Nov 082013

I like to think of creativity exercises as short-term tools. They’re not really solutions in themselves, but they can break habits, build habits, and help the heart and mind break away from malaise.

I’m talking about creativity exercises such as: think of a color, then write down ten objects that have the color. Then write a story plot using those objects. Or, take a musical phrase and play it in all twelve keys, then play it backwards in all twelve keys. Sure you could write a story or a piece of music this way, but usually the process is much more imaginative than that.

It reminds me of my religious life from many years ago. People would really get into the rules and procedures of prayer, but it seemed rare that anyone actually achieved a prayerful life. I might not have it right, and maybe folks were experiencing something far more substantial than what I saw. But it seemed to me that prayer was usually about certain physical acts, like closing eyes, bowing heads, folding hands or linking hands with others. It was about words, lots of tedious words, despite Jesus’ teaching on that subject. And Jesus also taught that praying in public places was a waste of time, yet folks seemed so into saying verbose prayers in public almost any chance they got.

Something similar goes on with musicians and writers. One of the hardest things for me when I’m teaching music lessons is to help a student simply relax and fall into playing music. There’s always lots of discussion about buying more instruements and accessories, even though the student already has too much stuff. It seems like the idea of playing music is more appealing than the actual experience of it. I think it seems like the work that goes into learning an instrument holds some kind of dread. It might go back to how nasty and boring our assignments were in school as kids. It might have to do with something similar with parents, with religious education and services, how we’re taught as kids to dread the stuff that everyone says is so important.

By the way, if you are reading this and you have taken lessons from me, please don’t think I’m describing you specifically. Almost all the music students I’ve had over the years have struggled to find happiness in making their music.

For writers, there are exercises and books about writing. There’s worry about writing. There are all kinds of classes and activities around writing, even finishing an MFA. All useful in some ways, but I think the best attitude is to see all that as short-term. Those are little tools to help get things started, but you’re not writing until you’re writing. Just write. Go ahead. If you don’t know what to write about, then wait. Take a walk. Don’t think about it, just wait. Don’t worry, you’ll get some ideas sooner or later.

I recently ran across a mention of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” cards. I heard about them many years ago, and it’s a very cool idea. You pick a card, and it points you to some new direction for your current work. Here are some examples:

  • A line has two sides.
  • Do nothing for as long as possible.
  • Question the heroic approach
  • Ask people to work against their better judgement.

(This text came from

I’ve never actually owned a set of these cards, but the idea is enough for me. Just do something different, change the monotony, or repeat the unpredictableness, or just launch out into some place. Go eat a sandwich. Go find an animal to say hello to. Think inside the box. Think outside the box. And then eat the box.