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Random Word Autobiography

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Faculty PDF Version
Student PDF Version

This exercise in two parts is designed to show students the power of introducing randomness into a creative process. Most students will write something relatively unsurprising when asked to write their own biography without any further instructions. But when they are asked to incorporate a list of 20 random words, they write pieces that are bursting with energy and imagination and which, oddly, reveal much more about their authors than the first versions.

One of the challenges of creativity and innovation is to break out of conditioned ways of thinking. When simply told to write their biographies, many students revert to a standard template, sometimes starting "I was born on X day in X placeā€¦" Their default idea of a biographical statement guides their choices. But the list of random words makes the standard template unusable; students are forced to reimagine the form of the biography and the results are much more creative.

It is worthwhile to process this point about how randomness breaks open conditioned thinking-but only AFTER they have done the exercise. It's best for them to experience first, analyze after.

The Exercise
  1. Tell students you're going to do a quick writing exercise: they will have five minutes to write their own biographies. Do the exercise along with them-it's important to be part of the creative process when teaching a creative exercise!
  1. When I do this exercise, I tell students that we'll come back to the biographies later on-just so they aren't thinking about the first step when they do this second step. So you can say that the next exercise is to write a list of 20 words they love as words-words with textures or sounds that they like. Give them a few minutes to make their lists. If some students are slow, you can tell them not to worry too much about it-just get some words down.
  1. Now tell students that they will have 5 minutes to write a an autobiography again-and that they need to incorporate all 20 of the words on their list.

    They may gasp, but just keep going! They will be able to do it.
  1. When they finish, invite some students to read both their first and second biographies, then discuss the differences. You can ask them how and why they differ, which versions were more revealing of the author, why they think that is, and what their experiences were of writing the two versions.
  1. This would be a good moment to talk about the power of randomness and creative constraints to counter conventional/habitual thinking: surprising new insights and ideas will arise when we are forced out of our conditioned approaches.

Exercise developed by Canadian artist Jane Newman

Report an issue - Last updated: 12/17/2020