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Three Meditations on a Gorilla Suit: Letting objects tell their stories

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One of the things that spurs my creativity is to consider the impact of a specific object on my life. What stories surround it? Why do certain objects seem to capture energy and hold it? Some objects seem to acquire meaning over time. Other objects seem to explode with energy all the time, changing the world around them.

While thinking about that, I wrote a piece about the various meanings behind a gorilla suit I bought.

Three Meditations on a Gorilla Suit When Throwing it Away

I.

The day we started selling gorilla suits at work, I had to try one on immediately. It’s a big reason why I work where I do. Some people wouldn’t understand the compulsion to put on a gorilla suit when fate presents a gorilla suit, but I absolutely had to.

The suits were “one size fits all,” so I threw one on and ran around the building. If you want to be creepy in a costume like that — which is really the point — you have to be completely silent and refuse to answer people’s questions. At first they laugh, then they smile, but soon they’re nervous and contemplating the nearest route to safety.

As usual, one size fits all turned out to not apply to me. My overly long mid-section stretched the costume to its fullest and as I reached up to mime picking a banana, the crotch ripped out.

I broke it, I bought it. After applying our generous employee discount, I was now the owner of a gorilla costume. In my eyes, this was far from a tragedy.

—-

My wife and I have game that we play with one another. We don’t have a name for it, but the general idea is to not acknowledge that the other person is doing something strange. If, for instance, my wife were to put on a Tammy Wynette wig and greet me at the door with a big kiss, if I laugh or ask her about it, I lose. No reaction, no matter what, is the only way to win. The only other rule is that you have to continue the behavior until the other person acknowledges it. So, if you don’t smile or laugh, the other person has to continue looking like an idiot until you let them off the hook.

This is an amazing game and I recommend it.

So, that night, I waited for her car to pull into the parking garage and then slipped into the gorilla suit. My pug, Roscoe, looked at me startled for a moment, but as soon as he saw me move in the suit, he knew it was me. In fact, even my moving around in a gorilla-like manner and reaching out for him only resulted in a slight tail wag.

When my wife walked in the door I was in the gorilla suit watching TV with Roscoe on my lap and a remote control in my hand. No reaction except her usual greeting.

I got up and hugged her. She chatted with me as if nothing were different.

Gorilla suits, actually character costumes of all kinds, are like mobile fur-covered sweat lodges. At first you smile at the discomfort, but after a few minutes, you start having hallucinations from the heat. It’s basically like that desert scene in Oliver Stone’s movie about The Doors. In fact, I’m convinced that Jim Morrison’s tight leather pants probably caused him to hallucinate even when he wasn’t taking other drugs. In any case, I was in there, hot as hell, convinced that my wife wasn’t going to win this one.

I am the gorilla king, I can do anything.

My wife started cooking dinner and I went into the kitchen to talk to her. The heat from the oven made it even worse and I could feel myself getting dizzy. She had been home less than an hour and I was about to break and give her the win. I was weak.

My hand went up toward my head to pull off the rubber mask with its tiny nostril air holes, when she took pity on me.

“I see you got a new product in at work. Did you buy it or borrow it?”

She didn’t smile, just tilted her head and tapped her foot.

The mask was off so fast that I caught myself mid-breath and ended up gasping in the cool air like a drowning swimmer surfacing for the last time.

II.

My family rented a vacation house in the San Juan Islands one summer. It was in the woods, not tremendously remote, but the closest house was about a quarter mile away.

My wife and I had secretly brought the gorilla suit with us and kept it hidden. We also peppered the conversation over a couple of days with mentions that in the Pacific Northwest we were in Bigfoot country. Telling everyone they should keep their eyes open.

One night, during the first episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, I snuck away. I grabbed the gorilla suit and ran to the bushes outside. At the appointed time, my wife called everyone over to the porch claiming that she had seen something in the distance. Something hairy.

I shook branches, but didn’t come out right away. I figured the more mysterious it was, the more their imaginations would run away.

My sister said, “I see it over there; it’s some kind of animal!”

I ran across the field, getting closer to them as I swept from bush to bush. Never letting them get a clear look at me. One of my sisters ran inside to hide or, she later claimed, to look for the phone. My father snapped pictures as quick as could.

I heard a scream and decided to let them off the hook, pulling off the mask. They all laughed. I was now down in the annals of family practical joke history.

None of my father’s pictures turned out. He was moving too quickly and the camera was shaking. That coupled with me running meant that the pictures were about as clear as any picture of the actual Bigfoot.

Everyone acknowledged that they had been tricked except my mom. She said, “I thought it was one of the neighbors dressed up in a costume and running toward the house. If it had been some crazy guy who lived on an island in the woods wearing a gorilla costume and menacing tourists, it would have been much scarier than if it were Bigfoot.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

III.

Years later, I was cleaning out my closet, sorting clothes into bags for donation, dry cleaning or garbage. I couldn’t decide whether or not to keep the gorilla suit, so I set it off the side.

The next morning I set a few bags down for the collection truck and took a few more into the dry cleaners.

When I got home from work that night, I found a bag of my dry cleaning. I would have sworn that I had picked it all up, but there it was. That was when I realized that I had dropped off the gorilla suit.

My dry cleaner is Korean and his English is patchy. He had told me that he liked me for two reasons, I always knew the exact count of my shirts when I brought them in so he didn’t have to count them and I paid in cash. That will give you a pretty clear picture of our relationship from his perspective.

I called him on the phone and said, “Hello, this is David Wahl. I think I made a mistake when I dropped off my clothes this morning.”

He started laughing really loud, “You played a joke on me! I opened the bag and screamed. I looked around for the cameras to see if I was on TV.”

“It was just an accident, I didn’t mean to -”

“You are a funny man! So funny.”

When I went to pick it up, he had the whole staff come up and laugh. I think it must have been the most exciting thing that ever happened in the shop except for the time they were robbed.

Now whenever I take my clothes in and he’s at the counter, he makes a big deal out of looking in the back as if he expects a cobra to leap out and bite him on the face. Then he smiles at me and points to let me know that I won’t be tricking him again.

“You are so funny, I never know what to expect from you.”

—-

I am now deciding once again if I should throw the suit away. It is ten years old, tattered and dirty; it even has twigs still knotted in the fur from my run in the woods. It’s hard not to feel that its purpose has been fulfilled — that all the meaning that one could wring out of a gorilla suit has been wrung.

Part of me wants to take it to the bus stop down the street late at night and set it up as if it were waiting for the bus. Or, to abandon it in the park as if someone stripped it off quickly and left its pieces in a trail to a cliff. Or, leave it hanging in the closet for our next tenant to wonder who would own a gorilla suit and then forget it. Even if it’s done for me, perhaps the time has come to release the suit’s power onto the world and let it become a prop in the story of the life of someone else.

If you see a homeless man in Seattle dressed as a gorilla, think of me.

Man smelling gorilla suit

Here’s a picture of an older gentleman smelling my gorilla suit before I bought it at the Archie McPhee store.

 

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The appalling advice Neil Gaiman got as a boy…

In an excellent interview in The Guardian Neil Gaiman reveals not only the proper time to wear a cowboy costume, but also the terrible advice his English teacher gave him when he was 13. I know I can relate to his story. To this day I feel the pull of trying to keep my head down and blend in. Don’t do it!

When I was 13 an English teacher took me aside and said: “Keep your head down. You know too much, you answer questions, you are going to be resented. Just try to blend in.” I spent the next five years desperately trying to blend in, trying not to be good at the things I was good at. It was appalling advice. Do not worry about keeping your head down. Raise your head up. Maybe they will shoot you, but they probably won’t.

Creativity Tip: Let Yourself Be Awesome!

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You let so much hold you back. Fear. Self-doubt. Money. For just one day, let yourself be awesome. Not ok, not good, but completely and totally AWESOME!

No longer are you a tiny doubt-filled tadpole in a giant pond, not today. Today you are Godzilla and the rest of the world is a terrified city gazing up at you with their mouths hanging open. A simple flick of your tail has massive repercussions. To you, everyone around you is a swarm of tiny, irritating flies trying to distract you with their buzzing.

Oh, they’re going to try to bring you down. They’ll come after you with tanks, airplanes and electric power lines designed to fence you in. But, you know that those are just limitations that would stop somebody who wasn’t as awesome as you are. You are so awesome that you can simply step on these minor problems and crush them. If that doesn’t work, your Atomic Breath Ray will blow them up. Take that boring day job! Take that self-doubt!

Best of all, you are unstoppable. Whatever you want to do or accomplish comes easily. No need to procrastinate or over-plan, you just do it! Even if the world sends MechaGodzilla to stop you, you still triumph in the end. In fact, it makes you stronger because you are super-charged by the radiation he emits. Imagine a day where everything that stands in your way is afraid of your massive crushing jaws! Nothing can stop you! Let today be that day!

I know there are some people who don’t feel comfortable being awesome, but you do. I also understand you can’t be Godzilla level awesome all the time. No one wants to date Godzilla or be Godzilla’s roommate, but isn’t it great to know that you can be Godzilla when you need to?

“There is only make.” The art department rules of Sister Corita Kent

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These “Art Department Rules” by Sister Corita Kent are as true as they are charming. You can support art’s education by purchasing a poster of them. I might make myself a t-shirt that says “There is only make.”

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.

There should be new rules next week.

While you’re on the Corita Art Center site, check out the gallery of her artwork for even more inspiration.

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David Zucker’s 15 rules of comedy

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David Zucker, one of the minds behind movies like Airplane and The Naked Gun, set out these fifteen rules for comedy. They’re smart rules. If you break them, people probably won’t laugh. Of course, rule 15 applies to any list of rules when it comes to creativity.

Some of the apply only to comedy, but others apply to most creative work. For example, the rule about two jokes at the same time canceling one another out. This is just a good reminder to give each part of your story or song its moment or it will get lost.

These were written many years ago, so the references are a bit outdated. (Especially OJ)

1. JOKE ON A JOKE: Two jokes at the same time cancel each other out. When an actor delivers a punchline, it should be done seriously. It dilutes the comedy to try to be funny on top of it. Likewise, if there is something silly going on in the background, the foreground action must be free of jokes and vice-versa.

2. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Actors in the foreground must ignore jokes happening behind them. At the end of Naked Gun, Priscilla Presley tells Leslie Nielsen, “Everybody needs a friend like you.” They never acknowledge O.J. Simpson’s wheelchair careening down the steps and launching him into the air.

3. UNRELATED BACKGROUND: A joke happening in the background must be related in some way to the action in the foreground. The reason why the O.J. Simpson joke works is because he’s flying through the air as a result of being slapped on the back by Drebin.

4. BREAKING THE FRAME: Don’t remind the audience that they’re watching a movie. This is the rule most often legally bypassed, but a movie has to be a strong one to withstand more than one or two of these.

5. TRIVIA: A joke using references so arcane that few people will ever get it.

6. JERRY LEWIS: Don’t use a comedian in a straight man role. Scenes in a parody ought to mimic the real thing. That means, basically, follow Rule #1. You’ve got funny lines in the script. If you add comedians (and “funny” character names, “funny” wardrobe, etc.), it’s a joke on a joke.

7. AXE GRINDING: When the joke is overshadowed by some message, it gets unfunny fast.

8. SELF CONSCIOUS: Any jokes about the movie itself, the movie business, or comedy itself. A strict no-no because it prevents the audience from being invested in plot and character.
9. STRAW DUMMY: Where the intended target is set up by the writer instead of real life. Even if the joke hits the target, who cares?

10. CAN YOU LIVE WITH IT?: Once a joke is made, it can’t be allowed to hang around after the initial laughs. In Naked Gun, Frank and Ed are seated in a car, their lips turned ridiculously pink from the pistachio nuts they’re munching. But one scene later, when Frank goes snooping in the bad guy’s apartment, he’s got to be clean. It’s kind of like buying a personalized license plate. How long can “I H8 MEN” be funny?

11. THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN: Something that totally defies all logic but is on and off the screen so fast that we get away with it. Example: Robert Stack in Airplane! yells to Lloyd Bridges, “He can’t land, they’re on instruments!” And of course we cut to the cockpit and four of the actors are playing musical instruments. Seconds later, in the next scene, the saxophone and clarinets have disappeared. If it’s done right, no one in the audience will ask where the instruments went.

12. LATE HIT: You know a particular target has had enough when it’s been raked over the coals by Leno, Letterman, the MTV Awards, etc.

13. TECHNICAL PIZZAZZ: Special effects don’t necessarily mean funny.

14. HANGING ON: Don’t play a joke too long. When it’s reached its peak, get the scissors.

15. THERE ARE NO RULES

Searchable Dream Database

Sleep and Dream database is a searchable compendium of user submitted dreams. It is a fascinating look into the psyches of other people. While the search engine itself isn’t very intuitive (it’s designed for scientific use) you can skip down to “choose the words” and pick “free search” to enter any word you want. For example, I typed in robot and got the following dream. 

… I am watching a scene from a movie in which is there is a giant robot that is operated by mad scientist and a baby. They sit inside of its head with the mad scientist sitting towards the front and the baby sitting just behind him. The robot could shoot an electric beam from inside the head over the tops of the baby and the scientist and out the eyes of the robot. Something happens and the robot doesn’t work anymore. The mad scientist is laying on a table while Martin Short, the chiropractor, picks him up and turns him over…  Dream author/haver

You can even fill out a survey and start adding your own dreams. It’s a great way to see what’s going on inside other people’s heads. I was shocked at how many pop culture references were in people’s dreams. I think I need to watch more movies.

Does alcohol fuel creativity?

Does alcohol fuel creativity?

We all know the dangers of alcohol, but is there any truth to the cliche of a drunk writer or painter being better than a sober one? Can inspiration be found in a bottle?

In my personal experience, I think people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol create despite, not because of, their addiction. (And they are no fun to work with!) However, a new study says that limited drinking might spur new ideas by making you more flexible.

We approach problems with fixed ideas about the solution, but alcohol loosens that fixation and opens us up to trying new things. Anyone who has tried to do a task as simple as putting on shoes while drunk will know that you have to rethink each step as you do it and you still might end up with your shoes on the wrong feet.

So, the study says, if you are stuck in the creative process, a glass of merlot may be just what you need to come up with a new solution to the problem facing you. It might not be a good idea, but it will be a complete rethink instead of a retread.

Here’s the relevant piece of the conclusion:

Alcohol may particularly play a role in mitigating fixation effects. In creative problem solving, problems can often only be solved after a restructuring of the problem representation. When initial solution attempts get on the wrong track, this can cause blocks to immediate problem solving, which is known as mental fixation ( Smith & Blankenship, 1991). These fixations typically fade with time, which is considered a central mechanism behind incubation effects ( Storm and Koppel, 2012 ;  Vul and Pashler, 2007). In a similar way, alcohol may reduce fixation effects by loosening the focus of attention and hence impeding the building and maintenance of dominant but inappropriate mental representations. Thereby, alcohol may facilitate a broader associative search and the effective solving of creative tasks that are prone to fixation effects.

There are lots of other ways to shake yourself out of this! Check out our post that gives you five ways to shake your creative doldrums! 

A word of warning, alcohol will not be helpful in doing the actual hard work of a project and as an artist you have a lot of fixed ideas that are good and helpful. In other words, putting your shoes on the wrong feet might be creative, but it isn’t a good idea long term.

Show and NEVER Tell

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When a friend of mine posted this quote from from a Bafta Television Lecture of David Lynch being asked to explain the spiritual roots of Eraserhead it struck a chord with me. The interviewer innocently asks about the spirituality of Eraserhead and David Lynch shuts him down quickly. We've all been in the situation where a person in authority (a parent, teacher or boss) asks us to tell them where the idea for something came from or what it's supposed to mean. Usually with implication that our creative act is somehow describing ourselves and us explaining it will reveal something about our internal world. 

Why should we explain the beginnings of our ideas and tell people what it means to us? Isn't it true that once we've created something it exists on its own. If you could only enjoy or understand a work of art after the artist explains it, you're really not enjoying the art; you're enjoying the explanation. You've saved yourself the effort of bringing any part of yourself to it and filed it away neatly in your head as if it were a riddle and you now know the answer. Also, it puts the blame for your lack of understanding on the creator. If only the work of art were better, you'd understand it.

What I admire most about the Lynch quote is his confidence that he doesn't need to explain. In fact, he doesn't even need to explain his lack of explanation. He spent five years of his life making Eraserhead and knows that it stands on its own. His intentions and intended meanings are incidental to it. Why take something beautiful, creepy and strange and try to diminish it by explaining it away just to make the person experiencing it feel smarter and more comfortable? 

The next time someone asks me to explain myself I'm going to smile, shrug and politely decline to answer. Other people not understanding you, when it comes to art, is a wonderful thing. Own your weirdness.

 

You Create What You Consume

While “you are what you eat” has become an almost meaningless cliche, its truth is undeniable. The substance of your body is made up of the food you eat. Let me add another aphorism to your arsenal.

You create what you consume.

What you create is a direct reflection of what you choose to listen to, read and watch. This is not to say that you create exactly what you take in, although that certainly happens occasionally, just that everything you put in your brain is reflected through the prism of your own unique point of view and experiences.

It’s a given that athletes change their diets while training for a big event, why don’t creative people do the same thing? Martin Scorsese shows his actors many movies before he starts filming as a way to make sure they are all on the same creative page. As Winona Ryder said in Harper’s Bazaar:

He would show us films in the screening room in his brownstone, and I don’t know if he realized it, but he was basically narrating the entire film. We’d be like, “I wonder why he’s showing us this film?” but it would be for one shot or one scene—and it was like a four-hour epic!

Stephen King said in his excellent book On Writing, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Before you embark on a new project, give some thought to changing your cultural diet: read the books, have conversations with relevant people, see the movies, go to plays and museums. Immerse yourself in the world you want to create. Go into training to complete the creative marathon you want to undertake!

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