Saturday, 16 December 2017

Consulting Oracles - Heather Dyer

Oblique Strategies™ are the famous set of cards produced by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975. These cards were designed to be used as thought-provoking prompts that could suggest a course of action or assist in creative situations. They can be used to solve plot problems with novels, solve personal problems, or just inject some creativity into tasks or decision-making. If this feels a bit like consulting an oracle, it is. But the oracle here lies not outside us, but within. The oblique prompts are a means of consulting it.

'The Crystal Ball' by John William Waterhouse

Each card contains a prompt which can be used to achieve a new insight. Examples include:

Use an old idea.
State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
Only one element of each kind.
What would your closest friend do?
What to increase? What to reduce?
Are there sections? Consider transitions.
Try faking it!
Honor thy error as a hidden intention.
Ask your body.
Work at a different speed.
Use unqualified people.
Not building a wall but making a brick.
If given a choice, do both.

The term ‘oblique’ refers to the way we approach our problems from behind – or from the side. We are sneaking up on them, catching them unawares so that any inklings we might have as to their solutions don’t fade away under the neon intensity of our direct attention.

The intelligence of our unconscious communicates in scenes and symbols. Approached directly, these scenes and symbols will only dissolve, or vanish like one of those Magic Eye stereograms hidden in abstract designs.

But by introducing our problem to our unconscious obliquely, we allow the two to meet - but not head-on. They say that when you want to introduce a second dog to your household, you should bring the two dogs together for the first time on neutral territory, as though meeting by chance while out for a wander one day. This is how a problem and your unconscious intelligence should meet - as though by happenstance they have intercepted on a street corner and from that point on, are inseparable.

Freewriting is another way to approach an idea in oblique ways. Freewriting is simply writing before we have time to think about what we’re going to say. It allows the images in the unconscious to rise to our pens before our bossy monologue of our conscious intentions. So, freewriting is a way to discover what we don’t yet know about a subject. By that, I don’t mean that we write to find out how little we know; we write to allow what we didn’t know we knew, to rise up into our consciousness through our pens.

With this in mind, take a problematic scene or situation in your story – or your life - and approach the problem obliquely by freewriting for three or four minutes on the following prompts:

  • What do you see that's new in the situation? What do you see now that you’ve never noticed before? Keep searching for novelty. 
  • If this situation/problem was a dessert (or a building, or a story, etc.) what would it be? Write a paragraph explaining why. Is there anything it needs?
  • What if the elements in this situation were characters in a play? What would they say? Write a few lines of dialogue.
  • Freewrite on what the solution is not. 
  • Do you have a favourite hobby or interest? What principles does it adhere to? How might these principles be applied to the current situation or problem? 
  • Is this the wrong question? Sit with your eyes closed for several minutes, paying attention to your breathing. At intervals, ask gently: “What do I want to know?” See what arises. 
  • Freewrite on what you want the solution to be. Might your underlying desires be limiting in any way? 
  • What if you changed one aspect of this situation/problem? What if you changed the colour? The material? The method? The place? What can be made larger? Smaller? Divided? Rearranged? 
  • Draw the problem. What does the drawing say about the situation? What does it say about you? 
  • Draw a circle around this situation. What’s outside the circle? 
  • Write a paragraph describing the situation from a different perspective. How does it look from outside? From above? From the point of view of an object, or a forgotten voice?
  • What do you remain curious about? Write a paragraph exploring it.
  • What if you fail? What then? Where would you go next? How might what comes next relate to the initial situation? 

I suspect that, for a lot of people, the value of the ‘divination’ properties of oblique strategy cards, newspaper horoscopes, tarot cards or even the I Ching, lies in the way that when we ‘read’ these oracles we are approaching whatever question or problem we have on our minds (or in our unconscious) obliquely. I met a writer last week who has even published a book of short stories called Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, each inspired by one of the 64 hexegrams of the I Ching.

The way we interpret these 'omens' might say more about the hidden cravings and aversions in our  psyches than it does the stars. But the insights revealed may have arisen from an equally wise and all-knowing source. The more spiritual among us might even say, ‘the same source’.

If anyone tries any of the above prompts I'd love to hear about it. Did it reveal an answer that your unconscious already knew? Did it make you see your question in a new light?

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks, Heather. I'd never heard of Oblique Strategies before, but now I want a set/pack/whatever it is! These kinds of questions are much more stimulating and effective than remaining stuck in the detail of a story, unable to escape.

And thank you for the Magic Eye! I love doing those!

Susan Price said...

I like the idea of these prompts but I'm fairly sure that my brain would climb into its box and close down the lid if I tried to use them. It would stubbornly refuse to come up with any response at all.
The only thing I've found ever works is to forget the problem and do something else. Walk, go to the gym or Hebrides, spring clean the house, garden, go to the cinema or on day-trips -- anything except think about the problem. Pretty soon -- as long as I do not think about it -- ideas start coming through. But if the brain caught me trying to sneak up on it via anything like these prompts, it would close down in a sulk.

Chitra Soundar said...

I love the list of questions and prompts, Heather. I'm going to try them out for my journal.