How Creativity Works: Bisociation and Dreaming Playlists

Normal posting — complete with episodes — resumes next week: between our engineer getting engaged, the holidays, and my own preparation for the next semester, things got a bit hectic.

I want to discuss how creativity actually works. While I’ve never been a big enough name for people to ask me where my ideas come from, I’ve been sure to keep track of where my ideas have their roots, and I want to lay out where new ideas come from. This is something that I’ve looked at before, but I want to put it forward as steps in a process today.

This is going to be quick and dirty, but it’s a repeatable method. At this point, where the barrier of entry for making a podcast, comic, or similar is so low, you need every edge you can get, and a lot of people think that you can skimp on writing, or that any artist or musician or whatever can do it (you can’t do that any more than the writer can make the music or draw the art.) Like I said, you need every edge. You have to use Bisociation.

To whit: The point where Perdition’s Teeth was born was in my shower on a weekend morning. I was, for once, well-rested and didn’t have work. I was also in the market for an idea: one of the two gaming groups I was involved in was in the market for a new campaign, and they’re not the easiest group to run campaigns for — at least for me — and I wanted to make something that I would be able to draw them in to.

By “not the easiest” I mean that I tend to gravitate more towards dramatic story ideas and they tend to be a bunch of jokers. They — mostly — learned to play with an adversarial model of player/facilitator relation, and sought to blow holes in what I put forward, while I’ve slipped a bit more towards a more collaborative model in recent years. The last game I had run for this group had petered out at the end of the first session because they had asked for something new as far as the game went, and then I produced background material they hadn’t had time to read through. It had been rough, and I took it somewhat hard (tabletop gaming is something that I love dearly, but it is a hobby that requires the occasional bit of homework, and I’ve always gone a bit overboard on that. I tended to be a bit sensitive when these things fall through.)

So, I had my open question: I wanted something that could scratch my itch for the dramatic — indeed, the horrific — and would also have a low enough barrier of entry a gaming group that was made up of adults with busy lives. How do you make that work? What do you lay out for them to draw them in and make it work.

I did what I always do when I have an open question: I listened to music and did something that occupied my attention. Often this is smoking a cigarette. On that day, it was showering. I set my phone to play my whole Spotify library and set it on shuffle. I hit “next” a few times and let it go. Most people I know don’t tend to listen to their whole library as a single playlist: I think of it as triggering a sort of dream-in-the-machine. With the warped sound of the shower stall, strange things happened to the lyrics (I’m not terribly good at parsing lyrics most of the time.) So when “That Old Dustbowl” by the Dustbowl Revival, I had difficulty parsing the lyrics (which are, oddly, not available on the internet as they occur in the song, contributing to my control.) But there’s a line in there that sounds like “ain’t it sad when you crops go bad and you lose your soul.”

And this planted a thought in my head: a thought of Faustian bargains gone bad along the route 66 and black magic as the land dies and people are turned out of their homes by soulless instruments of capital. I was reminded of that first episode of the failed progenitor of the modern crop of Prestige Television, Carnivàle, with its apocalyptic imagery played out on the same setting.

I could have just kit-bashed a Carnivàle RPG out of FATE or similar, and that would have been the end of it. But something else occurred to me: one of the best things to come out of Dungeons and Dragons was the Computer RPG Planescape: Torment, and many of the most innovative things to spring from the same root (Neverwinter Nights: Mask of the Betrayer and, to an extent, Fallout: New Vegas,) succeeded because they were personal stories, not because they were concerned with a grand, world-spanning narrative. The issue was what the characters want, what they need. Personal stakes.

And so, here’s the recipe: historical setting; modern but weird (the dust bowl,) with magic and blood, and a certain Christian gothic horror overlaid upon it, but with personal stakes.

There’s the recipe for Perdition’s Teeth.

This is an example of what some theorists — notably author and journalist Arthur Koestler — term Bisociation. The Conceptual blending of two or more ideas (“matrixes of thought” as he terms it,) that previously had nothing to do with each other.

Just off the top of my head:

  • Buck Rogers + Wagon Train = Star Trek.

  • E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series + Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai-era Sengoku Jidai stories = Star Wars.

  • John Carpenter’s Escape from New York + William S. Burroughs = Neuromancer.

  • William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies + Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman = LOST.

  • William Gibson’s Neuromancer + Star Wars = The Matrix.

This isn’t the same as just mixing things together. It’s not a mashup, it’s not a remix. It’s Bisociation: you put the two on top of each other, and you cut the rules that the strict mixture makes you bring into it. You learn the language of the new thing you’re making and you take it as your native tongue. You finish the story that the overlap begins to tell.