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Bigger is funny, smaller is cute

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In the novelty industry, there’s a rule that you can always make a bigger or smaller version of something to create a new product.

I actually think this rule is a good one to apply whenever you’re creatively stuck. Would it make sense if I made the idea bigger or smaller? Sometimes even a simple distinction like that can create something twice as interesting as your original idea.

Would your song sound better with an orchestra playing it or just a single violin? Should you amp up the tension in your story or pull it back.

As the old school novelty guys say, “Bigger is funny, smaller is cute.”  Which is not true for everything, but is definitely true for underpants.

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Making useful mistakes: creativity tip

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Having your thoughts organized is usually a good thing, but sometimes to get creative you need to shake things up. If everything is where it’s supposed to be it’s hard to actually see anything. Sometimes, logic doesn’t work when you’re trying to come up with something new. In fact, a lot of inventions and scientific discoveries are mistakes.

How do you wake your brain up to the potential of the world around you? Can you make useful mistakes on purpose?

There’s an improvisational exercise I’ve found helpful. As quickly as you can, go around the room and point at ten objects. Then, give each object an incorrect name. If you point at a lamp, call it a slow cooker. If you point at a chair, call it a knife.  Don’t sit in your chair and look at things, actually get up and move around the room and physically point at objects. Look at them closely as you name them.

The first time you do it, it will probably take you a while to come up with wrong answers. The more you do it, the faster you’ll get.

This process actually helps to break down predetermined categories in your brain and forces you to see things again for the first time.

I find that if I do the exercise quickly enough the world actually seems brighter and I notice details in things that I’ve never seen before. The effects also last for hours.

If you want to follow the exercise even further down the road, apply your logical brain to one of your incorrect answers.

Why did I call the lamp a slow cooker? Is there a connection? The light bulb does produce heat, could it cook? An Easy-Bake oven was just a light bulb in a plastic box and it cooked very slowly. Could you use the heat from the lighting in your house to cook? What if ovens were all boxes with giant light bulbs and you had to wear protective goggles to cook so you didn’t go blind?

Try the exercise and see if it works for you. Imagine how useful it would be to have a tool to help you wake up and pay attention whenever you wanted to.

Send me a dollar

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There was an old classified ad that would run in tiny local newspapers that said, “Send me one dollar and I’ll send you the secret to making $1000 in the mail-order business.” What you got was a single printed sheet with instructions on how to place a classified ad that said, “send me one dollar and I’ll send you the secret to making $1000 in the mail-order business” and how to make a copy of the letter in your hands to mail out to the people that responded.

The beauty of this idea is that it exists only to make money.

Often people approach creative endeavors with the idea that making money from it will be a side-effect of the creative process, not an intrinsic part of it. What if you started with making money and then applied your creative process to it?

There’s no money in being a poet, but there’s a poet who sets up a booth at a local street fair in Seattle and writes poems for $10 on an old analog typewriter as you stand and wait. There are also Art-o-mat vending machines all over the US that sell tiny pieces of art for a few dollars from a vending machine.

Do a project where money is the point. Sometimes even a little money can prime the pump and lead to bigger things.

 

A story is better than a statistic (four out of five storytellers agree)

hqdefault (2)One of the rules of writing advertising copy is that a story is always better than a statistic.

Statistics have their place in copywriting (four out of five dentists recommend this gum), but only when they’re backed up with a story illustrating the statistics. One picture of a starving child motivates more people to give money than a sentence saying there are millions of starving children in the world.

Why not challenge yourself to take a statistic you use all the time and turn it into a story?

Especially if your story goes against the grain of the statistic.

One of my favorite things to do on Yelp is to find the exceptional (4.9 stars!) restaurants and businesses and read the one-star reviews. They often tell the story of why they’re such a successful business. They eject someone loudly talking on their cell phone during a meal or a reviewer didn’t like that the person taking the order didn’t speak perfect English and they had to repeat themselves. 

Look at a statistic somewhere and think about it from both sides. Tell a story that grows from just looking at the numbers. Put the empathy and emotion back into the statistics that were drawn out of them when they were turned into a graphic for a CNN story.

Who is the dentist that won’t recommend sugar-free gum? Why would someone vote for a candidate that doesn’t represent their interests? Who doesn’t want to move out of a neighborhood when the real estate prices are so high they would triple their money? 

Every statistic is really just a boring package wrapped in brown paper filled with interesting stories just waiting for you to unpack them.

This ClickHole article is a perfect example of the subtext of most one-star reviews.

Are you an idea hoarder?

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We’ve all faced an overwhelming to-do list and felt like we don’t even know where to start. Are you that way with ideas?  

At my work, we divide our ideas into an A, B, and C list. A-list items are the things we must do, B-list are things we’ll probably do and C-list are concepts that we want to talk about again but aren’t quite there yet.

One thing that we’ve noticed with our B-level ideas is that even if we feel strongly about them when we write them down, some seem to lose their energy over time. Sometimes, you can’t even remember why you wrote an idea down in the first place. Instead of being this exciting future project, we all forget we were even going to do it and it becomes a lodestone on things we should be doing.

So, we’ve come to use the B-list as a place to park ideas to see if they gather passion and connected ideas or fade away into nothing. Also, sometimes we figure out that the idea, or a version of it, has been done before.

Do you need to look at your personal B-list and see if it’s time to let go of ideas that seemed good at one point but now just hang there as a burden? Is there any future project that you should let go of?

Clean house! You can cross an idea off your list by deciding that it’s not worth doing. 

We’ve always done it this way

3952a3a5-5e1e-4d1e-88c7-e5c991eee139-1414-000002bd777c82bcHumans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was one of the pioneers of computer programming. In 1952, she developed a compiler that allowed people to program in English and then convert it into code. Besides being brilliant, she had an ability to get amazing things done in tightly controlled, risk-averse situations.

Her advice for being creative was to look for questions that people answered with “we’ve always done it this way” and see if there was another way to do it. Always be looking for a better way. Challenge yourself not to settle into a groove without some experimentation to make sure you’re doing it the best possible way.

She believed in this so strongly that she made the following promise which you are welcome to apply to yourself.

For the rest of your life, every time you say, “We’ve always done it that way,” my ghost will appear and haunt you for twenty-four hours.

Who wants to be haunted by a ghost shaming you for your complacency? If someone asked you why you were doing things the way you’re doing them, would you have an answer?

Do your very worst work: Laurie Anderson on getting past a creative block

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I often tell young artist who are like, “How can I get past these things?” I’m just like, “For one thing, try doing your very worst work. Do the worst song you can possibly think of. At the very least, you’ll get some idea of what your rules are. At the most, you’re going to get something that’s better than anything you’ve ever done because it has a lot of pure energy.” Nobody going, “That’s not good.” Somebody was going, “Just make it bad. Just make it really bad.” You know, so pure and bad. I have tried that. That works well. Sometimes I clutch on that, too. I think, “No, that’s so bad it’s good.” Go on and on and get yourself twisted up into a language!

Laurie Anderson, The Creative Independent

I love the idea of purposely doing your worst work to get past a creative block.

As Laurie Anderson says in the quote, you are forced to define what “bad work” is when you do that. What rules are you breaking? Are they your rules or the rules of some objective source?

When doing your worst work, there is no judgment. (Or is it all judgment?) In fact, the criticism in your head fuels what you’re working on. That voice in your head that tells you what you’re doing is bad is suddenly empowered. Instead of shooting down your ideas, it’s coming up with ideas to make it worse!

Of course, good and bad are just tricks of language. Maybe what you do will be too obvious or too obscure, and it will turn out that that is exactly what your work needed. Sometimes our rules are not about producing what is best, but something in our comfort zone.

Doing putrid work relieves you of responsibility for the final work and pushes you over the boundaries of what you’d usually try.

Try doing your absolute worst, definitely no good, all-time stinkeroo, very bad work!

 

Don’t ask for permission: creativity tip

stamp-2114882_960_720Should I do it? Should I start this long project? Am I being selfish? Does it make sense?

It’s almost like a tic with some people. Instead of following their instincts, they have to check out their next move with all the people around them. They ask their best friend, barista, significant other, strangers on Facebook or whatever other person crosses their path that day.

But, they really don’t care about the opinions of the other people. They want someone, or everyone, to say “yes.” Yes, you should do that. What a great idea!

This works well if you have a supportive friend who trusts your instincts more than you do. They’ll say yes no matter what because they know that if you’re asking them, it’s something you’ve thought about.

But, in most situations, revealing your half-formed idea to the world will cause it to wither and shrink. You’ll get an array of opinions, some valid and some crazy.

If you want to take a sculpting course at the community college down the street, don’t ask other people whether you should. Remember that C- you got in art class in High School? You can’t even arrange flowers, and you want to sculpt clay? Look at you, thinking you’re all fancy. You’re probably trying to get out of buying Christmas gifts next year, and we’ll all get “sculptures” from your class.

That’s when asking other people turns into justifying all your self-doubts and inertia about starting new things. You can say to yourself, I wanted to do it, but everyone else made fun of me so, I didn’t. For the rest of your life, you can think about what could have been.

Should I write a novel about a journalist who gives up her job at a newspaper to make artisanal ice cream called, One More Scoop? Who cares what anyone else thinks? Do it!

Stop avoiding problems: creativity tip

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An artist friend of mine was complaining about another artist.

The other artist’s work didn’t seem that bad to me. Then, my friend pointed out that the other artist’s style was built entirely around his inability to draw faces. He always organized all the figures in the art so that they faced away from the viewer or wore heavy hoods or masks. Never once, in all the art that came up with you googled his name, was there a full face.

If you only looked at one drawing, you wouldn’t notice. But, once you looked at all his work, it was impossible not to see.

Is your style based not on your strengths, but on your limitations?

What if instead of avoiding what you can’t do, you worked on it. You focused on being ok with what you currently can’t do at all. It’s not that you’ll ever be the best at it, but that you’ll be able to stop avoiding it altogether.

Obviously, you want to use what you’re exceptional at to your best advantage, but merely avoiding your challenges sticks out like a sore thumb.

Make sure your work reflects choices on your part, not fear of your limitations. Avoiding what you’re afraid of is not a style choice, it’s just refusing to expose your soft underbelly to the world.

(The art above is by Fletcher Hanks, not the artist in question.)

A hood for your engine: Captain Beefheart on creativity part 5

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This is part five of my exploration of Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing. If you’re just coming across this post, you should start with the first post. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them. Please leave a comment if you have any additions or thoughts on things I may have missed or misinterpreted.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place

When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

These last two commandments are related. They are both about the care and feeding of your creativity. The first is about respecting your talent. Treat it as a living thing.

Don’t neglect it or take it for granted when you’re not using it. Put it in a dark place so that it’s completely turned off. You’re not letting your car idle in the garage, you’ve got it stored entirely away under a protective barrier. Make sure it’s fed and watered and comfortable, but that it’s hibernating.

Also, notice that he mentions not using it for more than a day as an exception. You should use it every day, but if you do spend more than a day without using it, let it know you’re still thinking about it.

His dish of water is, of course, metaphorical, I think you can “water” your creativity by consuming related art from other people. Read, listen to music, watch a movie, just make sure that you are getting information and experiences that when you pick it back up will inform what you do. Take a trip to a museum, walk through a field of flowers or volunteer somewhere.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine

Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.

Just like you’ve got to treat your creativity like a living thing, you can’t let it roam around free in the wild. You’ve got to create a habitat for it. There has to be a fence around the field where you keep it.

When you’re charged up and in the middle of a creative burst, you’ll feel like you can do anything, but you shouldn’t. Keep yourself contained. Set limitations for yourself about what you’re trying to accomplish.

Maybe it’s just picking a song to master or writing a short story. Focusing on one project lets you put all the horsepower produced by your engine into one thing, no wasted energy or confusion.

Whether you’re writing a children’s book or a blues song, decide what your project is and focus on that. All the heat from your heater will be keeping that project warm during the coldest moments.

Make decisions that limit what the project is so that you can finish it. People that never complete things are continually moving the target for what the project is and what finished means. If you say you’re going to write a poem on a postcard and mail it to yourself every day, you’ve limited the length of the poem, and you know that each one has to be done before the mail gets picked up. Sometimes it’s not going to be a great poem, but you’ll be finishing things and creating.

If you place the right limitation on yourself, the right hat on your head or wet piece of paper towel on your bean, your talent will grow. The number of projects you complete will grow, and they will be better than you think possible.

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