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Use ‘Defamiliarization’ To Find Creative Inspiration

Sister Corita Kent (1918– 1986) was a major 20th-century American artist and a charismatic teacher at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California. She believed that everyone was capable of great creativity. 

Sister Corita was inspired by the bits and pieces of life around her, from billboards and newspaper headlines to international folk art. She changed the potentially stuffy classroom atmosphere into a cauldron of queries and assignments, encouraging students to question most of what they thought they knew about art and many other things.

One of Corita’s favorite teaching tools was a finder, a scrap of cardboard with a window in the middle through which students discovered design elements in unexpected places such as a supermarket, a gas station, cracks in the sidewalk. She immersed students inflow (the creative practice of observing and working with single-minded concentration ) and overflow (doing lots of it). 

Learning art Corita-style meant serious observing and serious play.

‘Defamiliarization’ is based on the same theory.

In a recent article, David Epstein, the author of the bestseller Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World talked about ‘defamiliarization’ a technique championed by Russian writers. 

It is about describing usual things in unusual ways and thus providing a different perspective on experiences we normally take for granted. 

The idea is to “reawaken our senses by making the familiar ‘unfamiliar.’

Most of us look right past familiar items, something Tony Fadell talks about in His TED Talk — “The First Secret Of Design Is…Noticing.” Tony Fadell is known for Apple’s iPod, but he is even more proud of his second act — making the household thermostat more efficient and less of an eyesore. TED Talks

After leaving Apple, Fadell traveled the world for a year and a half before settling on his next product idea. 

“I had to pull back and get out of Silicon Valley to gain perspective and see the world in a different way to then re-enter it to be able to do Nest.” —  Tony Fadell

How to practice ‘defamiliarization?’

Make a cardboard viewer

I took Sister Corita’s advice and made my own cardboard viewer went to my backyard to experiment. As I looked through the hole, the very first thing I noticed was a single rose amidst the daffodil foliage. I have several rose bushes in my backyard, but none where this one was growing. Surprised I went closer and found that this solitary bloom was coming straight from the ground and the stem has no leaves whatsoever.

Image by the author

That solitary rose gave me an idea for a story. Without the cardboard viewer, I would have completely missed it. 

Find a child

Sister Corita’s second suggestion is to find a child. A child can help you see things from a completely different perspective. If there is no child in your household she suggests borrowing one and letting him give you beginning lessons in looking.

It will take just a few minutes. Ask a child to walk from the front door of your house to the back door and closely observe his small journey. It will be full of pauses, circling, touching, and picking up in order to smell, shake, taste, rub, and scrape. His eyes won’t leave the ground, and every piece of paper, every scrap, every object along the path will be a new discovery. 

A dog does the same thing. I neither have a child nor a dog in my house. But last week, while visiting a friend of ours in Melbourne, we went for a walk with their dog. The dog stopped every few steps sniffing, exploring, looking. At first, it was annoying but then I started noticing the things he was noticing and was truly intrigued by his finds.

Change the language

Writing in a language that is not your mother tongue helps you say things in new ways. English is not my first language. After migrating to Australia, for a long time, I was still thinking in my mother tongue (Punjabi) and then translating in English. I used to think of it as a limitation but it was in fact an asset. As I didn’t know the slang and cliche, I was saying things (rather translating) in a completely different (hence fresh) way.

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami writes his first draft in English and then translates it back into his native Japanese. Novelist Jhumpa Lahiri went a step further and abandoned her native language (English) entirely, went to Italy to learn Italian, and wrote her next novel in Italian in order to gain a new perspective.

Read backward

David Epstein narrates his experience as a fact-checker earlier in his career. He would go back through an article he was checking, ticking off each fact as he went. Invariably when he went his usual way he would unconsciously just glance over and miss some of them. 

Many times I read articles from back to front, forcing my mind to concentrate more. 

David Epstein also has a little couch in his office that faces the opposite direction of his desk chair. He flops onto that when I need a shift of perspective.

Draw rather than write

Drawing a sketch is a great way to get a point across. It is also a great way to get a different perspective. These days, when I’m stuck with my article, rather than banging my head against the same wall, I start sketching.

Write by hand

Another thing I do to get out of my temporary block is to write on a notepad rather than on the computer. Switching from computer to notepad is a great way to change perspective. I am much more fluent on notepad than on the computer.

Give advice to others

This is a cheeky one. We are much better at giving advice to others than to ourselves. So whenever you’re in need of good advice, find someone else to give advice to, and you’ll end up having a fresh perspective on your problem.

That is why it is a good idea to write inspirational and self-help articles. 🙂


Practice ‘defamiliarization’ for creative inspiration. Some of the ways to do that are:

  • Make a cardboard viewer
  • Find a child.
  • Change the language.
  • Read backward.
  • Draw rather than write.
  • Write by hand.
  • Give advice to others.

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