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Keith Johnstone and obvious creativity

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In 2003 I took a two day improv workshop with Keith Johnstone. One of the first things he said to us was, “I have to warn you that this sweater is going on day 5 of being worn by me and I will probably be wearing it again tomorrow. The smell is quite strong.”

He was brilliant, strange, hilarious and grumpy. If you aren’t familiar with his work, he is one of the founding philosophers of improvisational theater and author of the life-changing book Impro. He believes most school and parenting is set up to destroy our natural creative state of being and he developed his methods to help to bring us back to that natural state.

I recently stumbled across my notes and wanted to share the best bits in a series of posts. This first post is just going to be one note, because I think it is so profound.

You should be as obvious as possible. At its heart, your obviousness is unique because it is only obvious to you. In Kafka’s story the Metamorphosis, it is obvious that the character would wake up as a cockroach, because that is how Kafka felt. But, that is not what is obvious to everyone, so it appears creative. You are the only one that thinks you are being obvious.

It seems so simple when you read it, but he’s right.

When we try to be creative, we try to surprise ourselves instead of just being ourselves. Our thoughts and perspectives are unique. What comes naturally to us is surprising to other people.

When you ask most people to be creative, they come up with the same boring things. For example, when I was doing improv and you asked for a suggestion the most common “creative” answer was cheese. When we start to be concerned about what other people think instead of creating something that reflects us, we try to think of something that will appeal to them.

We worry about whether or not people will understand us. We are afraid that if we offer what is obvious to us it will be found lacking. We worry that we are not enough and try to pretend our creative impulses come from outside sources. That muses and voices are whispering in our ear when really it is just the sound of our own voice.

Are you brave enough to be obvious and let that be enough? To let one thought follow the next in a way that makes complete sense only to you? To paint something exactly the way you see it?  To make an inside-joke that no one else might get?

All the best things are obvious to everyone, but they aren’t obvious until someone is brave enough to create them.

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Mingus on creativity: making the complicated simple

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Charles Mingus was one of the greatest jazz artists and composers of the 20th century. He was temperamental, opinionated and inarguably a genius. He said about creativity, “Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

This quote is a great reminder that just adding more ideas or flourish to a project doesn’t necessarily make it more creative, just different. Breaking something down to its base components and expressing it clearly and concisely is the best way to filter it through yourself.

Let your art be what it is, don’t dress it up with unnecessary bits. Don’t try to hide your flaws with extraneous distractions. When you are at your best, everything that you do carries your stamp, no need to more than that.

In fact, I think Mingus thought that first quote was too complicated, because he simplified it later:

Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple. – Charles Mingus

Make a poster! Inspiration for making it through the hard part

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Every summer the music school in my neighborhood has weekly summer camps to teach kids music. Some of the kids are experienced, but most of them are beginners picking up an instrument for the first time.

Unless you’re a musical prodigy,  the first lessons when you’re learning to play are drudgery and repetition. You play the same chords and rhythms over and over until you can do them without thinking. How do you turn that into a fun summer camp experience?

Well, one way is that they have the campers split into bands and do a performance at the end of camp. Part of becoming a band is naming it(So far my favorite name is The Best) and coming up with an image for them. What kind of band is it?  What do we play? Every Wednesday during the summer, we see the posters for these bands go up on telephone poles. It got me thinking about my own projects.

There’s a lot of hard work that goes into a creative project and when you’re in the middle of it, it’s easy to lose sight of the end. What if you designed a poster for your project to remind yourself what it’s eventually going to be? It’s nothing you need to share with anyone else, but it can really be an inspiration for you.

Making a poster for each one of your upcoming projects and hanging them up in your workspace would be a fantastic way to remind yourself of the benefits of the work ahead. (Unless your work is making posters. In that case, write a song or poem about upcoming projects.)

A similar concept I use all the time at my work is keeping a list of product names without ideas attached. If I write “spaghetti mask” in my journal, it may start to collect ideas around itself. The best ideas eventually bubble to the top and the bad ones (like spaghetti mask) fade away as my journal fills with new stuff.

I may start drawing the most promising ideas and hanging them up around the office.

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The shampoo secret to creativity

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Since so many people say that they do their best thinking in the shower, it only makes sense that shampoo holds one of the keys to creativity.

But David, I can hear you say, shampoo is just liquid soap for your hair.  What could a bottle of Pantene have to do with increasing my creativity?

Well, it’s not the actual shampoo but some marketing on the bottle.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

That simple instruction contains a lot of metaphorical wisdom. (In realistic terms, unless you shampoo only once a week, you probably don’t need to repeat. It’s something they made up to sell more shampoo.)

People look at creativity as a beginning, middle and an end, but it’s not. It’s an endless loop of new projects and ideas. Too many people get stuck on having an idea (lathering) or overwhelmed with the process (rinsing) and never get to starting a new project (repeating).

Lather people have an idea that they’ve held onto for years. It’s their pet idea and they aren’t willing to let go of it and move on to the next one. A lot of  latherers want to talk endlessly about that idea, but never do anything about it. You’ll know someone is in lather territory when she brings her pet idea up and all her friends groan.

Rinsers get caught up in the process. They can’t start writing their novel until they have the right laptop to use in the corner of a quiet coffee shop while they’re wearing their lucky sweater. His 50th take of that song is going to be way better than his 49th, maybe he should book another week in the studio. For rinsers, there’s always one more thing they need before they can complete what they’re doing.

Repeaters are the winners when it comes to creativity. Their skills improve. They have tons of completed projects that they can use as springboards to greater things. It’s hard work being a repeater, because you know that any pleasure you take in an accomplishment is only a short break before the next project starts.

Most repeaters I know have multiple projects going on at the same time so that if one gets stalled out or delayed they can switch over to another one. But, they are also always finishing something.

Being a repeater means letting go of perfectionism. It means opening yourself up for criticism because you have to tell something is finished. It means having a stack of failures way bigger than people who never finish. It also brings huge rewards and will change your life forever.

The next time you find yourself stuck while thinking in the shower, just read the instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle and get inspired.

Just think how clean your hair will be!

 

 

 

 

Finding your creative community: we are Devo

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Creative people sometimes start out isolated and different. No matter how positive and full of energy we are, we still stand out from everyone around us because we want to change their environment. We are full of ideas and questions things. The vast majority of people expend their energy making sure that nothing changes, so when someone creative appears, they are diminished and ignored. The urge to fit in and be like other people is strong and for a lot people, that leads to their creative side being completely submerged. They would rather be someone they aren’t than be lonely.

However, sometimes you get a signal that no matter how weird or different you are, there is someone out there just like you. That signal is an important indicator of the path you are about to go down. For some people it’s a book or a movie, sometimes it’s a person you meet or a specific location. Whatever it is, it’s an indication that it’s ok to be yourself.

For me it was the summer of 1979 and and I was 10 years old. I was riding to Graceland shopping center on my blue BMX bike with a banana seat. I made my way through all my usual stops — the hobby shop, the toy store — when I noticed a new store. It was a music store and I didn’t know anything about music. I hadn’t had much exposure to music beyond TV and music class at school. My parents played the occasional Simon and Garfunkel record and some Peter, Paul and Mary, but most of the music in our house came from a tinny radio in the garage as my father worked on Volkswagens.

I walked into the shop without any thought of actually buying something. It was more of an exploration to see what it would be like inside. I knew I enjoyed the Beatles, but not much beyond that. I wandered the aisles without direction, soaking in the hyperreal fluorescent ambiance and avoiding the vaguely punk cashiers, when a cassette tape caught my eye. It was a peculiar figure wearing a hat with the letters D-E-V-O next to him, and for some reason, I felt an instant connection to it. I was drawn to it. I knew, in that moment, that whoever had decided to put that image on that case was talking to directly to me. He was whispering a message directly in my ear.

“You are not alone.”MI0000924801

That’s what it said. Those words formed in my head. No exaggeration or hyperbole involved. If I made a movie of it I would animate the lips of the man on the tape saying them to me. Seeing this album cover was love at first sight – not me loving it, but it loving me.

I bought it, took it home and listened to it over and over again on my dad’s handheld, monophonic tape recorder. I memorized it. I was so unsophisticated that I didn’t even look for other albums by the group or try to look up any information about them at all. I didn’t even know that “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was a cover of a Rolling Stones song.

For at least six months, all that existed of those mythical creatures “Devo” was that one gray cassette tape in a cracked, clear plastic case. Even the album name spoke to that question of connection. Are we not men? We are DEVO! I included myself in that “we” as I sang along.

—–

When he was asked about that album cover, Mark Mothersbaugh, one of the founding forces of Devo, told this story:

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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.

 

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.

“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

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.

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