Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to sit down and attack it directly. But sometimes, you need to come at it sideways. We are often most creative when we are wandering around a problem or when we have taken a break.
One ancient technique humans have used to make decisions about the future, solve problems and prompt us to think, is to attempt to make patterns out of random stuff. Dice, clouds, stars, the flight of birds, dreams, cards have all been used in different cultures for thousands of years, to help us connect dots and decide what to do next. Contemporary writers and musicians have also used randomiser tools to help them make progress. Let’s look at some tools they use, and some ways we might do the same.
One of the longest-running modern versions of the random idea, slantwise approach, is Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s ‘Oblique Strategies‘. First developed in 1975 and now in its 5th edition, it’s a box of cards with suggestive phrases written on them: ‘What wouldn’t you do?’, ‘Water’, ‘Use an unacceptable colour’.
I love love love a card deck. I’ve wanted the original Oblique Strategy cards for years, but they are expensive. Recently, I bought them as a reward for submitting the new book.I’ve used Narelle Lemon’s Mindful Self Care and Strengths Based Collaboration cards as a teaching tool for years. I very much enjoyed Jessica Dore’s social work and psychological healing approach to the Tarot in Tarot for Change. I’ve used the School of Life Conversation Cards in my own family and as a socialising tool for students.
How do you use cards? There are two usually options. One is to simply pick out a single card from the deck and see if it sparks an idea, association or path for you. If it doesn’t, put it back and pull another card. There are 78 cards in a tarot deck and over a 100 cards in Oblique Strategies, so you’ll find something… and if nothing sparks for you, the problem isn’t the ideas, it’s that you need a nap.
The second way to use cards is to pull out a ‘spread’. A spread can be as simple as three cards in a row (often for ‘past, present, future’) or a full-on double Celtic cross. Lay out three or more cards, and start to look to see if you can connect them, create a story or development or contrasts between them. The space between the cards is also good for slantwise thinking.
It is this connective power that is the purpose of another story telling technique—using story cubes. Creativity trainer Rory O’Connor initially hacked a Rubik’s cube by changing the coloured stickers to simple images, that you then remixed. Later, he put the images onto each side of 9 dice. The game requires to you connect each of the 9 images, but you could simply pick out the few that interest you.
Similarly to emoji, the images can have multiple meanings. (To quote from the ‘Guidelines for Submitting Unicode® Emoji Proposals “Multiple usages. Does the emoji have notable metaphorical references or symbolism? For example, archetype, metaphorical use, and symbolism may be supplied. 🦈 shark is not necessarily only the animal, but also used for a huckster, in jumping the shark, loan shark, etc.”) So an “abacus” image might lead you to think quantitatively, to count, to make you think about beads, columns, graphs… or something else?
Cultures in Ancient Greece, Tibet and (what is now) Zimbabwe have all used versions of dice to help them tell the future. And of course, we use dice to help progress stories in a range of board games and table top games, from Monopoly to Dungeons and Dragons, which use the randomness of dice to bring more interest, luck and challenge to the games. So you might use a random number generator to jump to another page in your manuscript, or to decide if you should progress quickly (go forward 6) or slowly (go forward 1).
A final slantwise option is to use a random text creator to give you some meaningless text that you are then able to write over and reshape into a solution. There have been versions of this for a while now, from the simple predictive text games that used to circulate on Twitter (giving you a prompt and then letting your phone just suggest the next word and the next word) to the fun ‘plot generator‘ of a couple of years back to the newest versions of AI text producers.
Or you might go old school and do some truly ‘automatic writing’, where you write without thinking, some people suggest even writing with your eyes closed. (This is an extreme version of generative writing.) Don’t worry about making sense, the point is to produce something that tickles your brain, that presents a brain-twisting puzzle to get your thoughts to contort into unusual jumps, intuitions or connections.
Unlike the clouds or cards or dice, these computer-generated or hand-generated texts are not really random. They follow predictable, probable pathways—paths that are more likely than true. Such fuzzy, hallucinogenic and errant writing helps knock us out of the straightforward, the simple, the rut thinking as we need to wrestle with unexpected kinks and swerves to get back to a logical, evidence-based and realistic version.
So if you go blank, get stuck, find creativity difficult, face writer’s block or just want to introduce some play or some magic into your writing strategies, then these oblique, slantwise strategies might be worth exploring. Also, they are fun tools to experiment with, or to gift the writer in your life.