Light Bulbs

“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.” –Kenneth Burke on intellectual exchange, 1941

Whenever I teach writing, I use Burke’s dinner party metaphor to help students understand that their ideas, arguments, and research are part of a larger conversation. Although I should probably update the metaphor to somehow reference Snapchat or Facebook, something about his description–whether it’s his use of the second-person or how he captures something so profound and universal in such a short passage–just gets me.

Now that the first year of Innovation Lab is drawing to a close, I thought I’d offer my own Kenneth Burke-style reflection on the creative process. Over the past two years, we’ve worked hard to bring our vision to life, and now that it’s June, it feels somewhat bittersweet. As most of my students know–okay, as all of my students know, considering how often I talk about it–I’m a writer. And when I finish a book, there’s always part of me that feels sad. My characters go off on their own, no longer subject to the whims of my fingertips. The story starts to feel somewhere between a dream and a memory, fiercely true, but fleeting nonetheless. Worst of all, a new villain presents itself, this time in the form of a blank page.

But this process–the closing of one chapter and the beginning of a new one–is fundamental to creativity and a huge part of what we do in Innovation Lab. Our students have embarked on many creative journeys throughout the year. Some have brought them to a new plateau of intellectual understanding. Others have helped them discover a passion or interest they didn’t know they had before. Still others have forced them to turn around, take the long trek down the mountain and start over.

But every journey in Innovation Lab has started with a single idea, that “light bulb” moment that can illuminate a subject, the world, and even parts of yourself.

Below is a piece about what happens when that light suddenly gets turned on, including the obstacles, the triumphs, and the bittersweet realization that every journey must come to an end before a new one can begin.

You have an idea. A light bulb appears above your head, the same kind you’d see in a cartoon. You let it hang there for a bit while you watch TV, read a book, try to figure out how to put together that desk you bought from IKEA. A few hours later, when the lightbulb has grown even brighter, you realize you can no longer ignore it.

You turn the TV off, close the book, let the half-finished desk sit in the corner of the room like a discarded creation of Dr. Frankenstein. You talk to your friends, enlist their help, discuss plans to bring your idea to life. They tell you it will never work. One friend says she saw an article about something similar in the New York Times. Another asks you when you’re going to finally put that desk together.

You ignore them. You focus on those other voices, the people who raised their eyebrows a bit in curiosity, the teacher who told you to keep going, your grandmother who said you’re going to be famous someday–even though she’s been saying that since you were still in diapers.

Hours turn into days, days into weeks, and before you know it, you’ve been working on bringing your vision to life for almost a year. The bulb has dimmed, grown brighter, almost broken, then become a full scale chandelier, the kind you’d see in Versailles, or Windsor, or one of those other palaces you’ve never been to.

The day comes. You’re finally ready to bring your vision to life, to take the light bulb out of the proverbial thought bubble.

And once you do, the world suddenly looks different, just a little bit brighter, just a little more whole. After you reprimand yourself for using too many metaphors about light, you give in–cliches are cliches for a reason–and let yourself bask in the glow of success.

Later, you take a seat on your couch, think back over the year; the false starts, failures, successes beyond anything you ever dreamed possible. The half-finished desk calls to you. You kneel down beside it, take out the manual and try to figure out which piece is A-1, if E-7 is really necessary, and why you ever decided to buy your desk from IKEA in the first place. But with the desk just a few steps away from catalogue-perfection, that light bulb goes off again. Without thinking, you drop the screwdriver and close the manual. Furniture can wait. But light bulbs… Light bulbs burn out.

I’m so proud of my students and colleagues for all of their hard work in Innovation Lab’s inaugural year! Can’t wait to see what “light bulb” moments come to InLab students next year!

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