Invention Week at Chautauqua: What Can It Teach Us About Creativity?

Many of you know I spend my summers at Chautauqua Institution, or what I like to think of as Creativity Central.

creativityChautauqua bills itself this way:The Chautauqua Institution is a not-for-profit, 750-acre educational center beside Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York State, where approximately 7,500 persons are in residence on any day during a nine-week season, and a total of over 100,000 attend scheduled public events. Over 8,000 students enroll annually in the Chautauqua Summer Schools which offer courses in art, music, dance, theater, writing skills and a wide variety of special interests.

You can find more here, and there’s much more to find, including all the recreational and cultural activities that take place everyday.

Each week the program revolves around a theme, and this first week of 2017 is “Invention.” So far we’ve heard Obi Felten director of X Foundry (formerly Google X), whose purpose is to introduce new technologies that have a positive global impact. Tuesday we heard Jesse Schell, CEO of a video game development company, Schell Games. (And if you thought virtual reality was dull or irrelevant, invite him to speak to you.) Today we heard Lisa Seacat DeLuca who at 34 is IBM’s most prolific inventor and holds 70 patents with hundreds more pending.

As a novelist I can’t help but compare what inventors do to the writing process. I’ve been interested that two helpful points have appeared and reappeared in the three morning lectures thus far.

10X not 10%.

On Monday Obi Felten said that if a project isn’t living up to its promise, X believes: “Don’t make it 10% better, make it 10 times better.”

At first glance this charge seems capricious, almost a “let them eat cake,” moment. But the advice is sound when you begin to realize that if something isn’t working, tweaking it may improve it a little, but starting all over again, with perhaps only as little as the creative spark, may lead you in a completely different and better direction. As she said, “kill the good to make room for the great.” A tall order, perhaps, but intriguing.

Has that happened to you? Have you begun an exciting new project, only to watch it go terribly wrong? A cake that fell apart when you took it out of the oven? One so crumbly that all you could do was begin again with a different, better recipe because that first one was too far gone to glue together with icing and toothpicks?

Or quilters, how about that quilt with a color combination that’s never going to work or worse, incorrectly sewn seams that have distorted the entire shape?

Creative disasters or even just creative clunkers have happened with my novels. Changing this a little, that a little, never helps a manuscript gone wrong unless the problems are so small that the story just needs a little life, a little tidying up. If the problems are larger, though? There’s no way making a few adjustments will cure them. The problem is the book’s heart, and open-heart surgery is called for. Maybe even a transplant.

Of course novelists work on deadlines, and our income depends on meeting them. But I am reminded of a bestselling novelist who told this story. When she finished her then most recent book, she realized it was all wrong. There was no way to fix it. She had two choices, one to turn it in and hope for the best. And the second? Trash it. Call her publisher, promise she would work night and day on a better idea and get them a book as fast as humanly possible.

She chose the second way, the 10x better way. I’m sure it was the right way, because she knew that turning in a book that would disappoint her readers—and herself—was a path she didn’t dare to take.

Two heads or more are better than one.

This week the second major takeaway point  has been the value of teams, mentioned by all three speakers. While ideas themselves may develop in isolation, in the mind of one person, it takes a team to find the best part of that idea and bring it to fruition.

Quilt and other craft groups and guilds work with this in mind. When advice is asked for, it’s given. We learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. We see for ourselves that a certain kind of quilt or project doesn’t appeal to us, so we know what not to try. We learn what we can do, and what we can strive for in the future. We share ideas, fabrics, techniques. Women have done this for centuries. They cooked together, sewed together, not just for the company but for a broadening and refining of their ideas. Who knew? Betsy adds tomatoes to her chicken noodle soup and it’s great. Joy tapes patterns to her bedroom window and traces them on her fabric for quilting.

As a novelist I immediately thought of my brainstorming group. We present ideas and then discuss all the possibilities inherent in them. Our group is handpicked and small, but we can feel confident in trusting the creative process. No one is critiquing; no one is working over someone else’s ideas with a sledgehammer (as I suspect often happens in Hollywood where screenplays are routinely pulverized by production companies.) We work together to find the best in each possibility. We leave with more and better ideas.

The programming here at Chautauqua accelerates my own creativity, even though it takes away from my time to create. I enjoy figuring out how I can use what I learn in my everyday life, and I may be sharing more as the weeks go on. Do these ideas resonate with you? Can you find a way to use them in your own life? I hope you’ll find them valuable.


  1. Caroline Klam on June 28, 2017 at 3:37 pm

    Thank you – yes these ideas resonate and I am looking forward to hearing more. I wish I had the opportunity to be there, but that’s not possible and it is wonderful to hear the best ideas that strike you.

  2. Melody Brown on June 29, 2017 at 8:25 am

    I love your teamwork comment as it refers to quilt groups. In North East, PA, our guild has a weekend sew group and we share quilting tips and ideas, food and fun. It’s the best part of belonging to the guild.We also have an offshoot group of 13, Stashblasters, in which we share food, ideas, show and tell and laughter!! Both make my life so much fuller and happy!

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