“Creative Discomfort”: Exploring Unfamiliar Literature
December 16, 2015 | Ann Kowal Smith, Jessica Isaac
Image: Edvard Munch, Four Girls in Åsgårdstrand, 1903, Munch Museum, Oslo, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, YesWare’s VP of Product, Jake Levirne, asserts, “An environment of discomfort contributes to creativity by breaking people out of their normal thought patterns, encouraging original thinking and risk-taking.” Interestingly, an effective Books@Work seminar does just that – by creating opportunities to discuss provocative narratives, it pushes participants to challenge their own assumptions and reconsider their beliefs and their routines. Time and again, participants tell us that they come away seeing the world and themselves anew, able to take a step back from their daily lives to consider what those daily lives might really mean. In a recent Books@Work seminar, Professor Ryan Honomichl (whose work has been previously featured on The Notebook) led a seminar with a group of participants in a distribution center near Cleveland on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Reading and discussing Ishiguro’s haunting novel permitted them to cultivate “creative discomfort”—together.
Set in the 1990s in Britain, Never Let Me Go recounts the story of a group of cloned children bred for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs for others. Living in a special boarding school, the main characters in the novel are brought up to believe that giving their organs is their highest purpose in life. After a series of vital donations, they understand their impending death as the “completion” of their life’s work. Ryan and the participants were taken with the way a set of beliefs, and the deep dependence on those beliefs, can lead someone to an alarming state of resignation. “There’s never any time when these people seem to be under threat of something, and yet, they all go sort of willingly to the gallows. We talked about how a lot of different things in our own lives are like that.” As Ryan put it, “If you give people a set of intentions or goals for what they’re doing, they will do it to death.”
Ishiguro’s novel poignantly illustrates, among other things, how a belief system’s power might lead someone to make an unfathomable personal sacrifice. He uses a literary technique called defamiliarization to do so. By including cloned main characters raised to sacrifice their body parts so that others may live, Ishiguro makes unfamiliar the very reason for their existence, causing the reader to question other aspects of their lives as well. He sets their story in an otherwise normal, contemporary context, heightening the oddness of their impending journeys. And he makes them look and feel like otherwise normal (even gifted) children, readying themselves for a bright future. This effect of defamiliarization on readers in Books@Work seminars is a theme we have explored before. But Ryan’s group’s experience brings up the way in which Ishiguro’s defamiliarization leads to critical analysis – it moves participants to step back from their everyday lives and begin to explore how an alternative set of governing ideas might result in a very different reality.
This literary idea of defamiliarization corresponds powerfully to the disorienting dilemma, a fundamental element in transformative learning theory. A disorienting dilemma occurs when a set of facts presents a condition that conflicts with a comfortably-held set of views, such that the individual facing the dilemma must reexamine and reconsider the foundations of his or her beliefs. In the face of the dilemma, or “disequilibrium,” a new set of paradigms or learnings emerge. For Ryan and his participants, the fate of Ishiguro’s cloned children presents a surprising scenario that requires readers to re-examine the very nature of humanity, the futures to which we aspire and the extent to which we have the power to change the course of our lives. This is learning in its most transformative form.
The jarring definition of life’s path that Ishiguro unfolds in Never Let Me Go causes us to revisit how we see ourselves and others, and more importantly how we gauge human purpose and contribution. Discussing an unsettling story, and wrestling with its underlying premises, as Ryan described, created the opportunity to examine “what it means to be human, what relationships are and what they’re for.”