Ordinary Tools of Thought
[This is part 2 in the ongoing Fuck the Muse mini-series.]
"Creativity isn’t magic. It happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials."
— Kirby Ferguson
It seems I can’t dive straight into the five steps of creative process — my content wants to take a different route (more on that later). Instead, let’s start by establishing some broad themes that will resurface regularly along the way.
The Elements of Creativity
Kirby Ferguson’s fantastic video series, Everything is a Remix, argues that the three basic techniques of remixing (copy, transform, combine) are actually the foundation of all creative process. He refers to these techniques as the "Elements of Creativity".
I won’t go into the details of his argument, but you should. My goal is to pick up where he leaves off, turning creative theory into creative practice.
Go watch the entire series. I can wait.
I’m serious. Consider it homework.
(He remains a moment motionless, then goes out. He comes back immediately, goes to window right, takes up the ladder and carries it out. Pause.) *
Spark & Slip
Douglas Hofstadter, a writer and professor of cognitive science, makes the same argument in his book Metamagical Themas. He talks about creativity as a process of "sparking & slipping":
There is a way that concepts have of "slipping" from one into another, following a quite unpredictable path… An example of such a slip is furnished to us whenever we make a typo or grammatical mistake, utter a malapropism… or confuse two concepts at a deeply semantic level.
This isn’t just technique, this is how our brains work — sparking off ideas and slipping towards other ideas — copying, transforming, & combining into new ideas.
The Art is Inevitable
I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work… So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable.
— Henry Ford
Art is no different. Like inventors and scientists, our job is to facilitate the process of experimentation and transformation, then capture the results.
These can be difficult skills to master, but they aren’t magic, and there are tools that can help us. It’s nothing new — conceptual artists and remix artists have been honing these tools for years, and we’ll borrow from them regularly — but I want to show that the conceptual/remix process is essential for every medium and every genre.
Related ‘fuck the muse’ Articles
Fuck the Muse pt.7: Sometimes you have a great idea for a project, or one aspect of a project, and you throw everything at it, but the idea turns out to be a dud. You can’t ditch the project after putting so much into it, but neither can you force it through. The only way forward is to take a step back.
Fuck the Muse pt.5: Now that you have a seed worth exploring, you are ready for step 2 of the creative process. The goal of this phase is explosive growth, following your curiosity out from the seed in every direction. What is the content? What materials will you need to build this artwork? What already exists, and what will you need to build? What will be your inspirations? What will be your constraints?
You can’t start working until you know what you are working towards. That doesn’t mean knowing all the answers, it means knowing the questions that will guide you. I refer to those guiding questions as the "seed" of a project.
Cycles have become the core of my creative process. Thinking in cycles means I always know where I am and where I’m going, even when I feel overwhelmed by the size of a project. If I’m stuck, it’s time for a new mindset. If my last move was to zig, my next move is to zag.
We think of creativity as sudden, sexy, inexplicable moments of inspiration — ignoring the hard work that makes those moments possible.