This section contains three very different sets of exercises for you to work on. As such, it may be worth spending longer on it than last time, or treating it as three separate sections. Though of course it’s entirely up to you.
Last time we looked at some ways to get the brain used to mashing things together and seeing what happened. Now it’s time to introduced a little more nuance, and separate out two very different ways that mashing can take place. Rather as potato can be baked or boiled for very different if equally delicious flavours (both, of course, can be mashed though mashing is not a way of cooking).
I recently witnessed a conversation on social media about the lunar landings that furnished me with a perfect metaphor for this occasion. The point at issue was how a tiny, fragile capsule could, once the crew had finished playing golf and planting flags, dock – with the required precision – with the tiny, fragile craft that would then transport the astronauts safely home. The problem was that this tininess and fragility came with an eyewatering groundspeed for the orbiting craft of some three and a half thousand kilometres an hour, at which the smallest mistake would rip the capsule open like a sardine can leaving the poor astronauts to be consumed by the merciless tuna fish of space.
Of course, this is not how docking works. If it were, astronaut may find itself a little further down most people’s list of dream jobs. In reality, docking is achieved, just as mid-air refuelling of aeroplanes – by synching orbits between the objects to be joined so that the relative speed and position gets closer and closer to identical and the meshing can be achieved with feather-light precision.
Fortunately, where the mind is concerned eyewatering gaps in relative speed can play themselves out with little physical danger to anyone. What that means is that when it comes to playing “ooh, that thing is like that other thing” or any other kind of exercise designed to put two concepts together, you can use either method – slide or collide – for doing so. And practising both is a really good way of producing very different but equally interesting sets of results.
Let’s explore that, and look at ways to practice.
The collision method, for want of a better term, that is similar to the method we looked at last time, works rather like the Large Hadron Collider. Take two different things. Speed them up. Smash them into each other and then look at the resultant mess to see what you’ve got.
Really good exercises for practising this include “How is a … like a …?” or “How is a … different from a …?” or “What would happen if you crossed a … with a …?”
These are great questions, and you should practise them regularly. To do so, you will need slightly more preparation than last time. You will need a ready-made list of “things”, which could just be a list of objects. It is a very good idea to create such a list, for exactly this and similar exercises. It could also be images or photographs, of things or places – a great tool for this is creating Pinterest boards. Or even using other people’s – maybe one day there will be a whole community of people with “creative images” boards to choose from when practising.
Eliding is simply one form of colliding, a very basic but fun to practise one – and very much worth adding because we all know that a title containing three words that rhyme is infinitely better than one that contains just two. Eliding two objects literally means sticking two objects together by lopping a bit off each and gluing them together. Basically what, in less literary surroundings, we’d call a cut and shut.
Mythology uses elision a lot. Think of all those beasts that are half this and half that, such as a griffin, which is half lion half eagle, or the half man half horse centaur. The general term for them is chimaera. These days we might think of them as a form of hybrid. Joining two things like this is sort of like colliding, only less free-form, less chaotic – but very unlike the smooth systematic nature of the method we’ll look at next. It’s more a case of “imagine something that had the … of an x and the … of a y”. For example, “Imagine an object with the wheels of a bicycle and the fur of a dog.” This
The exercise for practising this is an elaboration of the previous one. For each object on your list, I want you to list as many specific characteristics as you can. And then I want you to pick two objects, and for each object pick one of its characteristics. And then imagine a new thing, one that has each of those characteristics – in what way might this new thing, this chimaera-object improve upon the two existing things? How might it be able to do stuff that is completely new?
These techniques might not seem to be very useful. Who actually needs to know what a half coffee cup half spinning jenny would look like, or what hidden uses it might have? But that is to miss the key point, that this isn’t about usefulness, and even if it were, often the most useful things turn out to be by-products of the simple process of creation and experimentation.
This is very different. You might think of it as bringing two objects together through a process of convergence the way two sets of econometric data would be brought into alignment before two countries adopted a single economic framework. Or you may stick to the image of a plane refuelling mid flight.
The way it works is very similar to the descriptive technique of analogy that was used by many mediaeval thinkers. Indeed, it’s very similar to one of the tools we use for communicating every day – metaphor.
Metaphor is simply describing one thing with words that refer to another. If you look out of the window and the trees are blown almost vertical by a wind that’s so loud you can barely hear yourself think you might say “I’m staying in. It’s hell out there.” You don’t actually mean, of course, that a horned figure is standing in the street toasting the bodies of the damned (it’s too blowy for barbecue, after all). Instead, you are taking a common reference point between you and the person you’re talking to – all those childhood stories about Satan, pitchforks, and conditions that you really wouldn’t want to take a leisurely stroll in – and using all the associations you have with that reference point to convey something about the actual thing you’re describing (“It’s really unpleasant out there”) in a way that’s more engaging, and in terms of the feelings involved actually more expressive, than simply saying “It’s really unpleasant out there”.
Metaphor works precisely because the two sides of the equation – the thing you are describing and the thing you are using to describe it – have lots in common, especially when it comes to a key feature. Take the phrase “whirlwind romance”. It is a metaphor that works (romances aren’t *actually* whirlwinds, not unless you have a very unlikely paraphilia) because of a key common trait – quickness in this case. From all the available images in your database you have chosen one whose orbital velocity is very evenly matched to the thing you are describing. You have brought images into alignment so that they can be delicately meshed together.
But metaphors work best of all because for all those similarities there are also differences, and it is those apparent differences that can add to the picture you are painting. A whirlwind, for example, rises out of nowhere in response to changes in atmospheric pressure, it is confined to a tiny locale where it reeks its havoc unseen from elsewhere, and then vanishes, suddenly, leaving devastation. All these, and more, features of the meteorological event are conjured up when we hear the phrase, and we transfer those thoughts onto the romance being described, making us see it in a very different way from if we had said simply “it was a very intense romance that was over very quickly”.
Take one object from your list. Make a list of the key things about it, with a sentence at a time – for example, think what it does, who might use it, where you might find it. Then take that list of sentences, and for each sentence make another list, this time of all the other things that it could be describing. Then I want you to bring the first object and the second objects together in a single sentence, at the same time leaving out the key part about the key attribute they each share. For example
Object: an orange
Attribute: it has a thick skin
Other items that have a thick skin might include “elephant”
New sentence – “This object has the skin of an elephant”
We can take this beyond metaphor, though. This next set of exercises will practise putting two objects together, just as you did with the collision technique, only using the alignment technique. You can use exactly the same lists for the two different exercises.
For any two objects, find something about them that is the same, ideally something that works the same way. You can, of course, define this in any way you want. For example, both an orange and a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare (once it has been pulped in water and remoulded) will roll down a hill. Likewise both of them have something like skin (especially if Shakespeare is written on vellum – though in that case of course you couldn’t make papier maché).
What I want you to do is the same kind of process of elaboration as I asked you to do in the last post. There you started telling stories about the dog-like cloud. Here I want you to start doing something similar. An orange rolls down hills like a bicycle does. What else might it do that a bicycle does? What might a bicycle look like if, instead of wheels, you gave it oranges, or if you in any other way incorporated oranges into its design? Likewise, consider the orange – when it rolls down hills maybe it loses some of its zestiness as it bumps on the cobbles. Likewise a bicycle with flimsy tyres is very vulnerable, but have been designed to be more robust. Could this provide you tips for the transportation of genetically modified robust oranges? This is the hardest exercise we’ve done so far, by a long way. And it’s hard because when you first see it you find it difficult to get out of a rigid way of thinking about how two things might be alike – hopefully the “don’t worry about looking silly” exercises we did last time will have helped you to step outside that rigidity. But once you can do that, and accept that there really are no right answers, more importantly no wrong ones, just more or even more interesting ones, you will find this incredibly enjoyable.
What you should find, after a while, is that treating these sets of exercises as something very separate will allow you to perform them in increasingly different ways, thereby gaining the most from each. You may have found, for example, that when you first did the collision exercises, all you focused on was the ways in which the objects you were bringing together were similar. Which is great, but is also largely covered by the alignment exercises, so when you perform those as a separate thing, your collisions will be free to become increasingly strange and alarming – which means you’re getting more creative!
This time’s exercises are designed to push your creative horizons considerably further than last time. They are also potentially incredibly useful tools not just for enhancing your transferable skills but for finding new ways of understanding problems, and new and better ways of communicating your ideas.