TITLE: OOPSLA Day 1: Writing Exercises at Extravagaria
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: October 19, 2005 10:11 AM
DESC: At what other conference would I be able to say that I gang-wrote traditional Japanese poetry with Guy Steele??
I am nobody:
I nearly blew off Sunday, after a long and tiring two days
before. As you might have gathered from that same entry,
I am happy that I did not. The reasons should be obvious
enough: cool ideas happen for me only when I am engaged
with ideas, and the people and interactions at
were a source of inspiration that has remained alive with
me throughout the rest of the conference.
In the afternoon of the workshop, we did two group exercises
to explore issues in creativity -- one in the realm of
writing poetry, and one in the realm of software design.
is a simple poetic form that most of us learn as schoolchildren.
It is generally more involved than we learn in school, with
specific expectations on the content of the poems, but at its
simplest it is a form of three lines, consisting of 5, 7, and
5 syllables, respectively.
If I understood correctly, a
is a poem constructed by following a haiku with a couplet
in which line is 7 syllables. We can go a step further yet,
by connecting a sequence of tonkas into a
John called the renga the "stretch limo" of haiku. Apparently,
the Japanese have a traditional drinking game that requires
each person to write a verse of a growing renga in turn,
taking a drink with each verse. The poems may degenerate,
but the evening is probably not a complete loss...
Our first exercise after lunch was a variation of this
drinking game, only without the drinking. We replaced the
adult beverages with two features intended to encourage
and test our creativity. First, we were given one minute
or less to write each verse. Second, when we passed the
growing poem on to the next writer, we folded it over so
that the person could see only the verse we had just written.
Rather than start with scratch, John seeded our efforts with
haiku written by the accomplished American novelist Richard
Wright. In the last eighteen months of his life, Wright
became obsessed with haiku, writing dozens a day. Many of
these works were published in a collection after his death.
John gave each of person a haiku from this collection. One
of them, my favorite, appears at the top of this essay.
Then we were off, gang-writing poetry. My group consisted
of Brian Foote, Joe Yoder, Danny Dig, Guy Steele, and me.
Each of us started with a Wright haiku, wrote a couplet in
response to it, folded Wright's stanza under, and passed the
extended poem on to continue the cycle. After a few minutes,
we had five renga. (And yet we were sober, though the quality
of the poetry may not have reflected that. :-)
The second step of the exercise was to select our favorite,
the one we thought had the highest quality. My group opted
for a two-pass process. Each of us cast a vote for our two
favorites, and the group then deliberated over the the top
two vote-getters. We then had the opportunity to revise
our selection before sharing it with the larger group. (We
didn't.) Then each of the groups read its best product to
the whole group.
My group selected the near-renga we called
(link to follow)
as our best. This was not one of my two favorites, but it
was certainly in line with my choices. One poem I voted
for received only my vote, but I won't concede that it
wasn't one of our best. I call it
Afterwards, we discussed the process and the role creativity
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.
-- Richard Wright
Later, we discussed how, in technical writing and other
non-fiction, our goal is to make the words we use match
the truth as much as possible, but sometimes an exaggeration
can convey truth even better. Is such an exaggeration
"more true" than the reality, by conveying better the
feel of a situation than pure facts would have? Dick
used the re-entry season from
as an example.
(Aside: This led to a side discussion of how
watching a movie without listening to its soundtrack
is usually avery different experience. Indeed, most
directors these days use the music as an essential
story-telling device. What if life were like that?
Dick offered that perhaps we are embarking on a new
era in which the personal MP3 player does just that,
adding a soundtrack to our lives for our own personal
A good story tells the truth better than the truth
itself. This is true in mathematical proofs, where
the proof tells a story quite different from the actual
process by which a new finding is reached. It is true
of papers on software system designs, of software
patterns. this is yet another way in which software
and computer science are like poetry and Mark Twain.
A Team Experiment with Software Design
The second exercise of the afternoon asked four "teams"
-- three of size four, and the fourth being Guy Steele
alone -- to design a program that could generate
interesting Sudoku puzzles. Half way through our hour,
two teams cross-pollinated in a Gabriel-driven episode
I don't have quite as much to save about this exercise.
It was fun thinking about Sudoku, a puzzle I've started
playing a bit in the last few weeks. It was fun watching
working with Sudoku naifs wrap their games around the
possibilities of the game. It was especially fun to watch
a truly keen mind describe how he attacked and solved
a tough problem. (I saved Guy's handwritten draft of his
algorithm. I may try to implement it later. I feel like
a rock star groupie...)
The debrief of this exercise focused on whether this
process felt creative in the sense that writing haiku
did, or was it more like the algorithm design exercise
one might solve on a grad school exam, taken from Knuth.
Guy pointed out that these are not disjoint propositions.
What feels creative is solving something we don't yet
understand -- creativity lies in exploring what do not
understand, yet. For example, writing a Sudoku solver
would have involved little or no creativity for most of
us, because it would be so similar to backtracking
programs we have written before, say, to solve the
In many ways, these exercises aren't representative of
literary creativity, in several significant ways. Most
writers work solo, rather than in groups. Creators may
work under pressure, but not often in 1-minute compressions.
But sprints of this sort can help jolt creativity, and
they can expose us to models of work,models we can adopt
One thing seems certain: Change begets creativity.
spoke of the constant and the variable, and how -- while
both are essential to creativity -- it is change and
difficulty that are usually the proximate causes of
the creative act. That's why cross-pollination of teams
(e.g., pair programmers) works, and why we should switch
tools and environments every so often, to jog the mind
to open itself to creating something new.
- Most of us tried to build on the preceding stanza,
rather than undo it.
- This exercise resembles a common technique in
improvisational theater. There, the group goes through
rounds of one sentence per person, building on the
preceding sentences. Sometimes, the participants
cycle through these conjunctions in order: "Yes, and...",
"No, and...", "Yes, but...", and "No, but...".
- Time pressure matters.
- Personally, I noticed that by moving so fast that I
had no chance to clear my mind completely, a theme
developed in my mind that carried over from renga to
renga. So my stanzas were shaped both by the stanza
I was handed and by the stanza I wrote in the previous
- Guy was optimistic about the process but pessimistic
about the products. The experience lowered his
expectations for the prospects for groups writing
software by global emergence from local rules.
- We all had a reluctance to revise our selected poems.
The group censored itself, perhaps out of fear of
offending whoever had written the lines. (So much
for Common Code Ownership.) Someone suggested that
we might try some similar ideas for the revision
process. Pass all the poems we generated to another
group, which would choose the best of the litter.
Then we pass the poem on to a third group, which is
charged with revising the poem to make it better.
This would eliminate the group censorship effect
mentioned above, and it would also eliminate the
possibility that our selection process was biased
by personal triggers and fondness.
- Someone joked that we should cut the first stanza,
the one written by Wright!, because it didn't fit
the style of the rest of the stanzas. Joke aside,
this is often a good idea. Often, we need to let
go of the triggers that initially caused us to write.
That can be true in our code, as well. Sometimes
a class that appears early in a program ultimately
outlives its utility, its responsibilities distributed
across other more vital objects. We shouldn't be
afraid of cutting the class,but sometimes we hold
an inordinate attachment to the idea of the class.
- To some, this exercise felt more like a white-board
design session than a coding exercise. We placed
a high threshold on revisions, as we often do for
group brainstorm designs.
- Someone else compared this to design by committee,
and to the strategy of separating the coding team
from the QA team.