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. Styles and Structures is out of print, but you can still find used copies online.
The adventure in these pages starts from 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.
When I first read that sentence, I had one of those classic heavens-parting-and-angels-descending-to-earth moments. Smith was the first person I knew to describe writing as a way of transformation — a process that can shake you to your core and usher you into a new level of being.
If you’re an idea entrepreneur, then this insight has the potential to rock your life.
In this post I highlight one of the many sparkling facets of this book. Smith calls it the rhetoric of reperception — using language in systematic ways to see the world anew.
Smith contends that reperception has nothing to do with the romantic view of creativity — that sudden flashes of insight happen in mysterious ways to people who are blessed with special abilities at birth.
This view dooms most of us to uncreative lives in school and at work.
It also leads us to superficial thinking. When our writing and speaking gets dull, our first impulse is to root out clichés. And yet, Smith notes:
…using worn words is probably only a symptom of a much more pervasive and larger problem—the difficulty of reperceiving a world that has been blunted by our habitual perceptions…. as long as assumptions persist unquestioned, perceptions are not likely to freshen.
Reperception is seldom spontaneous. It’s more likely to happen when we state our assumptions, transform them, and evaluate the results. This is something that any of us can learn to do.
As an example, Smith starts with this conventional assumption:
The Middle Ages was a repressive and intellectually stagnant period, whereas the Renaissance flowered into a time of great creativity.
He then transforms this statement in eight specific ways.
1 Reversal Transformation
To begin, simply take the major terms in that sentence 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 maybe we can find evidence to confirm it.
2 General-to-Specific Transformation
Replace general nouns with specific nouns:
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
Soften the wording of our assumption so that it is less absolute. This simple change creates a new way of seeing:
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. (However, frame stories and allegories flourished.)
4 Definitional Transformation
Notice the key terms in our 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?
If we arrive at specific dates, then how do we know that they’re valid? Other people might propose different dates altogether.
Perhaps Renaissance does not refer to a period of time. What if we instead define it as a creative process that’s been practiced by many people across history? Then our thinking can go to some exciting new places.
5 Implicit-Assumptions Transformation
Look for mini-assumptions that are buried within a single assumption. For example, Smith notes, our initial assumption seems to imply:
- “that creativity can suddenly spring from a content of stagnation…
- “that radical discontinuity can occur from one year to the next; and
- “that human behavior in adjacent historical periods can be diametrically opposed.”
If we successfully counter any of these smaller assumptions, then new worlds of perception open up to us.
6 Implicit-Criteria Transformation
Many assumptions reinforce value judgments. For instance, our initial assumption is based on the idea that the innovation is inherently good, and that stability is inherently stagnant. These value judgments can take us down thorny paths.
“Unless vigorous testing reveals that a conventional assumption is indeed questionable and in crisis,” Smith notes, “it may be better to hold on to the convention rather than change it simply for the sake of novelty.”
7 Figurative Transformation
Our initial assumption contains some figures of speech. Smith points to the growth-and-stagnation metaphor — the image of “some sort of swamp flower blooming above a stagnant pool.”
What happens if we use different metaphors and images?
For example, we could describe the Middle Ages as the seed or nurturing soil that allowed the Renaissance to bloom. Then we can see the two periods of history as a continuous process rather than unrelated events.
8 Diagrammatic Transformation
Let’s take our initial assumption out of the realm of words and create some pictures. For instance, count the number of inventions and works of art produced in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. Then arrange those numbers in a table or diagram that allows us to compare them visually.
To get the most value from transformations of any kind, take the attitude of a child at play. Be willing to consider any result, no matter how silly it looks at first. Keep experimenting, and be prepared for pleasant surprises.
In the process, you might discover the seed of your next big idea.