Monthly Archives: April 2013

An easy trick to help you think outside of the box


Looking up through opaque floor at feet walking

The world looks different from down here… CC image “Perspective” courtesy of denzlenz. Some rights reserved.

We all think we have it, but often we’ve been gazing at the view from the same perch for so long, we think that’s the only way the world looks.

We do this with big things — like family relationships, geopolitical opinions, and music. We think about perspective metaphorically (unless we are a visual artist such as a photographer or a painter). But like many metaphorical turns of language, “perspective” started out as a literal condition, first. And sometimes a literal interpretation is the most effective way to achieve results.

My goal with this blog — as conservative as it might be — is to have a new article published every 2 weeks. I try to find a mental place where I am drafting at least one idea for future development, every week. I’m trying to stay ahead of the curve, because I don’t want to find myself up against a deadline with nothing to deliver. Some weeks I am more successful than others. I simmer with ideas and connections for days in a row. During these windows of inspiration my folder of scribbled notes swells awkwardly with all different sizes of paper. Post-it notes, the corners of notepad pages, the backs of leaflets, slips strewn with arrows and adorned with marginalia. I’ll save countless drafts and outlines to my online folders. Looking at what I’m producing, I’ll feel like I have more material than I need for the next six months.

But not all the time. Other weeks, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Nothing is there. I can blame this on not doing what Julia Cameron calls filling the well or what I’ve called composting. This would be part of the truth. But if I’m being honest, a lot of the time my lack of creativity stems from laziness. And strangely, if I’m not writing, then I’m not writing anything insightful or brilliant, either.

I like to deal with my un-creative funk by shaking my habits until pieces come loose. For example, by changing where my body is.


This week, I spent a morning writing from the cozy nest of my bed. Yes, in my PJs. I got up at the appropriate time, and had breakfast. I even brushed my teeth and combed my hair. And then — because I work from home and have this much control over my schedule — I took off my shoes and climbed back into bed. It was snowing and sleeting outside, the perfect weather to be a hibernating bear. Yet while the bear would have only slept, I brought my laptop into the den with me. And began to write.

We’ve all developed daily routines. What we like to eat for breakfast, where we put our toothbrush, how often we check our email. I know I have a favorite place to sit at the table, and I bet you do, too. Also, your desk probably faces the same way every day. Am I right?

I tend to sit in the same work space most days. Until I notice that I’m sinking in gurgling mud, unable to extricate myself. Occasionally, I pack up, take my work to the library, or to a coffee shop. When the weather is nice (not this week), I sometimes go to a public park.

Not always, though. Sometimes I literally get up, walk around the table, and sit across from my habitual spot.

That’s it.

The new seat feels really weird at first. I notice absurd details, like the speck on the wall, or the dumpster-diver out in the alley with a bicycle trailer piled high with rubbish. The light is different. My body feels different in space.

That can be all I need. With no conscious effort, I am thinking off the beat, and my work is an altered creature.

One of my favorite nerd-destinations online is the Etymological Dictionary. Etymonline describes the history of “perspective” as follows:

perspective shot of tarnished copper doorhandles

… and beautiful in places we may have never cared to look. CC image “Perspective” courtesy of V_I_M_A_L. Some rights reserved.

“(n.) late 14c., ‘science of optics,’ from Old French perspective and directly from Medieval Latin; from Latin past participle of perspicere ‘inspect, look through, look closely at.’ Sense of ‘art of drawing objects so as to give appearance of distance or depth’ is first found 1590s, influenced by Italian prospettiva, an artists’ term. The figurative meaning ‘mental outlook over time” is first recorded 1762.’ [emphasis added]”

Perspective is, at root, seeing with our eyes. Looking through. Everything else is literary decoration.

The next time you feel like you’re in a rut, try shaking things up by physically exploring the world from another angle. You could discover galaxies… and all you had to do was move your chair.


What do you do when you’re stuck in a rut?

Words like to hang out together

using language chunks to our advantage in speaking and writing

statue of a jester in avon England

Listen to my words! CC image “Stratford Upon Avon” courtesy of Jig O’Dance on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A couple of months ago, at Voice & Speech class, I asked about a tricky thing regarding my first speech as a Toastmaster: The Icebreaker Speech.

I was trying to figure out how to balance the need to practice my speech and know it well, with the desire to maintain spontaneity and engagement, and fluidity while I was presenting it — in other words, I wanted it to sound effortless, but not rehearsed.

My teacher pointed out that that was very much acting… what an actor would do. She encouraged me to keep the following in mind in working with this situation:

At first read-through, we know a piece pretty well.  As we continue to memorize it, she said, we all go through a patch of badness, where we just tank. She referenced the experience of voice-over artists, who usually hit badness when they’re asked to do too many takes of the same piece. There is a line where repetition becomes too much… but, she insisted, if we persist through the badness and continue working with the material, we will come out the other side, knowing the text much better and having left the badness behind.

So, number one, persist through the badness.

On a mechanical level, for practice, my teacher suggested breaking down the speech by taking the whole thing, if I’d written the presentation out in full sentences, and:

  • breaking the sentences into phrases
  • breaking the phrases down into bullets

Then practicing the speech using the bullets only.  As a species of mile marker. Until (theoretically) I could discard the bullets (I haven’t gotten that comfortable yet).

We all think that we speak in full sentences, she said, but in fact, no one does. We speak in chunks.

Linguists call this “lexical chunking” and you can read an interesting article about it here. (If you’re a real linguistic nerd, like me, you might enjoy the video discussion between McWhorter and Zimmer, here.) Lexical chunking has become a big part of the discussion in language learning and teaching, because harnessing the way our brains naturally process language should provide advantages over memorizing vocabulary lists (remember that, anyone? those pop quizzes were the best).

A lot of what the casually interested reader can find when googling “lexical chunks” pertains to language learning, specifically learning English as a second language. This deals mostly with spoken language. A lot of the rest of what the reader will find has to do with reading, or processing written language. We don’t read word for word, either. In both cases the argument is that “chunking” enhances the ease of our understanding. The theoretical underpinning to this argument rests on the role and limitations of short-term memory. At its most basic: we don’t have much room in short-term memory, so multi-word language units that come as a prepackaged whole mean less work for the brain.

Hooray, less work! As far as my speech was concerned, chunking should provide advantages both for me, who was trying to remember everything I wanted to say, as well as for my audience, who I hoped would understand and remember my speech!

The other good news about my Toastmasters presentations is that I have leeway with my choice of words. Unlike actors working with a script, I don’t have to hit the same exact lines every time, as long as I keep the sense of the talk where it should be. Instead, I can focus on persisting through the badness, keeping my eyes on the mile markers.

Language chunks at work.


What are your tricks for remembering what you want to say? Does writing your ideas down hurt or help you?