It would be nearly impossible to get very far into a discussion of anything remotely creative or philosophical without Brian Eno coming into it. He is a fellow who, above all others, seems to have tried to turn his mind to every single phenomenon that ever has or could exist, and then come up with something stimulating to say about it. He's had his fingers in most of the cultural strands that have unfurled across the last five decades. And he’s just celebrated his 70th birthday. So why not get to this next exercise now.
If you’re a thinky or arty person, you’ve almost certainly heard of Oblique Strategies. They’re a deck of about 113 cards (the number has varied over the years), created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. You can buy sets of them in handsome little boxes, or you can download them as an app for your phone. The idea is that any time you find yourself stuck in some sort of creative dilemma, you pick a card at random, and it will offer a vague or ‘oblique’ suggestion of how you could change your approach. For example, there’s one that advises you to “Discover the recipes you’re using, and abandon them.” There’s another that asks, “Do we need holes?” There’s another that just says, “Water.” It’s up to you to figure out how the hell to implement these bits of advice into your particular situation. But if it’s good enough for David Bowie, it’s damn well good enough for the rest of us.
One of these cards – the one we’re interested in today – reads as follows:
“Not building a wall but making a brick.”
It’s always been one of my favorites of the pack. Obviously, what it means is entirely open to interpretation. I don't want to close down anyone else's ideas - if they're close to your heart, maybe give the rest of this exercise a miss. However, I've meditated on it a lot, and I think the reason I find this card so comforting has a lot to do with smallness. So I'm throwing it down here, for my own small purposes.
At first, I interpreted it in quite literal terms. I visualized actual, physical walls; ways to divide people and land. Imposing ones like the Berlin Wall, or sometimes the charming ones that run through Irish fields. I interpreted the card as a warning against letting barriers close you off from other people – to instead make things that would smash through barriers, like a brick through a window. Something like that. Very Cold War.
Then I thought of it as a sort of ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’ message. So much of the time, the world seems so thoroughly fucked-up, on such a large scale, that it feels hopeless trying to do anything about it. When I apply the wall/ brick card here, it makes it seem once again like there is a point to my actions, even if they are small. I can’t be accountable for my whole species, but I can be accountable for me. I can't command the design of the whole wall of society, but I can control my personal building block of it. In old movies and books, you sometimes hear a good, reliable guy referred to as being ‘a real brick’. Who wouldn't want to be called that?
However, I now mostly think of this card in terms of process, and scale. Let’s say I did need to build a literal wall. That would be a totally overwhelming project for me, because I don’t know the first thing about building a wall. It’s a complex undertaking, that’s physically much bigger than me, and one that other people will be able see and judge as I go along.
I start to panic. I am too small, too incompetent for the job. It's probably better that I don't even begin, as I'm only going to end up looking like an ass.
But wait – what if I break the big project down to a smaller level? What is a wall composed of? Bricks. They might be made of cement, clay, cow dung, Lego. They might have different colors, texture, size, durability, cost. Each of these factors will dramatically change the wall I get. It doesn’t matter how grand of a wall scheme I come up with – if I use shit bricks, or stack them up shittily, it’s going to be a shit wall. Yes, I need to have an idea of the wall I’m trying to achieve, the ‘big picture’, but I need to put care into the smaller steps of how I achieve it. I need to look at what I’m doing, brick by brick.
You can apply this strategy to lots of daunting challenges: learning a language, advocating social change, knitting a scarf, climbing a mountain, getting over an addiction.
Here are a couple examples of how I apply this to my life every day.
I only started writing a few of years ago. I insisted for over a year that I had zero interest in writing a novel. I’d still never written a good short story, so why on earth would I think of starting a novel? (People often have the idea that short stories are easier to master than novels, simply because they’re smaller.) I started working on this one short story idea I was really excited about, and it kept getting longer, and longer, and the end was nowhere in sight. I finally realized, “Oh shit, I’m writing a novel.”
If I’d have known it was going to turn into a novel, I wouldn’t have started it. And even now, I have regular bouts of “I can't do this. I don’t know how to make something this big work. I'm wasting my life. What the hell was I thinking?” Then I have to literally run away from my computer. But soon – maybe ten minutes, maybe a month later – I want to get back to work on my heroine's journey. So I remind myself, “You know what scene you’re writing. You like this scene. And you like your idea for that other one that comes later. All you have to do, is finish this scene. Just get this one damn scene done. And then, later, you’ll do the next one. And just keep doing that.” And very slowly, five-thousand words becomes fifty, and so on.
For most of my life, I have struggled with a bit of anxiety and depression (it was recently diagnosed as complex trauma, but that's another story for another day). Gloom and panic are liable to come sneaking up on me at any time, so I have to keep an eye out. The other day, I was having a fine day. It was sunny, I was writing, hanging out with my cat, and eating macaroons that I’d bought on sale. In what way was that not a wonderful day? I don’t know, but right in the middle of it, sorrow started to seep in. Those waves of melancholy that pool quietly around your feet, that seem small and ignorable, until you suddenly find yourself drowning in existential despair.
But this one day, I didn’t wait for the flood. I got my shoes on, and went for a walk with my cat. At first, I still felt crappy. “It’s not working. How am I ever going to get through life when I can’t even get through a nice, sunny day? Useless.” But I kept dialing it back from the ominous Big Future, to smaller units of time. What is a life built out of? Days. Days are made up of hours, minutes. “If I can just get through this afternoon, I’ll be okay." No? Hmm. "If I can just get through this hour, I’ll be okay." No? Maybe, "If I can just not cry for the next 15 minutes, I’ll stay afloat.” And after about two hours of measuring out increments of not giving in, I was okay. It doesn’t always work. But on this occasion, it did. I actually escaped with no tears.
So here, as a smallness exercise, I’m dealing you this, my favorite card. Go ahead and write it down:
“Not building a wall but making a brick”
Now think of something big that has been bothering you. Something that makes your heart jump with longing or anxiety.
If you’re not sure you have anything like that, ask yourself these questions:
- What in your life have you been wanting to escape from? A bad relationship? A bullshit job? A lousy sense of self-worth?
- What is one thing you would like to create, but are almost afraid to even admit to, because it seems too exquisite? A song? A ship? A revolution? A baby?
- If you could change one thing in this whole mad world, what would it be?
No matter how big it is, write it down. Now figure out what kind of bricks it's built from. Look at them all laid out. What would it take to just get one brick ready?
Keep repeating as necessary, until the scale is manageable. Until anxiety has been dialed back enough to allow your attention the chance to puzzle over the pieces actually at hand.
It’s about process, which is about patience. And patience is nothing but having faith in smallness to do fine things over time. Not a virtue I've ever been able to claim, but that's why we're here. :)
Next time on smallness exercises - kazoos!