Accidents happen… which is sometimes a good thing. When the plans we had made get thwarted in ways that direct our attention toward something better than we had intended, we call it a “happy accident.” This kind of experience is particularly common for persons engaged in exploratory tasks, such as artists and inventors.
As I noted in part one of this article, this kind of mistake is so common to the creative process that it warrants closer inspection. What is it about these kinds of “accidents” that lead to discoveries? Is it possible to learn from them so as to become more adept at the creative process? Can we distill the insights such an analysis yields so as to apply them intentionally (rather than having to wait for another accident to happen)? These questions are particularly relevant for the decorative arts painter because of the powerful role which spontaneity plays in the creation of many decorative finishes.
In part one of this article, we noted that there is a progression that flows from the experience of Oops! (the ac-cident) to the Ahaah! (the discovery). The critical factor linking these experiences is the Huh???, the inquisi-tiveness of the artist or inventor whose agile mind and curiosity cause him or her to take note of things that happen which don’t go according to some predetermined plan.
Of course, the context in which an accident occurs is also essential. It is difficult to take a positive attitude to-ward a spoiled finish when the acci-dent occurs during the installation process. Even then, one can most often realize the learning experience which an accident affords. But the truly “happy accident” happens during the design phase of the creative process.
“Happy Accidents” of Note
With this context in mind, then, I want to consider something peculiar about the “happy accident.” What I have noticed, from my own experience and from my investigation of other people’s experiences, is that the happy accident oftentimes yields what appears to be only a minor alteration. And yet, as minor as the alteration is, the consequences are large. A few examples will clarify my point.
Joe Gregor was trying to figure out a way to speed up the process of cook-ing dinner rolls. Gregor also happened to be a volunteer fireman. When he got called away mid-task of baking rolls to respond to an alarm, he quickly pulled them from the oven half-baked. When he returned, hours later, he reheated his oven and finished cooking the rolls. The minor interruption of his task had prompted him to discover the method by which to produce brown ‘n serve rolls—that is, to package them half-baked so that the purchaser merely needs to finish the cooking process.
Or, consider Joe Pemberton. He was trying to invent a remedy for the alcoholic hangover. Claiming to have discovered a medicine which relieved exhaustion and cured headaches, he instructed his assistant to mix the syrup with water and chill it with ice. While it tasted good, they discovered it tasted even better when the assistant accidentally mixed it with carbonated water rather than tap water. This minor shift through the accidental addition of bubbles resulted in the invention of Coca-Cola. A small shift in ingredients, maybe, but not so small a shift in investors’ bank accounts!
Finally, we might note that the original Frisbee was actually spelled Frisbie. It wasn’t made of plastic but, rather, of metal. And it wasn’t even intended to be thrown. It was a pie tin, stamped with its name brand, Frisbie Pies. Yale University students bought a lot of Frisbie Pies. When they were done eating the pies but still needed a diversion from studying, they began tossing the empty pie tins back and forth. But, being the civilized students that they were, they were careful to yell “frisbie” when they tossed one, so that passersby would know to watch out for the flying object. This minor shift in purpose from a device to hold and heat pies to a discus-like object for recreation, combined with a measure of politeness, led to the in-vention of the Frisbee. While none of these inventions may have been of monumental significance, they demonstrate the same principle that more substantial discov-eries also confirm—that is, that the shift of intention was prompted by the “happy accident,” and which then re-sulted in discovery, was slight. Stated more succinctly, we might note that invention lies just around the corner from convention. But why is so hard for us to turn this corner? Why must we wait for some accident to happen for us to recognize that small but critical alteration of convention that would prompt invention?
I know what John Cage would say. John Cage made a name for himself by “creating” such compositions as 4′ 33″, four minutes and 33 seconds of silence broken into three movements (each indicated by the silent “piano player” lowering and raising the lid of the piano). His point was not that peo-ple should attend to the silence but rather to the random arrangement of car horns, creaking chairs and what-ever other noises took place during the “silence.” This composition of random, accidental sounds was the intended content of his composition.
Cage’s point behind 4′ 33″ and other compositions which he arranged by means of chance operations is to emphasize how our likes and dislikes and, consequently, our habitual pat-terns of perception and action, all collude to interfere with the process of creation. His chance operations offered audiences the opportunity to challenge their own notions of what is worthy of attention. Why do we find it so hard to turn the corner from convention to invention? Cage would say it is because the arbitrary narrowing of our likes and dislikes combined with habitual modes of perception, preference and action make it difficult to redirect our attention and intention away from conventional frames of perception and appreciation.
This, then, explains how an accident, which I have defined as the thwarting of one’s intentions to pro-duce what one had not intended, can sometimes result in discovery. For the agile mind, the mind that is pre-pared to entertain the unexpected outcome, the accident becomes a means of escape from the limitations imposed by our habitual patterns of perception and action.
And so, one thing we learn from the “happy accident” is that our habitu-ated patterns of perception and action often interfere with our capacity to en-ter into the creative process. The sup-posed accident yields fruitful results when it redirects our attention and we allow ourselves to appreciate some-thing new. We might achieve similar results, then, if we were to figure out a way to escape our own habituated lives so as to enter into the realm of discovery. I want to suggest three procedures by which one might do so without hav-ing to wait for an accident to happen.
But first, let me suggest a context in which one could easily experiment with these procedures. The decorative artist who is serious about breaking through habituated patterns that are interfering with the creative process might commit him or herself to practicing with a particular technique. For instance., I once decided to experiment with feather dusters. I happened to be working in several Victorian houses at the time, and I knew the pattern the feather duster makes in a glaze goes well with Victorian style. So, I decided to dedicate myself to discovering every possible application of this tool I could possibly imagine to create broken color finishes. By limiting one’s scope to a given technique in this way, one develops the intimate knowledge and familiarity of context which facilitates both the likelihood and the recognizability of creative discoveries.
1. Playfulness. The first way to break habituated patterns is to engage in playfulness. Playfulness is effective because, by its very nature, it stands in opposition to habituation. When a child dresses up as an adult and acts the part, he is not relying on his ha-bituated ways of acting. Rather, he is experimenting with something new. Just like the clothes he puts on, he is trying the new role on for size.
Stephen Nachmanovitch describes, in his study of creativity titled Free Play: The Art of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, a particular kind of play that encourages the diminishment of habituated responses. He calls it “galumphing,” borrowing this term from anthropologists who define this action, in Nachmanovitch’s words, as “the seemingly useless elaboration and ornamentation We galumph when we hop instead of walk, when we take the scenic route instead of the efficient route, when we play a game whose rules demand a limitation of our powers, when we are interested in means rather than ends.” (p. 44) Galumphing is the exaggeration of actions that causes us to throw off the constraints of habituation so that we are free to test out new ways of seeing, thinking and acting. What would happen if I thrust my feather duster at the glaze covered wall as if it were a sword? What would happen if I held three or four feather dusters in my hand and swirled them across the surface so that they swayed like the hem of a ballroom dancer’s dress as she waltzes around a room? What would happen if I pretended the wall was a surface to be dusted and I just used the duster the way it was meant to be used? Granted, all of these methods are ridiculous. But that is the very nature of galumphing—to be ridiculous! In the context of serious play, this ridiculous exaggeration helps us break free of our habituated and constraining ways of acting, thereby freeing ourselves up to discover some new kinds of magic.
2. Randomness. A second and related way to break free of habituation is to embrace randomness. Staying with the sample of the feather duster, the artist might set a bunch of dusters down on her workbench next to a glazed wall and, without think-ing, grab a feather duster and manipulate the glaze in whatever way comes to mind. The object of this experiment is the same—not to try to come up with a new technique, per se, but rather to try to break the grip of one’s own habituated perception, understanding and action.
3. Unlikely Combinations. A third way to encourage exploration and break down habituated patterns of ac-tion is to embrace what I call “the peanut butter and whatever” experi- ment. In this experiment, one plays with unlikely combinations. The point is this: If creativity can be defined as the marriage of differences which produce newness, then one might court this difference by forcing the most unlikely combinations of things. The person experimenting with a feather duster might, for instance, try odd combinations of color or medium. How about dabbing a feather duster loaded with acrylic glaze on a wet, alkyd ground of glaze? Or how about a feather duster loaded with graphite powder that is dragged and swirled or stippled over a wet ground?
These methods hopefully seem ridiculous and fantastical; the more useless they seem, the better chance they have of breaking down habitu-ated actions and preferences. The whole point of such experimentation is to break free of our habituated ways of doing things so that we can loosen ourselves up enough to turn the corner from convention to meet up with invention. It’s hard work. And precisely be-cause it seems so useless, it can be difficult to embrace. But the joy of discover which one finds around the corner makes it all worthwhile.
WORKS CITED Hyde, Lewis. “Two Accidents: Reflections on Chance and Creativity.” Kenyan Review. V. 18 (Summer 1996): 19-35. Jones, Charlotte Foltz. Mistakes that Worked. New York: Delacorte Press, 1991. Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and the Arts. New York: J.P. Putnam Sons, 1990.