Creative Mind: Discover New Freshness in Words
How you can get the snap you're looking for.
Posted Apr 06, 2019
This simple creative thinking technique can be used across many disciplines to permeate strong verbal and sensory fuel into text. It’s called the “Cut-Out.” Mostly used in creative arts, it can also be applied to put some pleasurable creative edge in a plethora of other disciplines.
More than half a century ago, Beat writer William Burroughs was keenly onto this idea of cut-outs. Convinced that human language, which gave us new freedom as a species later came back to put the squeeze on communication and inspiration and experience as well, he believed this restriction more than cramped creativity in a number of ways. Burroughs strategized opening the proverbial doors of perception, using something called a “cut-out,” intended to update the mind creatively and philosophically. At the end of this post, I will share with you an activity based on the Burroughs’s cutout so you can create one of your own. But first, let’s look a little closer.
What was Burroughs cutting? The sentence, the syntax, he blamed these for why language and vision had headed to the world of the dead. A takeaway point was that: disembodied language may allow you to understand the world in dazzling new ways. And therein is a port to potentially new creativity and philosophy. Underneath Burroughs’ concept is his notion that syntactical and structural language are two prime culprits (of the many) that can eventually un-excite creative activity. For example, “see” the following sentence in your mind when you fill in the blank: The sky is _________. You will notice that there are a limited number of possibilities the language conventionally allows. So in many ways you are limited in what you visualize and think as you look to “the sky.” And for many of us, similar limits arise whenever we put words and creative ideas together.
Burroughs wasn’t alone with the thought that language can restrict your vision and understanding of the world. Gertrude Stein, Nietzsche, and a whole legacy of poets and linguists have said similar things. This is one reason why metaphor – and where it can send you – is so coveted in art. It is an answer to giving dead language sparkling new life and helping us deepen our artistic vision when we feel we’ve drilled down and still hit solid rock.
I recall the famous line from The Beatles’ Hey Jude. It’s the last line in the second to last stanza, Paul sings, “The movement you need is on your shoulder.” If you haven’t heard Paul McCartney talk about how he wrote it, here is the gist of a fine interview titled, Sir Paul McCartney Reveals the Song & Lyric that Reminds Him of John Lennon Most. As it goes, when Paul first played the song for John Lennon’s listening, he told him that the word, movement, was one word he planned on changing. He thought it made little sense and said he didn’t even understand it himself. But Lennon urged him to leave it in, saying he understood it and it was the best line in the whole song.
One thing McCartney repeats often is that he doesn’t like to stop when he’s on a roll, it’s better to go for the whole and tweak the parts after. So he allows himself to just pop in any word temporarily – has the right rhythm, syllable count, okay for now – and instead goes for getting the whole piece out there.
In the interview, Paul McCartney Breaks Down His Most Iconic Songs, he did with GQ, Paul references using this process in his initial writing of Yesterday, saying he didn’t have any words so he called it “Scrambled Eggs.”
As documented in the YouTube video, All Songs +1: A Conversation With Paul McCartney, Paul did some work with Burroughs’ friend and Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, who encouraged him to use a “First thought, best thought,” strategy. To which McCartney comments upon, “It doesn't always work, but as a general idea I will try and do that and sometimes I come out with a puzzling set of words that I have no idea what I mean, and yet I've got to kind of make sense of it and follow the trail." On the writing of Eleanor Rigby, McCartney mentions that what was missing was the name for the character he had to attach to the rest of the lyrics. He says he was in Bristol for a while during that time period and randomly saw the name of a shop. It was a place called Rigby’s. He tied that to the name of a woman he was working with on Help and her name was Eleanor. Then sometime later, he needed a name for the vicar character, in the same song, got the phone book, flipped through the Mc’s (because he and Lennon wanted it to be Mc something) until he got to Mackenzie – and voila the character, Father McKenzie, was born.
On a personal note, I enjoy McCartney’s candor, especially in how he explains using random detail that pops up for him both to begin, and at other times to put the finishing touches on a piece of writing. Whether he sees it in print, in the environment, or in his mind, it becomes useful. How he uses both Ginsberg’s mantra of “First thought, best thought,” and his own inkling that, at times, you get the job done and make the sense you want later. I say “at times” because after you get the feel of this process which is more fun than practice, you’d be surprised how many completed pieces result with only itsy-bitsy tweaking. But finalizing is your own call.
The hope in Burroughs’ disembodying language is that by breaking down its uniformity and conformity, you will see what your native tongue would previously not allow you. You can develop new experience, new thought, new vision, and new solutions. It is good to remember, as well, that there is a wide variety of communication beyond verbal and symbolic to be explored as well – e.g. touch, sound, color, and so on. At the just right time, a certain guitar solo from your favorite musician, the purr of your cat, or a friend’s pat on the back can say more than our word-language could ever convey at that specific moment.
The following activity is for you. It is an adaptation based on the Burroughs concept of cutouts. I have had colleagues who have used this activity with their students (secondary and higher education) in a variety of world languages. They have reported fun and lively thought provoking results.
Here’s how you can make your own cut-outs:
- Gather a large number of sample pages from the widest, most diverse types of print media possible. You can take these samples from online sources or from old magazines, books, journals, etc. you have around the house. The key is to have a lot of sources and make them as diverse as possible (i.e. science magazines/books, history, fiction, poetry, health, culinary, philosophy, fashion – you get the picture
- Then cut (or tear) upward so that you are cutting the paragraphs and sentences in half. Cut the pages in eighths or preferable even smaller pieces. Be sure the majority of sentences split.
- Put the pieces you have cut in a freezer bag. Try to get about 2,000 pieces – or even more. Sounds like a lot but once you get cutting, it won’t take long at all. The more, the merrier, so to speak. Remember the widest diversity of subject material is vital.
- Then when you are ready to write, take the pieces out of your bag one at a time randomly and start lining them up alongside one another to see what sentences they can make. Have fun with this part. Most won’t make sense. That’s okay. The silliness is part of it, kind of like McCartney’s “Scrambled Eggs.” If you slide one swatch over part of another rather than line it up perfectly you might get a little more sense. When you get one that sounds really “different,” yet makes some new and interesting sense when you “think” about it (like McCartney’s “moment you need…” line) write that one down on a separate sheet of paper or notebook. You can even keep a journal of these cutouts. Every once in a while you will write one that is complete and amazing.
Tip: It’s good to make a list for yourself of what other formats you might use the cut-out formula – e.g. to jazz up say a single line in a poem, to make titles to anything, really. You can influence graphics, illustration, video, and many other endeavors with this creative tool.
When you make your cutouts, remember: A lot of it will be play, incomprehensible at times – doesn’t matter – just rediscover the raw fun of playing with words. But somewhere in your play is the possibility of finding a crown jewel. You’ll know it when you find it. You will eventually see a phrase that will have an exciting and very different meaning from anything you have ever heard before – BUT – it will make total (and new) sense and feel sweetly original.
As an aside, if you like writing poems (or song lyrics) you can almost effortlessly write some terrific lines and/or whole pieces this way. Fiction takes a little more doing, but with practice you can do that too.
The good news is that by re-discovering the play and diversity in word choices, you will strengthen your overall creative and psychic energy. Diversity in all of nature is what keeps us strong in mind and body. Making cut-outs is a fun exercise you can use to open up the indigenous diversity of your own language and enjoy the positive energy it will spark in you.
"All Songs +1: A Conversation With Paul McCartney," YouTube, July 10, 2016 https://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2016/06/10/481256944/all-songs-1-a-conversation-with-paul-mccartney
"Paul McCartney Breaks Down His Most Iconic Songs GQ," YouTube, Sep 11, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u97_inloBmY
“Sir Paul McCartney reveals the song & lyric that reminds him of John Lennon most,” YouTube, May 10, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqzB_6pBp1s