Constraints and Creativity


It’s opening day of the track driving season. About two sessions in a student says some idiot came flying past her into a corner super aggressively. Everyone was fine, but it ruined the session for my student. The move was rude and dangerous. It happened so quickly that she wasn’t even sure what car it was. My student had a right to be upset. I’m glad she chose to share the problem so we could discuss it. We talked about the mindset that we need to deal with the unexpected and suddenly hurried moment that can happen anytime and feels especially acute when we are so completely focused on the task at hand that we forget to maintain a sense of where we are in the bigger picture. I asked the students to come back for the next session and tell me about the landmarks they noticed around the track. I wanted them to focus on being ready to deal with the unexpected by having their eyes up instead of down. I asked them to let go of the anger caused by having their tunnel vision taken away by focusing on the next corner, and each one coming in turn over each lap.

About a month later I saw the painting above done by the poet John Giorno. Unfortunately, he passed away in October of this year at age 82. I don’t think Giorno had any interest in racing so he might have been amused to know that his philosophy helps me coach high speed driving.

I’d never heard of John Giorno before I saw the painting. I have since learned that he played a key role in the avant-garde art world of the early 60’s as a “muse and lover of other artists, among them Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.” Per his obituary in the New York Times, his lasting contribution was how he looked at his art medium, poetry. He felt that poetry did not have the same impact that visual arts had had in the 20th century so he set out to change that by introducing multimedia presentation for his and others’ work. Among the innovations was Dial-A-Poem inspired by a phone call with his friend, the writer William S. Burroughs. I really like the creative and plain in-your-face style of Giorno’s work. I recommend reading his NYT obituary and this lovely article about him from the Paris Review; I Love John Giorno and So Should You to learn more, but what connects with me is how Giorno thought about using the tools available to hm in new ways. I am a firm believer that innovation happens when there are constraints. For Giorno, the obvious constraint that he was working with was that poetry which started out as spoken word now primarily existed on a printed page. What tools could he borrow or repurpose to make poetry new again. Call Dial-A-Poem at 641-793-8122 to hear how he did it. Watch him perform the poem It Doesn’t Get Any Better to see how he did it. If I were to recommend a book that describes this creative process it would be Inside the Box, because it provides systematic lessons for how to employ tools that you have in new ways, but really if you think about it you do this every day when you interact with someone or write a message.

There are 26 letters in our alphabet. There are something like 250,000 words in the English language, but it is not possible to have an exact count since new words come into the language and are created all the time using the 26 letter constraint.

What type of problem is bedeviling you right now? What are your constraints? What are the tools you have?

-It’s not what happens, its how you handle it.


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