Generating Random Words to Inspire Fresh New Ideas in Art
The idea of using random text to generate art or ideas for art was a technique used by early Dadaists like Tristan Tzara.
Tristan Tzara's created a poem in 1920 called "How to Make a Dadaist Poem". It's a set of instructions around generating random words from newspaper articles with the goal of transforming them into written art. This is one of the first mentions of using randomness to generate ideas in modern times.
In "How to Make a Dadaist Poem", Tristan advises the reader to choose an article from a newspaper and cut out all the individual words. Pick them out of a bag one by one to assemble a new work of art.
My Online Random Word Generator
I've always loved the idea of using chaotic accidents to create unique and exciting ideas. The technique of using random words to inspire fresh ideas is so intriguing to me that I even created a tool on this site based around the principle of random word generation.
Most people looking to create a tool like this would hook up a whole dictionary to a script and call it a day but instead, for this tool, I read through an entire dictionary and I hand-picked the words I thought were resonant to create this random word tool.
This was a very tedious way to build a tool but I think this more thoughtful approach makes it better than a lot of the other brainstorming tools out there.
The Cut-up Technique for Creating Art
Like many people, I first heard about this kind of technique by way of learning about the author William S. Burroughs and his cut-up technique.
This technique is virtually identical to what Tristan proposed in his earlier work. Burroughs was introduced to this idea by the writer Brion Gysin who seems to have accidentally stumbled upon the idea without prior knowledge of the early work of the Dadaists
As the story goes, sometime in the early 1950s, Brion Gysin was working in his art studio cutting some paper up with a blade. Under the paper were newspapers he put there to protect the table from getting scratched.
Brion noticed that the blade had also cut the newspaper articles and the resulting word fragments seemed fascinating to him. He noticed that the fragments had an unexpected poetic resonance about them. He was so inspired by this incident that he continued to refine and explore the technique in his artwork in the years ahead.
Brion introduced this technique to William S. Burroughs and they further refined and popularized the techniques but the basis was still very the same as Tristan Tzara had first proposed back in the 1920s.
Some of the cut-up variations they explored would include things like cutting stories into sentences or phrases and using those fragments as the basis for creating new work instead of just using individual words.
Why the Cut-up Technique Works
The musician Brian Eno and the painter Bob Ross share something in common.
They both love happy accidents.
Happy accidents are little unexpected mishaps that occur during the process of creating something. They could be something like picking the wrong color of off a palette or accidentally adding an effect to the wrong track of music.
Sometimes when these "errors" occur the results are unexpectedly great. When this happens, this is referred to as a happy accident.
You might have wanted to add a reverb effect to a snare drum but mistakenly added it to a backing vocal instead and the results was much better than it would've been without the happy accident.
By using randomly generated words as a basis to create some new written work, you are in essence creating a series of happy little accidents for yourself to consider.
They are not necessarily in and of themselves a complete idea. You should not rigidly adhere to the exact results of these chaotic acts but rather find the parts that inspire you and build upon those pieces.
Ours is a brain that instinctively looks for patterns. A brain that creates faces out of clouds. The same thing happens when it is confronted with a collection of random words.
Your brain will create connections between the words on an automatic basis. The trick is to figure out which combinations create meanings for you. Meanings that you can use to inspire yourself towards your more creative impulses.
The Many Creative Applications of Random Words
This cut-technique can be used in many different kinds of creative ventures besides producing strange dadaesque poetry. Here's how you might find it creatively useful.
- Artists like David Bowie have used this technique to create or inspire unique song lyrics. I'll talk more about this in the next section.
- Writing comedy is like most art forms in that it relies on surprise as a key element and juxtaposing random contrasting elements against each other is the basis from which a lot of jokes spring.
- Some stories feature very high concepts and so some evocative random word combinations like exorcist and automobile, for example, could, in the right mind, spark the beginnings of an idea like Stephen King's novel Christine.
- Random word tools are a very efficient method for generating names for artistic projects, musical bands or similar.
David Bowie's Use of Random Words to Create Lyrics
One of the most prominent artists in modern pop culture to use this technique was David Bowie.
Starting in the early 70s, David Bowie utilized the method to write or inspire song lyrics.
In a brief video where Bowie talks about the cut-up technique, he states that he's used random words to write the lyrics for a couple of songs but mainly he sees it as a way to ignite ideas and impulses roaming around his head.
Bowie even states he's used the cut-up technique on old diaries which I think is a pretty interesting proposition. You can always cut up a scan of a diary page if you don't want to destroy the book itself.
His fascination with using this methodology to produce memorable lyrics didn't end in the 70s but continued onward into his life past this period.
An Early Version of a Random Word Generator on Computer
One of the videos I was struck by, on a YouTube binge some while back, was of Bowie, in the late 1990s, using a computer program to generate random words.
From what I remember, the program would take a bunch of words such as an article or whatnot as input and then it would scramble this text to produce a list of random words in orderly columns for Bowie to look at and consider.
Bowie had liked the cut-up technique so much that he paid someone to create the tool for him using the then still novel personal computer. It was a very innovative pre-internet approach to utilizing technology to tap into one's creativity.
Why You Should Use Random Words to Create Ideas
Sometimes you can't wait for inspiration and if you did insist on waiting sometimes you'd find that it sometimes can be a very long wait for inspiration to show up bearing its gifts.
Using randomly generated words is a way to surprise your imagination and coax inspiration to show up on a more regular basis. It's a way to create seeds from which you can grow more full ideas.
It's a way to start the artistic process with something other than the terrible nothingness of a blank page bearing no indication of how to begin your mission.
More Creative Tools Coming Soon
Sometime in the first half of 2020, I'll be making more tools geared towards fostering creativity. It will be on another brand new site oriented towards that kind of content.
This new site will feature brainstorming tools and articles about techniques to generate ideas. If that might be of interest to you then contact me and I'll let you know when it launches.
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- Random Word Generator: Generate a list of random words. Great tool for brainstorming ideas.
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- Generating Random Words: An article about how generating random words can inspire fresh new ideas
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