-dump. Umm … I thought, That’s going to be a whole ream of paper, and an overwhelming stack to work through.

However, the brilliance of the suggestion became quickly clear. As I wrote each item on a separate piece of paper, the tangles in my mind loosened. Snarl by snarl, the tasks and projects unwound themselves until I had a clear vision of my situation. Even though the pile was overwhelming, it was also complete. It turns out one piece of paper is easy to handle. Dealing with one to-do at a time is efficient and satisfying. Sorting tasks became much more simple, too. I could make a project stack, and put the tasks in a general order.

Since then, I’ve applied this one idea per paper idea to many projects. Most of the time, I use index cards rather than full sheets of paper, as they are highly versatile and also small enough to allow me to see a full storyboard of sequential ideas. Sometimes I use paper index cards, but often, I use one of my favorite iPad tools, Cardflow+.

How I Play:

  • I start with a general list brainstorm. What are the parts of this problem? What are the pieces of this idea? I write one idea or question per card.
  • I spread the cards out on my carpet, or zoom out from my digital storyboard until I can see the full picture.
  • I consider how I might sort the cards. Could the questions be put into categories? Could the tasks be sorted into stages? Once I come up with an organizing plan, I start to sort.
  • Sometimes, my sorting plan fails. Maybe the idea only fits half the questions. In that case, I look at why my plan failed and decide how I might alter or revise my approach.
  • Once I have my ideas sorted, I look at them again and decide whether I can now create an action plan, or whether I need to break some of the pieces down even further.

Player’s Notes:

  • I decide whether to use digital tools or paper ones based on the level of mess. When I have a highly tangled knot of a problem, I generally use paper to start.
  • When I start with paper, I often transfer over to digital once I have the first round of sorting done. That way, I can take my ideas with me and continue to adapt the plan.
  • I particularly like Cardflow+ with the Apple pencil on my iPad because I can doodle pictures and write words on my cards. The entire process reminds me very much of storyboarding a plot.

Take it to the Next Level:

I’ve found that the more I list and sort, the better I become at categorizing. Also, I’ve become more daring about the sorts of problems I’ll take on, knowing that I have a way to break down the challenges into steps. What kind of challenge might you use index cards or an app such as Cardflow+ to help you tackle?

How to Break through Blocks by Structuring Your Thinking


How often do you think about your thinking?

Thinking patterns are largely invisible. For efficiency’s sake, our brains learn the steps of various thinking tasks and run them on autopilot. For instance, if you tried to describe the steps involved in making a decision, you might find yourself at a loss. Well … I just choose. And the process feels like that, too. One minute you don’t know what you’ll eat for lunch and the next, you’re tossing together a Caprese salad.

Here’s what happened behind the scenes. You’ve identified a problem: you’re hungry. You’ve considered criteria: I’m trying to eat whole, healthy food. You’ve brainstormed options: I have tomatoes, arugula, mozzarella, bread … what can I make? You’ve evaluated options: I feel like something cool because it’s hot out today … a salad sounds better than a toasted sandwich. And then, based on all of this thinking, you chose. Collapsing all of that thinking into a second or two is an amazing, highly productive function of our brains. However, the same functions that speed up our thinking can cause us to become set in our ways. Worse, sometimes the split-second thinking breaks down. What if we go through the process, arrive at the Caprese salad solution, and then think … meh? If we don’t know what steps brought us to this decision, we struggle to rewind, revise, and come to a new solution. So, a block––small or large––sets in.

The Ways We Block Ourselves

Picture a classroom of third graders. Today, their teacher has posed a challenge. In groups of four, the students must come up with a product they can create and sell. Imagine that in one group, the teacher has placed the most extreme big-idea thinker in class alongside the most practical thinker. The conversation might go:

Theo: I have the best idea. We can sell magic beans.

Jessica: There’s no such thing as magic beans.

Theo: Ooh! We can put them into bags and make people think they’re magic.

Jessica: People won’t think they’re magic.

Theo: But we can put on a magic show and convince them.

Jessica: (raising a doubtful eyebrow) That won’t work.

Theo: Okay, then, let’s sell a potion that cures hiccups.

Jessica: There’s no such thing.

And round and round, the conversation goes.

The thing is, both Jessica and Theo are right. Each of Theo’s products have the potential to turn a profit. On the other hand, Jessica is pointing out important holes in Theo’s plans with her objections. When Jessica and Theo are both working full-steam simultaneously, no progress can be made. Further, both students are becoming more frustrated by the minute. Soon, they’ll be too emotional to discuss the problem at all.

The Dreamer and the Critic

We each have a Theo and a Jessica living in our minds. When we let them both loose on a problem at the same time, we dig ourselves deeper and deeper into a creative ditch. In a situation such as our Caprese salad conundrum, when our natural decision making process doesn’t provide a useful solution, often Theo and Jessica both leap into action. Turkey sandwich! Too dry! Yogurt and granola! That’s breakfast! Chipolte! I don’t have time to go out!

Research is now showing that the way our brains function in the right and left hemispheres isn’t as cut and dried as we once thought. That said, we do know that the two modes of thinking need breathing room. When we’re trying to dream big, we must learn to pause our inner critic. When we’re analyzing and refining a solution, we need our inner dreamer to stop offering new ideas.

Structuring our Thinking

Most situations don’t call for structured thinking. We can rely on our brains and their efficient ability to shortcut our decision-making process. However, when we find ourselves feeling stuck, structured thinking can be highly useful. We may need to be intentional about leaving Jessica in another room in order to let Theo dream freely. Then, we can ask Theo to exit, and rely on Jessica to evaluate the ideas and craft a practical course of action.

Most people have more creative ideas than they give themselves credit for having. The issue is not that they don’t have ideas, but that they dismiss them too quickly. Other people are overwhelmed with unusable ideas because they don’t know how to sort, organize and develop their piles of thoughts. We need Theo AND Jessica. We need to give them both room to shine.

The Dot Exercise

Here’s a quick thinking tool for you. Start with a large piece of paper and a pen. Title your page with a problem you’re working to solve. Then, give youself full permission to write any possible solution that pops to mind. If any “but” thinking shows up, gently lead Jessica back out of the room. Take at least three minutes to brainstorm. Next, take out colored dot stickers. Place dots next to any ideas that seem plausible. Then, place a second colored dot next to ideas that you’d be excited to try. The goal of the Dot Exercise is to first come up with a set of ideas, and then funnel them down to a workable set of options. Last week, I wrote about the POINT process, which is a fantastic next step for exploring a few ideas deeply in order to make a final decision.

Which of the two voices is louder in your mind––Jessica or Theo? How might you split up tasks to utilize each of their strengths? I’d love to hear about what you’re discovering. Share below, share on Facebook or Twitter, share in any way you like. I love hearing from you.

Naomi’s Playlist: POINT

My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.


Object: Making practical creative decisions.

What Didn’t Work: Trying to jump from a general discussion about ideas to an immediate choice.

My Aha! Moment: I’ve been exploring some new creative thinking tools after taking a course called “Creative Thinker’s Toolkit” that’s offered on Great Courses Plus. One of those tools is called POINT, a step-by-step tool to help thinkers develop novel ideas into something workable.

Most have had the experience of reaching for ideas during a brainstorming session, only to later toss out the “wild” ideas as unusable. When we don’t know how to make an idea work, and it doesn’t fit our normal patterns, we reject it. What would happen if we asked ourselves: How might this idea work?

One of my students was starting a new novel. She was at that moment we often reach when solving a creative puzzle. We have a few ideas and we know the next step is a decision. Sometimes we instinctively know which choice is right. Many times, though, if we’re honest with ourselves, we feel less than clear.

Fortunately, at that moment, I remembered the POINT tool. “Don’t choose!” I said, and then asked if she’d like to try a new approach. She was game, so we went through a structured evaluation of her ideas using POINT. By the time she made her choice, she had clarity and confidence and a plan to take forward.

POINT works for making decisions about writing projects, but also for making any decision that has more than one possible solution. Here’s how it can work.

How POINT works:

  • P stands for “positives.” What makes this idea appealing?
  • O stands for “opportunities.” What options will this idea make possible?
  • I stands for “issues.” What challenges might this idea bring?
  • NT stands for “new thinking.” What new ideas arise as you consider this idea in more depth?

Player’s Notes:

  • POINT offers a method for considering a more unusual idea. When you feel yourself resisting an option because of the unknowns, try focusing on one POINT question at a time. You don’t have to see the end result to consider the possibility.
  • Once you’ve evaluated each option, take time to look over the full list before making a final decision. New options you hadn’t considered may arise. Might two of your options combine? Might your ideas lead to a new option that has yet to come up?

Take it to the Next Level:

  • Not every problem requires creative problem solving, but if we approached more problems with this kind of thinking, we may find more novel solutions. Take a moment to brainstorm the general challenges, small and large, you face in your life. What problem may benefit from brainstorming and POINT thinking?

Would you like a shortcut for structuring your POINT thinking? I’ve created a template, which you can download here

I am not sure to whom to give primary credit for the POINT tool, but I discovered it while taking the Creative Thinker’s Toolkit course on The Great Courses Plus, delivered by Professor Gerard Puccio. Thank you to Professor Puccio and The Great Courses Plus for sharing this fantastic tool, and for providing an overall well-developed course. I highly recommend the course for anyone who is interested in developing his or her creative thinking skills.


How Improv Can Transform Your Life


I used to think that in order to do improv you had to be funny.

By funny, I meant witty. I meant the kind of person who tosses off one-liners on Twitter that make people fall off their chairs laughing.

Then, I studied improv. I was shocked to learn that the wittiest actors had a more difficult time learning to improvise than most. Why? Because the foundational skill of improv is listening. Once they’ve truly listened, improvisers are taught to say, “Yes, and …”

Time after time, I watched the funniest actors either say, “No, but listen to my hilarious idea,” or struggle to speak at all, too caught up with their own plans to be present in the scene. When we say “yes, and ….” we have immediate momentum. Many of us have heard this phrase so often that it’s easy to miss its subtle power. But for a moment, stop to consider a challenging situation in your life.

What if rather than struggling along, you could have immediate momentum?

Let’s put “yes, and …” into context.

Say you’ve been wanting to organize your garage for quite some time. In fact, it’s become such a jungle you think small creatures may be hiding out there. What would happen if the next time you think (or your spouse says) “You know, we really should clean the garage,” you said, “You’re right. I’ll take a few minutes right now to straighten the shoes.” Once you’re out there, straightening the shoes, how likely is it that you’ll think of three or four other small tasks that you can do without too much effort? Each task moves you closer to your goal: a clean garage. Presto! Instant momentum. That’s what you normally say and do, right? Of course not. What you do is think something along the lines of “I know, but it’s such a mess and I have no idea where to start, and what difference will it make anyway? It will just get messy all over again.”

“Yes, but …” or worse, “No” stop us in our tracks. Every time we say these things, we might as well be pulling out a shovel and digging ourselves deeper into a trench. We are literally becoming entrenched.

“Yes, and …” is deceptively simple. But, mastering this phrase can transform your life.

Say Yes

The next time you’re with your daughter or niece and she tells you, “There’s a dragon in the living room,” try saying, “Seriously? Let’s go sneak up on it!”

The next time someone invites you to try something new and you’re not sure if you’ll fall flat on your face, try saying, “I’d love to try. Can you show me how?”

Should We Always Say Yes?

Sometimes we need to establish boundaries. We can’t say yes to every coffee invitation, every work project, or every cupcake offered. On stage, sometimes actors throw out a wild, impossible suggestion. “Let’s use our wings and fly!” In these cases, both actors have to think, “How might I say yes? How might I move the scene forward?”

What we’re aiming to avoid is the knee-jerk no. It’s the no that leaps from our lips the minute we face the unknown or unexpected. The knee-jerk no is powerful, and much more present in our lives than we realize. What would happen if for one day, you banned the word no? What if every time you were about to say, “no,” you asked yourself, “How might I say yes?” If nothing else, you might have to say, “Maybe. I’ll get back to you tomorrow.” But for one day, what if your knee-jerk answer was yes?

Add And

Surprisingly, as hard as “yes” can be, the part that’s even more difficult for many actors is “and.” One actor says, “Watch out! It’s an alligator.” The second actor jumps back, turns to the first actor and asks, “What do we do?” Now the first actor has all the responsibility to continue building the scene, while the other actor passively comes along for the ride. What if the second actor said, “I have a lasso!” Suddenly, the scene has become a lot more interesting, and it’s probably headed in a direction the first actor didn’t expect. Most of the time, diversity of thought makes for more layered and unexpected ideas.

This kind of situation happens in real life, too. A coworker or boss tells us, “We don’t have enough people attending our event to break even with our budget,” and we reply, “What can I do to help?” What if, instead, we said, “Do you have a minute to brainstorm? One idea might be …” “Yes, and…” is the equivalent of reaching out to offer a hand when someone is struggling to carry an awkward box. The point is not to make every problem our problem, or to tell other people “You know what you should do …” but rather to notice opportunities to not only offer support, but to collaboratively transform the moment into a possibility neither person expected.

My question to you is—What would happen if for one day, you intentionally said “Yes, and …” to the world around you?

Have fun experimenting, and let me know how it goes!

Naomi’s Playlist: Brainsparker

My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.


Object: Bringing the spark and energy of improvisation into everyday work sessions

What Didn’t Work: Trying to improvise on my own.

My Aha! Moment: Joyce Piven is one of the mentors who has been most significant in my creative life. In my Writerly Play work with students, I’ve sought to achieve the spontaneity and creative energy she taught me to stretch toward in story theatre classes at Piven Theatre Workshop. There’s something indefinable—and yes, a little magical—that happens when a group of improvisers play together.

Since then, I’ve researched the science of play, searched for cold, hard facts to define what play is and why it works, and read hundreds of articles on the topic. However, when push comes to shove, whenever anyone asks me why I believe in play, I show them a group of people playing together. When you see the magic for yourself—or even better, experience it—you know it works.

I’ve often told the story of my graduate school advisor asking me whether I play in my own creative process. She challenged me to find a way to do so. Honestly, I’ve struggled with this journey. Playing alone, while effective, isn’t the same as playing in a group. My own brain doesn’t naturally toss out ideas that disrupt my thinking process and keep me off balance. However, that state of unpredictability, of being ready for anything, is one of the most valuable parts of play. That’s why any tool that provides creative disruption can be extremely valuable. Brainsparker is one of those tools. It’s an iOS app, but the developers are also working on an Android version. Also, you can sign up for creative sparks via email as an alternative.

How I Play:

  • Brainsparker is a simple, colorful app, with animated card decks.
  • To play, you open the app, scroll through the cards, and click on one.
  • The card flips over to reveal words, a question or an image.
  • I take a moment to mentally list any ideas the card brings to mind.
  • Then, I turn over a new card and repeat.

Player’s Notes:

  • One of the best things about improv is that every game can be applied to different purposes. Your can use a game to move into a state of play, to work on a specific project, or to solve a creative problem. So, before I start a Brainsparker session, I come up with a quick objective, so I know the parameters for my play.
  • The Brainsparker card decks are organized by purpose, so you can choose the ones that fit your parameters quickly.
  • Sometimes I need to capture my thinking, in which case I make sure to have pen and paper (or iPad and Apple Pencil).
  • Sometimes I don’t need to capture my thinking, so I let myself play fast and don’t slow myself down with the note-taking process.

Take it to the Next Level:

  • You can stretch your thinking by forcing yourself to make associations between unrelated items. If you’re trying to push yourself toward truly novel ideas, try a session where you consider how each of the cards offers new perspective on your creative challenge. Ask: How could this relate to x?

The Stages of the Creative Problem Solving Process


Last week, I challenged my team of Inklings mentors to each invent his or her ideal creating space. I gave the group five minutes, and asked them to use one side of their paper to document their problem solving, and the other side to capture their actual idea.

If you have five minutes to spare, try this challenge yourself. If you don’t have time, think of a recent problem you solved. Try to remember beyond the solution to the actual thinking process involved.

Let’s Examine your Process

  1. How much time did you spend clarifying the challenge? Did you explore what “ideal space” meant before generating ideas?
  2. How much time did you spend brainstorming or exploring options? Did you stretch for unusual ideas?
  3. How much time did you spend reviewing your ideas and developing the ones that fit best?
  4. As part of formalizing your idea, did you create any sort of an action plan?

Give yourself a 1-5 score in these four stages of the problem solving process. Choose one if you hardly considered (or struggled with) the stage, and five if you handled the stage smoothly.

Stages of the Creative Process

  1. The first stage is Clarification. Here, we ask questions and explore current reality. We narrow our focus to make sure the idea-generation points in the right direction.
  2. The second stage is Ideation. Here, we generate ideas. The ability to brainstorm an abundance of ideas leads to novel solutions.
  3. The third stage is Development. Here, we identify promising ideas and refine them into truly workable solutions.
  4. The fourth stage is Implementation. Here, we create an action plan and get to work. Sometimes during Implementation, we discover another problem, which sends us back to the clarification stage.

Play to your Strengths

If you’ve been poking around this site, you may have seen and/or taken the Creativity Styles quiz. You likely know I’m passionate about helping people play to their strengths. So, you might be surprised when I say this: I believe that effective creative people develop skills in each of these stages, particularly in the ones that are most difficult for them.

It’s true that you’ll have more aptitude for certain stages depending on your creative style, but that doesn’t mean you get a pass on the others. Mastery comes from figuring out how to play to your strengths AND succeed in all four of these stages.

Do Your Blind Spots Help or Hinder You?

Where are your strengths? Do you have any blind spots? Write down what you notice. All of this thinking leads to this question: How might you boost your weaker problem solving skills in a way that appeals to your creative style?

You may be wondering: How does the creative problem solving process fit into the Writerly Play rooms? Great question! Each time you enter a room, you’ll likely circle through these stages at least once before you’re ready to move on to another room. Where you may bounce from room to room, the creative problem solving stages are generally tackled in order.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. When our Inklings mentors unpacked this experience, it was fascinating to witness firsthand how different we all are in our thinking processes. I gained particularly helpful insights from the mentors whose thinking was most opposite to my own. So, share away!

Naomi’s Playlist: Airtable

My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.


Object: Sorting ideas and options into now, queue and later categories.

What Didn’t Work: Keeping a loose mental list of all the books I wanted to read and ending up feeling forever behind, taking the next action on all the projects on my mind, and all the ones that anyone talked about on the most recent podcast that I realized I “really should do,” hoping that I’d recall a blog post or lesson plan when the opportunity to repurpose material arose.

My Aha! Moment: When I learned my primary creative style is Inventor, I dug deeper into what this style meant about my thinking. First, I learned I’m a visual thinker. No wonder databases and spreadsheets made my head hurt. I examined how the Inventor style expresses itself in my personal creative process, and realized that my strengths are in ideation and implementation. So, I have an idea and then I act. This loop repeats at speed. Projects layer on top of projects until I’m buried. My own deadlines are forced to defer to the “hard” deadlines provided by others, and I end up frustrated. The projects I care about most move along at a snail’s pace because I’m doing forty of them simultaneously.

I imagined how I’d like my process to work. I pictured a colorful machine with various chutes and conveyer belts all sending material to an “action zone,” where projects could be completed, wrapped in shiny paper, and sent on their way. What I needed was a tool that could queue up my ideas, allowing me to easily sort and resort them. Rather than immediately acting on new ideas, I needed to put them into the “machine” where I could see them lined up against all the queued ideas.

Enter Airtable. It’s a database, yes, but the data can be viewed visually. Many relationships can be built to categorize ideas and sort them based on the criteria of the moment. Re-ordering is as simple as drag and drop. My imagined idea machine might not exist, but with Airtable, I could build a close enough replica to manage and streamline my work-flow.

How I Play:

  • I created bases for books, for ideas, and for my blog posts to start.
  •  I set up fields for images (such as cover images or blog post images) so when I viewed my bases as cards, they’d be visually appealing.
  • I created categories so that I could sort the entries in the various ways I would want to see them. For example, in the book base I used “creativity,” “mystery,” and “literary fiction,” as a few of my categories.
  • I also created a field called status. Here, I can sort ideas or books into “now,” “queue,” “consider,” and “finished.”

Player’s Notes:

  • Airtable allows the user to create links between records. So, for instance, in the book base, I have a table for books and another for authors. Books and their authors can be linked, to make for additional sorting options.
  • The sample bases in Airtable are entertaining and offer a fantastic introduction for new users. Try them out, have some fun, and let yourself play. Especially if databases aren’t your thing, approaching the process from a playful vantage point will help you blast past the difficult parts of getting your ideal system set up.

Take it to the Next Level:

  • Zapier and IFTTT are two automation tools that work in collaboration with Airtable. This means, for instance, you can set up an email link so that whenever an idea pops into your mind or someone recommends a book, you can send the info to your base on the spot.

Sometimes tools that offer many options and functionalities can cause overwhelm. Rather than allow myself to lose focus by considering every possible function for Airtable, I started with a few that felt most immediate and important. If you try out the tool for yourself, I encourage you to start wherever you are. Let your system evolve. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the perfect.

We hire professional organizers to help us conquer our closets because sometimes we simply need outside perspective. We often need similar help with our creative process. If you could use a strategy mentorship to help you tackle a thinking or work-flow mess, I’d love to help! Check out the opportunity here.