How does creativity work? I am sure there are as many answers to that question as there are creative people— that would be billions. For my part, an important part of the process has to do with opening my mind up to the possibility that everything, and I mean everything, I know is wrong, upside down and backward. This is much harder than it seems, at least for me.
When I was a student doctor a professor, whom I revered, asked me to see one of his patients and then report back what I found. I was thrilled, and nervous and determined to do my best. I saw the man, took his history, life-long smoker, now with shortness of breath and weight loss. I listened closely with my stethoscope and heard just what I expected to hear— wheezing.
When I was nearly done the patient start cursing and complaining about “that murderer Benedict.” Didn’t seem relevant.
My diagnosis? Emphysema– end stage.
I reported all of this to my mentor and he questioned me closely. When I was done, he told me I was wrong— dead wrong.
Wheezing is the sound people make when they are working hard to breath out, stridor is the sound people make when they are working hard to breath in. I’d heard sounds in the lungs and they “sounded like wheezing” mainly because I assumed they would be wheezes.
The patient really had cancer of the voicebox and that often causes stridor. He had been seeing a Dr. Benedict for six months and Dr. Benedict had diagnosed emphysema and prescribed treatments for the same, increasing the dosages as the symptoms worsened. All the while, the tumor grew. By the time the patient came to see my mentor, it was too late. “That murderer Benedict’s” error had eliminated any hope of recovery.
I remember a shudder running through my body as my mentor explained this to me. I had made exactly the same error. I had failed because I saw only the obvious and, unfortunately, what was obvious was also false.
So how is this related to creativity? I believe that creativity is a discipline, like music or poetry. I takes hard work and the hardest work is questioning our own assumptions.
Take King Lear, for example, the easy thing to do with a play like Lear is to read it as a simple morality play. Senile old king has three daughters, one good, two bad. He makes foolish choices with death and destruction as their natural consequences. End. Of. Story.
There is a comic book character called Bizzaro, which turns out to also be a very helpful when it comes to thinking about what is upside down and backwards.
Wikipedia has a nice introduction to Bizzaro, here’s a taste…
The original Bizarro was created when Superman was exposed to a “duplicate ray.” In accordance with the science fiction concepts of Superman stories of the era, Bizarro relocated to “the Bizarro World,” a cubical planet called Htrae [in keeping with Bizarro logic, Earth spelled backwards] which operated under “Bizarro logic” (it was a crime to do anything good or right) and which Bizarro populated with inverted versions of Superman’s supporting cast and other DC heroes.
This is interesting because it turns out to be difficult to imagine the opposite of everything.
So let’s practice… Imagine a Bizzaro King Lear where everything is opposite and backwards. Now imagine that you are a character in “Bizzaro Lear World.”
What would you do?
Who would you be?
How would you act?
What would you say?
How would you intervene?
Think hard for a few minutes. The easy silly thing is to say, “I will persuade the characters to do what is right and thereby avert tragedy!” How noble! How good and wonderful!
Just for a taste of how challenging this can be, consider the King’s Fool. Shakespeare makes him into the the Fool who is really wise, so the Bizzaro Fool would be a Wise Woman who is really a fool. Must. Stop. Head. Spinning.
Finding the opposite of a thing requires you to truly understand the thing itself. As I noted above, a man died because his doctor (and later on the medical student) could not even appreciate the simple difference between breathing in and breathing out.
Consider this blog open for business for any and all who would like to accept the challenge of turning King Lear into Bizzaro Lear and then showing us what that means and how that works. Let us rewrite the Bard’s Immortal Play (or at least one scene) and turn the whole world upside down.
This, in my mind, is where the roots of genuine creativity are to be found.