Combinatory Play: Creative Writing, Mathematics, and Improv

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Winter 2019
Spring 2019
Credits per quarter

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Taught by

Brian Walters
mathematics, computer science, improvisational theater
book arts, literature, creative writing

Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought. — Albert Einstein

Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material...  — Italo Calvino

Creativity is not mysterious. While aesthetic traditions, genres, disciplinary assumptions, and even our personal idiosyncrasies often seem to conspire to limit the imagination, the spirit of play is always accessible to us. Perhaps surprisingly, it can take a little mathematics to remind us of it.

Borrowing from the mathematical study of combinations and permutations, the phrase "combinatory play" for us—as for Einstein and Calvino—suggests an approach to creativity in which chosen rules create the conditions under which the mind might escape received ideas and limitations. This strategy works for creative writers building plots and word-smithing, for improvisers developing the instincts necessary for spontaneous storytelling, and for mathematicians struggling at the abstract edges of reasoning. In literary works, such rules range from the strict formal conventions of sonnets to the central axiom of Perec's La Disparition, an entire novel written without using the letter e. Improv performers use audience suggestions, rules of conduct, and predetermined formats to pursue spontaneous invention and narrative discovery. Mathematical thinkers are most invested in the power of rules; formal conventions and a deep commitment to the search for truth lead to rigorous exploration and creative leaps of imagination. In each of these practices, combinatory play becomes a key strategy that drives the work forward. This program will study such strategies, both within and shared between different disciplines, allowing us to better understand the nature of creativity and develop new methods of problem solving, critical thinking, and creative expression.

The regular work of this program will include book seminars, critical writing projects, and weekly workshops in creative writing, mathematics, and improvisational performance. We'll have two overnight retreats to provide time for extended creative collaborations and community building. Credits awarded will reflect student learning and achievement in literary studies, creative and argumentative writing, critical reading, liberal arts mathematics, and improvisational performance.

Note: There is no math prerequisite for this program. It is well-suited for students who are uncertain of their mathematical skills, or who have had negative experiences with mathematics in the past and are ready for a different kind of mathematics experience. Students taking the program for 12 credits will negotiate with faculty an appropriate reduction in workload, but will still participate in learning activities in all content areas.

This offering will prepare you for careers and advanced study in: creative writing, theater, literature, and mathematics.

Online learning:
  • Enhanced Online Learning - This offering requires access to web-based tools, but use of these tools does not displace any face-to-face instruction.

$125 in winter and spring for overnight field trips.


Note that there is no math prerequisite for this program. This program is well suited for students who are uncertain of their mathematical skills, or who have had negative experiences with mathematics in the past and are ready for a different kind of mathematics experience.

Scheduled for: Day

Located in: Olympia