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  • Mary Bergida DeLuca

Memory, Play, and the Salvation of Absurd Solutions


Girl Blowing Bubble

As a child, I had a knack for remembering obscure or even inappropriate moments.

At age four, I recall asking my mom to explain a conversation I’d overheard her exchanging with another adult.

“Oh, I was hoping you forgot about that,” she replied.

At age seven, I won a prize for being the only child in a group who remembered what I’d heard at church the previous Sunday.

(Don’t think I was pious—the gospel had just been swept into my memory with other sensory impression, like the scent of the man in front of me, or the pattern on the woman’s dress to my right.)

To this day I can generally recall what a person was wearing the first time I met them. Not the most helpful skill, but it’s something.

Yet, why is it, especially when it comes to creative truths, I so often forget what I know?

Why do I forget that creation can be both a divine and a most humanizing act? Sadly, or perhaps mercifully, I need to be reminded again and again why I choose to live a creative life.

The Creativity Conversation:

Early October, I find myself encircled by artistic friends at a sold out Seattle Town Hall. Two chairs wait on stage to be filled by Chase Jarvis, a local creativity guru, and the marvelous Brandon Stanton of HONY (Humans of New York).

Lights dim. The pair emerges on stage. Chase bristling with energy and Brandon with the mellow smile that disarms the thousands he’s interviewed and photographed.

In conversational style, they begin to share the histories, failures, and breakthroughs of their creative careers.

Despite the differences in their energies and approaches, they profess a unified solution to creative blocks:

Play.

I think of what play meant to me as a child—memories I haven’t dug out and dusted off in a while.

Hours of swinging, riding my bike in circles within our cul de sac, splashing in puddles, scrambling up fences and trees.

And lest you presume I was a tom-boy, you will also find me rummaging through a plastic storage bin brimming with paper dolls whose personal dramas require hours of orchestrating.

Back then, there is no specific solution that has to be discovered, no result that has to be achieved. I never count how many loops I make on my bike or if my paper friends' desires rise to block-buster-worthy climaxes.

But in my thirties, play and creativity—especially creative writing—don’t seem to crossover much.

Now I analyze, strategize, set time limits with benchmarks. And while these methods are useful, they sometimes lead me to dead ends that feel like a sky-scraping concrete wall.

Not long ago, I read over a manuscript I'm writing and notice a flat scene—we are talking pancake flat. And it's not just any scene. It’s the opening scene!

Flat is really, really bad! And I feel stuck. Almost hopeless.

Then I think of Chase and Brandon’s philosophy. I tell myself: Go play!

So I go and rewrite synopses of the scene—in 5 different ways. Believe me, some of them are outlandish. It is a relief.

This piece is a historical dramedy and I allow myself to create cross-genre versions of the scene, even trying a sci-fi version—slime and all.

Ideas

These mini-scene rewrites are truly terrible, but each one offers me at least one new plausible idea. And with these fresh ideas, like collage work, I piece together another opening scene. A scene that I even rather like. A scene that feels fresh. Alive.

Play and Everyday Problem Solving:

While I may still be learning to play, this message isn’t a totally new one to me.

At another creativity conference I attended a year ago, a similar exercise is introduced for getting "unstuck" amidst any "sticking point."

The audience is guided through a “play practice” by focusing on real life conundrums and coming up with the most absurd solutions they can think of.

The results leave artists, dancers, teachers giggling. One woman who struggles to get her middle-schooler out of bed in the morning comes up with zany solution of hiring a marching band to play outside her daughter’s window daily.

While the marching band probably won’t be this mother’s ultimate resolution, its absurdity offers levity and clears mental channels for unforeseen options.

Part of play is momentarily letting go of the practical. And when we let go of the obvious, the perfect, innovation has a chance. New paths of creativity can flow.

Play can ultimately save us from hopelessness when we see "no way out."

Play and Proliferation:

Another gift of play is volume. When results don’t have to be perfect, we easily create more than we would have otherwise.

Back at the Town Hall evening, Chase and Brandon share about an art professor who on the first day of class divides the students in half. To the first half he says: “This term you only need to create one, exquisite piece of work.”

To the other half, “You need to create a heap of work, but it doesn’t have to be good.”

Artist and Canvases

Surprisingly, at the end of the semester, the students who had to create non-stop were producing more skilled pieces than the students who had an entire term to create one, perfect piece.

Those artists who needed to produce a mountain of work had the luxury of play, of error, of absurdity. And with that freedom and experience, they had the possibility to create something with originality and skill.

My hope for you this season is that you also will give yourself permission to play.

Next time you feel stuck in decision-making, creating, or writing, try playing with ideas. Try on ridiculous solutions and see what jewels emerge from that play.

And if you have a moment, why not “prime the creative pump” now? Pick one of the two exercises below:

Childhood Play:

  • List 5 things you loved to do as a child.

  • How can you incorporate (maybe a new version of) one these practices into your week?

Absurd Solutions:

  • What are three areas in your life where you feel stuck? Note also how each problem makes you feel.

  • Pick one area, and quickly list 5 ridiculous solutions to the problem.

  • How do you feel now? Even if you don't have THE solution, what new possibilities might have opened for you?

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