January 28th, 2009


By Frank Chimero

Pseudo Structures

There is no secret to creativity besides possessing a habitual work ethic. But damn. Sometimes, it’s just hard as hell. Here we are, fortunate enough to possess hands that can harness magic to turn nothing in to something. We have ears pointed towards the muses. But the only voice I’m hearing is Alan Alda’s, and I’m waiting to see what kind of hijinx he and Honeycutt have gotten themselves in to on this MASH rerun.

Motivation has a reputation for being elusive. (I’ve looked hard, but it’s nowhere in this MASH episode.) Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it will come to you. A voice breaks into song. Pacing turns to dance. An image appears. A story surfaces and begs to be told. The kettle whistles with kinetic energy and a creative act is fostered in to being. You’ve done well and you get to keep your gift for another day.

It’s magical when a song or story writes itself. But, it’s also a rarity to have motivation invite itself over and come to your doorstep with a muse. Typically motivation comes alone, and doesn’t know what to do with itself. Creative energy without an outlet is wasted. Motivation doesn’t disappear. It evaporates.

Creatives have to be quick to put their motivation to task. One strategy is to use what I call a “pseudo-structure.” A pseudo-structure is a rule, limitation, or theme used to get the creativity flowing. They’re frameworks for creative activity and improvisation. Limitations are the playground of a creative mind, and these rules are a way to get to work. They are a latticework on which to hang ideas.

Many of the greats used pseudo-structures. Vivaldi wrote four violin concertos: one for each season. Shakespeare’s sonnets follow a specific rhyming scheme and are always 14 lines. During Picasso’s blue period, he essentially only painted monochromatically. There’s many more.

The restrictions in a pseudo-structure can take many shapes. They can be conceptual, where the restrictions determine the subject matter of the work. (Write a song for each one of the muses. Create an illustration for each letter of the alphabet. Write a short story inspired by each member of the Jackson 5.) They can also be structural, where compositional restrictions are created. (Paint on surfaces that are 3 inches wide and 24 inches tall. Write a 14-line sonnet. Choreograph a dance, where the dancer doesn’t step outside a 6×6’ square) Or instrumental, where the tools are deliberately crippled. (Paint monochromatically. Write without pronouns. Write a song on a mistuned guitar.)

Once some restrictions are set, it’s best to consider the qualities of the pseudo-structure and how they can leveraged. For instance, if I were painting monochromatically in blue, I could choose to only paint things that were really blue, or sad scenes, or even places bathed in bluish, cavernous light. Or, if I really wanted to push it, I could paint the Blue Man Group in front of a blue screen giving a weather forecast. Sometimes, a simple pseudo-structure can provide unpredictable results.

No matter what pseudo-structure one chooses for themselves, it should be restrictive enough to help them get going, but open enough to not dictate what path they take. Remember: these rules only exist to get things started. Feel free to break them during the process if it would benefit the final result. Pseudo-structures aren’t a necessity for creative work. They’re a tool that can be used to overcome the gap between finding the desire to work and knowing where to put your efforts.

Creativity is about action and life is about movement. The creative spirit is about transforming nothing in to something and seeing how we can get ourselves in to hijinx of our own. And those are the best sort. Sorry, Honeycutt.