The Importance of Flexible Thinking

In this post, GrubStreet instructor Ben Berman discusses how learning to think flexibly can help us be more creative.



Flexible thinking refers to our ability to shift or reframe how we are thinking about an idea.

When psychologists measure one’s aptitude for creativity, they often focus on this aspect of thinking. How many uses can you find for a brick? they ask, before grading the responses based on fluency, originality, flexibility and elaboration.


But in many ways flexibility isn’t just about how we think – it also requires patience and the willingness to sit with the anxiety of “not knowing.” John Cleese tells a wonderful story about another member of Monty Python who was “much smarter and funnier and more talented” than Cleese but who struggled to write great skits. Cleese discusses watching him work one day and realizing that whenever his colleague ran into a problem, he would go with the first solution that came to him (unlike Cleese who would spend weeks pondering what to do.)


In other words, even though his partner was more intelligent (according to Cleese), Cleese’s skits ended up being more creative because he was willing to sit with the complexity of a problem for a longer period of time and explore a greater range of ideas


The ability to continually reframe our thinking is an essential part of the process – but in poetry it is also often a part of the product. Wallace Stevens’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is often a beginning point for both readers and writers of poetry, as it teaches us how to see things from various perspectives and to shift our vantage points again and again. Another poem that offers a clear example of this is section 6 of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.


A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Canuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of you men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps…



One of the things that I love most about this excerpt is how Whitman initiates it with the question of a child – someone who is open to exploration. I am always amazed at the way that young kids see the possibility of any object, how readily an empty box becomes a playground for their imagination.


Whitman begins, here, with the philosophical question about grass, but the leaps are imagistic. First, he sees a hopeful flag in the patch of grass, then a handkerchief of the Lord, then a child, then a uniform hieroglyphic, then the uncut hair of graves, then the hair on a man’s breast. Each of these offers us a clear visual link and he uses each one to also speak philosophically about the subject.


This allows for a great emulation – take a single object and begin a poem by asking what it is – then explore the possibilities of that image, switching gears as often as you can. Each time you switch, try to offer both a new take on the image and a new philosophical understanding.


But beyond serving as a fun exercise to help us understand the link between the image and the idea, this also helps us develop an essential attitude (in writing and life) – the willingness to reframe our perspective.


View more of Ben Berman’s posts on writing, here.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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