Discover more from Creative Fuel with Anna Brones
The Best Creative Constraints Are the Oblique Ones
Exploring the history of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies deck, asking ChatGPT for creative inspiration, and figuring out how to keep digging into the weird and the wild.
Creative Fuel is a newsletter about the intersection of creativity and everyday life. Prompts are focused on helping us tap into our creative process, no matter our medium. Paid subscribers have full access to the archive of prompts and help to make this work sustainable.
As with any creative practice, writing this newsletter is an ongoing experiment. What feels fun to write? What works for you people reading? For right now, I send out a weekly prompt, every Saturday morning to paid subscribers, and at least one per month goes out to everyone, like what you’re reading right now.
I teach a lot of workshops and putting together prompts and questions to help encourage people to explore their creativity feels like an organic extension of my own practice. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wonder if this has value, or if it’s necessarily where I want my energy to go. Let’s put it this way: I spent two years making lists of daily prompts. The truth is, I rarely ended up using them myself. However, putting them together did made me think about my own creative practice in new ways.
I’m taking a writing workshop fromand Freeflow Institute this month and it is challenging me to dig into the “why” behind my own writing. Which got me thinking about why I even write prompts in the first place.
It has to do with questions.
We live in a culture of answers. Everywhere you turn there is someone with a piece of advice, the offer of a life-changing tip of something that you should be doing, the presentation of a clear and precise path forward. Sometimes on social media I feel like we’ve all turned ourselves into water-down self help book authors—every single post put together under the auspices of being educational and informative, while really just feeling prescriptive. If you’ve ever seen a beautifully illustrated quote about taking care of yourself, or changing your outlook on life (“stay positive!”), you know what I am talking about. It feels formulaic: here’s an oversimplified solution that doesn’t take into account any societal or systemic issues, put it into place, move on.
Maybe this is born out of our age of convenience, in which listicle-driven reading makes us start to crave even the most complex of ideas to be broken down into small, digestible components. Why sit with something if you can just read a summary and move on? Let’s be honest, I’m sure we’ve all scanned a headline and assumed we read the piece.
One after the other, we pop our magic answer pills to distract us from digging into the larger questions, to keep us from spending too much time in that space of the unknown.
But I am interested in how we create a culture of questions. I don’t mean in a right wing, “I’m just asking questions” kind of way. I mean in the way that cultivates and honors a place of unknowing in order to better learn how to move forward. That place where there is no one answer, a place that requires sitting with something for an extended period of time. Because that’s the place where creativity thrives.
In my mind, that’s what a creative prompt is: something that sparks a question. Something that challenges us to lead from a place of curiosity. Just like an interesting question at a dinner party or a writing workshop sets up the parameters for a robust discussion, a creative prompt puts some structure and limits in place for our creative process which in turn helps it to thrive.
“Artists need constraints! And prompts are like constraint-dispensing machines,”, author of Daily Rituals and the newsletter told me. “The worst thing in the world is to be able to make anything you want, in any medium, according to any time frame—that's the perfect recipe for a creative block. A prompt instantly limits your options, forces you to think in a narrower groove. That's good for getting ideas flowing or clarifying preferences and goals.”
In a distracted, digital age, where information is essentially limitless and always at our fingertips, no wonder we need help with focusing.
A couple of years ago my husband gifted me the Oblique Strategies deck. The prompt deck was created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1974, and it has a bit of a cult following. I have a (mostly) morning practice of pulling a card, and in moments of bigger projects that have more stumbling blocks, sometimes a few cards a day is needed. Whenever I pull a card, the resulting prompt always feel potent.
It makes sense that these prompts feel special. The original deck was of course created in the pre-internet era when prompts weren’t just a couple of clicks and searches away, but it also was created by artists who wanted to use them. Artists who saw the importance of lateral thinking for approaching a creative obstacle.
There was also an understanding of how constraints could expand their own process. Schmidt had just finished 64 drawings based off of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination manual (which had also creatively inspired John Cage). They also both had an individual practice of keeping an ongoing list of ideas—“aphormisms” according to Eno—of things they wanted to remember in creative situations. The first on Eno’s list was “Honor thy error as a hidden intention,” which is a card in the deck to this day. They found that Eno’s list for music and Schmidt’s list for visual art translated well to both of their respective mediums. A collaboration was born.
As Eno shared in an interview with Charles Amirkhanian in 1980, the deck, “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 other 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.”
Pulling a card of course has a special kind of magic to it, as opposed to just staring at a list.
There’s something inherently analog about pulling a card, and I love that.
I recently listened to a podcast episode from 2019 with Eno and Rick Rubin. “I’ve always liked those zones between the human and the mechanical,” said Eno, which is perhaps not so surprising given that he works in music, and there are so many mechanical tools employed in a studio. This is not a space that I particularly thrive or feel a sense of expertise in—remember, I hand-cut paper for fun—but I use digital tools all the time. Digitizing my papercuts might be one of my least favorite parts of my job (ok, bookkeeping is worse), but it’s necessary to make prints. And thank god for AI transcription for interviews.
Technology plays an ever present role in this day and age, and we can’t entirely extricate ourselves from it. We might sometimes feel resistant to it, but I think it’s essential that we grapple with this human/technology relationship—what it means for us, and what we want it to look like.
With that in mind, I’ve been fascinated with other creatives experimenting with AI and their commentary. Likeof having ChatGPT put together 500 ways to sign off a letter—“In caffeinated spirit” is a personal favorite—or having it write a song for him.
Last weekend when some friends were visiting and the conversation inevitably went to AI (maybe this isn’t inevitable, but I feel like it comes up a lot these days), I figured this was the time to finally go and ask Chat GPT some questions.
An obvious starting point was with my preferred subject, so I asked it to “give me 10 creativity prompts.” I specifically asked for “creativity” prompts, because I wanted something that wasn’t solely a writing prompt. I watched as the words quickly typed out on the screen, a list of ten things unfolding in front of me.
“Sure, here are 10 creativity prompts to get your creative juices flowing:
Write a short story about a person who wakes up with the ability to speak any language fluently, but can only do so for 24 hours.
Imagine a world where everyone has a superpower except for one person. What is their powerlessness and how do they navigate this world?
Design a new product that solves a common problem in a unique way.
Create a piece of art inspired by the changing of the seasons.
Write a song about a memory from your childhood.
Invent a new holiday that celebrates something unconventional.
Create a short film that explores the concept of time travel.
Design a fashion line inspired by your favorite fictional character.
Write a poem about a place you've never been to.
Create a recipe for a dish that combines unexpected ingredients.”
I read through them and felt a little… flat? I was of course coming to the situation with my own biases, and there was something uncomfortable about the fact that the AI had generated these prompts within seconds. But as I read through them in more detail I started to think about what they really made me feel.
For starters, #10 is what I do most nights of the week when the ingredients in the refrigerator and the pantry are dwindling. Being constantly in awe and inspired by nature, #4 elicits a “yeah, ok” reaction. Lest you think I’m just out to criticize AI systems, as someone interested in language, place, and identity, I do get a kick out of #1 and think that could lead somewhere interesting.
In general, as prompts to spark creativity, I think they are fine. But they’re just that: nothing more, nothing less. They certainly get you thinking about something new and different. But on the other hand, they’re incredibly specific. Almost a bit linear.
Many of them are outcome driven, as they focus on the production of something: a story, a film, a recipe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but on some level, they feel like they are missing a certain weirdness, a certain… dare I say it… humanity? They’re lacking a spark.
For context, just compare them with a couple Bernadette Meyer prompts, what she called “writing experiments”:
“Attempt writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial.”
“Make a pattern of repetitions.”
Or if you really want a contrast, think about Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit. Here’s an excerpt, in which the sky is the creative collaborator:
PAINTING TO SEE THE SKIES
Drill two holes into a canvas.
Hang it where you can see the sky.
(Change the place of the hanging. Try both the front and the rear windows, to see if the skies are different.)
When I read these kinds of prompts, or pull an Oblique Strategies card, I feel a spark of something. There’s an itch to dig into an unknown space. A call to pull myself back a bit and look at a larger picture. An invitation to dive into the process of creativity. I feel a sense of something a little weird, a little wild.
I’m not alone in wanting some of that weirdness in my prompts. “I can tell when I've read an effective prompt because my brain instantly starts working all the angles: How would this work? Could I do this, and not have the result be stupid? If the result was stupid, would it be stupid in an interesting way?” says Currey. “I think a good prompt is unexpected, perhaps a little weird, perhaps even a little infuriating—it should force your brain out of its usual habits of thinking and make it work in a new, slightly uncomfortable way.”
I’m of the belief that anything can be a creative prompt—a word, a color, a phrase, a quote, a mood, a weather system. A good creative prompt is something that sparks a process. It’s not a directive, it’s an invitation for a perspective shift. It’s a call to question our current way of doing something and how we might think about changing it. And it can be used again, again, and again.
Exploring our creativity allows us to explore those wild bits at the edges that often don’t fit into the format of machines (or a society that wants us to function like machines). Engaging with a creative process, no matter our medium, invites us to journey into those messy, human, mysterious, weird bits.
What the internet, and AI, offers up, can feel limitless. But what I’m interested in are the constraints of being human.
That’s where the creativity lies.
If you’ve read this far then you’ve already seen plenty of prompts, but I did want to pull a card for all of you.
This was the last thing I did before scheduling this newsletter.
Here you go:
“Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities.”
I’d say this is pretty perfect given the topic. Have at it!
PREVIOUS PROMPTS TO EXPLORE
Creative Fuel with Anna Brones is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Thank you so much for reading. Creative Fuel comes out about once a week, you can help support it by becoming a paid subscriber and also getting weekly prompts. Other ways to support: buy something my shop, buy one of my books, come to a Creative Fuel workshop or free Wednesday session, or send this newsletter to someone who you think might enjoy it.
The seeds for making a deck might just have been planted earlier: while still a student, Eno had been inspired by the Fluxus movement. Those artists were actually known for their inventive and unique boxes. Eno was intrigued by George Brecht’s “water yam” box: “It was a big box of cards of all different sizes and shapes, and each card had instructions for a piece … All of the cards had cryptic things on them, like one said, ‘Egg event—at least one egg.’ Another said, ‘Two chairs. One umbrella. One chair.’”