A new bag of tricks
Back in the early sixties, a Soviet patent clerk named Genrich Altshuller embarked on an absurdly ambitious project. He wanted to formulate a set of rules for innovation, a kind of universal recipe book for inventors and engineers, based on the characteristics shared by the patent applications he had inspected. The result, which Altshuller claimed was based on an analysis of more than two hundred thousand patents, was a theory of inventive problem solving, best known as its Russian acronym TRIZ. It’s a complicated system based on the concept of a contradiction matrix, in which elements of a problem are paired off and assigned to solutions that have been useful when applied to such conflicts in the past. For our purposes here, the details don’t really matter, although you can find as much information about it online as you feel like absorbing. What’s particularly enticing is his set of solutions, which he classified under forty general principles of invention. They include such headings as “Segmentation,” “Taking Out,” “Asymmetry,” “Russian dolls,” “Mechanical vibration,” “Periodic action,” “Feedback,” and “Porous Materials.” It’s a bit of a grab bag, but each entry represents an approach to solving a problem that has worked before, and the headings are both general and just specific enough to spark a promising train of thought.
In his invaluable book Cool Tools, Kevin Kelly says of the Altshuller method: “I like to think of it as Oblique Strategies for engineers.” That’s a shrewd comparison, especially because there’s an element of randomness involved. If you’re stuck on a problem, you can pick one of the forty principles out of a hat and see how it applies to your situation. Take, for instance, the principle of “Another Dimension.” As summarized by one popular presentation, it includes the following hints:
- If an object contains or moves in a straight line, consider use of dimensions or movement outside the line.
- If an object contains or moves in a plane, consider use of dimensions or movement outside the current plane.
- Use a multi-story arrangement of objects instead of a single-story arrangement.
- Tilt or reorient the object; lay it on its side.
- Use “another side” of a given area.
And although these rules are intended for inventors and engineers, it isn’t hard to see how they could apply to the problems of a writer, playwright, sculptor, director, choreographer, or anyone else who has to break away occasionally from an obvious line of action.
What I find most intriguing about Altshuller’s approach is less the forty principles themselves—most of which have only a tenuous connection to what artists do, although they’re useful as analogies—than the underlying premise behind them. When you’re working in any field that requires a sustained engagement with complex projects, you inevitably end up with a wide range of tools, to the point where it’s hard to keep them all in mind at once. You carry a lot of craft unconsciously, of course, and you apply many of the rules intuitively, without being totally aware of why or how you’re doing it, which is fine as long as it works. But there also seems to be an upper bound on how many such tools you can comfortably internalize. There are always going to be rules or approaches that don’t occur to you, simply because the lore of your chosen field is too vast or specialized for any one person to hold in his or her head. As a result, one of the most productive things any creative professional can do is to maintain a list of the rules that seem to consistently work, so that you aren’t depending solely on memory or instinct to resolve issues as they arise. You might refer to that list only rarely, but when you’re stuck on a problem without any obvious solution, the best approach is often to test every tool against it one at a time, hoping that one of them has some kind of effect.
Ultimately, Altshuller’s forty principles are really just an unusually comprehensive attempt to catalog the tools available. Every artist ends up doing much the same, although probably less systematically, and using a more restricted sample set. You write a lot of drafts, make a mental note of the tricks that work, and if you’re particularly diligent, you’ll also record them more formally—hence the checklists that so many authors and artists are always writing up for themselves. And it’s important to strike the proper balance between the rules you discover on your own and the ones you get from somewhere else. A rule, like a philosophical precept, never seems real until you’ve rediscovered it though your own experience, and a writing trick that you’ve figured out through trial and error will always seem more vivid and applicable than one you’ve appropriated from a set of rules you read in a book. It’s also easy to fetishize approaches like Oblique Strategies or the Altshuller method, which are really nothing but someone else’s catalog of tools. Yet there’s a very real sense in which it can be helpful to apply the lessons of a stranger, or the principles of an unrelated field, to your own problems. Sometimes an answer can emerge only from tackling the same issue from a new angle, or with the benefit of somebody else’s experience, and when your own bag of tricks seems empty, it’s good to know which other ones exist.