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Connecting the Dots

Updated: Feb 24

Everyone wants answers. And in this era of ever-present digital devices, we can have what we want in just a few clicks. We also value efficiency. We’re used to a fast pace where we fit a lot into our days, thanks largely to all the information tools at our fingertips.

The need to know and the desire to solve problems quickly can serve us well in reaching our goals and making things happen. The trouble is that it can also sabotage our creative process and limit our ability to come up with fresh ideas.

Creativity is about putting things together in new ways. This often involves connecting things that don’t go together in the logical world.

Young children do this naturally. They're explorers. Their job is to figure out how the world works. In their minds, anything is possible: animals that talk, cars that fly, food that provides superpowers, and traveling back or forward in time are all comfortable ideas in the child’s imagination.

As adults, we know more, and we come to believe that knowledge is power. We tend to look for solutions through analysis, based on what we know. And we google anything that we don’t know, in a hurry. Once we have a solution, we move onto our next problem or puzzle to solve.

The next time you’re wanting to create, either in your artistic life, your work life, or another aspect of your life, try a few things to side-step your brain’s need to have a quick answer. Here are 3 possible ways:

1. Start with a tangent and see how it comes back to help you.

A random object might seem like an unproductive starting point for a project. For instance, what could a stapler possibly have in common with a song about getting older? However, connecting the dots between two dissimilar things can bring surprisingly rich results that a more linear approach cannot.

An example: I often use Pat Pattison's object writing exercise to come up with first drafts of songs. I choose an object (or visit the Object Writing website for the word of the day) and write about it for 10 minutes from a sensory, descriptive point of view. It almost always provides me with vivid language that I can connect to an emotional state, a story, or a theme that means something to me. And before I know it, I’m off writing a song about an important relationship, a pivotal event in my life, or a theme I want to express in my work. If I start with my general theme or emotion, the language tends to be vague, cliche, and flat. Strangely, object writing gets me where I want to go, but indirectly.

2. Find inspiration and collaborators in other fields.

Step out of your art form or professional circle and into another stream. While seeking inspiration and collaborators within our field is necessary and good for us, it can sometimes lead to imitation and smaller leaps in creativity. Finding innovators in other fields can bring our lens to a wider angle and transport our thinking away from typical patterns and conventions of our fields or art forms. As a musician, I’m always amazed by the fruitful and fascinating conversations I can have with my friends who are writers and visual artists, and how these exchanges feed my own work. I've also learned time and again that dabbling in art forms outside of music can stimulate my intuition and imagination in ways that invigorate my music.

3. Don’t stop at your first good idea.

Keep going. Your ideas will get better. When you’re in brainstorming mode, list as many ideas as possible, without assessing what’s practical. Resist the urge to “quit while you’re ahead” and make a decision based on what seems doable. Go for 15-30 minutes simply brainstorming the possibilities, rather than jumping right into the implementation phase. With patience, your ideas can go from good ones to great ones, but the great one will not be the first one. Ideas build on themselves.

Our minds have so much capacity, and sometimes we can only access one kind of knowing by side-stepping another way of knowing. Creativity is a form of intelligence that is often overshadowed by our well-developed logical minds. There are times when it's a good idea to bypass that urgent need to find a rational answer. With awareness and a few simple techniques, we can spark our imaginations, make unlikely connections, and cultivate new ideas in unpredictable ways. And by tapping more fully into our creative minds, we might build a better and more beautiful world, one illogical idea at a time.

My Swan Song Semester with PDX Vox

2023 has been a year of big changes for me. After 19 years of leading the PDX Vox Community A Cappella program, I'm handing over the reins to a new set of leaders this fall. The organization that I founded long ago is stronger than ever, and as hard as it is to step away from the fun-loving community of singers, I know that it will grow in amazing ways for many years to come.

When I kicked off this program in 2004, I led a fledgling group of 14 singers on Wednesday nights at Central Lutheran Church. This fall, I'll have the chance to take it full circle and teach in one of the PDX Vox groups, in the same location. I'll be leading this group with Rachel Evered, a long-time member of the PDX Vox community, who has a master's degree in music therapy and a long history in a cappella singing and arranging, songwriting, and musical performance of many kinds. She is a talented musician and leader, and she consistently brings a strong sense of professionalism, musical style, community spirit and fun to the rehearsal room.

Rachel and I are so excited to work together and arrange some incredible songs. I hope you'll consider coming to sing with us!

When: Wednesdays, 7-9pm Sept. 13th - Dec. 13th

Where: Central Lutheran Church, 1820 NE 21st Ave., Portland

Cost: $325 for the 13-week semester. Installment plans and scholarships are available.

The group caps at 24 and there are a few spots left. You can reserve a spot in the group at the link below. If you sign up before August 30th, you can participate in the song selection process. We meet on Zoom to vote on the song ballot Wednesday, August 30th. Thanks for considering!

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Liam Rooney
Liam Rooney
Aug 20, 2023

Great ideas in this post, particularly the object oriented writing and the tangent technique. I tried versions of those tactics right away, letting my mind and keystrokes go where they will after launching from a seeming unrelated point. These are good ways of getting out of one's own way, and thus out of a rut. Thanks for posting this Marie!

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