Beat the Block: Flash Cards to Skip Over Creativity’s Hurdles

Writer's Block by Drew Coffman

Writer’s Block I. Photo Credit: Drew Coffman. Click the image to see more of his work.

The Strategy

Oblique Strategies were first created in 1975 through a collaboration between musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt. Reflecting on their time in the studio, they wanted to create a way to move through feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, and distraction that kept them from making artwork.

The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt this attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt that attitude.” — Brian Eno, in an interview with Charles Amirkhanian, KPFA-FM Berkeley, 2/1/80 (source)

The method they designed was a series of cards with short phrases to shake them out of their creative block and redirect their artistic flow. Here are some examples:

“Do something unexpected, destructive, and unpredictable.”

“State the problem in words as clearly as possible”

“Lowest common denominator check -single beat -single note -single riff”

When they felt blocked, they would pull out a single card and follow its advice. The cards encourage lateral thinking, letting you hop from a blocked mental pathway to an open one with ease.

OriginalObliqueStrategyCards_byKevinSlavin

Original Oblique Strategy cards, photographed by Kevin Slavin.

Getting Your Own Deck

Eno and Schmidt have made several editions of these cards, titled Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. They are still available on Eno’s website, and there are a number of digital versions and mobile apps available. Feel free to pursue any of those options if oblique strategies interest you.

But! Being the dabblers we are, we know that the best way to learn and internalize is through imitation. Take a stab at creating your own, personalized deck! What better way to break a creative block than with creating tools to end the next one quickly?

Take some time to gather the quotes that inspire you. Consider the principles or ideas that help you move forward in your creativity. Collect the images or words of artists you admire. Then put them all in a place where you can choose them easily and randomly.

Here are some oblique strategies that we would include in an MD deck:

  • “The first, tiniest, easiest step towards the goal”
  • “How would your favorite fictional character do it?”
  • “Make it bigger!”
  • “An artist in a different medium would…”
  • “Use your hands.”

Ideas like this would definitely get us out of our funk and into our work.

How about you?

Would you use oblique strategies to keep your creative flow going? What’s the first card that came to your mind for your personal deck?

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