Surviving blandness

The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child. -Ursula Le Guin

After Ursula LeGuin died, I kept seeing this quote pop up in articles and Facebook memorials. But, almost no one posted the whole thing. Most people shorten it to say, “The creative adult is the child who survived.” And that’s it. Changes the meaning quite a bit don’t you think?

It’s pretty easy to see why the rest of the quote isn’t featured. It’s challenging, dangerous and true.  The shortened version is a bland version of the whole thing, exactly what she’s railing against.

She’s saying that uncreative adults were children killed by the world and reborn as boring, normal zombie shouting “Blaaaand!” instead of “Brains!” Not killed by a villain or someone with ill-intent, but killed by mediocrity, coaching toward being “normal,” and just being told over and over again that they were wrong.

So, in her memory, help the world be less bland. Support someone who is doing something different today. You could download an album from Bandcamp by a band that’s just starting out, go see a play put on by a local high school or college, or buy an original piece of art from an unknown artist.  If you can’t afford to do that, why not just write an email to someone who you admire for being different and letting them know how much you appreciate them and their work.

We could all use a little help surviving bland.

The excitement of being lost

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When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something.

-Pema Chodron

We’ve all felt the frustration of working on a project and reaching a point where you don’t know where to go next. Whether the world has provided a difficulty or it comes from inside your own head, you are unable to move forward. You are creatively lost.

What if instead of reacting with frustration, we could react with excitement? That irritating feeling that you don’t know where to go next means you are in a new area of the map. You’ve entered into a place you’ve never been before, no wonder you feel frustrated.

It’s as if you had made an anniversary reservation at your favorite restaurant and arrived to find it closed because their plumbing broke. You could cancel your whole evening at this point. Give up angry and complain to all your friends about the injustice of it all. Or, you could try that new restaurant down the street. It’s so new there aren’t even any Yelp reviews yet. It’s a style of food that you’ve never tried, and it might be terrible, but it will be an adventure.

What if our blocks and creative frustrations mean we are in new territory? Should we turn around and try to make our way back to familiar ground or should we start to add to our map and expand the area where we feel comfortable?

Getting lost is scary and frustrating, but it also means we’re someplace we’ve never been before. And isn’t that what creativity is?

 

 

Take on a new persona: creativty tip

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 6.00.14 AMWhen The Beatles were at their most popular they were under incredible pressure to equal their previous successes. Being in a band had stopped being as much fun as it used to be and they’d lost some of the freedom they had when they were unknowns. So, Paul McCartney suggested that they make up a fictional band and write the music that band would write. That’s how we ended up with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

David Bowie would change his whole persona from era to era. Stephen King used a pen name, Richard Bachman, to release novels.

What if you made up a new persona for yourself? An alternate you with different taste and working habits. It could lead to you creating work that you might not make yourself. It might break down self-imposed limitations and filters you have set up. Looking at the world from a new, imagined, pair of eyes can help you see new things and the same things in new ways.

I’m not saying you have to get new clothes and walk around using a different name, although that might be fun, but when you sit down at the keyboard or walk out on stage or even go into a meeting at work, ask yourself what this other persona would do in that situation.

Is this person a more carefree version of you? Are they angry? Are they impervious to criticism? Obsessed with gnomes? Do they secretly think that all hummingbirds are their mother? Are they an orphan? Do they have ten brothers? Do they try to work crabs into conversation as much as they possibly can?

Put as much or as little detail into the persona as you want.

One of my favorite Twitter accounts is Myrna Tellingheusen. I don’t know who writes it, but they do an excellent job of filtering the world through the eyes of a retiree living in a gated community in Southern California. When she tweeted, “When I need fresh air, I go to the Hallmark store,” it seemed a perfect mix of poetry, humor, and empathy that would never have existed without a deep understanding of Myrna’s environment.

Allowing another person’s worldview to temporarily eclipse your own unlocks your creativity. Even if that worldview is more limited than your own, the new boundary frees you up to create something new.

As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Let one of that multitude take control for a while and see what they produce.

Maybe your new persona is even more talented than you are and when they’re done, you can take all the credit for their work!

Do what you want: creativity tip

Do what you want.

If it’s terrible, never show anybody. If it reveals too much about you, save it to a folder called “inventory” so no one will ever look at it. Just don’t waste time worrying about what other people think when you’re alone.

If there’s nobody looking over your shoulder, the stakes for experimentation are very low.

Do what you want.

Don’t try and please your family and your friends. Don’t imagine a person who wouldn’t like what you’re doing. Please yourself. Make the thing that makes you happy.

There’s no law that says you have to show anyone your first draft or your second draft or any draft. You decide that.

If you never had to show anyone your work, what would you do?

Read about the theory of obscurity here.

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.

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?

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