About six years ago, artist/teacher/community activist Todd Brown astounded me at his workshop, “The Art Of Not Knowing.” It was my first-ever art class.

After a few preliminaries, Todd said something that changed my life. It was like receiving enlightenment from a zen master. His words hit me right between the eyes:

Forget about making a picture. You don’t know how. You don’t know how to do anything. So don’t try. Instead, just concentrate on processing a surface.

It was true. I had no idea how to make a picture. But I instantly realized I could process a surface and see what happened. In a moment, the shackles fell off my creative muscles and I went to town. I haven’t stopped since. That weekend Todd took us through a series of exercises to process the surface of our canvasses. We scribbled, dripped, collaged, erased, started over, and splashed about. An extraordinary set of paintings emerged. Within a month, I rented a studio and began spending my time trying to recreate the experience. Within six months, I sold my first painting. Within a year, I participated in my first group show.

“Not knowing” is a powerful creative tool. Too often we sit down to write convinced of what we want to say and how we want to say it, then torture ourselves to follow that track. With experience and hard practice, I suppose this approach can get the job done. But the voice that emerges is too often straight-jacketed with stuffiness and lacks the fresh, stormy wind of real creativity. So what to do?

One solution is to spend time just playing with your materials and not worrying too much about sense. Words, like paint and charcoal, have chemical qualities. They interact with one another in surprising ways if we just shove them around a bit.

Here are some useful exercises:

(1) The alphabet grid. Write the alphabet down on a piece of lined paper, one letter per line. Then, while thinking of your subject, put as many words as you can, alphabetically, next to each letter. Then use as many of those words as possible in your first draft. This is fun, stretches vocabulary, breaks through a lot of constraints and quite often reveals meanings and implications that can be missed with a more rigid approach. This specifically works well with nonfiction essays.

(2) Sustained silent writing. A bit like free writing but with an emphasis  on quantity. Set a timer for 30 minutes. During that time write as much as you can, about anything. Repetition is allowed but only if absolutely necessary. Count how many words you can get in 20 minutes—the content is completely irrelevant for this exercise. Repeat over several days and try to increase your rate. The more words you generate, the more successful the exercise. This is, admittedly, less likely to produce anything worthwhile. But the effects will be felt when you return to your regular writing practice.

More next time, musepunkers. Write like a musepunker!

– Charles Kruger
The Storming Bohemian