In A Whack on The Side of the Head How You Can Be More Creative by Roger von Oech there is a section called “Opening Mental Locks” which explores “temporarily forget[ting] what we know [in order to] ask the questions that lead off the beaten path in new directions.” He takes a Zen story and substitutes the word ‘creativity’ for ‘Zen’.
The Zen story is “A Cup of Tea”.
‘Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”’
This principle applies to our ideas and our emotions. I once had a counselor talk about a similar effect of bitterness on our ability to experience joy. He stated that if our cup is too full of bitterness there is very little room left for joy. So von Oech applies this thought process to creativity in the form of opening mental locks.
The examples he uses are Gutenberg who ‘forgot’ that wine presses only squeeze grapes; Picasso broke the “rule” that bicycle seats are for sitting on. My favorite though is the story he relates about the musicians of Franz Joseph Haydn‘s orchestra. In 1792 the musicians “got mad because the Duke promised them a vacation, but continually postponed it. They asked Haydn to talk to the Duke about getting some time off.” After giving their request some careful thought “Haydn …decided to let the music do the talking, and wrote the “Farewell Symphony. The performance began with a full orchestra, but as the piece went along, it was scored to need fewer and fewer instruments. As each musician finished his part, he blew out his candle and left the stage. They did this, one by one, until the stage was empty. The Duke got the message and gave them a vacation.” Roger von Oech concludes that “Haydn didn’t understand that equating music and labor grievances was a ‘foolish’ idea.”
He goes on to say, “Without the ability to temporarily forget what we know, our minds remain cluttered with read-made answers, and we never have an opportunity to ask the questions that lead off the beaten path in new directions.” This concept dovetails with the Whack Pack card I picked for this month, “Change Its Name”.
The card states, “If an architect looks at an opening between two rooms and thinks “door” that’s what she’ll design. But if she thinks “passageway” she may design something much different like a “hallway,” “air curtain,” “tunnel,” or perhaps a “courtyard”. Different words bring in different assumptions and lead your thinking in different directions.” The card ends with the questions, “What else can you call your idea?”
As an artist coming up with just the right words to title a painting, poem, book, or song can be limited by our preconceptions. I am struggling right now on naming a new series of paintings I have planned. The paintings will be of various goats that I raised over several years. Initially, I have titled the series “The Goat Series” mainly because I was more interested in creating the studies and getting to work on the actual paintings. But it doesn’t quite do justice to the animals I will be painting.
So I’m trying to “Change Its Name”. Thus far ‘Pasture Pals’ has risen to the top, from a list that includes that plus ‘Kidding Around’ and ‘Barn Buddies’, since I spent many hours handling and interacting with the kids and nannies in the barn and pasture. I really like ‘Kidding Around’ but not all of these paintings will be of goat kids some are of the nannies I raised or bred.
And search don’t forget to search out areas in your life where you need to empty “your mental [or emotional ] cup.”