Congition – Imagination – Restrictions

Friday, June 13th, 2008 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

“Zen and the art of motor cycle maintainence contains this short story on a failure of imagination:

He’d been innovating extensively. He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say.

One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred-word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.

When the paper came due she didn’t have it and was quite upset. She had tried and tried but she just couldn’t think of anything to say.

He had already discussed her with her previous instructors and they’d confirmed his impressions of her. She was very serious, disciplined and hardworking, but extremely dull. Not a spark of creativity in her anywhere. Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, were the eyes of a drudge. She wasn’t bluffing him, she really couldn’t think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told.

It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of anything to say. A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer: “Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.” It was a stroke of insight.

She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of anything to say, and couldn’t understand why, if she couldn’t think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.

He was furious. “You’re not looking!” he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.

He told her angrily, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. “I sat in the hamburger stand across the street,” she said, “and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it.”

Every writer, artist and worker has suffered to some degree from “blank page syndrome“. Not having any idea where to start. You’ll have looked at some problem and just been at a loss for any way to begin a solution at all. You’ll have wanted to talk to someone but been drowned in awkward silence, finding it impossible to know what to say. You’ll have been unable to think of a gift for someone. When faced with too many possibilities your mind can find it hard to find a pattern to focus on. Something in inspire.

When you listened to our mp3 file last week, you will have found it very easy to know what to visualise, and fairly easy to pick the tools and methods you used to improve your imagination. Yet if we’d simply said “Visualise something imaginative” you’d have been much more likely to just freeze.

Solutions beginning with “P”

The difference between the two particulars is, of course, that in the primary one we have added almost completely arbitrary restrictions. Narrowed down part of the pattern, limited the possibilities into something we can use to prompt our imaginations.

Primarily: You are inspired by limitations.

When you find yourself stuck for lack of ideas, add arbitrary conditions. Don’t just think of something to say to that person, think of something beginning with the word Pancake. Don’t just try and draw a picture, draw a picture of something pink. When trying to think of an example, think of one beginning with the letter “P”.

Chose your own letter, your own restriction, though. Obviously. You don’t want to be drowning in Pee.

You should start, gradually, to find different ways to tell stories to your brain about how and why your imagination is growing. Slowly expand the restrictions in this month’s mp3. Imagine different scenarios, situations, be as creative as you can be. Learn how to cope easily with wider and wider selections of options in front of you to gradually reduce the “Blank Page Effect” in yourself.

And in the mean time, if you get stuck, just pile in a few more arbitrary preconditions.