Struggling with creativity? Try Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards

Music journalist Geeta Dayal holds a set of Oblique Strategies instructional cards, which she said can encourage creative thinking, at her talk at the Hive last Friday. (Elinor Aspegren • The Student Life)

I’m holding a small piece of white cardstock printed with a pithy instruction: “Give way to your worst impulse.”

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that, so I turn the card over and read the next one. “Water,” it says.

That’s helpful.

I reach for another card. This one advises me to “remove specifics and convert to ambiguities.” Alright, I can work with that.

In 1975, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt published the Oblique Strategies cards, a deck of “over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas” designed to break down artistic barriers and spark creative insight. Eno, a producer and musician (although self-described “non-musician”), is widely credited with conceptualizing and popularizing ambient music. He joined forces with Schmidt, a friend and artist, after learning they had developed similar systems for lateral thinking.

Courtesy of the Pomona College Humanities Studio, I’m sitting in the Hive with the prolific music journalist, Geeta Dayal, who is leading a workshop on Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies as a follow-up to her talk the previous night.

Dayal is the author of “Brian Eno: Another Green World” in the 33⅓ series, a collection of short books about albums. After finding himself stuck in a creative rut, Eno turned to the Oblique Strategies cards for inspiration when creating his influential record, “Another Green World.” Following in Eno’s footsteps, Dayal used the cards to find inspiration and create structure when writing her book.

Dayal asks me what I think “remove specifics and convert to ambiguities” means. I say I view it as an instruction to let go of my need for precision in my writing, to find solace in the gray space, instead of becoming mired in my need for every word to fall into perfect order.

She points to the famous opening line of David Bowie’s song, “Moonage Daydream,” as an example of ambiguity. “I’m an alligator,” Bowie sings.

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What does that even mean? Does it matter? Although the song was released before the Oblique Strategies cards, Bowie, David Byrne, and other famous collaborators of Eno have used the cards to break through creative mind blocks.

We go around the room and read off one or two of our Oblique Strategies cards, brainstorming ideas for what the cards could mean and how they could be applied to our own creative pursuits. Some cards seem straightforward, like “Change instrument roles,” while others are more cryptic, like “Twist the spine.” Others, Dayal notes, were easy for her to use as an excuse to stop writing her book, especially the card, “Take a break.”

Nevertheless, the Oblique Strategies cards provide a useful framework for creating. Similarly, avant-garde composer and former Pomona College student John Cage employed the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination system, in order to stimulate ideas for his work.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when trying to start a new project, whether that’s a poem, a song, a painting or even an academic essay. In the age of the Internet, beginning a creative process can be even more overwhelming.

I often find myself getting discouraged when I see the wealth of things online that have already been written; I wonder what I could possibly contribute that hasn’t already been said hundreds of times before. Dayal shares that she too feels this way sometimes, and notes that card systems like Oblique Strategies and I Ching can be more helpful now than ever.

“Systems provide a pathway. They create constraints,” she says. When seemingly boundless quantities of information stifle our innovation, we can turn to the Oblique Strategies as a roadmap.

When using the cards, Eno followed each instruction exactly, sometimes at the risk of his own detriment. In her book on “Another Green World,” Dayal writes, “If a song was being worked on intensely, and a card that was drawn suddenly proclaimed that the tapes had to be deleted, they were.” I wonder, could I erase something I’ve worked tirelessly to create?

In a 1980 interview with KPFA in Berkeley, Eno shared that the first Oblique Strategy card said, “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” In a similar vein, Schmidt’s first Oblique Strategy asked “Was it really a mistake?”

These cards echo the theme of this year’s Humanities Studio: “Fail better.” A fear of failure can easily influence us to quit before getting started. However, Eno and Schmidt remind us that every error, every mistake, can act as a catalyst for something even greater.

Schuyler Mitchell PO ’20 is TSL’s Life and Style Associate. In her free time, she can be found hosting a radio show on KSPC, advocating for the importance of naps and telling people how to pronounce her first name.

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