Brainstorming Doesn't Really Work--Or Does it?

On twitter tonight, someone tweeted Jonah Lehrer's article from The New Yorker about the history behind group brainstorming and how 60 years of scientific studies have shown that the traditional style of group brainstorming just doesn't work. The whole article is fascinating, but what most interested me was Lehrer's discussion of Brian Uzzi's forty-five-year study of the collaborative processes behind Broadway musicals. Uzzi found that the more commercially and critically successful musicals were created by teams comprised of people with strong, but not too strong connections:

According to the data, the relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success. When the Q was low—less than 1.7 on Uzzi’s five-point scale—the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. “This wasn’t so surprising,” Uzzi says. “It takes time to develop a successful collaboration.” But, when the Q was too high (above 3.2), the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation.

This got me to thinking both about creative writing workshops and about writing groups in general. As both a veteran of such groups as well as a creative writing teacher, I've noticed the same thing. There has to be at least some level of trust and intimacy in a group in order for the exchange of ideas to be formative and not punitive or crippling. But if a group knows each other too well, sometimes the tendency is to become softer with one another, or perhaps just to think, as Uzzi found, too similarly.

That said, I know several thriving writing groups (one in particular involving people on this blog!) who have a longstanding history of meeting together. They cheer each other on, support each other through the hard times, and help each other filter out the bad writing and the not so great ideas. They celebrate each other's successes and help mollify the sting of rejection. They still keep doing these things, year after year.

So what gives? What do you think helps writing groups not only survive, but continue to thrive through the years? What is the best group atmosphere for fostering creativity? And how do novelists, who in the end are always going to be a bit solitary, find the creative spaces Lehrer's talking about, spaces which "hurl us together" often uncomfortably, into the "human friction that makes the sparks?"


Laura Harrington said…
Love the example of musical theatre collaboration which is one of the hats that I wear. Have just begun a new project and it looks like we have the right combination.
Great post, Kathryn.

I suppose it's natural for long-term critique groups (like mine!) to fall into "group-think" or give a member a break when we all know she's going through a bad time. Strong "the-work-comes-first" group norms certainly help, and the occasionally spirited debate feels really invigorating. Still, it's a good idea to have an outside reader edit your work, one who won't be influenced by conscious and unconscious group dynamics.

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