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Bruce Price : MAX Your Creativity

MAX Your Creativity

By Bruce Price

If you have superior technical skills, if for example you draw like Michelangelo or write like Hemingway, skip this. But if you're burned out, repeating yourself or feel the need to travel new highways, read on. Today's topic is increasing creativity by doing the wild thing, wild as in weird and even wacky, wild as in experimental.

In the 1920s Andre Breton and Surrealism celebrated the subconscious. Breton said we must listen to our dreams, not our conscious thoughts. To me this is a tiresome debate. What's clear is that ordinary people go to sleep every night and dream astonishingly original stuff they couldn't come up with consciously. Clearly the subconscious is a second source you can call on — if it works for you, use it. And I suggest that chance is a third source. (If chance is too Las-Vegas for you, call it serendipity!)

Here's an experiment intended to tie all this up in a neat package. Take paper and pencil (yes, you writers, too) and draw the most interesting abstract you can in five minutes. Now, do the same in a room without any light. (Turn the paper so you don't even know what's up or down.) I bet the blind drawing is going to be comparable most of the time. Can we use the word skill when there's no feedback for the eyes? Can we talk about dreams or the subconscious? I think we have to allow for a big dose of you and chance dancing cheek to cheek.

I read an article about a sculptress (actually she was an arty ceramicist) who said: "Sometimes, the most interesting pieces come from a series of guided accidents." Exactly!! What happens is you try to let interesting things happen and then you stand by like a midwife and catch the baby ....Surely skill guides some of that guiding. Maybe the subconscious plays a role. And part of it is that you toss the dice and hope to get very lucky.

Around 1975 a man named Edward de Bono announced a device he called The Think Tank, a plastic globe with 13,000 words on little plastic strips. You rolled the globe to expose new words in a small window; then you were supposed to brainstorm your way to a creative victory. I loved this device; I wanted one. But the price was too high for a poor writer. Eureka! I realized I could generate random numbers with my calculator, let the numbers indicate pages in my dictionary, and then with my eyes closed, pick a random word. Then I'd ad lib the most interesting sentence with that word in it; and wing it as long as I could. Using this technique, I wrote a lot of poetry. Surrealism? Automatic writing? Or just forcing my overly intellectual brain to stay light and loose? Let's not waste time arguing. The only thing that matters is this: was the poetry any good? Some of it was, I'll go that far. More to the point, some of it was better than what I was writing before this experiment.

Something else happened. I became addicted to that rootless, thoughtless freedom when the new word comes up. I recklessly decided I would try to write a whole novel this way. I imagined that I'd need to pop a new word every few paragraphs to keep it going. But what happened was, the words suggested story and I ran with each story as many pages as I could. The first word was disclosure, and the first sentence was: "He decided to make a full disclosure." I saw a man about to confess to his wife....

American Dreams
by Bruce Price

The next night I drew another word. And the next night. The writing was quite good, but I was creating new people and new stories at an unruly clip. Finally I assigned them all numbers and randomly determined who intersected with whom. Like happy endings? This extreme experiment became American Dreams, published by Permanent Press in 1985, favorably reviewed by Publishers Weekly, and still available. There's no mention in the book of the technique used. Who'd believe it? But I always felt that American Dreams would be a top contender for Great American Experimental Novel. So, where did all that material came from? Same place dreams come from, I suppose. (You see that the title had a double meaning for me.) But unlike the Surrealists, I never argued that one place is better than another. I've written other novels the old-fashioned way where you plan everything. Much, much safer!

Perhaps the best art comes from a zone between partly planned and partly footloose. The most amazing thing I ever read about any writer was the comment attributed to Hemingway. He claimed he never set out to write a novel. He wrote short stories but some of them wouldn't stop. I once interviewed a novelist (he was semi-famous at the time) who told me he wrote a page each day and put the pages in a box in a drawer. At the end of the year, he sent the manuscript to his publisher!

The thread running through all this is that sometimes you need to give up some control. Let go. What else was Jackson Pollack doing with those dripping brushes? He was tossing paint at the canvas, mostly in control but not entirely. The art was looser and more spontaneous than his earlier work — and better.

I understand completely. If I could throw paint against a wall and make beauty, that'd be my genre. Around 1990 I did a long series of paintings called "Poems" where planning was not allowed. I'd start with a blank, Zen-like mind and, shazam, create the most interesting and unexpected element I could put on the canvas...and then the next most interesting...If I could create five or six surprising elements, I'd have a good piece.

I suspect Franz Klein, when doing the famous action paintings, was in this same zone. I bet a lot of them were ugly and he threw them away. The ones with that offhand, what-a-genius quality, he showed to the world.

The main thing is not to fear failing. Take risks and see what happens. The big challenge is to stifle your practical, critical, intellectual side until the art is done. Then wake up that dour, annoying fellow and see what he has to say.

Creative block is usually caused by too much thinking and straining. Make sure you're creating stuff that you like creating — so that it's fun. In a cool period, try warming up by doing an extreme version of your medium. In the case of writing, go with sex or violence or emotional moments. Churn out scenes as fast as you can type. Write with abandon in whatever direction you fancy, and maybe in the torrent of words you'll rediscover the joy of writing.

Having fun (or trying to) and creating on the edge — that's pretty much my MO. Now I'm doing those same things as a digital painter. You might wonder, aren't computers just machines — rigid and inhuman? How do they fit in with being wild and creative? The answer has two parts. First is speed — the computer lets me explore a lot of roads quickly. Second is originality — the computer lets me make a flood of startling stuff. Honestly, if I could draw like Michelangelo, I'd better do just that. I can't. What I have is a flair for design, a flair for color; I know what I like. So I create a lot of elements and look for magical synergies. Often, I assemble the pieces a la Rauschenberg, David Salle or Rosenquist, so that the total energy is greater than any of the parts. Exactly as with the "Poems" 15 years ago, I stay busy, try to stay loose, and wait for the keepers to show up. A series of guided accidents, all of them!

I've seen books that suggest different kinds of experiments. But note well: an experiment is a cold thing unless it taps into your hot core. Which brings us to the final advice: devise the techniques, find the experiments, and cause the accidents that maximize your creativity. Whatever w*o*r*k*s! •

Endnotes: the Art; the Book


Re-Entry Is Not Possible by Bruce Price

"Re-Entry Is Not Possible" illustrates the wild synergies that Bruce Price strives for in his digital work. Here is his analysis:

Note that this picture consists of four separate paintings, plus type. All are beautiful, which is my first requirement. The biggest three were created experimentally and ended up with a jittery, senses-starting-to waver feeling that made me think of a space shuttle plunging back to Earth. I created the little piece at bottom right and the title to give a hint of sci-fi. So you can see astronauts in trouble if you want. If you see a broader statement about returning from anything to anything else, that's there too. I was actually thinking about Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again as I finished this.

© Bruce Price 2005. All rights reserved.

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, poet, and education activist. More »

5/23/05