When Louis C.K. hosted Saturday Night Live recently he began his stand-up monologue with the oldest, dumbest joke in the world. “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
Then he went on to turn that rather lame beginning into a smart commentary on racism. “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because there was a black guy walking behind him. And he was nervous. He was new to the city, this chicken. And he was, like, I feel like he’s following me but I’m not sure.” And so the monologue continued, using deft humor to disarm us just long enough to take a hard look inside our own hearts and see what might be lurking there. It was a nice piece of writing.
He was also using one of my favorite tricks as a writer. If brilliance isn’t happening, if you find yourself staring endlessly at a screen empty of anything but a blinking cursor, just write something stupid to get you going.
Imagine Louis C.K. trying to figure out what to write for his big moment on the SNL stage. It would be enough to seize up any writer’s mental wheels. So finally, he starts with something any second grader could have come up with. “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
Now he’s no longer sitting there worrying over an empty page. He can get to work pounding the keyboard, connecting that random opening line to a smarter second one. And then another. Most often when I’m working like this the stupid first sentence disappears altogether as the piece takes shape. Occasionally, like the SNL monologue, I can find a tension between a dumb set-up line and the smarter material that follows and use that to make the writing interesting. In the end either way works. The point is, sometimes you need to sneak up on brilliance. Just get the writing moving. Then you can see what develops.
A few years ago I spoke to a group of co-workers about creativity. One of the best slides in my Powerpoint was, “Make Stupid your Friend.” Under that heading I listed four thoughts.
-Stupid makes us human.
-Stupid is easy. It gets the lid on the jar loosened up.
-Stupid allows you to go places you shouldn’t and see what happens.
-You might be able to bend a stupid idea 10% and suddenly it’s brilliant.
It’s probably not a method you’ll find taught in many college writing classes. But when I need unfettered creativity I’ve found that writing a fast, dumb line to start it off is one of the best tricks I know to take the pressure off my brain. I can always steer things in a more high-minded direction later on, once the real work of writing gets underway.
So if you find yourself with brow furrowed and head in hands trying to think up some profound way to start out your next piece of writing, give something stupid a try instead. You might like what happens next.