Therapy for Creatives, Part 7: Hacking Creativity
There are times when we just get stuck. In the creative world, this phenomenon has many names: writer’s block, freezing up, stage fright, etc. The ability to turn craft into art betrays us, leaving us bereft of ideas and unable to summon our superpowers. If it goes on too long, our identity and self-worth can be challenged. The background refrigerator hum of anxiety can turn into mechanical shrieks of panic. No wonder so many creatives are superstitious about the capricious nature of our talent!
'Normal life' functions in much the same way. One week, doing the laundry is a light-hearted game, a time to jam out to music or listen to podcasts. At other times, the pile of dirty laundry metastasizes into a dark, malignant cairn, proof positive that life is overwhelming and without promise.
So how do we change that narrative? As creatives--and competent humans--aren’t we able to do something about this? The word ‘narrative’ is the key. When we are stuck, being able to ‘mentalize ourselves‘ allows us to sit with our feelings, and at the same time, observe our thoughts and behavior: "There I am. Miserable because I can't channel the fire!” Describing our narrative is the first step to reclaim agency in our creative lives and life in general.
The most common--and probably most costly--solution to a creative block is to 'brute force' a solution. Staying up all night stressing over the same 2 minutes of music, or doing 'bad mood laundry,' cursing under our breath in a childish attempt to be deservedly angry with ourselves and the world which has let us down. AGAIN! This scenario suggests a counterintuitive way of handling creative and life blocks.
In 1975, musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt found that they were both working on a very similar project: a set of instructions on cards drawn randomly when a person is creatively blocked. They ended up naming the set of instructions "Oblique Strategies.” They claimed that the instructions fostered ‘lateral thinking’ that allowed the reader to short-circuit psychological blocks, reorient, and become productive again. The phrases included such instructions as “Shut the door, and listen from outside” and “Not building a wall but making a brick.”
The card decks became very popular with fans and contemporaries of Eno and Schmidt. As Eno’s career as a producer began to take off, he used the cards in his projects, most notably with David Bowie while producing the triptych, Low, Heroes, and Lodger. The card sets also became hard to find. Fortunately, there is an app for that! All of the published oblique strategies card decks are available as an iPhone application. They are also available in sanctioned .pdf downloads. Thank you, internet.
The idea that an absurd, tangential instruction can pop us out of stagnation is somehow comforting. I first used the cards about 15 years ago on a music production. I didn't get much buy-in from the band, but I secretly used the cards when I felt like the work was stagnating. For me, it worked like a charm. A few years later, I was stuck writing an arrangement. On my way out of the studio, I just picked up a guitar and put down my backpack, and played the song. By intentionally limiting myself (I really needed to leave to arrive on time), I took all of the gravitas out of the work and just flowed almost instantly. A productive lateral move. Since that time, I've learned that some of my most creative thinking happens in the shower and while driving well-known routes. Because I am totally out of context, answers get shuffled to the top. Learning to remember the ideas was a bit harder but added to the excitement of this new agency.
When doing therapy with creative clients, I will sometimes introduce the concept of oblique strategies to break creative blocks and ground out panic, anxiety, and depression. The cards can be a proof in concept of lateral thinking that leads to significant, early wins in reclaiming agency in creativity and mental health.